By IVAN BRISCOE
“We’re still fighting this war, but this war has no end”.
With a two-fingered salute and a strangely rambling elegy, the gang member in the outskirts of the capital of El Salvador bids farewell to a fallen comrade. Dozens of armed fighters throng together in the candlelit vigil, making up a gathering of such chiaroscuro menace that at first sight it seems impossible to believe a witness could be filming them. Tragically, the director of this documentary about the country’s street gangs barely had time to celebrate his triumph. Soon after La Vida Loca (This Crazy Life) was released to general acclaim, Cristian Poveda was gunned down in 2009 by some of the violent young men he had been filming.
The lives of those submerged in Latin American crime, whether they are the capos, sicarios (hitmen), pandilleros (gang members), testaferros (frontmen) or traficantes (traffickers), have tended over the past decades to get meaner and shorter. The people who try to document these fleeting and shadowy existences risk violent payback: the fate of Poveda has been suffered by eight members of the Mexican press corps, killed by suspected criminal groups and corrupt officials, in the first three months of this year alone. Even the police or troops who mete out a brutal brand of security – for which they get paid little more than the minimum wage – have been entangled in surges of fighting that they seem unable to control. The state, one Central American defence minister told Crisis Group, “is fighting a war that it cannot win”.
Tierra Caliente, November 2021.
A sicario, part of the security detail for a commander of a local armed outfit, stands guard.
Yet the “wars” that are being fought in countries across the region are not ones that are easily recognisable to anyone outside Latin America. Sometimes the adversaries wear combat uniforms, meet on battlefields with heavy weaponry, and rely on propaganda typical of guerrilla uprisings, in the spirit of Che Guevara. On other occasions armed groups are in plainclothes and the criminal leaders in business suits. Sometimes the police and military lead sustained offensives against armed factions; other times it is hard to tell whether it is the police or the criminals who pose a greater threat to the rule of law. Meantime the human toll continues to grow. Battlefields and frontlines shift without notice, uprooting families and entire communities from one day to the next. And as the violence rolls on, sometimes dipping as economies improve or states reform their police and judicial systems, it often appears heedless of efforts to stop it. Some 110,987 people are reported to have suffered a violent death in Latin America last year alone.
The following pieces tell personal stories about the bloodshed that wracks too much of the region. They are a collection of photographs, video and reportage intended to help readers understand what it means to grow up, live and work on Latin America’s violent frontlines. The material has been gathered by our colleagues at the International Crisis Group as well as a number of specially invited contributors, who have brought a sensitive eye and understanding ear to the people caught up in the snares of the region’s criminal violence.
Our emphasis in these pieces is on direct experience. What are the lives and ambitions of those caught up in the internecine fighting in the Hot Land of Michoacán, Mexico? How does a former member of the FARC guerrilla organisation in Colombia get used to life as a civilian? What underlies the grinding battle for political supremacy in Venezuela, now over two decades old, and how has this dispute given rise to one of Latin America’s highest murder rates and to escalating conflict along the country’s border?
These pieces do not promise easy answers. But by asking these questions and sharing these vignettes, they shed light on some of the region’s most acute, most persistent trouble spots – and challenge us to imagine what sorts of solutions might finally bring years and decades of stubborn violence to an end.