While there’s far more to El Salvador than gangs, gangs play a significant and serious part of El Salvador’s reality, giving the country the dubious honour of the deadliest peacetime country. I picked up The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman by brothers Óscar and Juan José Martínez, a recent non-fiction work tracing the history to El Salvador’s most infamous and dangerous gangs – MS-13 and Barrio 18 – as well as the life story of one individual gang member.
The Martinez brothers (a investigative journalist and an anthropologist) have studied gangs for years, and in the early 2010s were able to hold a series of interviews with Miguel Ángel Tobar, aka the Hollywood Kid, a former MS-13 hitman who was in police protection in exchange for information.
The book pieces together the story of how Salvadoran gangs were born out of El Salvador’s complicated history with the United States. The civil war in the 80s of American-backed anti-communist government vs leftist popular uprising led to waves of refugees ending up in LA, where many with few options got starts in Mexican gangs, eventually creating their own – including the infamous MS-13. The United States deported many of these gang members back to El Salvador, where the gangs took root in the aftermath of the war.
The Hollywood Kid intersperses this macro story with the life of Miguel Ángel Tobar, “the Kid”, who came from a desperately poor and violent background which led to joining MS-13, his murders and eventual turning against the gang, and the weakness of the justice system that he was feeding information into. A few months after the Martinez brothers last speak with him, he is murdered by his old gang in an act of reprisal.
This is a brutally clear-eyed book about how easily things can spiral out of control and lead down dark paths, both for individual life choices, and the decisions of governments and nations. Importantly for books or documentaries on MS-13, this one is written by Salvadoran authors who understand more intimately how these gangs affect their country, and are less prone to sensationalism than American offerings on the subject.