El Salvador's “Government of the Cartels”: A Conversation with Óscar Martínez


Óscar Martínez is an award-winning Salvadoran journalist who has long been recognized for his investigative work on gang violence in the northern triangle of Central America. Last month, Verso released his second book in English, A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America, a tenaciously reported, elegant treatise on how the long-lasting effects of US intervention and the War on Drugs created a region of fear; a place where citizens suffer from the some of the highest homicide rates in the world, and many are forced to flee for North America. 

Martínez recently spoke with Alberto Arce about A History of Violence in the New York Times en Español. We present the interview below, translated by Natascha Uhlmann.

Óscar, with 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in El Salvador, the highest recorded rates worldwide, is this considered a war?

I’ve used the word war in the past, but it scares me because if true, it allows for a particular sort of discourse from the government. The president of the republic already used this term, and it legitimizes the use of policies whose effects are less than clear.

How does this translate to everyday life in El Salvador?

At El Faro we use the concept of “government of the cartels.” The cartels govern, and they torment us. They impose periodic dues onto the population as if these were taxes, they limit our movement, what time one enters and leaves his home, how people can inhabit public spaces, what projects get implemented in communities, and whether home repairs can be made. There’s a strict cartel territory in the country.

These groups antagonize the state through armed confrontation. The state has responded by allowing its police force to act outside the law. There are illegal detentions, beatings, break-ins, and massacres, all outside the scope of the law. They aren’t confrontations, but massacres in which people who have already submitted to police authority are shot anyway.

Why should an English-speaking audience, which isn’t experiencing this reality, care?

The metaphor that this book employs is that of waves against a rock; try to bolster your conscience. This book doesn’t speak of unreachable societies, foreign and strange, but about people who are living with this violence every day. It explains what has happened to people who live in this atmosphere, and will continue to live there. It speaks of unjust societies which the United States played a fundamental role in shaping — a role it continues to play today. Let them type “millions,” “help,” and all of the administrations since ’75, and they will better understand.

This cartel problem is theirs. It originated in Southern California. It’s a product of American exports. We sent them migrants, and the US responded by giving us gang members. They deported 4,000 people in the ‘90s who have become 60,000 gang members. Some idiot made that decision and we’re the ones paying for it. The United States is directly implicated in the pre-war, the war, and the post-war of El Salvador and all of Central America, and the “Iron Fist” model (tough on crime policies enacted by the Salvadoran government against gangs) that was put in place to combat the very gangs they sent us.

Is it worth even trying to explain to the outside world?

We’re a part of the world that was once celebrated. Here the Cold War was settled, here American journalists asked themselves if the Soviet Union sent the arms they no longer needed for Vietnam. But peace was brokered, though those arms made their way to today’s gangs. I think it’s worth it, yes.

Do you think the region doesn’t matter to outsiders?

That’s what it seems like, and that contention is unjust just as all generalizations are unjust. But it seems that now when they come to El Salvador, foreign correspondents do so as if they were reporters from sensationalist rags, treating cartels like a zoo in which to capture images of men with tattooed faces; where the conflict in Guatemala is captured in seeing an indigenous person crying in the Ixil Triangle, and that in Honduras everything can be reduced to a conversation with a gruff policeman who shows them the river where cocaine is transported. International journalism in Central America is very often aberrant tourism. If I had to weigh whether international coverage has served to elucidate the cartel phenomenon or mystify it, it’s not hard to say where that balance lies.

This interview first appeared in New York Times en Español on March 20.

To read Óscar Martínez's preface to A History of Violence, click here.