Zapatismo, solidarity and self-governance: a conversation March 23, 2022

 In this interview, Ramor Ryan reflects on his time organizing alongside the Zapatistas, the often “messy” practice of international solidarity and more. 

While the conversation later turns to the Kurdish freedom movement, counter-power in Europe, social movement politics in Latin America and community self-defense initiatives in Mexico, the main focus is on Ramor’s experiences in Chiapas and elsewhere in Latin America throughout the 1990s and 2000s and his ideas about the practice of international solidarity. The task of generating revolutionary struggle across divisions of global inequality is more pressing than ever and the challenges and lessons of Zapatismo are ongoing.

Introduction and interview by Liam Hough.

Liam Hough: Could you give a short account of how you became involved in writing and politics and what led you to Chiapas?

Ramor Ryan: As a young person I was a veracious reader, from Camus to Orwell, which informed my response to material conditions: both my parents died of illness in the wake of years of economic hardship during my teen years — and I was set on a path of rebellion. In university I was heavily involved in student politics and became editor of the Trinity College Student’s Union newspaper, which I somehow managed to convert from a serious political organ into a kind of punkzine. I suppose being part of a crowd of mourners attacked by loyalist Michael Stone with machine gun fire and grenades in a Belfast graveyard in 1988 focused my mind on the seriousness of political commitment. Later that year, I went to live in West Berlin and was completely drawn by the autonomous movement, with its squats and alternative community. I returned to Berlin throughout the ‘90s after the Wall came down, living in the vibrant East Berlin squatting scene.

I caught the last six months of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, before they were voted out of power in February of 1990. Picking coffee on a rural co-op and teaching English at a Sandinista university, I cut my teeth as an international solidarity volunteer. The early ’90s saw me traveling further into the tumultuous political space of Latin America, involving myself in anti-capitalist campaigns against multinational exploitation in Colombia and for banana workers’ union recognition in Belize. When the Zapatistas emerged in 1994, I was ready and primed and threw myself into the struggle for the next two decades.

How would you describe the impact of the Zapatista’s sudden emergence in 1994, both for the Western left in general and for you personally? What was the political context?

The context was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989-’90, and the supposed end of history and revolutions and this was it — capitalist neoliberalism had won. And then on January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas rose up in Chiapas, Mexico and suddenly, history was in movement again.

It quickly became clear that this was a new kind of Latin insurgency that superseded the ideological straitjacket of the Cold War era and embraced a whole new formulation of how to start a revolution. Subcomandante Marcos was standing in the plaza of San Cristóbal talking a more enlightened form of liberation than had been articulated before. Gone was the old Leninist language and, as we learned soon enough, ways of organizing. An apparently anti-authoritarian-leaning peasant guerrilla army rising up against an international neoliberal trade agreement — this was a revolution that I could be part of. Their emancipatory politics, horizontalism and struggle for autonomy echoed with the political projects in the European autonomous scene and it seemed there was a direct political line from the Berlin squats to the Lacandon jungle.

The Zapatista revolt back then was blossoming, brimming with possibilities. It really seemed that a new world was not only possible but just around the next corner. Thousands came to Chiapas from other parts of Mexico and all over the world to participate. There was a real sense of changing history, of being part of a revolutionary moment, of transformation.

After ‘94, huge meetings, encuentros were organized. First of all in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas and later in different places around the globe; for example in Belém, Brazil, which brought together thousands of people from around the Americas. It was a phenomenal experience, the mood was electric and a rare sense of unity among the radical left was forged.

The Zapatista movement fed into the various other initiatives like People’s Global Action, a worldwide coordination of radical social movements which was key to organizing the wave of alter-globalization protests and uprisings from Seattle in ‘99 to Genoa in 2001.

I remember jubilantly marching down the hill into Genoa. There were more than 100,000 protesters there that weekend; all around were people I knew from Chiapas and the spirit of Zapatismo predominated. I was thinking: “We are winning.” Of course, that is when the authorities started shooting.

How do you view the Zapatista movement today? What do you consider to be their main achievements? Most recently, they have been the ones traveling to see their faraway comrades with their “Journey for Life – European Chapter.”

Materially, the greatest impact of the Zapatista uprising was in land distribution, as the old aristocratic estates were divided up and the old order in the Chiapas hinterlands disintegrated. New radical property and social relations replaced the old order and against all odds, the new radical vision is holding up. That is impressive. Land and freedom realized — albeit on a local level.

Beyond the material, the Zapatista rebellion encouraged people to do things for themselves. When you talk to Zapatistas on the ground, there is always the before and after of becoming Zapatistas — the before of obedience and passivity and the after of being aware of their real power and capabilities. This is concretely manifested in the region-wide self-government. The Zapatistas can organize their own autonomous territory, education and health needs, economy and self-governance because of the active participation of tens of thousands of people in Chiapas, working collectively together.

This is perhaps the greatest achievement of the Zapatista uprising — to still exist and to hold territory that they can genuinely say they are in control of, that it’s their autonomous region. Despite everything that has been thrown at them, they survive and prosper, even so much as sending emissaries around the world to talk of their achievements. It’s not utopia, it’s got many problems but it’s something worth celebrating and something worth defending. It demonstrates in its own small way, however remote and unique it appears, that other models are possible, that things can be different.

I loved the audacity of their “re-conquest” of Europe and their resilient cry of “We are still here resisting!” after 500 years of European colonization. Organizing a tour during the COVID-19 era was always going to be a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare but the Zapatista “Journey for life, European chapter” was very successful, serving to consolidate their bases of support around Europe, increasing their international profile and sending a message to the Mexican state that the Zapatistas can still count on global backing.

On the ground in Chiapas, the Zapatistas are facing increasing paramilitary threats, alongside the ubiquitous pressure from regional authorities. The Mexican military is still dug in all around the autonomous zone and now there is a new wave of drug cartel encroachment in the south of Mexico that is generating more violence and challenging Zapatista control in some areas. By effectively breaking the encirclement in Chiapas and getting a large contingent of Zapatistas out around the world acting as grassroots ambassadors, they change the correlation of forces; that most of the young Zapatistas who came to Europe as part of the delegation had grown up their whole lives in a liberated zone is also inspiring.

You got involved in Chiapas very early on in terms of solidarity work. Could you talk about the different models or phases of international solidarity that were part of this experience?

First of all, there is international solidarity from above and that from below. From below means revolutionary solidarity with the oppressed. It’s not virtue-signaling, it’s hands-on and about walking the path with comrades. In many ways, “international solidarity” is not a useful term as it is often used for any kind of large-scale state or UN intervention, so some prefer the term internationalism, or sometimes intercommunalism.

Secondly, in theory, the international solidarity we strive for is a strategy or a set of political practices that attempts to radically transform power relations between people across national and state borders. For anti-authoritarians, this entails a horizontality of relationship that is both the means and the objective. So, it’s not charity, it’s not about providing a safety net in the absence of government infrastructure. It is about political and social transformation.

Thirdly, the process of international solidarity is, like revolution, a question and not an answer and becomes an exploration in the creation of dignity. Understood in this way, practicing solidarity is not only supporting a cause but also an attempt to continually forge and re-create a notion of shared humanity, a basis for common survival.

As the Zapatistas say, “walking we ask questions,” and in the book Zapatista Spring I explore a series of questions while digging a seven-kilometer-long trench with the comrades. In terms of international solidarity in Chiapas, it has been primarily about consolidating the autonomy of the Zapatista project and supporting their revolution. It is about working together, side by side, in common purpose. We try to reach a sense of reciprocity — we work towards the world we want to see together. This implies that solidarity is not a one-way exchange, but a more equal relationship — and we each bring to the table what we can. The concept of reciprocity moves away from the more paternalistic connotations of solidarity and towards a practice of mutual aid. Solidarity is not measured in terms of the work done but, at its best, it is about relationships and becoming comrades, equals, people who actually care about each other.

In reality, solidarity is a messy and exasperating exercise. I was involved in solidarity work in Chiapas for the better part of 15 years and witnessed dozens of projects and hundreds of volunteers going about their business. There were countless brilliant initiatives and projects that were a credit to national and international solidarity, from introducing potable water systems, solar energy supply, technologically appropriate means of communication, pirate radio, organic horticulture, as well as — what the majority of volunteers ended up doing — staying at peace encampments in rural villages and hamlets to monitor Mexican military attacks on the indigenous communities.

And of course, there were a lot of unsuccessful and failed ventures, because it was a learning experience and sometimes solidarity came in a form that wasn’t useful. Among those volunteers who came to help were the ones who couldn’t let go of their ego and made it about themselves, the white savior types, and this was a problem. Other well-meaning people came and they brought with them the baggage of their own societies and the autonomous zone became a theater for their own dysfunction.

The Zapatistas decided, after about 10 years, to change the paradigm and take control of all aspects of the international solidarity coming into the region. They recognized and lauded the involvement of international solidarity within the rebel zone — “those born on other soil who add their heart to the struggle for a peace with justice and dignity,” according to Subcomandante Marcos — and said, thank you, we will take it from here.

The basic principle was that nothing would be imposed, and no decisions concerning solidarity would be taken without their direct involvement. All outsiders — including NGOs and development groups — were henceforth directed to the Good Government Committees, based in regional centers of rebel administration called caracoles. There they presented their proposals and projects to indigenous self-management commissions composed of a group of two men and two women from rotating communities.

Beyond solidarity, the Zapatistas were planting the seed of Zapatismo and encouraging people to, instead of simply supporting them, “Be a Zapatista wherever you are.” Solidarity as movement building. When asked what the best contribution was that internationals could make to the Zapatista struggle, an old Zapatista back then said, “More Seattles.” A more contemporary version would be “More Black Lives Matter Uprisings.”

On top of unnecessary or imposed solidarity projects, there was also the fact that solidarity activists were in far less vulnerable position than the Chiapas population in terms of the risks posed by the Mexican state, the military and other forces. Can you talk in more detail about the recognition of those differences of positionality and efforts at challenging colonial assumptions and behavior on the activists’ part?

It depends on who is calling the shots, who has power in the relationship. In Belize I was involved in a campaign to gain union recognition for exploited banana workers. The union organizers were threatened and attacked by the local banana plantation bosses. We — some Irish visitors — spent time in their villages and asked how we could help. Back in Ireland, we were able to get a meeting with the banana company owners, who realized this exposure was bad for business and went about addressing the issue. In a broad sense, the union organizers were calling the shots, we were responding, and there was a positive outcome. Of course, in reality it was much messier than that, but in and of itself, the relationship between the actors on the ground and international solidarity was one of mutual aid.

In Chiapas, it was far more complicated because the Zapatistas were overseeing a revolution of land and freedom and thousands upon thousands of well-wishers descended upon the region. In the early years, international solidarity was in a bit of a Wild West territory in terms of anything goes, and all sorts of inappropriate projects and initiatives were imposed on the Zapatista communities by both NGOs and activist types. The baggage the international solidarity activists brought with them — in terms of unreconciled neo-colonial attitudes or just simply first world mental health issues — created challenges that demanded different strategies. But the communities were strong enough and robust enough to counter the onslaught and as I explained above, took control of solidarity through the rotating Good Government Committees.

In terms of privilege, protracted struggles such as that in Chiapas have a tendency to last for many years, and international solidarity activists come and go. “Campamentistas are the people who leave,” lamented one Zapatista, “and we can never leave.” This is just one more privilege of those who can step into a dangerous conflict zone for a finite time and then leave as the mood dictates. It is a poignant reminder of the inherent and inescapable inequalities involved, of the almost insurmountable contradictions there within and a cause for understandable resentment for some at the coalface of a life and death struggle.

You were also part of a solidarity delegation that briefly visited Kurdish regions in Turkey and Iraq in 1994, which you describe in Clandestines. This was a time of severe violence in the Turkish state’s suppression of the Kurdish revolt and not long after the Halabja massacre in Iraqi Kurdistan at the orders of Saddam Hussein. You seemed very affected by your encounters on this trip, but still quite distant to the type of Marxist-Leninist politics of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). How do you view the movement’s development since the time of that short visit? Do you see many parallels between the Kurdish movement and the struggles you saw up close in Latin America?

I don’t think anybody anticipated the extraordinary ideological switch from a top-down organization with a fixation on the leadership, to a more contemporary feminist and ecological democratic confederalism with much less emphasis on Abdullah Öcalan. It is an absolute credit to the leadership and base of the movement that they could effectively embrace and implement the changes during the 2000s while simultaneously fighting on all fronts. And there is no doubt in the sincerity of striving to achieve these participatory democratic aspirations — the evidence of Kurdish communalism is there on the ground not just in Rojava, but also in the Kurdish territory of southeast Turkey.

I don’t have too much to say that would be of relevance today as it was in 1994, when we were walking with comrades up in the mountains in Northern Iraq, but I do want to make one point. Cynics say the Kurds over-emphasize the role of women in the armed struggle to appease the “western” liberal/feminist gaze — Hilary Clinton is a fan — but back then, when nobody was looking at the Kurds at all, we came across the same women’s battalions on the front lines. In that sense, elements of today’s evolved ideology were already nascent 25 years ago, as is well documented.

Many anti-authoritarians on the other hand see a problem with the Kurds’ reverence for imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. While the idolatry of Öcalan is disconcerting, in terms of real power, it is clear that he no longer directs such a top-down organization and decision-making has devolved. I like to think that the iconic representation of Öcalan is in flux, moving slowly away from Stalin and closer to Durruti.

The Kurdish struggle — and Rojava in particular — represents firstly, a community and people daring to prefigure another world, another society based on equality and justice; and secondly, like the Zapatista autonomous zone, a territory in resistance that allows us to imagine the impossible. I fully support the campaign to defend the Rojava revolution in north Syria. The International Working Brigades, organized by The Internationalist Commune of Rojava, is an admirable example of international solidarity in action. Their working slogan — “We come here to learn, support, organize” — synthesizes good solidarity practice.

What do you see as the main challenges or opportunities in the west in terms of building and sustaining internationalist struggle today? I mean being able to critically engage with and support movements elsewhere, while building power where we are.

Within Fortress Europe there are various territorial bases of what might better be described as counter-power. The best example would be in Athens, where the rebellious neighborhood of Exarchia is home to a large community of Greek and international radicals. Here they bring international solidarity to another level. The people have created a neighborhood-wide structure to offer support to refugees and migrants and there is no separation — they live together, they eat together and they struggle together. Activists have squatted buildings to provide shelter for those that needed it, food is distributed from various social centers run by anarchists and autonomists, there are free health and education initiatives and resources are shared within the community.

Walking around Exarchia or speaking with the comrades there, you get a palpable sense of everyday solidarity — not just with the refugees and migrants, but for global social and political movements based in the neighborhood, from Kurds to Palestinians. Thousands can be mobilized for antifascist manifestations and police are never welcome in the barrio — generally they only appear in intimidating gangs on motorcycles.

For years, Exarchia has been a living, breathing center of counter-power in the imperialist core committed to supporting developments in the periphery in a reciprocal manner. And it’s the threat of a good example, which is why they are faced with unrelenting state repression. Now, because of the rapid gentrification of the area – spurred on by plans for a new metro station right in the heart of Exarchion Square – and the rampant commodification of living spaces via Airbnb, it can feel like a territory under siege. But Exarchia resists, and despite the evictions of several squats since 2019, the fundamentals remain in place.

Exarchia is not exceptional, there are bases of anti-systemic alternatives all across Europe albeit on a smaller scale and in different forms. I’ve witnessed comparable autonomous projects in, for example, the Connewitz neighborhood in Leipzig, or Vallekas in Madrid. Christiania in Copenhagen is something else — more of an intentional community — but shares similar traits. The common factor is the desire to create communal, non-capitalist initiatives that bring people together and foster mutual aid.

The Zapatistas’ Journey for Life last year served to weave a tapestry of rebellion as they rallied and brought together collectives and organizations all across Europe. These are dark days in Europe with the rise of the far right, the climate crisis, the pandemic and gross inequality. What the anti-systemic nodes represent is a radical alternative and a ray of hope. Paraphrasing Che, we need one, two, three, a hundred rebellious territories like Chiapas.

As well as living in Latin America for many years, you have translated several books on social movements from different countries there; three from Raúl Zibechi and most recently one from Luis Hernández Navarro. To start with Zibechi, what do you think are the key lessons from reading his work and the movements he is engaged with?

Raúl Zibechi is one of Latin America’s foremost political theorists and was active against the military dictatorship in Uruguay in the 1970s. As a militant investigator, he has spent his life struggling alongside and analyzing social movements in new and emancipatory formations — what he refers to as societies in movement — in conflict with the neocolonial, neoliberal state.

In Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements (2012), he focuses on anti-systemic, non-state actors across the continent from the Zapatistas in Chiapas to the Mapuche in Chile, where emancipation is not just the goal but the process of everyday struggle. These are uniquely new social formations based in the countryside like the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, or urban indigenous communities like in the city of El Alto, Bolivia, which he explores in detail in Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces (2010). They are characterized by non-capitalist social relations and exist de facto in resistance to the neoliberal state.

Zibechi views the state in Latin America as a neo-colonial construct and inherently oppressive. In The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy (2014) he critiques the left-leaning administration of Lula and the Brazilian Workers’ Party. Despite some political reforms, the Lula government’s reliance on extractavist policies, mining, monoculture and mega-dams reveals its fundamental capitalist and neo-colonial logic which he describes as a form of regional sub-imperialism.

His unswerving critique of the state and particularly left-leaning administrations — the so-called Pink Tide in Latin America — included Evo Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government in Bolivia. For Zibechi, Morales’ extractavist policies and betrayal of grassroots social movements indicated it was time for him to go after 14 years in power. He supported the mass popular mobilization in 2019 to depose Morales but condemned the ensuing military-led right-wing coup.

However, his anti-state position led to erroneous accusations from Morales’ left-wing supporters of backing the right-wing coup. Zibechi argued in support of anti-systemic movements against the institutionalized left, but made a clear distinction between those movements hailing from below and to the left, and those, like in the elite-backed Bolivian coup, from above, i.e. between the oppressed and the oppressor. The incident exposed a major rift on the left between statists and anti-authoritarians in Latin America and beyond.

Zibechi’s critique of left-leaning parties in power can also be applied to the European context with the failure of the Syriza government in Greece or the disappointing performance of Podemos in the Spanish state. Similar to what occurred in Brazil with Lula and the Workers’ Party, the co-optation of rebel social and political forces was a strategy employed by left administrations to neutralize strong grassroots social movements.

Your most recent translation was the book Self-Defense in Mexico: Indigenous Community Policing and the New Dirty Wars (2020) by Luis Hernández Navarro. I know this is another work that you’re very enthusiastic about. Why is this such an important work in your view? At a time where more people are becoming interested in abolition and alternative models of justice, what lessons can be found in this book?

Luis Hernández Navarro is one of the most well-known left writers and journalists in Mexico and in Self-Defense in Mexico he covers the response of Mexican social movements to the threat of narco-terrorism. Various regions of the Mexican state have been overrun by powerful drug cartels and engulfed in violence and terror. Social movements in these territories take the form of self-defense in time of war.

Luis Hernández brings the reader into rural, often indigenous communities in the states of Michoacán and Guererro and elsewhere in Mexico where the narco war is prevalent and presents the conflict from their perspective. These isolated towns and villages get rolled over by the cartels in collusion with state officials and security forces and if they stand up and defend themselves, they risk getting annihilated. It is a dismal scenario but with tales of great communal courage and resilience.

In terms of lessons on police abolition and alternative forms of justice, Luis Hernández first of all points out the different forms self-defense takes in these communities. There are distinct differences between citizen or community police and vigilante self-defense groups. Community Police are anchored in indigenous communities and appointed by self-governing bodies within the communities. Community Police are accountable to the community and are generally rotated posts — part of a traditional system of communal work. On the other hand, self-defense, or autodefensas, are a reaction to an armed threat coming from outside and are formed by individual armed elements coming from different strata of society — from rich ranchers to fruit pickers. They are not governed by the communities they protect.

Models like the Guerrero-based Regional Coordinating Committee of Communitarian Authorities (CRAC), a self-organized policing organization spanning dozens of small marginalized rural villages and hamlets are useful in learning from experiences of community policing and imagining a different form of social contract. Such autonomous networks are part of the process taking place all over Mexico of Indigenous communities reclaiming their traditional customs and practices.

While these models may be specific to the Mexican situation, there are some striking similarities to police abolition and alternative forms of justice in other contexts. Historically, the Black Panthers for example, were set up as a self-defense group and assumed a kind of community police structure. The theoretical writings of Huey Newton on intercommunalism anticipate the praxis of not just Guerrero’s Indigenous community police but the Zapatistas as well.

An important part of Luis Hernández’ work exposes how the state uses the pretext of the drug war to attack social movements, as in the infamous case of the disappearance and murder of the 43 protesting students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in 2014. Initially portrayed as a cartel massacre, human rights defenders proved the complicity of Guerrero politicians and security chiefs.

Similarly, he gives us an insight into the life and death of social movement activists like Rocio Mesina, who rose to prominence in the wake of the 1995 Aguas Blancas Massacre, when security forces opened fire on peasants on their way to a demonstration in Guerrero, killing 17. Rocio survived but lost several family members in the attack.

As part of our international solidarity initiative, Rocio came to Dublin in 1996 to raise awareness about state repression in Guerrero. Luis Hernández tells the story and context around Rocio’s murder in 2013 at the hands of a hired killer as she defended her Indigenous community. It was passed off as another narco-related death but investigation by human rights defenders uncovered evidence of the state governor ordering the assassination.

Finally, on lost comrades, Liam you mentioned you are part of a reading group for David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. Do you mind if I mention something about David Graeber in Genoa, 2001, a eulogy of sorts?

Please do.

David and I found ourselves at the very front of the massive demo the day after the police murdered Carlo Giuliani. As the march swung around into a wide promenade by the seashore, the amassed ranks of riot police blocking the route started firing volleys of tear gas. Amongst the panic and chaos, David busied himself picking up the smoking tear gas canisters and flinging them away from the multitude. Not having a great throwing arm, he knew he could not fling them back into police lines, but he figured out he could safely throw them to the side, into the ocean and away from people.

I lost him when the police charged and I know David had a traumatic time exiting Genoa as the authorities hunted down demonstrators, but that is how I like to remember him — shuffling around on the front lines, tossing tear gas into the ocean. There is some kind of metaphor in that I’m sure, certainly it reveals a side to his character that people may not be familiar with.




Zapatista Spring — reflections from a frontline activist solidarity project 

stencil birds

Zapatista Spring by activist / writer Ramor Ryan is a series of diary style texts outlining important reflections from the front-lines of an international solidarity project in the Zapatista-liberated lands of southern Mexico.

Within this meaningful book published by AK Press many personal elements are woven into interconnected story-lines rooted in memory and driven by an overarching effort to communicate critical perspectives on current grassroots international solidarity initiatives, linked to the upswing of anti-capitalist globalization activism in western Europe and North America in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s. Zapatista Spring is described officially by this text :

“Eight volunteers converge to help campesinos build a water system in Chiapas—a strategy to bolster the Zapatista insurgency by helping locals to assert their autonomy. These outsiders come to question the movement they’ve traveled so far to support—and each other—when forced into a world so unlike the poetic communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos—a world of endemic rural poverty, parochialism, and shifting loyalties to the movement.”

Zapatista Spring really puts to task simplistic ideals about international solidarity initiatives being direct and without massive challenges. In many honest ways this book explores, in a narrative style, the complex relations between a team of international solidarity activists and a small Zapatista community. This book directly deals with the internal power relations and struggles within the crew of solidarity activists that the author was a part of, while the texts also offer many important reflections on the neo-colonial dynamics at play within the water-works solidarity project that is central to the book.

In many ways Zapatista Spring is important because the book presents a self-critical, internal critique of international solidarity activism, rooted in a perspective that is broadly anti-capitalist and anti-colonial. Elements of the book revolve heavily around the author’s personal experience, but the book does come close to striking a balance between individual reflection and larger meditations on collective solidarity.

Stefan Christoff, Free City Radio, May 15, 2015


 Water project in Chiapas needs support to continue solidarity work

Donate to purchase an urgently needed pickup truck for Aguacero, a Chiapas-based solidarity group so they can continue building water projects in communities in resistance in southern Mexico.

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

 Review of The Anatomist’s Tale by Tauno Biltsted  (Lanternfish Press, 2020)

Published in Counterpunch, September 2020 

I love that the lives of pirates of the golden age still matter, that we still covet their memory and recall their exploits. I love that a bunch of 17th century outlaws, clandestines and marginals continue to capture our imagination and fire our notions of rebellion, or even just escape. The Golden Age of Piracy was so short (roughly between the 1680s and the 1730s) and yet imagining is so long. Captain Charles Johnson’s seminal work A General History of the Pyrates (1724)—the prime source of much of our knowledge on the subject—may be a somewhat unreliable account of these transatlantic rascals, but nevertheless, it is enough to know that they existed, that they rebelled, and that they, by all accounts, lived their short lives well.

Tauno Biltsted’s new book The Anatomist’s Tale serves the legend of the pirates of the golden age well. Choosing to dwell on the emancipatory aspects of the milieu, the book presents a speculative history of what the author describes as “potential realities.” Although there is plenty of high sea adventure and rambunctiousness, the focus of The Anatomist’s Tale is less on the drama and more on the intimate lives of men (and some women and children) caught up in the merciless system of exploitation of 17th-century capitalism

.Heading into uncharted territory, The Anatomist’s Tale takes us to the far shores of New Madagascar, the off-the-map lair of pirates and maroons constructing an outlaw society. In contrast to the brutal world they have left behind, the castaways form part of a democratic and egalitarian community, like a kind of utopian communalism. In its historical imaginings, The Anatomist’s Tale takes us on a voyage of possibilities into a potential world flourishing in the margins.

A Rapscallion of Sorts

But mostly The Anatomist’s Tale is the story of a motley group of captivating people living in unruly times. It is a tale told by the eponymous anatomist, who we meet initially languishing in Marshallsea, the notorious London gaol, lamenting his fate and eager to share his tall tales with anybody who has ears to hear (he relates part of the story to a resident mouse). But he is an unreliable narrator and—we quickly learn— inclined to tailor the tale in the name of self-interest.

“Although I found those pirates beautiful and brave,” the anatomist comments during his incarceration, “I did not take part in their conspiracy.”

And thus a marvellous tale is left to be told by a flawed and duplicitous character. Does a book suffer when an unlikeable character is given narrative agency? Here in this case, it adds to the general intrigue.

Paradoxically, the anatomist’s own history elicits sympathy from the reader. His family is forced from their land in rural England at the dawn of the industrial revolution, dispossessed by the sweeping enclosure of the commons. In a convoluted and eventful series of struggles that would not be out of place in a Daniel Defoe novel, he ends up signing up as a shipward surgeon on a merchant vessel traversing the Atlantic.

Suffice to say the working conditions on board are typically horrendous, and the captain maintains control by means of intimidation and threats of violence. One whipping too many and Captain Bellamy and his staff are thrown overboard. And so the mutiny of the Royal Fortune commences.

The newly-minted pirates are a motley crew of damaged and traumatised proletarian mariners hailing from around the globe, most of whom were coerced into working or slaving on the vessel in the first place. They rename the ship The Revenge, and having no other options but an outlaw life, set sail beneath the Jolly Roger.

When describing the day-to-day life on board The Revenge and the relationships between the haphazard crew, the author Tauno Biltsted’s eloquent, lyrical prose excels. With an eye for the suffering below or on the surface, Biltsted creates tender and poignant profiles of the reluctant pirates. We meet Tharinda, a philosophical Indian abducted from Goa at a young age. And the warrior Jalil, sold by slavers off the coast of Africa, coming to terms with issues of gender and identity. Their romance, and the rum-soaked joy of the crew in general in their new-found freedom, provide moments of levity in an otherwise—up to this point—wretched and unforgiving world.

A Pirate Utopia

Our pirates are not so good at the plundering trade, but they enthusiastically embrace life onshore in the pirate colony of New Madagascar. Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates tells the tale of the pirate kingdom established in Madagascar in the late 17th century, known as Libertalia and founded on the principle “that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired.” Similarly, in New Madagascar, the Anatomist’s Tale describes how the community of maroons, indigenous and pirates shared the wealth equally, and ensured that all decisions were to be put “to the Vote of the whole Company.”

The author’s radical imaginings take flight in a nuts and bolts description of the intentional community numbering tens of thousands in the swamps of Central America. The pirates of The Revenge finally find their safe haven, and for a time, New Madagascar becomes a place of healing for the weary crew. As Alexander, a pirate-turned-Mayan-prophet tells the narrator – “You have a right to seek your happiness, Surgeon. You may not find it, but you surely have the right to seek it.”

Of course, as everyone knows, there is no happy ending and Alexander’s words could well stand as an epitaph for this and all brave if doomed pirate utopias.

The Revolutionary Atlantic

The Anatomist’s Tale is a thoughtful rather than swashbuckling read, exploring themes of agency, free-will and fate. Beyond such philosophical musings, Tauno Biltsted’s ambitious novel also considers the workings of the political economy of the late 17th century alongside a critique of early laissez-faire capitalism. It is a history from below told from the perspective of reluctant rebels, of pirates forced by circumstance to assume a bandit life. With its rich character sketches and poignant story-telling, it is a novel that remains in the reader’s mind long after reading the unexpected and somewhat disquieting finale.

In memory of David Graeber

Sons Of Night - A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War

Reviewed: Sons of Night: Antoine Gimenez’s Memories of the War in Spain, by Antoine Gimenez (author); The Gimenologues (editors); Dolors Marín Silvestre (Foreword). AK Press, 2019.

by Ramor Ryan

Of the recent windfall of books published around the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War, Antoine Gimenez’s memoir Sons of Night stands out not just for the sheer size of the 730-page tome, but also because it covers a less familiar area of research. The story of the International Brigades is renowned, but what of the international volunteers who came before the brigades were formed or who remained autonomous from their structures?

Twenty-six-year-old Italian Antoine Gimenez was one of those caught up in the events of Spain from the outbreak of turmoil in July 1936.  He was part of a wave of “anti-militarists, revolutionaries, Jews, exiles, escapees, everyone who knew persecution by the state,” according to Dolors Marín Silvestre in the book’s foreword, who “flooded into Spain to drink in what it was like to live like fully fledged men and women.”
Because unlike the International Volunteers — predominantly filtered through socialist and communist organizations — who came to fight fascism, these early international participants were drawn to the Spanish conflict for the promise of a new society as a social revolution began to take hold on the republican side of the Civil War.

“In 1936 I was what is conventionally referred to nowadays as a ‘marginal’: someone living on the edge of society and of the penal code,” writes Gimenez. “My sole concern was living and tearing down the established structure. It was in Pina de Ebro [on the Aragon Front] and seeing the collective organized there and listening to talks given by some of the comrades, by chipping into my friends’ conversations, that my consciousness, hibernating since my departure from Italy, was reawakened.”
Antoines’ is an exhilarating and somewhat swashbuckling tale. He was working as a migrant field laborer near Barcelona on the day of the military coup d’etat, July 18, 1936. He immediately joined the tide of Catalan workers and peasants mobilizing to oppose the fascist outbreak and days later is witness to the liberation of the town of Lérida under the auspices of the anarchist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, (National Confederation of Labour; CNT).

Antoine never feels the need to elaborate on why he throws himself body and spirit into the Spanish cause. “I considered myself an anarchist,” he writes, as if that explains everything. What’s left unsaid, conversely, tells us more about the man.

The reader is treated to a ringside seat of what it is like to be caught up in the maelstrom of a revolution in progress. The Falange (fascist) militia is chased out of town, the armory is looted, priests are summarily executed, jails are opened, and young interred women are released from the monastery. Pandemonium is unleashed upon the streets, and revenge is extracted for generations of subjugation and abuse. In the wake of the initial excesses, “the unions and other revolutionary organizations quickly accepted their responsibilities, and order was completely restored.” Antoine strolls around, euphoric, “watching these people, intoxicated by newfound freedom, trying to build society on new foundations.”

So began the giddy work of redistributing the lands of the fleeing great landlords to impoverished peasants. Popular Committees were set up to organize collectives to take over the provision of essential supplies not just for the population but also for the fighters on the Aragon Front. These were the nuts and bolts of the revolution occurring behind the front lines during the early days of the Civil War, and what appealed so much to Gimenez and his ilk. His enthusiasm is such that, some days later, when the local CNT spontaneously organized a militia to go to the front-lines to repel Franco’s advancing army, he simply jumps on the back of one of the trucks and heads off into war.

Gimenez’s memoir does a good job of capturing the spontaneous and hope-filled mood of the times. The hastily assembled CNT workers’ convoy joined forces with the Durruti Column and trundled off to the Aragon Front to confront the well-trained, professional rebel army. But as everyone knows, it didn’t end well. Despite its passion and enthusiasm, the Column — led by the legendary anarchist Buenaventura Durruti — was eventually destroyed by the enemy with its overpowering aerial superiority in the form of the Nazi Condor Legion, sent by Hitler to support his Spanish allies.

Obviously, Antoine survives to tell the tale, but the manner of his survival is remarkable. Time and again, he escapes skirmishes and ambushes by luck or guile. His unit — the International Group of the Durruti Column, informally known as Sons of Night due to their guerrilla prowess — operated somewhat independently of the main body of the Durruti Column to good effect. But after many successful guerrilla raids behind enemy lines, their good luck runs out on October 16th, 1936. The unit falls into a trap and is surrounded in the village of Perdiguera along the fluid Aragon front-line. Fifty internationals, both men and women, representing a dozen nations, are killed by the advancing Francoist lines, thousands-strong. Somehow Antoine manages to retreat unscathed, apart from being grazed by bullets leaving holes in his sleeve and trousers.

Antoine is the lone survivor of his quixotic international group. It is a jarring moment. Almost everyone we have been introduced to up to this point is now dead.

At times, Sons of Night reads like Ernest Hemingway’s famous Spanish novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, except this of course is memoir, not fiction. If Gimenez’s tales seem too incredible to be entirely true, the book features an extensive and exhaustive historiography that backs up, as far as possible, all his claims. Inspired by Gimenez’s memoirs (originally written in 1972, but unpublished for two decades), an amateur group of historians (calling themselves “The Gimenologues” in honor of the writer, who died in 1982) decided to conduct a rigorous investigation of the events and context of the memoir.
The Gimenologues notes and appendices take up over half the volume and are in themselves a fascinating and illuminating read. For example, they follow the trail of another international volunteer attached to the Sons of Night group, a French woman known as Mimosa (Georgette Kokoczynski). Antoine clearly has a thing for his fellow revolutionary and describes Mimosa as an engaged and dynamic volunteer who “loved living, loving and laughter.”

Minosa’s own account in her previously unpublished diary unearthed by the Gimenologues, portrays a vastly different image – of a woman torn apart by doubt and deeply unhappy with the situation in Spain. “This civil war is a mistake on both sides. But who will dare admit it?” she writes. “In both camps, it is kill, kill, and life is worth no more than an insect.” She and Antoine have an affair on the front-lines that leaves, at least Antoine, all starry-eyed and poetic. It doesn’t even register an entry into Mimosa’s seething diary: “All the dregs make up our column. I believe I have seen what I believe to be the scum of the earth.” One hopes she is not including Antoine in this description.

Mimosa is slain at the battle of Perdiguera. Antoine stumbles across her bloodied, naked body tossed in a ditch. Franco’s soldiers had slashed her belly open, leaving her entrails “spilling from gaping wounds exposed to the sun.” To Antoine’s horror, he realizes that she is still somehow clinging to life. “I wanted to vomit. I thought I was losing my mind,” he writes. “Somebody pulled me away… I watched him shoulder his rifle, then heard gunshots. It was over. I was crying.”

Historians often refer to the Spanish War as “the last great cause,” and Gimenez’s memoir certainly fits into this framing. More fitting perhaps is Albert Camus’ observation that through the defeat of the Republican side “we learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.”

Early in the book, Antoine tells the story of a young peasant woman called Juanita, whom he met in Lérida in the heady days of revolution when the political order was being turned upside down and the workers and peasants were taking control. Juanita threw herself exuberantly into the thick of things, participating in the meetings and activities of the new collectives, unleashing all kinds of previously untapped potential and capacity. She and Antoine found each other in the fire of the popular uprising. They kissed one last time as he clambered aboard the militia truck heading off to the Aragon Front. In a kinder world, maybe something could have come of their tantalizing encounter. Instead she would perish a short time later “under strafing by Francoist planes while out in the fields with some other comrades gathering the remaining sheaves of wheat.”

After 730 exciting, charming, frustrating and tragic pages, Sons of Night serves as a long paean to remind us that being brave and resilient, and on the right side of history, is sometimes, devastatingly, not always enough.


Book Review – The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)

The Overstory – Richard Powers – Lizzy's Literary Life

I don’t read much fiction. In these dark times, or perhaps since Trump and a world defined by crisis,
it seems necessary, urgent even, to keep fully informed, to try to understand why things are
happening from global conflict to climate change and to follow the science as much as the narrative.
Reading fiction can seem a luxury, or a cop out, akin to a position George Orwell described in his
famous 1940 essay, Inside the Whale, oblivious to the storm all around.

So when as eminent and engaged social commentator as Naomi Klein strongly recommends a work
of fiction, it is wise to take heed. “Richard Powers’s novel, The Overstory […] has been incredibly
important to me,” Klein told the Guardian in a September 2019 interview. “It’s rare, in good fiction,
to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the
people who put their bodies on the line.”

This remarkable book, however, is not so much about political activists or campaigning, but a story
about trees. Or specifically, about how networks of trees bind together, and what we humans can
learn from them. 

It is a dense book, heavy with what one could call plant biologist or dendrologist jargon.
Nevertheless, the premise of the book is straight-forwardly summated early on by one of the
characters – an environmental enthusiast – when he says “We know so little about how trees grow.
Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and cure themselves. We’ve learned a
little about a few of them, in isolation. …But nothing is less isolated and more social than a tree.”

The opening chapters are like a series of short stories, spread over time and place, loosely bound by
the theme of human interaction with the world of trees. Some of the narratives are engaging, others
not so. The family saga behind the story of a huge chestnut tree on a farm in Ohio that survived the
chestnut tree blight (some 2 billion trees lost in a generation) is gripping. But the tale of the
squabbles of an American suburban family planting specific trees for each of the kids to match their
character fails to grip the imagination.

However, one of the family members, a teenage savant who reads like a cross between Lisa Simpson
and Greta Thunberg, captures the spirit of the novel with her lament that “real joy consists of
knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze. As certain as the
weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change.”

Two of the multiple narratives come to prominence – the first about a US pilot in Vietnam left
dangling in a tree after parachuting from his plane, and the second about a pot-smoking college
student in Michigan who in the wake of a near-death experience, decides to devote her life to eco-
activism. The two meet up on the north east coast of the US and find themselves embroiled in a
protracted fight to protect the old-growth Redwood forests of the Cascadian area.

Eventually all the characters of the various plot strands find themselves here in one capacity or
another, and the final third of the book really takes off from this point. Love and fate coincide in an
epic struggle to defend the ancient forests from wanton destruction.

The Overstory is immersed in the naturalist tradition of American literature, walking in the steps of
Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, and its context is the great, vast, seemingly limitless nature
that makes up much of the North America continent. Richard Power’s prose is dense and at times
the reader will be grabbing for the dictionary to understand what is being described. “It’s the
grooved, Doric perfection of the red-brown columns, shooting up from the shoulder-high ferns and
moss-swarmed floor – straight up like a russet, leathery apotheosis.” This kind of prose can be hit or
miss – sometimes it reads beautifully, and other times it can be painfully overwrought.

At a hefty 502 pages, the novel seems to drag in parts, particularly around its mid-section. Occasionally -- and I would have to apologise profusely to Naomi Klein for this abomination -- I found myself skim
reading. In its attempts to fit into the tradition of the Great American Novel, The Overstory perhaps
overshoots in its employment of minutiae, not only in describing the grand natural world of the
continent but also the detritus of American family life.

The Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019 and is undoubtedly a powerful and enduring
work of prose fiction around the most pressing issue of our times. To paraphrase Brecht’s much-
used dictum: will there be fiction in the dark times? Yes there will. There will be fiction about the
dark times.

However, because of its tendency towards overt navel-gazing American exceptionalism, I fear this
reader will stick to non-fiction for the time being.


We have a once-in-century chance: Naomi Klein on how we can fight the climate crisis
In the dark times, Will there also be singing?
Craig, Thomas: Sustainability and the American Naturalist Tradition



Policing the Planet

 teleSUR  Opinion & Articles

Anatomy of a Neoliberal Racist Killing Machine

By: Ramor Ryan
Published 28 July 2016 

A new book shows how aggressive policing tactics exacerbates structural racism and leads to more violence against marginalized communities.
“Policing the Planet” begins with the story of Eric Garner, a Black man killed by New York City police in 2014 in an incident arising from a small-scale infraction involving the sale of loose cigarettes. The book could just as easily begin with the story of Alton Sterling, shot dead by police last week as he went about his business of selling CDs on the street in Baton Rouge. Both men have joined what is described in “Policing the Planet” as “the morbidly expanding rollcall of the racialized poor killed by police and vigilante violence.”
The book makes a direct connection between these all too frequent killings and evolving police strategy. The application of the so-called broken windows policing theory—a zero-tolerance, invasive form of street policing—has increased police power, and leads to the criminalization of whole sections of the population—specifically the poor, Black and homeless communities.
In a collection of essays from leading scholars, activists, social movement organizers, and journalists, “Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter” attempts to “intervene in urgent public debates about structural racism, policing, and urban uprisings in the neoliberal present.”

It shows how the aggressive policing tactics inherent in broken windows exacerbates structural racism and leads to more violence against marginalized communities.
And in the face of this form of punitive, racially biased policing, Black lives do not seem to matter.

Shifting Strategies
The book considers the ramifications of a shift in policing strategy in response to the social crises of the 1960s and 1970s. The new strategies sought to move away from mass incarceration and toward a less brutal form of social control premised in community policing. The focus shifted from serious crime to “disorder,” because disorder—things like broken windows—leads to a greater climate of crime. Clean up the small stuff, goes the theory, and there will be less crime in general, including serious crime.
Broken windows policing was prominently established in New York City under Police Commissioner William Bratton during the 1990s. In practice, it meant more cops on the street busting people for previously overlooked misdemeanors like fare evasion on the subway, carrying open alcohol containers, and hawking goods on the sidewalk.

Bratton certainly got results in terms of “cleaning up the streets,” but as Alex Vitale explains in “The Emergence of Command and Control Policing in Neoliberal New York”—one of the books’ seminal essays—the result was the dramatically expanded role of police in the everyday lives of certain marginalized communities such as of young people of color, homeless people, street vendors, and sex workers.
Broken windows, explains Vitale, “has become a system to micromanage these populations, not through the constant brutality that characterized earlier methods of policing the poor, but through more subtle but invasive tactics of creating hundreds of thousands of additional contacts between the police and the policed and dramatically expanding the number of people churned through the criminal justice system even if for only short periods of time.”

Rather than a substitute to mass incarceration, broken windows serves—as pointed out by the editors in the Introduction—as a “robust supplement to it,” adding collective punishments to communities already under siege. Vitale argues that the NYPD’s core policing strategies moved emphasis from “using extensive imprisonment as the primary tool of punitive social control towards the intense regulation of low income communities of color as prison like spaces themselves.” 

Despite fierce criticism, the broken windows doctrine has been lauded as a success by advocates who see it as an effective remedy against urban lawlessness, serving to quell public fear of crime and restore order to fraying communities. Tracing the global spread of the broken windows policing strategy, “Policing the Planet” notes that “from New York to Baltimore, Los Angeles, London, San Juan, San Salvador, and beyond, Bratton’s model has become a neoliberal urban strategy practiced and adapted worldwide 
The reason for its popularity among police departments globally is alluded to by Arun Kundnani in “Total Policing and the Global Surveillance Empire.” He explains how the U.S. is seen as “almost the definition of innovation in policing, so there has been an almost constant stream of imports from the U.S. to Britain,” and evidently, around the globe. He asserts that the roots of these policing strategies are found in counterinsurgency campaigns employed globally by imperialist forces.
This manifests itself on the ground with deadly and divisive consequences. Marisol LeBron outlines how Puerto Rican officials, in response to the breakdown in social order due to neoliberal economic policies, “turned to policing in an effort to maintain ‘order’ and manage populations rendered redundant, and therefore, dangerous, within racial and capitalist systems of value.”

The resultant mano dura (iron fist) policing reduced general levels of crime but saw homicide rates soaring to unprecedented levels. LeBron concludes that the implementation of these strategies has “rendered certain (low-income and racialized) populations vulnerable to premature death through logics and practices of dehumanization and criminalization.”

'Protesting Profound Austerity'
 This deadly dehumanization and criminalization of “redundant” sectors of society is implicit in the killings of Eric Garner and Alton Sterling. They form part of the morbid roll call of racialized poor killed by the police that has given rise to the powerful protest movement, Black Lives Matter.

#BlackLivesMatter exploded into national and international consciousness in the wake of the Ferguson uprising prompted by the 2014 death of Micheal Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A decentralized, horizontal social movement organized in autonomous chapters around the country, Black Lives Matter has brought multitudes of people out onto the street in response to police killings. “And in this powerful new movement,” says one of its founders Patrisse Cullors, “we are seeing some of the most vibrant, creative responses to state violence.” 

Indeed, the impact of the social movement is such that Ruth Wilson Gilmore can assert that “post-Ferguson, the #BlackLivesMatter uprisings and broad-based organizing have pushed some aspects of US policing to the brink of a legitimacy crisis.”

In her essay, “Beyond Bratton”—a brilliant and erudite contribution to the volume—Wilson Gilmore explains how Black Lives Matter seek to turn criminal problems back into social issues: “Sparked by police murder, in the context of racial capitalism’s neoliberal turn, the post-Ferguson movement may therefore be understood as protests against profound austerity and the iron fist necessary to impose it”

It is in this context that editors Jordan Camp and Christina Heatherton place “Policing the Planet:”
“Rather than asking how the police can kill less, (protesters) have forced a broader set of questions: why have the police been endowed with the arbitrary capacity to regulate the lives of the racialized poor in US cities? Why do they have expanding and unfettered access to the bodies of poor people in general and poor people of color routinely? How and why are poor people criminalized for occupying public space?”

Crisis of Legitimacy
“Policing the Planet” is an important intervention to a key issue at a crucial time. It is not just critics of the police who speak of a crisis of legitimacy. Police commissioner William Bratton himself spoke in the wake of Eric Garner’s death and the spontaneous demonstrations that rocked the streets across the U.S.
“Let’s face it, we’re in a crisis at this time, in this country, on issues of race, around effectiveness of policing, around police tactics, probably the most significant I’ve seen since I joined policing in 1970,” said Bratton.
One thing is certain, as “Policing the Planet” points out: the present policing arrangements will not go unchallenged, nor remain as they are. The pressure from below can force police reform or the mano dura may be reinforced from above.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors has a clear idea of what is to be done.
“I think we need to have a movement around divestment—to divest from police and prisons and surveillance and to use that money to reinvest in the communities that are most directly impacted by poverty and the violence of poverty,” said Cullors.

Ramor Ryan is author of Zapatista Spring (AK Press 2011) and Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006).

A History of Violence

By: Ramor Ryan 
teleSUR, May 2016
The U.S.-driven war on drugs has been ineffective and counterproductive, and in his new book “A History of Violence,” journalist Óscar Martínez shines a light on some of the more devastating consequences of this policy failure in his native El Salvador and surrounding Central American countries.

His previous work, the much-acclaimed “The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail” (2013) focused on the dangerous migrant trail of the huge numbers fleeing appalling conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and to a lesser extent, Nicaragua. In this latest work, the author goes some way in answering the question why these people are compelled to flee.
“I want you to understand what thousands of Central Americans are forced to live through,” writes Martínez, who goes on to present a portrait of “this terrifying little corner of the world” ravaged by war, economically ruined and now overrun by powerful and ultra-violent drug gangs.
“Everything that happens to us is tangled up with the United States,” explains Martínez.

Prior to 1980, the rate of migration from Central America to the U.S. was very small. Then a series of internecine wars in the region – exasperated by “certain American politicians who tried to settle the Cold War in this small part of the world” – lead to the first massive wave of fleeing refugees. The Reagan administration sent millions in military aid to prop up deeply unpopular and repressive governments against left-wing insurgencies and in the process, devastated local economies and structures of society.

The levels of violence subsided in the 1990s with the onset of protracted peace processes, but a new threat engulfed the northern triangle of Central America as international drug cartels moved in to secure transshipment routes. Within a couple of decades, the region went from Cold War theater to a corridor for narco-trafficking, with 90 percent of cocaine consumed in the U.S. passing through the region.

The impact of the passage of illicit drugs – about 850 tons a year, reports Martínez – through these impoverished nations has been devastating. With massive profits to be made by independent contractors in securing the transport of the goods, local criminal groups, with the connivance of government and judicial elements, fight it out between themselves to secure the illicit routes.
It is all about profit, and the local narco’s business in Central America is to push consignments north to the Mexican border, where Mexican cartels will take over. A kilo of cocaine in Nicaragua, Martínez reports, “is worth $6,000; in El Salvador that same kilo is worth $11,000, in Guatemala is goes up to $12,000, and then in Chiapas (southern Mexico) it’s at $15,000 and by the time it gets to Matamoros (on the U.S.-Mexico border) it is already up to $20,000.” At each hub along the route, big profits can be made, and thus, control of the territory is viciously contested. The victor is most likely the best-armed, most brutal competitor.

It is a devil’s concoction as huge multinational Colombian and Mexican cartels intersect with ferocious local gangs known as Maras – imported from Los Angeles in the ‘90s – and the already established criminal fraternity – smugglers, traffickers, drug dealers, and a wide range of crooked cops, judges and politicians. As Martínez shows, the legal system is utterly unable to cope with the enormity of the problem, and the medieval-like prison system is nothing more than an overflowing academy for developing more ruthless gang-bangers to perpetuate the violence.

Incredibly, the current level of violence in the region – in most part generated by the narco-trade and its spinoffs – at times exceeds that of war time. For instance, during the Civil War in El Salvador, the daily death rate reached 16, while during September 2015, the author reports, the murder rate of 23 each day.
It is a perfect storm of impoverished post-war states, overseen by corrupt governments and judiciary, teeming with criminal organizations and street gangs all battling it out for a slice of the lucrative U.S. drug trade.
Into this murderous cauldron of narco-capitalism steps the fearless Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez with a mission to uncover the truth and expose the culprits. He bravely goes to the source of the stories, speaks to the people on the ground, and in the process, upsets both ruthless criminals and corrupt authorities.

Frontline Reporting
“A History of Violence” presents 14 overlapping journalistic pieces that take the reporter into the murky depths of the drug trade, the cartels, the gangs and linked industries like human trafficking. He visits police precincts, jungle outposts, urban prisons and squatter camps.

He meets a whistle-blowing city official in a fast food chicken joint, and a retired human trafficker on his ranch. He interviews a woman who was sold as a sex slave and a man who was kidnapped and forced to act as a mule for drug consignments over the U.S. border. He peers down an abandoned shaft full of corpses that will never be excavated. He is there to witness a community of incredibly poor Salvadorans driven out of their humble houses by marauding Mara gangs. And he is there when the police official comes along, not to protect the citizens from the attack, but to tell them to get down on their knees and pray.
A History of Violence constantly takes the reader to the most abject and poignant places to meet sometimes decent, sometimes vile characters.
One recurring character is a hardcore gangster called The Hollywood Kid – with a reputed 54 murders under his belt – who has turned state witness and is in a witness protection program of sorts. The Salvadoran police, without a budget to sustain the informer, consign him to a rural outpost, locked up and starving in a sweltering room above the septic tank.

It is a tale of a death foretold. Martínez is there at the grim end. The investigative reporter writes with typical pathos as he relates the proceedings around the funeral.  

“The wake was modest. About thirty people, friends of The Hollywood Kid’s mother sang evangelical hymns ... [She] sat slumped and defeated in a plastic chair next to the coffin. She didn’t cry. It wasn’t a first for her. In 2007 the Maras had killed her other son, Cheje … The Hollywood Kid’s widow was breast-feeding in the corner.”

Martínez constantly allows the reader these kinds of intimate glimpses into the protagonist’s lives. The Hollywood Kid was a murderous gangster, but he was some mother’s son. He grew up, as his bereft son will, imagining a different life.

Righteous Indignation

“A History of Violence” is not simply about storytelling, and despite the gruesome subject matter, is certainly not sensationalist journalism.  
Óscar Martínez is a passionately engaged reporter who goes under the surface to get to the truth. See how he fiercely divides the book into three sections – Emptiness (or the absence or disinterest of the state); Madness (what is festering in the emptiness); and Fleeing (the only option for many desperate people).

Martínez is incensed by the action (or inaction) of the powers that be and the abysmal failure of drugs policy. “I think that the model of combatting drugs is absolutely absurd,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s already been shown that prohibition is ridiculous. It’s already shown that criminalization is a loss for the state.”

He takes sides – with the dispossessed, the powerless, the victims of the wanton violence and the multitudes forced to flee in order to stay alive.

And with his colleagues at El Faro, the groundbreaking investigative Central American online magazine based in El Salvador, he names names, and unsettles the cabal of people getting rich from all this human misery.  

“I continue to believe that the journalism that I do, the journalism that we do at El Faro,” he says, “makes life a little more difficult for a few bastards.”