State of War

State of War
MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence

The story of MS-13 and its American roots

One of President Donald Trump’s favorite rhetorical motifs is stoking fear that members of the MS-13 gang from El Salvador intend to cross the U.S. border in force and wreak havoc on American society. It’s an inaccurate scenario, and in State of War, foreign correspondent William Wheeler tells the real story: In the 1980s, the U.S. supported the repressive Salvadoran government in a brutal civil war, and many Salvadoran families fled to America—especially Los Angeles, where teenagers in poor neighborhoods founded MS-13. A decade later, the U.S. responded to rising anti-immigrant sentiment by deporting many Salvadorans back home. Ever since, El Salvador has been one of the most violent countries in the world.

Wheeler interviewed gang members, frustrated intelligence officers, and crime investigators who give chilling insider reports of how corruption at the highest levels has helped the gangs become stronger, richer, and more influential than ever. State of War makes vividly clear why Salvadorans are fleeing their country, and why Trump’s harsh immigration and asylum policies may only empower the gangs more.

“Gripping, electrifying study of the brutal Salvadoran gang culture.... Wheeler has shown us the bloody consequences borne by real people—and given us a powerful, unforgettable book.”
—Mark Danner

Read Nicholas Lemann’s Letter to the Reader

State of War
  • ISBN: 9781733623728
  • Price: $15.99
  • E-book ISBN: 9781733623735
  • On Sale: January 15, 2020
  • Pages: 140

Praise & Coverage

“This pocket-sized text is the best book on the unintended consequences of American foreign and domestic policy in relation to MS-13, drawing on detailed original reporting and superb synthesis of previous scholarship.” Religious Studies Review

“In State of War, journalist William Wheeler provides a corrective to the overly simplistic (and often outright racist) narratives that proliferate in contemporary American politics. The book makes clear that MS-13’s rise is complex, the result of several overlapping factors, including the generational trauma wrought by the civil war, the failures of interventionist U.S. foreign policy, and the Salvadoran government’s own corruption. Throughout his analysis, Wheeler embeds personal accounts from former and current gang members, politicians from both El Salvador and the United States, and Salvadoran police and military personnel. Readers are left with a nuanced portrait of MS-13’s rise to power in a nation mired in corruption and soaked in blood.... State of War shines a light on the dark networks that conspire to maintain power and wealth at the cost of life and liberty.” Commonweal

“A brisk, chilling examination of El Salvador’s descent into violence and the role of notorious transnational gang MS-13. Journalist Wheeler combines a clear sense of geopolitical history and gutsy on-the-ground reporting, producing a compact tale of a slow-motion, violent societal collapse.... An urgent, digestible document of a violently failing state, with clear connection to flawed American policies past and present.” Kirkus Reviews 

“In State of War, his gripping, electrifying study of the brutal Salvadoran gang culture, William Wheeler dramatizes with almost painful immediacy a vital truth: that all the fevered talk about a ‘crisis at the border’ is really an ignorant lament about what three decades of US foreign policy have wrought. At its core, the so-called crisis is about what we as Americans have done to El Salvador and its Central American neighbors. To confront the savage violence ripping through those countries and sending their citizens on a desperate flight north is ultimately to find oneself gazing at the American face in the mirror. With his vivid prose and intrepid reporting, Wheeler has shown us the bloody consequences borne by real people—and given us a powerful, unforgettable book.” —Mark Danner, author of The Massacre at El Mozote and Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War

🎧 Listen to our Underreported with Nicholas Lemann podcast episode with William Wheeler

About the author

William Wheeler
© Miranda Sita

William Wheeler is a writer and producer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesTIMEForeign AffairsThe New RepublicMcSweeney‘s QuarterlyPlayboy, and elsewhere. He holds graduate degrees in international affairs and journalism from Columbia University. This is his first book.