Ver, Oir Y Callar – Book Review

In Ver, Oir, Y Callar (Seeing, Hearing, Keeping Quiet), Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson, an anthropologist from El Salvador, spends a year getting to know a clica of La Mara Salvatrucha 13 – one of the two gangs currently terrorising the streets of Central America.

The result is a fascinating, yet disturbing, insight into what is an often misunderstood phenomenon, prone to over-exagerration and old stereotypes. By integrating himself into the, “last community atop the hill” Martínez manages to see the Mareros as they go about their daily lives. He is a witness to the brutal world they live in and the effects they have within their wider communities.

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The book is presented as a collection of stories and notes which Martinez recorded whilst doing research for his anthropological study. As a result, the way in which events are told is free from academic jargon and focuses solely on what Martinez sees, hears and feels, whilst in the community.

The characters are varied – the former leader of the clica who tries to distance himself from La Mara by opening a bakery, the young aggressive usurper, the children who aspire to be like the Mara all around them and their mothers who try and steer them away from the inevitable.

The there are the “civilians” of the community. Those caught in the crossfire between Los Guanacos Criminals Salvatrucha (the clica Martínez studies in the book) and their arch rivals, Los Columbia Locotes of the Barrio 18 gang. Their territory surrounds the “last community atop the hill”.

The police, military and any semblance of state presence are often reduced to mere actors on the periphery. They are conspicuously absent throughout much of the book. They usually arrive once the violence is over. As the book progresses and life for those living on the hill deteriorates, a sense of claustrophobia and siege mentality sets in.

La Mara Salvatrucha

MS13 graffiti outside Guatemala City

The book makes it clear that there are no winners in this war between the two gangs, only a “truce” of reciprocal violence, where every vicious act is eventually met by an equally heinous crime.

What starts as a single murder atop the hill, escalates into an awful massacre of bus passengers by the time the book ends.

Martínez calls it a, “war of children”. The protagonists are all youngsters, some of whom know no other source of authority than Los Guanacos Criminals Salvatrucha, and their war is a game which can only end in prison, hospital or the morgue.

When Martínez goes to help out in the local community centre he tries to get the children to play a game of cops and robbers. All the children want to be the robbers.

El Loco, El Ajedrez Y Las Manchas De Little Down

In one chapter, Martínez teaches a Marero, El Guapo, how to play chess. Martínez notes that once he explained that the game was about war and strategy, El Guapo was keen to learn. Chess for El Guapo was:

El juego que te vuelve más listo

The game that makes you better prepared

And his reaction to the lowly pawns:

O sea, que estos locos solo pueden darle para adelante. Tipo vale verga que me los coma

So, these crazy guys can only go forward. Don’t give a toss about them, you can kill them

And the King and Queen:

O sea que para darle bajito al rey hay que darle primero a la jaina de él?

So, to send the king to hell you got to write off his girlfriend first?

His reactions to the game of chess reminded me a famous scene from season one of the US TV show, the Wire, where one drug-dealer teaches another how to play chess. The game of chess reflects their lives as lowly pawns who are eaten up and spat out by the violence surrounding them.

At the end of Ver, Oir Y Callar, one is left with the same impression that life is cheap, very cheap, in the “last community atop the hill”. The slaughter is senseless with only the expectation that violence will be met with violence. Lives are dictated by invisible borders (a tree marks this border in the book) with Los Guanacos Criminal Salvatrucha on one side, and Los Columbia Locotes, on the other.

Predicting the unfortunate present

In the epilogue, aptly named “Worse Days” and written in December 2012, during the government-sanctioned truce between La Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18, Martínez sounds a warning:

En las comunidades donde viven los pandilleros de bajo rango, entre las champas más enclenques, se rumoran cosas. Se dice que el pacto se romperá, que lo que viene será mucho más complejo, mucho más salvaje. Se dice que las cúpulas de ambas pandillas han aprovechado las prerrogativas del gobierno para reestructurarse, para limpiar la pandilla y ordenar los liderazgos en la calle.

In the communities where the lower-rank gangsters live, amongst the most rundown huts, there are rumours. It is said that the pact will break, and that what is to come will be much more complex, much more savage. It is said that the leadership of both gangs have made the most of the privileges granted by the government to restructure  themselves, to clean out the gangs, and prepare the leaders in the street.

It is the sad truth that those rumours turned out to be more than just rumours. El Salvador, and its capital San Salvador, are currently in the throes of violence, as both Barrio 18 and La Mara Salvatrucha 13 do battle in the streets, following the collapse of the 2012 truce. Some estimates put the homicide rate at almost 200 per 100,000 people in 2015.

6,657 people were recorded murdered.

As Martínez notes in the book, the police are a third party in the “children’s war”, and one of the few things the two gangs can agree on. The police is a shared enemy. In this new chapter of violence in El Salvador, the state is actively targeted. 63 police officers were killed in 2015.

The record levels of violence will likely add to the stream of Salvadorans currently trying to escape their unfortunate reality, trapped between the two gangs. Further north await the smuggling routes of Mexico, made all the more dangerous by the Mexican crackdown on migrants at its southern border with Guatemala.

Santa Ana friends

Draughts, not chess – Santa Ana, El Salvador

In the summer of this year, we may be hearing about a new “migrant crisis” on the United States’ southern border. Thats bad, sad news by itself. Even more so when its an election year and one of the frontrunners is considered a, “racist, sexist, demagogue” who likes nothing more than a scapegoat to pin his problems on.

As El Guapo remarks after his game of chess with Martínez:

Este juego esta maniaco

This game is crazy

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