A Poet Confronts the Violent History of El Salvador

A Poet Confronts the Violent History of El Salvador

A Poet Confronts the Violent History of El Salvador

Christopher Soto’s Diaries of a Terrorist grapples with the the security ideology that shapes the Americas through poems that explore activism and resistance.

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In the early morning darkness of May 24, 2022, hundreds of people were camped on a street bordering a prison in San Luis Mariona, El Salvador. The encampment had been there for days, its inhabitants hoping for information about loved ones they suspected the state was holding on the other side of the prison walls. More than 50,000 Salvadorans have been arrested since late March in what President Nayib Bukele claims is a crackdown on gangs, but the administration refuses to share information about those detained. Most of the families that day in May couldn’t even be certain their relatives were in Mariona. But they had traveled hours by public bus from their rural homes to get here, where the only option was to sleep on the street, because the administration sometimes released prisoners by stealth at night.

The sun hadn’t yet risen when the riot police arrived. The officers evicted the people gathered around the prison, destroying their makeshift tents and nearly a dozen sheet-metal structures in which they had been cooking and sleeping. Police threatened to arrest anyone who refused to leave. Later that morning, a tank circled the encampment, accompanied by dozens of soldiers.

By the end of the summer, nearly 2,500 families had sought out the human rights group Cristosal, which found that 98 percent of their loved ones being held in prisons, including Mariona, were subjected to an arbitrary arrest. Eighty-six percent of the cases involve men, the vast majority of whom were at home or steps from it when they were detained. Many have chronic illnesses that are going untreated, and those who have been freed speak of beatings, torture, and severe restrictions on food and water. Prisoners are dying as a result of the abuse and neglect; the administration has stopped releasing the number of dead, but human rights groups count more than 50.

The families tell Cristosal that the arrests were made without warrants. Some believe their loved one was taken as vengeance; they had an ex-lover who is a cop, or they once filed a complaint of police brutality, or they are union members, community leaders, or environmentalists. Many are arrested simply because they have a criminal record—no matter that they served their sentence to completion years ago. Another common reason for arrest is that the police received an anonymous tip, via a government hotline created within the crackdown, accusing the person of gang membership.

Nayib Bukele is 41 years old and a former executive at his father’s public relations firm. Since taking office in 2019, he has made deft use of advertising and social media to maintain overwhelming public approval, even as his term has been riven with corruption and crime. The country’s previous attorney general, until he was fired by Bukele’s party, was investigating six top officials for millions spent on overvalued pandemic procurements from companies owned by their friends and relatives. The vice minister of justice, who is also the prisons director, embezzled $1.6 million worth of emergency food meant for the poorest Salvadorans, according to the US government. Seven current and former senior officials have been named to the Engel list, Washington’s roster of corrupt and antidemocratic foreign actors, and US authorities are preparing to indict two of them for trading favors with the gangs. And in mid-September, Bukele announced that he will run for a second term as president, in violation of the Salvadoran constitution. Amid the storm of such scandals, the nationwide arrest of alleged criminals is a convenient distraction. Announcements promoting the crackdown blanket the country, with images posted along highways and splashed across public buses, promising to “eradicate” the gangs. Others display the number for the anonymous-tip hotline, accompanied by a plea: “We need your help to continue capturing terrorists.”

This framing, with its strategic geopolitical term “terrorist,” obscures what is actually a mass campaign of violence by the state. And although the present moment constitutes a fever pitch, law-and-order rhetoric has defined Salvadoran security policy for decades, always legitimized as a war on gangs in which police brutality and the mass incarceration of poor and racialized citizens are seen as good political strategies. Bukele’s war is nothing new.

Of course, countless families in the United States also lead lives made precarious by the carceral state. The US and Salvadoran governments have collaborated closely on policing, in fact, through training, information-sharing, and joint anti-gang operations. Although the North often drives and funds specific priorities, both countries have homegrown fixations on tough-on-crime security policies, exacerbated by their cross-pollination. The problem is a distinctly American one—pervasive throughout the continent.

It is this transnational tie that the Salvadoran American poet Christopher Soto draws in his debut collection, Diaries of a Terrorist. Soto, an assistant director of development with the Ethnic Studies research centers at UCLA, writes from Los Angeles and New York, and often about El Salvador, from which his mother migrated in the 1970s during the preamble to a ferocious US-sponsored civil war. The poet was shaped by bloodshed and refugee flight, and now he confronts modern security ideology head-on, uniting his poems under the moniker “terrorist.” He skewers the carceral state’s unwavering belief in its own effectiveness, magical thinking that leads to crises like Bukele’s crackdown. Above all, Soto writes as an abolitionist and a queer person, weaving himself into a lineage of LGBTQ resistance to US policy in El Salvador and to militarism at home and abroad. Like those who came before him, he denounces this history of violence, and his book imagines the kind of cross-border solidarity that clarifies the present and mobilizes us toward a different future.

Across 23 poems, Diaries of a Terrorist chips away at the problem of policing and prisons, a “Whole / White // History of human zoos.” The book hums on the colloquial register, by turns campy, raw, and direct, inviting the reader to sit with the poet and be enveloped in his narrative style. (The opening epigraph is a line from the Russian Vladimir Mayakovsky, who sought to “depoetize” poetry.)

Soto adopts the pronoun “we” to blur borders between his own experiences and those of others, and through it, he embodies both the communal impact of state violence and the collective resistance to it. His poem’s speakers sift through an imagined landscape of memories—incarcerated teenagers in gray rooms, the aftermath of a police shooting, the aftershocks of familial abuse. The poems are globetrotting, too, meditating on the xenophobia of security in settings from India to Palestine to the Americas. Soto roves from the intimate to the international to further reveal the “we,” to show the shared condition.

Multiple poems salute the legacies of his artistic forebears. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1991 installation for his boyfriend lost to AIDS leads Soto to the present: “a whole generation of queer youth / Being/ raised / Without elders.” Revolutionary Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton shows up, too, in name and allusion, as in Soto’s line, “Police said / Are you drunk / Are you high / & We replied / No / We’re Salvadoran”—an echo of Dalton’s canonical “Poema de Amor.”

Throughout the book, behind bars and on the street, surveillance hovers over queers and people of color. One scene in the poem “Transgender Cyborgs Attack” denounces cis bureaucracy: “We left our gender in Los Angeles.… We were traveling to // her // Past metal detectors // When security slobs // Started // grabbing // Our genitals.” State violence, Soto observes, is not just threaded through the apparatus of governance but has infected the world itself, a landscape marked by blood and monsters: a skull crushed on concrete, a jaw broken on words. Joshua Tree National Park becomes a woman, howling and grieving as a jail is forced into her.

Some of these poems carry a distinct affect, embodying and mimicking the experience of pain. In one, about a prisoner at the end of his sentence, Soto manipulates the phrase “nothing’s changed” (“Not // Him // Changed / Not // Him // Chained / … Knot / Him // Chained”) and the words writhe around at the poet’s whim, stretched and prodded and contorted. But in others, pain is freeing, like in one in which kink becomes a way to sidle alongside childhood trauma from domestic abuse: “We nervous our bruises / A reminder of Dad.”

He may be draped in poetry, but Soto is wading into a policy discussion about security. The heuristic his analysis of the state is indebted to is necropolitics—a concept in political theory that examines how sovereign power controls bodies it considers abnormal and thus labels a threat, marching them toward exclusion or death. An explicitly queer necropolitics was identified and elucidated by queer and feminist theorist Jasbir Puar in the post-9/11 haze, to describe, in part, the forces creating LGBT collusion with the imperial agenda of the War on Terror—a “homonationalist” historical shift, in Puar’s vision. In the United States, certain non-heterosexual people could now be considered acceptable, provided they bowed to American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, state killing machines remained, but who deserved life was being reconfigured along racist, classist, xenophobic lines.

Soto’s poem “Concerning the Necropolitical Landscape” begins as instructions from a speaker to his mother about what to do with his ashes when he is killed by police. He fantasizes about living long enough to

drift into Alzheimer’s together like
Abuela years ago // We can walk out of the house in our
Bathrobes // Waving at police cars & thinking they’re taxis
Taking fathers home.

The speaker then dives into the shadow war casts across generations:

We’ve read the credit report // & The U.S. fiscally sponsored the
Civil war in El Salvador // Where men had genitals cut off 

Stuffed into their mouths // Their heads decapitated & placed
Between their legs // Tío saw all his friends // Students slumped

On chain-link fences // After marching outside the university
As a child // We never thought how difficult it must’ve been to

Pick the heads of daisies with us.

As a college student in war-era El Salvador, the speaker’s uncle was one of many types of people—religious leaders, union members, and farm workers, to name a few—considered an enemy by the US-sponsored military. The brutality of that conflict chased thousands of Salvadorans to cities like Los Angeles, where some joined gangs and were deported back home. Over time, the US geopolitical target shifted from communism to terrorism, and Salvadoran gangs slid easily into that new priority. By 1988, California had already defined street gangs as a type of terrorist organization, and in 2015, the Salvadoran Supreme Court followed suit. Last year, in the federal court of the Eastern District of New York, the US government filed terrorism charges against the leadership of the Salvadoran gang MS-13. (The case faces obstacles, however: Bukele-allied judges have refused to allow key leaders to be extradited, and members of the administration appear to have released four of them from prison and escorted at least one abroad.)

Today, the streets of San Salvador are crammed with the administration’s cynical overtures to citizens to turn each other in as terrorists on the anonymous hotline. This all forms the scaffolding below Soto’s poems about the transnational police state. But “Concerning the Necropolitical Landscape” also draws a horizon:

Heaven’s gates
What an oxymoron // There must be a heaven that’s boundless & 
Unbridled // Where we can seek asylum.

Poems like this, presented as the diary of a “terrorist,” touch both a security nerve-center and a generational one. They link Soto to decades of queer activism against militarism.

On February 6, 1990, President George H.W. Bush visited Los Angeles for a Republican Party fundraiser, and a group of activists was ready for him. Assembled in front of the Los Angeles Century Plaza Hotel, they unfurled a banner that read bush kills people with aids, women and central americans. They were a mix of queers from ACT UP, Central America solidarity protesters, and feminists, and before long—in a scene reminiscent of the families outside the Salvadoran prison—they were shielding each other from the blows of nightsticks. “Four cops on each of two demonstrators, stepping on their heads, pushing their faces in the concrete, and twisting, turning, and forcing their arms behind and into cuffs,” ACT UP member David Lee Perkins recorded in the aftermath.

By this point, the Salvadoran civil war had languished, pumped with US money, for 10 savage years, and many queers and AIDS activists in the North understood themselves as targets of the same necropolitics that slaughtered Salvadorans. “When our causes come together, as they must, we will work in concert,” Perkins wrote days later. “We tell the police, sheriff, and other ‘law enforcement’ agencies, here and now, you can harass us, arrest us, and worse,” he wrote, “but we will continue to take our issues into the streets.” Indeed, ACT UP protested US militarism in Central America throughout the 1980s and early ’90s. Other LGBT groups did too; in May 1989, for instance, the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Archive cosponsored a speech by a visiting Salvadoran guerrilla liaison.

When the war in El Salvador ended in 1992, its army was barred from civilian security duties, and militarism was slowly channeled into policing. The old police force, guilty of horrific crimes, was disbanded, and the new one at first inspired great hope. Along with the United Nations and a handful of other countries, the United States trained El Salvador’s novice police, and by the mid-aughts, its influence had deepened via the FBI, which set up a special unit in San Salvador, the Transnational Anti-Gang task force, to identify and track gang members and to teach Salvadoran officers US gang-policing methods.

The trainers were from federal and municipal forces that included the LAPD, whose anti-gang units only several years earlier were implicated in abuse and corruption so shocking that they had been dissolved. Additionally, by this time, the War on Terror had descended upon US policing—militarizing it exponentially—and likewise upon all countries in the US orbit. Monitoring the gangs as potential harborers of extremism was another justification for US involvement in Salvadoran policing—which was increasingly marked by a level of violence that reached summary executions in the name of fighting gangs. Young Salvadorans in poor communities have been at great risk of being victimized by police ever since. Of course, the experience of living in a body used to justify police repression is long familiar to queer people, too—and this is the place from which Soto writes.

In his poetry, the figure of the officer, the authority, the man—the enforcer of necropolitics—is clueless, cruel, and blithely careening through the crowded globe and guzzling from the vanishing seas; it’s all here for him. He is the father who beats the family dogs and yet expects them to come running when he calls. He is the border patrol agent who, believing himself noble, hunts down desert water jugs meant for dying migrants and slashes them in the shape of a frown. He is exemplified by Bukele and Trump, modern autocrats untethered to any belief system beyond their own power, who practically claim to be world-historical, would-be Napoleons.

That these men are at the wheel of our age is alienating. But for Soto, that space is room to think. “The root of terrorism is terror / Etymologically derived from / The Spanish word tierra // Meaning land,” he writes. “Maybe we’re wrong // To think terrorism means / One who exists incorrectly on this land.” He continues: “You change the suffix & / The word becomes a verb // Terrorizing / For example // Police are terrorizing our people.” In this poem, as in the book itself, Soto upends our understanding of violence, allowing us to see it anew: “The question mark // So cute in curiosity / Question // Who do we call terrorist & why”?

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.

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