Books

Óscar Martínez
A History of Violence

Representations of the drug-trade violence that currently roils in Central America tend towards the lurid – it sometimes seems that Western audiences’ appetite for graphic details of cartel violence is almost as unquenchable as our thirst for the drugs that fuel it. Despite its title, Óscar Martínez’s A History of Violence offers an antidote to the tabloid sensationalism of many of the accounts of the region, instead presenting a dispassionate and nuanced view of a deeply complicated problem.

A History of Violence consists of a series of long-form reports that Salvadorean journalist Martínez originally filed for the Latin American online newspaper El Faro. The series’ ambit, loosely defined, was to examine the welter of violence that has emerged through the cocaine trade in Central America, but Martínez soon connected this violence to many other pressing issues, including police and judicial corruption, prison conditions, indigenous land rights and US foreign policy.

Those looking for the thrill of graphic descriptions of narco violence will find more than enough of the grisly stuff – the story of how former gang member and police informant “El Niño Hollywood” came to acquire his nickname is particularly stomach-churning – but in many ways the book’s title refers to the structural violence of inadequate institutions and hastily made policy rather than individual acts of gang warfare. 

Some of the most gripping reading in the collection is about the land rights struggles of indigenous campesinos in the Petén region of Guatemala, who are forced to collude with narcotraffickers because much of their land has been expropriated to grow palm trees for the lucrative international palm oil trade. The weakened Guatemalan justice system then picks off these campesinos in order to appear to be acting against the drugs trade. Martínez observes that “the laws of Petén are like snakes – they only bite those who walk barefoot”.

Given its genesis as a series of articles, A History of Violence hangs together loosely – annoyingly, several characters in common across a number of articles are reintroduced every time they appear, and formerly established facts are persistently reiterated – but it remains rich with bizarre details. These coolly observed dispatches from some of the world’s most violent areas show just how complicated the problem of drug trade-fuelled violence truly is – and just how much work will need to be done to restore peace.  SZ

Verso, 192pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 9, 2016 as "Óscar Martínez, A History of Violence". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: SZ

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