The best reporting on MS-13 is by local journalists, including El Faro, which has churned out cinematic dispatches from gang-torn barrios for more than a decade. A recent string of murders on Long Island led to a spate of stories in America, including a Pulitzer-winning series by ProPublica, a non-profit news outfit, which showed how Mr Trump’s immigration policies have inflamed gang tensions. But Mr Dudley’s book is uniquely comprehensive. Years of research have yielded a shrewd analysis of the structural forces that created the gang, which Mr Dudley calls “the bastard child that no one wants to acknowledge from an affair that most choose to ignore”.
His sources include police reports from murder trials, testimony from asylum cases and scores of interviews with current and former MS-13 members. Many, he observes, were just children when they evolved from “victims of circumstance, caught in a system that marginalises, vilifies and destroys them” into victimisers who destroy the lives of others. Scarcely a year separates the day one wins $35 in a breakdancing contest and the day he gets into a knife fight with Barrio 18 members.
Mr Dudley does not shy away from the violence—a brutal passage describes how gang members rape and murder women perceived to have slighted them—but nor does he sensationalise it. “MS-13 members were, to put it simply, not good criminals”, he writes. Their facial tattoos and lack of discipline made them easy targets for ambushes and wiretaps.
His book shares its subject’s transnational sprawl, jumping between countries and characters, sometimes confusingly. “The Hollywood Kid”, published in English last year, solves this problem by telling the gang’s story through a single anti-hero: an MS-13 hitman. Quickly readers learn of his 50-plus kills. “The Kid has euphemisms for everything,” write brothers Oscar Martinez and Juan Jose Martinez (a reporter for El Faro and an anthropologist, respectively). “If he kills someone and dumps him in a well, he’s sent him to get a drink. If he buries someone, dead or alive, in some field, he’s sent him to count stars.”