Notes on the Culture of Violence and Fiction in Latin America

by Horacio Castellanos Moya    /  October 31, 2009  / No comments

On May 1991, I returned to El Salvador after ten years of exile in Mexico. By that time, the negotiations between the government and the guerrillas were progressing, thanks to the mediation of the United Nations. Even though there was a sense in the capital city that the civil war was in its death rattle, my sleep was broken almost nightly by bomb explosions, bursts of gun fighting in the streets and the whirr of helicopters. Finally, seven months later, on January 1992, the Salvadorian government and the guerrillas signed the Peace Accords in Mexico City that put an end to eleven years of civil war.

I had gone back to El Salvador with ideals: I wanted to take part, as a journalist, in the transition toward democracy and to launch a new culture of peace and creativity. I was one of a group of intellectuals who came from the political left, but we were no longer militants. We wanted to think critically and independently about our history and our culture; we wanted to support the efforts to end the polarization and the radical ideologies of both parties that had been engaged in the war.

So we founded a monthly magazine and a weekly newspaper as the instruments for our contribution. I became the editor-in-chief of the newspaper. At the beginning, we were very enthusiastic, but soon we discovered hidden traps in the transition. In addition, neither side that had engaged in the war liked our work. After a couple years, we couldn’t go on with the newspaper. We suffered from political and financial asphyxiation.

What were the traps that we discovered in the new democratic system? First of all, the peace negotiation created new political elites and institutions, but almost nothing else. Structural economic, social and cultural changes were not on the agenda. The political assassinations had stopped, but violence found soon new ways of expression.

After the failure of our independent media projects, I quit journalism and started to write novels that dealt with the post-war situation in Central America. Some critics and academics said that my books belonged to a new trend called “literature of violence” and to an “aesthetic of cynicism and disillusion.”  Perhaps this was to emphasize how my work differed from prior literature which defined itself by the polarity between revolution and counterrevolution, under the influence of the Marxist Cuban revolution.  In the new fiction, there were neither political good guys nor political bad guys; there was neither an “ethics” nor an ideology to define whose violence was positive and whose was negative.  There was only violence, corruption and lack of illusions.

In that context, I published a short novel called Revulsion/Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, which was a stylistic imitation of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard—his style gave me license to criticize Salvadoran politics and culture with acid humor. Soon, I received anonymous death threats and decided to leave the country.

Once again in exile, I started to work on a novel with a character through whom I wanted to penetrate the mentality of violence. He was a sergeant of a special battalion of the Salvadoran army who, after the demobilization of his unit, continued to do what he had learned to do in the army: fight and kill. But now there was no enemy, so organized crime became his new path. I created this fiction character, of course, based on all the information I had gathered as a journalist in post-war San Salvador. The book, El arma en el hombre (Weapon in Man), gave me the opportunity to portray one of the fundamental problems of the democratic transition in my country: the recycling of violence from political violence to criminal violence.

One of the reasons for this phenomenon was the difficulty that young people, trained to become ferocious machines of war, faced in returning to civil life. Not only was there a lack of policies and incentives to smooth such a transition, but the young people also suffered deep psychological and emotional damage. This phenomenon is quite common in societies that have just emerged from civil wars or intensive armed conflicts, as in Guatemala and South Africa. In the case of El Salvador, the situation is dramatic: the daily rate of criminal killing is as high now as it was during the civil war.

My novel also portrayed the relationship between organized crime and powerful political and corporate groups, a symbiosis that is the core of the corruption that affects state institutions in many Latin American countries. For the reader of my book, it was obvious that in the post-civil war period, the ranks of organized crime were filled with people who had been enemies during the war.

El arma en el hombre was, of course, part of a broad literary current that flourished at the same time in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil: the novel of sicarios, of ex-policemen transformed into paid killers, of narco-traffic gunmen, of ex-soldiers recycled as mercenaries. La virgen de los sicarios by Fernando Vallejo and Rosario Tijeras by Jorge Franco in Colombia, Un asesino solitario by Elmer Mendoza in Mexico, and the entire work of Rubem Fonseca in Brazil, are examples of fiction that show this extreme culture of violence in Latin America.

What I didn’t imagine when I wrote my book was that the violent behavior of the main character, which some readers regarded as exaggerated, would be exceeded by the actual levels of violence that took place in the same Latin American countries just a few years afterwards. I’ll give you an actual example: In the first months of 2007, three Salvadoran Congressman who belonged to the rightist ruling party were kidnapped in Guatemala by a death squad of the Guatemalan police. The Congressman were tortured and killed, and their bodies were burned to ashes. Soon, four Guatemalan officers were arrested, but 24 hours after they were placed in a high security prison, another death squad burst into the prison and beheaded the four of them. All these crimes took place in the middle of a confrontation between cartels of narco-traffickers connected to the Guatemalan police and the Salvadoran ruling party. Talking about these events with the Guatemalan fiction writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa, we agreed that our imaginations were not able to fly high enough to conceive such a plot for a novel. Reality went beyond our fiction.

This is the new situation that some Latin American writers have to deal with: the criminal realities that affect our societies are of such a dimension that our fiction can pale and seem conservative in the face of everyday life. A novel that in a European country could be regarded as cruel and dark, in Mexico, Colombia or El Salvador would seem to be light compared with what we read every day in the newspaper or what we learn in the streets.

I would like to mention another example: the wave of decapitations in Mexico. In 2007, the fighting between the drug cartels and the authorities reached the level of an irregular war, with groups of around 50 gunmen, very well equipped with rifles and grenade launchers, attacking the army and police garrisons. As part of that undeclared war, the narco-traffickers beheaded confidants or secret agents of the authorities, leaving the bodies in one place and throwing the heads with a threatening message into the entrance of the garrisons. (This happened in Acapulco, Tabasco and Veracruz, among other cities). “The corpse is the message,” explained an expert in an interview. Can there be a more chilling and explicit message than being sent the head of an acquaintance?

To my knowledge, no Mexican novelist has dealt yet with this delirious phenomenon of violence in his fiction. Perhaps it is too soon; time in literature has its own pace and experiences must age. Or perhaps the fiction writer looks for his own path, refusing to copy the coarseness of reality, preferring a lateral approach, instead of the easy macabre surprise.

Once I faced this kind of situation. I was writing a chapter of a novel set inside a prison in western El Salvador. In the scene, a boss had been killed in the heat of an uprising. A rival group of prisoners were playing soccer with his head. Eventually, I decided to delete the scene. I thought that I should avoid the temptation of trying to impress the reader with scenes of extreme cruelty.

I must confess that I never liked the concept of “literature of violence.” It is a dubious category. Western literature has been a literature of violence since its origins and it has been a literature of violence in its summit –a poet of my country said that in a Shakespearean drama there is as much blood as there is in an Aztec sacrifice.

The Latin American novel too, through the 19th and 20th Centuries, has often dealt with the problem of violence, representing a world in which crime and torture appear repeatedly as a constant expression of despotic political power. Consider the novels about dictators: from El señor presidente (The President) by Miguel Angel Asturias, through Yo el Supremo (I, the Supreme) de Augusto Roa Bastos to La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat) by Mario Vargas Llosa. From this literature we learn of a kind of violence organized around the struggle for control of state power, around the confrontation between a military dictatorship and those that wanted social change and justice. This rationalization of violence has been surpassed in the last two decades in Latin America. It seems that with the new wave of violence we face the “democratization” of crime, the absurdity of slaughter, the loss of standards.

This new violence has been founded on at least three main elements: the privatization of public security; a huge concentration of wealth in few hands and the corresponding increase in poverty; and the growth of narco-traffic with its enormous power for corrupting men, institutions, and, above all, the police, the military and the judicial system. In such a climate, security has become a privilege and big business; small armies controlled by the drug lords, or associated with political and corporate leaders, impose their own law in large areas of Brazil, Colombia, Central America and Mexico. There is a dangerous breakdown of entire social groups. Even a guerrilla leftist organization that was supposed to fight for a better society is now dealing in drugs. It seems that at the beginning of this new century that we have come into Tierra de nadie (No Man’s Land), to borrow the title of Juan Carlos Onetti’s novel, a land where life is worth nothing. A land where everyone can get rid of his neighbor by his own hand or by paying a small sum for someone else to do it; a land where legality is a bad joke and the rule of law is empty words in politicians’ mouths.

A recent novel by the Colombian writer Evelio Rosero, called Los ejércitos (The Armies), give us an excellent portrait of this violence, without the former references to dictatorship, revolution, social order or searching for justice. The narrator, an old retired school teacher, tells of his daily life in a small town that is frequently overrun by three warring armies who use the same tactics against the population: kidnapping, killing and slaughter. The old teacher gives us no information about what distinguishes each army, except their crimes. To be a civilian is to be a helpless victim of the armies’ cruelty and impunity. This is a disturbing novel about abandonment and humiliation, about the lack of ideologies of this new organized violence that only looks for plunder. If the old and retired coronel Buendia was starving while waiting for his check in García Márquez’ El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), the old and retired teacher in Resero’s novel is just waiting for one of the armies to kill him.

There are a few other examples of this new pattern of violence in contemporary fiction. It is impressive the way in which the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño was able to bring into his monumental, posthumous novel titled 2666 one of the most frightful cases of violence of these times: the systematic rape, torture and killing of young maquila worker women in the border Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez. This case shows the disastrous collapse of judicial institutions in many Latin American countries; the sinister complicity between police departments, depraved tycoons and politicians; and the absurd slaughter of a helpless sector of population that was not involved in any political conflict. With his genius as a narrator, Bolaño could efficiently handle a topic in fiction that belongs more to the realms of investigative journalism or testimony.

I started this text with the remembrance of my returning to El Salvador at the end of the civil war, hoping that as a journalist I could contribute to the building of a democratic culture of peace—that as a professional who researched and presented our social reality to the public, I could help transform Salvadoran society. I also said that I was defeated in my projects, that I quit journalism and put all my energy into the writing of fiction. Paradoxically, it was because of a fictional book that I had to go again into exile.

Now, a decade later, in spite of the so-called “democracy,” I verify with perplexity that the violence is only wearing new clothes; it is still the master of men and society. And what’s worse, I discovered that violence is spreading very fast into other Latin American countries that used to be quite peaceful and stable in the past.  It is now safe to say that violence and poverty are the main plagues affecting the Latin American population.

Reality has become bloodthirsty; fiction trails behind

Read Horacio’s bio.

About the Author

Horacio Castellanos Moya is the senior contributor to Sampsonia Way. A novelist and emeritus writer-in-residence at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. Born in Honduras in 1957, he grew up in El Salvador. He has lived in Guatemala, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico (where he spent twelve years as a journalist, editor, and political analyst), Spain, and Germany. In 1988 he won the National Novel Prize from Central American University for his first novel. His work has been translated into five languages. He has published eight novels. The English translation of his novel Senselessness was published in June 2008 by New Directions. He was the second exiled writer-in-residence at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh and has resided there since 2006.

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