Book Notes: Roberto Valencia’s A Letter from Zacatraz

Roberto Valencia is from the Basque Country. He moved to El Salvador in 2001 and soon became the country’s leading investigative journalist specializing in organized crime. This book is about one of the most notorious Salvadoran gangsters, Gustavo Adolfo Parada Morales, known as El Directo.

El Directo was first arrested when he was just 17 years old. He immediately made every headline in the country because journalists found it fun to repeat that he had killed 17 people under the age of 17.

“17 murders before turning 17! A murder for each year of life!” made for great headlines.

It wasn’t true, though. Gustavo had killed but 17 was a completely arbitrary number.

In jail he actually got rehabilitated. He had a team of really professional people trying to help him: a judge, a psychologist, a social worker, a priest, and a prison warden. Gustavo left MS-13 and decided never to kill again. The gang tried to kill him for apostasy many times so he must have been sincere.

After Gustavo got released from jail, he tried living a law-abiding life. But… everybody in the country knew what he looked like. Everybody thought he was the worst monster in the world. Gustavo was arrested on fake charges and given 35 years in jail. By that time, he was already expecting his first child and he needed to make a living. So he went back to a gang. Not MS-13 this time but La Mirada Locos, which is smaller but also vicious.

Gustavo was a very high-IQ fellow, very gifted. And hard-working, too. In jail, he’d be on the phone 10-12 hours a day, organizing gangs in gang-free neighborhoods. All he needed was a phone number of a teenager living in a neighborhood. One phone number of just one kid. And soon there’d be a gang that committed all sorts of horrible crimes on El Directo’s behalf. This made him a good living and let him support his family.

If you ever tried organizing anybody to do anything, you know how hard it is. Imagine doing it with complete strangers, sight unseen. But Gustavo was so good, he’d get a phone number of a random woman, well-off, professional, highly educated, and just through phone conversations turn her into his sex slave, who’d visit him in jail to provide sex. And that was when he, a shortish guy, ate his way up to the weight of 260 lbs, so it wasn’t celestial beauty that attracted droves of women to him.

Finally, El Directo was brought down by his diseased machismo. He got his wife and another gangster assassinated out of jealousy, and gangs don’t allow that kind of thing. Fellow gang members cut him into ribbons for killing one of their own.

Journalist Roberto Valencia spent the last six years writing this book. When El Directo was alive, Valencia met with him many times. He interviewed every person the gangster ever came across in his life, it seems. He manages to portray El Directo in a hype-free, honest way. The gangster is obviously a horrible person. A murderer, a criminal, a very scary guy. But he’s also a product of a million things that came together to create so many criminals like him: a shitty family, a deadbeat dad, an abusive whorish mom, a post-war environment of easy violence, a bunch of dishonest, lazy journalists, a set of idiotic measures adopted by the government that strengthened the gangs, and so on. This doesn’t make Gustavo any less of a shit but he’s a shit produced by a diseased organism, and that organism needs to be studied.

The book is beautifully written and extremely well-researched. There’s no English translation yet because it’s very recent but if you know Spanish, do yourself a favor and read it. This is powerful, powerful stuff.