The current immigration crisis underlines the destructive convergence of President Trump’s hateful rhetoric against nonwhite immigrants. The trope that the Trump administration uses to demonize migrant families crossing the U.S. Southwest border? Mara Salvatrucha, the infamous MS-13. The El Salvador-based international criminal gang has become the perfect foil for the Trump administration to justify border fortification schemes.
The modern U.S. policy on immigration enforcement and asylum processing has been subjected to controversy and fiery political debate. The negative narrative of the administration demonizes the migrants crossing America’s southern border. The immigrants are apparently delinquents and criminals, similar to MS-13. The Trump administration conveniently overlooks the decades of U.S. military intervention which played a role in the rise of transnational violence, and the origins of MS-13 itself. The social fabric of El Salvador exploded during the 1979–1992 civil war, where leftist guerrillas fought against the wealthy elite and the military-led regime. The U.S. backed El Salvador’s right-wing dictatorship with billions of dollars and military aid. During the dirty and brutal war, the army forces were responsible for endless atrocities where 75,000 people died, and more than a million were displaced. Many Salvadorans fled to America and a large majority settled in Los Angeles.
An insight into U.S policies, global politics, transnational violence, and the origins of MS-13 can be found in the novel The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman, by Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez and his anthropologist brother, Juan José Martínez, translated from Spanish by John B. Washington and Daniela Ugaz. “This is a book about scraps” write the co-authors in the introduction. It’s not a reference to the horrific violence of MS-13, but it’s about the people who are discarded in society, “leftovers that the enormous machinery of the United States chucks across its borders.” The violent life story of MS-13-hitman Miguel Ángel Tobar — otherwise known as ‘the Kid’ — illustrates the complicity of the U.S. in forming the criminal gangs, and highlights how El Salvador’s government didn’t offer suffice protection nor justice to its suffering citizens.
In the eighties, the Salvadoran refugees settled in their new neighborhoods, yet many displaced teens yearned to form their own identity in American society. With almost no family around, they were soon absorbed by the violent Hispanic gangs roaming around in the neighborhood of Pico Union in Los Angeles. In the nineties, gang wars ensued between different ethnicities, and the complicated ecosystem of the gangs rapidly intensified. The deportation of gang members started at the end of the Salvadoran war, but The Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, sped up the process to deport gang members and immigrants with criminal records back to El Salvador.
The long Salvadoran war broke the strained social fabric of the country apart. The gang members reused the social structures and violent tactics they learned on American soil to fight for supremacy in society. When the pact between the largest gangs, MS-13 and the 18th Street gang, broke and tensions rose, it led to a mass migration to the U.S. Thus, MS-13 became a threat to the government of El Salvador and the U.S.
At El Faro, a San Salvador-based online digital newspaper focused on investigative journalism, Martínez was working on a story on organized crime and gang wars. Miguel Ángel’s name was mentioned by the Salvadoran police detective, Gil Pineda, who collaborated on the investigation. Four words were uttered: “Bring in the Kid!”
It was a normal day in January 2012 when Miguel Ángel meets the brothers Martínez for an unexpected conversation. While it was an unannounced visit the “stories are crowding on his tongue,” and Miguel Ángel was “ready to tell them to anybody willing to sit and listen.” His murder history, combined with several occasions where he was a police-witness, resulted in many deadly enemies. Since November of 2009, Miguel Ángel knew that he was going to be murdered — and he had nothing to lose.
Thus he opens up about his remarkable life story.
The Kid was a father, a killer, but also an informant, and in the end a protected witness of the state. The most important characters are the overburdened detective Pineda, who was once chief of the homicide unite La Libertad, which often dealt with MS-13. He immediately clocks the character of Miguel Ángel.
“The Kid never had a normal look. Ever since I met him, he had the eyes of a killer.”
There’s the underpaid sergeant Pozo who was assigned by Pineda to try and “flip the Kid”. The influence of the feared gang leader Jose Antonio Teran, also known as Chepe Furia, looms over his personal story. When Miguel Ángel was a dirt-poor preteen he met the hardened gang member who just returned from Los Angeles, and who took him under his wing in his newly formed murderous youth posse the “Hollywood Locos”. There’s his very young wife Lorena, who got pregnant with his daughter Marbelly when she was fourteen. Lorena serves her guests weak coffee and homemade boiled chayote with lime and salt. She’s aware of her husband’s lifestyle and knows that their home life can be erupted at any moment: either by corrupt officers or the MS-13 wants them dead. As a plea-bargain witness Miguel Ángel told Pineda all about the clique “of more than forty-five members who had infiltrated the highest state institutions.” At only two years old, Marbelly has a limited vocabulary, but she knows the word “‘gunshot’” because her father taught her to recognize its sound.
The co-authors detailed writing style ensures that the chapters are vivid and suspenseful. The novel jumps back and forth in time while weaving the history of MS-13, the ever-changing politics, with the microhistory of Miguel Ángel. It shines a light on the corruption in Central America, and how the police and politicians are rendered powerless by criminal gangs.
The structural violence in the microcosmos of the criminal gangs is overwhelming, and the novel shows an insight in the continuous bloodshed that comes with a gang membership. The writers refer to the anthropologist Abner Cohen who explains the violent system of the gangs with an Arab proverb:
“Me against my brother, my brother and me against our cousin, my cousin, my brother and me against the stranger.”
The Hare, Yogui, the Hollywood Kid. They are all codenames for one of the most ruthless MS-13 assassins. As a soldier for “the Beast”, Miguel Ángel would “have to kill in her honor.” It was not the first time he killed another person. His first victim for MS-13 was a young man from the small village, El Zapote, who also fell under the spell of the brotherhood of the Los Angeles gangs.
As he recalls his first kill:
“They said the guy was a witch, and it was true, because I tried with that pistol afterward and no problem, a fucking good shot. And then later again with the same gun … thunder, man. So that’s why I cut the dude’s head off, because they say that witches can put their brains back together.”
Miguel Ángel was 15 years old.
The co-authors are fully immersed in the world of their subject since they spend time with detective Pineda and days with Miguel Ángel and his family. The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman neatly lays bare the complicity of the U.S. when it comes to the incarceration and deportation of Salvadoran immigrants. It’s the on the ground reporting that brings much needed context on the U.S. intervention in El Salvador, and its influence on the origins and inner workings of MS-13.
The Trump administration’s narrative that classifies MS-13 as “violent animals” — and subsequently all incoming migrants — is farfetched. Yes, over the years, MS-13 has made its presence clear with brutal murders in neighborhoods in Boston, Washington and New York City. There is no doubt that the criminal organization is horrifically violent. Nevertheless, the attention of the administration on the gang is disproportionate to its impact. For all the horrific incidents, the organization has never had more than 10.000 active members in the U.S. The administration has put the gang at the forefront of the national discussion on immigration when the gang does not have a major national criminal presence.
In 2019, as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, there has been a surge of federal immigration raids, forced separation of migrant families, and increased detentions at the southern border. There are now more than 200,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. who have temporary protected status (TPS). It allows undocumented migrants who’re deemed at risk because of armed conflict or environmental disasters in their home countries to stay in the U.S. Last year, the Trump administration ordered an end to TPS for Salvadorans, but in September 2019 the court blocked the order which allowed Salvadorans to continue to live and work in the U.S., for now.
The administration cooperates with El Salvador when it comes to anti-drugs crackdowns, immigration enforcement and asylum processing. El Salvador’s government states that criminal gangs have an estimated 70,000 active members. Their battle for supremacy has fractured the small Central American country. In 2018 the homicide rate was 50 per 100,000 residents, which makes El Salvador one of the deadliest countries — not at war. To this day, the economic despair and the vicious cycle of violence between rivaling gangs and authorities ensures that many Salvadorans keep moving to the north.
The microhistory of the Kid reflects El Salvador’s history, and offers context when it comes to MS-13, U.S. policy and intervention, and the incarceration and deportation of gang members. It’s a story that needs to be heard.
The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman. Óscar Martínez and Juan José Martínez. Translated by John B. Washington and Daniela Ugaz. Verso Books, 2019.