William Wheeler's astonishing new book State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence tells a compelling, gripping story about how corruption at the highest levels of the Salvadoran government is empowering the brutal Central American gangs.
He'll be here, in Seattle, on Tuesday, January 21st, to talk about the book at the Elliott Bay Book Company. We know you won't want to miss this appearance — we've included the entire introduction from the book below, and read the quotes, here, to see how impactful this work is.
You can also order the book directly from Elliott Bay.
“In State of War, his gripping, electrifying study of the brutal Salvadoran gang culture, William Wheeler dramatizes with almost painful immediacy a vital truth: that all the fevered talk about a ‘crisis at the border’ is really an ignorant lament about what three decades of US foreign policy have wrought. At its core, the so-called crisis is about what we as Americans have done to El Salvador and its Central American neighbors. To confront the savage violence ripping through those countries and sending their citizens on a desperate flight north is ultimately to find oneself gazing at the American face in the mirror. With his vivid prose and intrepid reporting, Wheeler has shown us the bloody consequences borne by real people — and given us a powerful, unforgettable book.”
- Mark Danner, author of The Massacre at El Mozote and Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War
“Journalist Wheeler combines a clear sense of geopolitical history and gutsy on-the-ground reporting, producing a compact tale of a slow-motion, violent societal collapse….An urgent, digestible document of a violently failing state, with clear connection to flawed American policies past and present.”
- Kirkus Reviews
Israel Ticas is racing down the highway, drumming his hands on the wheel of “The Beast,” a tall, boxy police service truck that he aims at the small, bustling town of San Luis Talpa, about twenty-five miles south of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. A decades-long veteran of the security forces, Ticas’s first job was as an artist in the counter-terrorism unit, sketching suspected guerillas during the country’s 1979–1992 civil war. “I was the last person these guys would see before the person who killed them,” he tells me, flatly. The experience left him equally as distrustful of the right-wing generals he had served as of the guerilla commanders who would join them among the political elite at war’s end. In most ways, the country has never quite recovered since. In 2015, homicides in El Salvador rivaled the most violent peak of the civil war, and it ranks consistently among the world’s most violent nations. Before long, Ticas spots a body by the roadside. “It’s fresh,” he observes. “With clothes on.” It hasn’t been stripped or dismembered. The victim, he says, was likely shot at that spot during the night.
Ticas calls himself a “lawyer for the dead.” A self-taught forensic criminologist, he locates and digs up the bodies of victims of gang killings, and in so doing, he documents the crimes of the country’s notorious maras. On this hot March morning in 2018, his finger is wrapped thick with gauze—a few days earlier, he pricked it on a thorn covered in fluids from decomposing cadavers. His belt is adorned with a skull and crossbones pattern. As always, he carries a pistol in a handbag at his side.
But we aren’t here for the body by the roadside. Instead, we stop outside a two-story concrete building where men in blue-and-white camouflage uniforms armed with assault rifles are milling about. Our security detail piles into a Toyota Hilux, and we follow them zigzagging out of town and into the surrounding sugarcane fields, the convoy kicking up a bright cloud of swirling dust. Our destination is a site used by members of the local MS-13 clique to rape, torture, and execute people. The victims include civilians, rivals from the Barrio 18 gang, and their own members who break internal codes of discipline. After a few minutes, the convoy stops at a parched basin beside the fields, a spot where a river runs during the wetter months.
As the river rises and falls in the jungle terrain, Ticas explains, the land swells and crumbles. So the topography has all changed since the site was in use, several years ago, and his informant has struggled to remember where all the bodies are buried. Still, Ticas has managed to find eleven of the twenty-one remains his informant says are buried here. The attorney general gave Ticas three months to work the location, and today is the deadline. He thinks he can find one more before his time is up, and he’s brought the informant here to help.
Ticas’s informant is a lanky young man who wears a balaclava to hide his face. The night of the murder was his initiation, when he got a call and was summoned to the site. When he arrived, he was told to dig a hole: A woman would be killed. The woman and her partner had recently moved to town, and the clique suspected the couple had problems with MS-13 elsewhere. After an “investigation,” the gang “disappeared” her partner. Grief-stricken, the woman confronted members of the clique, screaming at them in the street, threatening to tell the police. The clique decided to kill her as well. A civilian was instructed to get the woman drunk in her home, just up the road from the burial site. Then she would be brought to the informant. His job, the informant was told, would be to cut her head off—“to prove you have balls.” But one of the gang members rushed the job and struck her in the back of the head with a machete. She wandered the house in a stupor, like a zombie, smearing her blood on the walls. So he struck her again. And again. And again.
Ticas asks him if the victim died in her house or whether they finished her off at the burial ground. “She was in agony,” the informant says, but not dead. They removed her clothes and dragged her here, then began to chop her up.
Ticas and his team shovel out the topsoil until they reach hard-packed earth, then sweep away the dust with brooms. He surveys the crust, looking for a patch of discolored soil, a sign that something has been altered. With his fingers he traces the boundaries of what he sees in the dirt. His men dig down a layer around its perimeter, then level the ground flat. He draws the outline again and they dig a layer deeper. Gradually, an oval silhouette appears, the result of soil that has been dug up, oxygenated, and repacked. Ticas works the site laterally, instructing his men to dig a trench beside the cavity. They sift the dirt they extract through a sieve, looking for any clues the perpetrators or the victim might have left behind.
Ticas moves around the grave in a dizzying pattern, fishing out roots and rocks, working his way around the hole like a pool shark. The cavity has roughly the shape of the African continent. In the lower right corner, about where Tanzania might be, is a fist-sized hole. He reaches elbow-deep into it, and feels what he knows by touch to be a human pelvic bone. It most likely belonged to a woman, the hole having been formed by the decomposition of the fleshy mass around her hips. Over several hours, he combs away the dirt, exposing a human skeleton. Its head is bent backward, as if in supplication.
“It’s weird,” says the informant. He was sure they had buried her deeper. The limbs seem largely intact, with bits of tattered clothing around them. Ticas clears away dirt from the skull. He uses a turkey baster to clean the scalp, then fishes out broken shards from its face. “Talk to me,” he mutters to the bones. “What do you want to tell me?” After reconstructing her neck, vertebrae by vertebrae, Ticas gathers her ribs into a pile by the spine. He notes the slash marks on her breastbone.
Something else is amiss. The informant’s victim would have suffered machete wounds to the back of the head, but this cranium is intact. Instead, the front of the skull shows signs of being hacked repeatedly. Ticas concludes, in the end, that it belongs to a different woman altogether—a name that was not on the informant’s list. It’s the third body they have found here that the informant knew nothing about.
“We haven’t even found a quarter of the fucked-up things these assholes have done,” says a member of the police detail keeping watch over Ticas and his crew. He, too, wears a mask, with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, in case the gang’s spotters are watching. Of late the gang has been disappearing off-duty members of the police and military and their families.
The murders that occurred here happened in the middle of a truce that the government negotiated between the rival gangs, which was credited with cutting the homicide rate in half. But the reality, the informant says, is that it taught them to hide their victims in clandestine graves like these. Ticas was not formally trained in forensics, and many of the techniques he uses he discovered himself. But he’s not the only one learning in the process. First, he noticed that the gangs had begun dismembering corpses so they would fit into smaller holes, making them tougher to spot. Later, they began stabbing the corpses in the stomach and throat before burying them in order to release gases trapped inside, so the decomposition process would leave an even smaller cavity. As they worked to cover up their crimes with increasing sophistication, they even joked that they were making it a challenge for Ticas, the informant tells him.
The informant had lived in the United States for a decade when, in 2013, he was suddenly deported after missing a court appointment, he says. As soon as he arrived at his family’s house in El Salvador, members of MS-13 showed up at his doorstep. Everyone here must collaborate, they told him. He started as a lookout, but before long they said he knew too much about them and would have to join the gang. Today, at twenty-four, he has already committed thirty-one murders, he claims. His manner is earnest and agreeable. But Ticas tells me the informant would just as soon murder us all.“We have a working relationship,” Ticas says.“But he’s a psychopath.”
A few months ago, the informant fell out of favor with his clique. His first offense was “unauthorized drinking”— members have to ask for permission before consuming alcohol, since intoxication renders them unreliable. Then shortly after, he survived a police ambush. The gang assumed he was a collaborator, and they tried to kill him, though he survived again. So he went to the police and said he could give them information on twenty murders. So far, 105 arrests have been made because of his cooperation.
In addition to revealing where the bodies are buried, the informant must name names and testify against his former clique. Unlike in the U.S., where he would presumably be offered witness protection, in El Salvador he lives on his own, even while the gang would like nothing more than to find and kill him, which they will likely succeed in doing if he doesn’t leave the country when the case is finished.
Ticas tells me that he also expects to one day be killed by the gangs. In one scene in The Engineer, a documentary about Ticas, a gang member says that if they ever catch him off guard, they’ll bury him in one of the very graves he has been excavating.
But for now, today was a good day. Ticas even thinks he knows the identity of the victim they’ve found. At the start of this case, the daughter of a missing woman came to him asking for his help.“Have faith,”he told her.“God will help me find your mother.” Each corpse that goes undiscovered is another family that will never get closure. “It’s days like this that I know that God does miracles,” he says.
In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump railed against “the savage gang MS-13,” and called on Congress “to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country.” The gang is the president’s favorite public menace to invoke in his bid to convince Americans that illegal immigration constitutes an urgent crisis and a threat to national security (second only, perhaps, to an “invasion” of migrants in caravans seeking asylum in the U.S.—a great many of whom, ironically, are trying to flee the gang’s reach).
Rather than a problem to be deported away, however, the reality of the gang is considerably more complex. Born out of the ecology of Los Angeles’s fierce gang warfare, MS-13 was founded in the 1980s by Salvadoran refugees who had been hardened in a brutal civil war still raging at home. In time, the gang expanded to include other nationalities, and it spread to other American cities. Today, in the United States, it numbers no more than ten thousand members and functions mostly—their penchant for sensational violence aside—like an average American street gang, fighting to control neighborhood turf and local drug sales.
In the late 1990s, the Latino gangs of Los Angeles found an export mechanism: In response to MS-13’s growing clout and amid Bill Clinton’s own immigration crackdown, the U.S. began deporting foreign-born residents convicted of wide-ranging crimes. Thousands of convicts were sent back to the Northern Triangle each year—the neighboring Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Among them were members of MS-13 and their L.A. rivals, the Eighteenth Street gang, or Barrio 18. In the Hobbesian landscape of a region reeling from endemic poverty, wars, and political violence, the struggle for survival and dominance of these Americanized gangsters produced a sociological phenomenon.
El Salvador had small, disorganized neighborhood gangs before the war. But, according to a popular view in El Salvador, these mass deportations changed everything in the country. Many have come to believe that the U.S. got rid of their problem at El Salvador’s expense. The state’s institutions had been gutted by conflict, poverty, and corruption. The deportees came back from the streets of Los Angeles with tattoos and baggy clothes, and brought along with them gang culture, urban warfare tactics, and criminal networks from prison. The Salvadoran youths, a generation of jobless foot soldiers who made easy recruits, flocked to their banner. The maras, as the gangs are known, have since drawn three generations into an escalating cycle of conflict that offers no easy escape. Today the countries of the Northern Triangle, where the maras predominate, rank among the world’s highest murder rates, and account for 75 percent of the migrants arriving at the U.S.’s southern border. The maras, in this analysis, are the primary and most urgent problem facing countries like El Salvador.
El Salvador’s government and its law enforcement have been quick to support this view. According to Salvadoran government numbers, there are sixty thousand gang members—and some ten percent of the population dependent on or otherwise tied to the gangs—in a country of just over six million.
It’s not difficult to understand why the authorities are eager to depict El Salvador’s violence as the original sin. Doing so has allowed the Salvadoran regime to blame the cause not only on a gang culture imported from America, but on often simplified notions of crime that have little to do with difficult and costly political solutions. Making the gangs the focus of the country’s troubles allows the government to put off engaging with more urgent and deep-seated problems such as corruption, lack of state institutions, and inequality. Thus, politicians have introduced violent and repressive “iron fist” measures to much fanfare, often prior to key elections, suggesting that such hardline programs are populist means to attract voter support, even though evidence suggests that the gangs’ power has only grown as a result. The maras, so goes the conventional wisdom, are a crime problem, best countered with severe police and even military force.
The conclusion that I reached was more complicated than what the Salvadoran authorities like to portray. The country’s violence was not only the result of American-imported crime. It was always determined by the legacy of El Salvador’s civil war and the underlying inequality that had precipitated it but was nonetheless never resolved by its outcome. For both of these factors, the U.S. indeed bore considerable responsibility. But neither would be remedied alone by police killing of mareros or the mass imprisonment of gang members. If anything, American assistance to Salvadoran regimes to help tackle root problems that had been exacerbated by the war and its aftermath were in order. Successive Salvadoran governments, with American support, have done little, if anything, to address these issues, and have more often made these problems worse.
The maras will not simply be killed off or arrested away. Neither will the consequences of their continuing evolution be walled off behind national boundaries, increasingly intertwined as they are with the currents of illicit supply and demand that tie producers to the U.S., the world’s largest market for illegal drugs. As U.S.-led interdiction efforts in Mexico, Colombia, and the Caribbean have pushed trafficking routes into Central America—now the transit corridor for an estimated 88 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine—the maras have come into closer contact with trafficking organizations like the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas, for whom they work as contractors and hired guns.
Meanwhile, behind the noisy spectacle of the “Muslim ban” and family separations and the deployment of the U.S. military to its southern border, the Trump administration has quietly enacted a wide range of calibrated policy changes to dramatically ramp up the deportation machinery it inherited, and to choke off immigration across the board. To name just two: the removal of domestic violence or persecution by gangs—conjoined crises in the region—as grounds for asylum in the U.S.; and the end of Temporary Protected Status that has allowed hundreds of thousands of Central Americans to remain in the U.S. legally for years. El Salvador is one of the countries that’s most dependent on remittances from abroad, and the fate of some 200,000 of its citizens now hangs before U.S. courts as they decide whether Trump has the authority to revoke their legal status. The human toll of all these changes will be devastating. Of those affected, many will remain in the U.S., working under the table and living in the shadows. Others will be forced back to the countries of their birth and meet violent ends. Many more will return, both clients and cargo of the human smuggling networks now controlled by organized crime. If history is a guide, the gangs will only emerge stronger as a result.
The story of El Salvador’s gang problem, I learned in the course of reporting, is a study in shortsighted thinking—from governments in both Washington and San Salvador, on both sides of the political spectrum—that has backfired, at best, in the form of unintended consequences or, more cynically, traded political points for a failing strategy driving the country to ruin. In every direction, I found evidence of a war that never really ended.
One final note: In many places throughout the book, I refer to a source by a pseudonym because identifying him by name would put his life at risk: in the case of former gang members, because they had turned informant or because, as a retired female member of Barrio 18 told me, they were still considered soldiers and would be held responsible for their words; in the case of former cops, because they would be targeted by gang members, including those who had infiltrated their ranks, or even the officials who had been their superiors.