An MS-13 hit man–turned-informer provides extraordinary access to the co-authors before meeting his fate.
“This is a book about scraps,” write journalist Óscar Martínez (A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America, 2016, etc.) and his ethnographer brother, Juan José Martínez. By “scraps,” they don’t mean the colloquial fights, though their narrative is filled with those, many of them lethal. They mean discards, “leftovers that the enormous machinery of the United States chucks across its borders.” In a vicious cycle, the violence bred in Los Angeles, where gang warfare pits ethnicities against each other, returns home through deportation and spreads and increases through international networks to become a threat to governments in both countries. Though Miguel Ángel Tobar never left his native El Salvador or came close to the Hollywood that earned him his nickname, he was a murderer before his teens, ultimately responsible for so much of the bloodshed that would make his homeland “the most murderous country in the world.” Yet this story is as much about the international forces that shaped the killer who operated below the international radar as the violence spread by U.S. policies that support the repressive regimes in the countries where gang members can recruit acolytes to form larger and deadlier gangs. Caught in this cycle, Tobar turned informer for the police, testifying at trials behind a mask, his voice doctored, though his identity apparently wasn’t much in doubt. Between police corruption that spread to prisons that were controlled by the gangs and the brutal justice that gang loyalty demanded, the fate of the informer was never in doubt, either—it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. The immediate narrative both begins and ends with Tobar’s death, but in between, he shares his story of a life that offered few choices, none of them good.
An account that makes it difficult for American readers to ignore their country’s role in violence south of the border.