Last year, Donald Trump’s administration issued a press release titled “What You Need To Know About The Violent Animals Of MS-13,” the El Salvador–based transnational gang. The dispatch deployed the term “animals” an additional nine times in its explanation of how Mara Salvatrucha “follows the motto of ‘kill, rape, control’ by committing shocking acts of violence in an attempt to instill fear and gain control.”
Considering this motto could also apply to the past many decades of US military intervention worldwide, it seems there might be More Important Things You Need To Know about transnational violence — like the United States’s role in the rise of MS-13 itself. During the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s, the United States backed brutal right-wing forces that were responsible for tens of thousands of killings and countless atrocities. Many Salvadorans fled the country, with a substantial percentage ending up in Los Angeles, where gangs formed as a means of self-defense for marginalized communities. Then in 1992, at the end of the war, the United States undertook massive deportations of Salvadoran gang members (clearly the best step to ensure a shattered country’s chances of recovery).
For a glimpse at how things have panned out since then, a good place to start is Salvadoran sociocultural anthropologist Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson’s A Year Inside MS-13: See, Hear, and Shut Up, newly translated from Spanish by Natascha Uhlmann. Martínez d’Aubuisson, who spent 2010 in the company of the Guanacos Criminales Salvatrucha — the MS-13 clica that presides over “the last neighborhood on the hill” in Mejicanos, a suburb of San Salvador — describes his book as a “snapshot in time [and] a collection of field notes . . . that served as the basis for my academic work.” And while there’s certainly no shortage of violence in its pages, the work is mercifully free of the “violent animal” approach, offering instead a snapshot of humans who are — like everyone else — products of their contexts.
When Martínez d’Aubuisson first arrives in the neighborhood, having finally found an “in” thanks to a priest whose organization operates a youth center there, he is greeted by Gustavo, who runs the center and asks him what he hopes to learn:
I babble on about my theoretical lens, my methodological schema and hypothesis.
Nothing. Just silence.
He crosses his arms and asks, “So you want to, like, meet the gang members?”
Thus begins our introduction to the cast of characters that populate the last neighborhood on the hill. There’s tattoo-saturated Destino, the former clica leader who now spends his days baking bread and the occasional “formidable pineapple pastry,” making sure that all the gangsters have eaten and that Martínez d’Aubuisson has had his fill of Salva Cola. There’s playful twelve-year-old Hugo, one of Destino’s protégés, whose mom packs him off to boarding school in an attempt to steer him away from gang life but who escapes and resumes his spot among MS-13. There’s Hugo’s sister Karla, who gets beaten with a broomstick for associating with someone from the rival Barrio 18 gang territory and who is appropriated by Little Down, the up-and-coming Guanacos Criminales Salvatrucha leader who tells stories like this:
I dressed up like a clown once too, man. Ha! Bro, but just to kill some dumbshit. Fuckin’ face paint and all, I went, and the dude’s like, “Hey, look, a clown!” Then he hesitates a sec, and looks at me, and I just tell him, “Later, bro,” and BAM! BAM! BAM! He took like ten gunshots to the face. I left that dumbass in the street.
In the last neighborhood on the hill things often go terribly awry, as when Barrio 18 members burn a bus and kill seventeen people, or when the neighborhood carpenter is murdered one morning by one of the Guanacos Criminales Salvatrucha — the aftermath of which is documented by Martínez d’Aubuisson:
I’m standing in front of the body alongside another curious few, mostly women and children. They just stand there, with no mention of the killing. Some gossip, others talk about their sales the day before, kids run and play near their mothers.
While the violence that mars the Salvadoran landscape is no doubt chilling, the book provides US audiences an opportunity to reflect on why it is that we find gang violence uniquely appalling in its brutality — and not, you know, ripping Yemeni schoolchildren to shreds with US bombs, or, in the case of the Salvadoran civil war, backing right-wing soldiers that performed tricks like this one during the El Mozote massacre: “The major, without hesitation, walked over, scooped a little boy from a crowd of kids, flung him into the air, and speared him with a bayonet as he came back down.”
There’s also the matter of structural violence, which fuels gang membership as well. In her own book about neighboring Honduras — Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras — anthropologist Adrienne Pine notes that “gang solidarity,” while it mustn’t be romanticized, “is a form of resistance against a social structure that fails to offer employment opportunities, education, or public and social services to young men.” She goes on to stress that the apocalyptic rhetoric about gangs as an “organized, globalizing threat ‘stalking’ the country is misleading, especially when divorced from larger globalized threats to Hondurans such as the neoliberal fiscal policies imposed by the IMF and the World Bank.” As for other threats shared by Honduras and El Salvador, security forces in both countries — often US-funded — have tended to interpret the war on gangs as carte blanche to go around extrajudicially slaughtering people.
In the last neighborhood on the hill, meanwhile, the centrality of poverty is clear: “If you earned something that morning you eat lunch. If not, better wait for dinner — that is, if the afternoon is more productive. If by nightfall there’s still nothing to add to the pot of boiling water, well, maybe tomorrow will be a better day.” Martínez d’Aubuisson’s account of the cyclical violence comes interspersed with eloquent meteorological updates — on rains, wind, merciless sun — which evoke in the “last neighborhood” a sort of Macondo-esque poetic futility.
This is not to say that he is guilty of the romanticism that Pine warns of. Martínez d’Aubuisson documents the complexity of human nature, the simultaneous capacity for brutality and benevolence. He’s also got a readymade foil: the French photographer who descends upon El Salvador to distribute disposable cameras to imprisoned gangsters, the fruits of which are unveiled to the Salvadoran elite over champagne at the National Museum of Anthropology. There, the photographer is allowed to produce such soundbites as: “We expected to find hoodlums waiting with a knife between their teeth, but instead we found little birds fallen from their nests. Forgive the poetry . . . I’ve always been a poet, ha ha ha.” Martínez d’Aubuisson observes that the guests “look at the photos like children visiting a zoo.” The role that obscene inequality plays in producing these very gangs only renders the scene more nauseating.
Although by no means a searing anti-imperialist tract, A Year Inside MS-13 doesn’t shy away from cataloging the United States’ pernicious contributions to the Salvadoran civil war and the formation of MS-13 — information that is certainly useful in light of the Trump administration’s exploitation of the “violent animal” narrative to justify frenetic border fortification schemes and general sociopathy. Martínez d’Aubuisson’s chapters are succinct and speak for themselves; one consists of four sentences: “Today is my first day as a tutor. To break the ice with the kids, I set up a game. Cops and robbers. As we split up into groups, they all ask to be robbers.”
Martínez d’Aubuisson, it bears mentioning, is the nephew of the late Roberto d’Aubuisson, the notorious right-wing extremist linked to the 1980 assassination of El Salvador’s beloved Archbishop Óscar Romero and various other death squad activity. Martínez d’Aubuisson’s brother, the journalist Óscar Martínez, has referred to Uncle Roberto as “the Salvadoran Pinochet” — and yet he was valiantly defended by the likes of Elliott Abrams, Contra war convict and eternal Washington fixture, who reckoned that the Ronald Reagan team’s record on El Salvador was “one of fabulous achievement,” that the El Mozote massacre never happened, and that Roberto d’Aubuisson was not an extremist because to be an extremist “you would have to be engaged in murder.”
Roberto d’Aubuisson accused his sister Marisa — Martínez d’Aubuisson’s mother — of communist guerrilla-hood, but, as Martínez d’Aubuisson told me in a recent email, he emerged from hiding in the middle of the war to bring her a German shepherd puppy on the occasion of Martínez d’Aubuisson’s birth. Human nature, it seems, is never black and white.
Now, as El Salvador continues its violent trajectory — egged on as ever by the United States — A Year Inside MS-13: See, Hear, and Shut Up provides essential context. And while there are plenty of people who should indeed shut up, Martínez d’Aubuisson is certainly not one of them.