As a boy, Miguel Ángel Tobar’s small town in El Salvador was torn apart by guerrillas and US- backed death squads. Still a preteen, he joined a different kind of death squad—the Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha—a clique of the Mara Salvatruchas, better known as MS-13. This international criminal organization began on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s, as Salvadoran children, whose families had fled their country’s civil war, banded together to defend themselves from LA gangs. Denied refugee status, the Salvadorans found themselves pushed into the shadows and besieged by violence, and MS-13 itself mutated into a gang. When large-scale US deportations began, violence was exported from the United States to El Salvador, helping make it one of the world’s deadliest countries and in turn propelling new waves of refugees northward.
The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martinez and his anthropologist brother Juan José Martínez got to know the Hollywood Kid when he informed on MS-13. In his hideaway shack, he recounted a life of killing—a death toll of more than fifty rival gang members—until his own murder ended the story. Vivid and violent, The Hollywood Kid brings a brutal world to life, illustrating the geopolitical forces propelling a country toward ever more vicious extremes.