Blood of Paradise
By David Corbett
(Ballantine Books, Paperback, 9780812977332, 448pp.)
Publication Date: March 6, 2007
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El Salvador: America’s great Cold War success story and the model for Iraq’s fledgling democracy–if one ignores the grinding poverty, the corruption, the spiraling crime, and a murder rate ranked near the top in the hemisphere. This is where Jude McManus works as an executive protection specialist, currently assigned to an American engineer working for a U.S. consortium.
Ten years before, at age seventeen, he saw his father and two Chicago cop colleagues arrested for robbing street dealers. The family fell apart in the scandal’s wake, his disgraced dad died under suspicious circumstances, and Jude fled Chicago to join the army and forge a new life.
Now the past returns when one of his father’s old pals appears. The man is changed–he’s scarred, regretful, self-aware–and he helps Jude revisit the past with a forgiving eye. Then he asks a favor–not for himself, but for the third member of his dad’s old crew.
Even though it’s ill-considered, Jude agrees, thinking he can oblige the request and walk away, unlike his father. But he underestimates the players and the stakes and he stumbles into a web of Third World corruption and personal betrayal where everything he values–and everyone he loves–is threatened. And only the greatest of sacrifices will save them.
“This big, brawny novel runs on full throttle from first to last page. Brutal and heartrendering, eloquent and important, this is a fully engrossing read.”
“A Quiet American for the new century. Angry and impassioned, Blood of Paradise is that rare beast: a work of popular fiction that is both serious and thrilling.”
–John Connolly, New York Times bestselling author of Every Dead Thing
“David Corbett is a supremely gifted writer and Blood of Paradise reminds me of a Robert Stone novel. Its lyrical prose and exotic setting filled with damaged souls grasping for redemption any way they can combine in a tour de force that will haunt you long after you reach the end.”
–Denise Hamilton, nationally bestselling author of Prisoner of Memory
“If you’re looking for the best in contemporary crime fiction, this is it.”
–The Washington Post, on Done for a Dime
THE MORTALIS DOSSIER- BONUS FEATURE FROM DAVID CORBETT
FROM TROY TO BAGHDAD (VIA EL SALVADOR)
The Story's Genesis
I conceived Blood of Paradise after reading Philoctetes, a spare and
relatively obscure drama by Sophocles. In the original, an oracle advises
the Greeks that victory over the Trojans is impossible without
the bow of Herakles. Unfortunately, it’s in the hands of Philoctetes,
whom the Greeks abandoned on a barren island ten years earlier,
when he was bitten by a venomous snake while the Achaean fleet
harbored briefly on its way to Troy.
Odysseus, architect of the desertion scheme, must now return,
reclaim the bow, and bring both the weapon and its owner to Troy.
For a companion, he chooses Neoptolemus, the son of his slain
Neoptolemus, being young, still holds fast to the heroic virtues
embodied by his dead father, and believes they can appeal to
Philoctetes as a warrior. But Odysseus–knowing Philoctetes will
want revenge against all the Greeks, himself in particular–
convinces Neoptolemus that trickery and deceit will serve their
purposes far better. In essence, he corrupts Neoptolemus, who subsequently
deceives Philoctetes into relinquishing his bitterness to
reenlist in the cause against Troy.
The tale has an intriguing postscript: It turns out to be the corrupted
Neoptolemus who, by killing King Priam at his altar during
the sack of Troy, brings down a curse upon the Greeks even as they
are perfecting their victory.
This story suggested several themes, which I then molded to my
own purposes: the role of corruption in our concept of expedience,
the need of young men to prove themselves worthy in the eyes of
even morally suspect elders (or especially them), and the curse of a
Why El Salvador?
I saw in the Greek situation a presentiment of America’s dilemma at
the close of the Cold War: finally achieving unrivaled leadership of
the globe, but at the same time being cursed with the hatred of millions.
Though we have showered the world with aid, too often we
have done so through conspicuously corrupt, repressive, even murderous
regimes, where the elites in charge predictably siphoned off
much of that aid into their own pockets. Why did we look the other
way during the violence and thievery? The regimes in question were
reliably anticommunist, crucial to our need for cheap oil, or otherwise
amenable to American strategic or commercial interests.
We live in a dangerous world, we are told. Hard, often unpleasant
choices have to be made.
It’s a difficult argument for those who have suffered under such
regimes to swallow. They would consider it madness to suggest that it
is envy of our preeminence, or contempt for our freedom, that causes
them to view America so resentfully. Rather, they would try to get us
to remember that while their hopes for self-determination, freedom,
and prosperity were being crushed, America looked on with a
strangely principled indifference, often accompanied by a fiercely patriotic
self-congratulation, not to mention blatant hypocrisy.
Not only have we failed to admit this to ourselves, but the New
Right has embraced a resurgent American exceptionalism as the antidote
to such moral visitations, which such conservatives consider
weak and defeatist. Instead, they see a revanchist America marching
boldly into the new century with unapologetic military power, uninhibited
free-market capitalism, and evangelical fervor–most immediately
to bring freedom to the Middle East.
The New Right’s historical template for this proposed transformation
is Central America–specifically El Salvador, trumpeted as
“the final battleground of the Cold War,” and championed as one of
our greatest foreign policy successes: the crucible in which American
greatness was re-forged, banishing the ghosts of Vietnam forever.
There’s a serious problem with the New Right’s formulation,
however: It requires an almost hallucinatory misreading of history.
Misremembering the Past
In their ongoing public campaign to justify the Iraq war, many
supporters and members of the Bush Administration–including
both Vice President Dick Cheney and former defense secretary Donald
Rumsfeld–have singled out El Salvador as a shining example of
where the “forward-leaning” policy they champion has succeeded.
Mr. Cheney did so during the vice presidential debates, contending
that Iraq could expect the same bright future enjoyed by El Salvador,
which, he claimed, is “a whale of a lot better because we held
What Mr. Cheney neglected to mention:
• At the time the elections were held (1982), death squads
linked to the Salvadoran security forces were murdering
on average three to five hundred civilians a month.
• The death squads targeted not just guerrilla supporters
but priests, social workers, teachers, journalists, even
members of the centrist Christian Democrats–the party
that Congress forced the Reagan Administration to back,
since it was the only party capable of solidifying the
• The CIA funneled money to the Christian Democrats to
ensure they gained control of the constituent assembly.
• Roberto D’Aubuisson, a known death squad leader,
opposed the Christian Democrats as “Communists,” and
launched his own bid to lead the constituent assembly,
forming ARENA as the political wing of his death squad
network. His bid was funded and supported by exiled
oligarchs and reactionary military leaders, and managed
by a prominent American public relations firm.
• “Anti-fraud measures” proved intimidating. For example:
ballots were cast in glass jars. Many voters, who had to
provide identification, and who suspected the government
was monitoring their choices, feared violent reprisal if
they were observed voting “improperly.”
• ARENA won thirty-six of sixty seats in the assembly, and
D’Aubuisson was elected its leader.
• This was perceived by all concerned as a disastrous
failure for American policy. When D’Aubuisson tried
to appoint one of his colleagues as assembly president,
U.S. officials went to the military and threatened to cut
off aid. D’Aubuisson relented, but it was the only
concession he made to American demands.
In short, there was American influence, money, and manipulation
throughout the process, putting the lie to the whole notion the
elections were “free”–though Mr. Cheney was arguably correct
when he stated that “we” held them. Unfortunately, all that effort
came to naught, as what America wanted from the elections lay in
shambles. Even when, in the following year’s election, a great deal
more money and arm-twisting resulted in Washington’s candidate
being elected president, he remained powerless to reform the military,
curtail the death squads, or revive the economy, measures
Washington knew to be crucial to its counter-insurgency strategy.
By 1987, the Reaganites decided to abandon the decimated Christian
Democrats for ARENA–the party it had spent five years and
millions of dollars trying to keep from power.
As for Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarks, he made them in the course of a
brief stopover in El Salvador to thank the government for its support
in the Iraq war. The defense secretary trumpeted the just nature of
the cause in Iraq, noting that the Middle Eastern country had once
been ruled by “a dictatorship that killed tens of thousands of human
beings . . . A regime that cut off the heads and hands of people. A
regime that threw people off the tops of six-story buildings with
their hands and legs tied.”
The irony of these remarks, which bordered on the macabre, was
not lost on the locals: The Salvadoran military–which we funded,
trained, and expanded tenfold–achieved a similar body count, employing
similar if not identical methods in its bloody suppression of
the internal opposition. The Salvadoran air force, for example, typically
threw its bound captives not off rooftops but out of helicopters
and airplanes (the so-called “night free-fall training”), and the practice
of cutting off the head and hands of death squad victims was so
common it earned the sobriquet “a haircut and a manicure.”
These mischaracterizations, however, are merely part of a much
larger deceit. In truth, America’s claim to victory in El Salvador
is delusional. As late as 1988, military and policy analysts of every
political stripe were admitting that despite huge infusions of American
cash, the government was in a stalemate with the Marxist guerrillas.
Although six strike brigades were arguably up to the task of
actually engaging the guerrillas, Salvadoran field tactics were often
derided by Green Beret advisors as “search and avoid,” and the government’s
propensity to slaughter its critics desisted only when it felt
Then, in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Salvadoran
oligarchy’s main bargaining chip with Washington, its staunch opposition
to a Communist takeover, became moot–but not before
the guerrillas staged one final offensive, in response to which the
military reverted to form, strafing and bombing whole neighborhoods,
reviving the death squads, and murdering six Jesuit priests,
their housekeeper, and her fifteen-year-old daughter.
International outrage over the murdered Jesuits finally brought
matters to a head. The time had come to consider a truce, which the
UN, not the Americans, stepped in to broker. In 1992, the final Peace
Accords were signed.
Thus, after over a billion dollars in military aid and three billion
in non-lethal aid (most of it spent rebuilding infrastructure destroyed
by the fighting) plus more than seventy thousand Salvadorans
killed, over forty thousand of them civilians (and more than
90 percent of them murdered by their own government), the U.S.
obtained a result it could have achieved over ten years earlier, in
1981, when the guerrillas first proposed a negotiated settlement–a
prospect that the Reagan hard-liners, many of whom now serve in
the Bush Administration, flatly and repeatedly rejected. Only victory
would do for them, a victory that proved utterly elusive until
the distortions of political memory took over.
Mischaracterizing the Present
But even if the Reaganites didn’t “win” El Salvador, isn’t it true the
situation there has improved dramatically? With peace and stability,
internationally monitored free elections, and a demilitarized judicial
apparatus, cannot El Salvador be credibly described as “a whale
of a lot better” now?
Consider the following:
• Impunity from the country’s civil and criminal laws
continues, particularly for the politically, economically,
or institutionally well-connected.
• The concentration of economic power remains in the
hands of a few. In fact, in the 1990s wealth became even
more concentrated as a result of neoliberal reforms
introduced by ARENA.
• Land transfer provisions dictated by the Peace Accords
have suffered endless delays.
• Child labor remains endemic.
• El Salvador is a source, transit, and destination country for
women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation.
• Civil society is under siege due to the availability of
weapons left behind by the war, the formation of shadowy
crime syndicates by ex-military officers now turned
businessmen, and the presence of transnational youth
gangs founded by Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S.
• Death squads have returned, to conduct “social
• The highest levels of the the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC)
are controlled by former military men with dubious pasts.
Corruption is widespread, and there are many ties
between the police and organized crime. An attorney
with the Human Rights Ombudsman stated: “When we
go to the [police] Directorate for Investigating Organized
Crime, we never go alone. There always has to be at least
two of us, because they might do something to harm us.”
The old political system was based on corruption, privilege,
and brutality, and such things do not just evaporate, even in the
welcome light of peace and free elections. As we know from
worldwide example–Serbia, Ulster, Palestine, Thailand, Somalia,
Afghanistan, and, yes, El Salvador and Iraq–today’s paramilitary
force is tomorrow’s Mafia. And so-called free elections can often
mask extreme imbalances of power, which voters feel helpless to
Meanwhile, almost a third of the population of El Salvador has
emigrated to other countries, primarily the United States. The migration
wave continues today, estimated by some observers at seven
hundred persons per day. These expatriates now send back to their
less fortunate family members remittances (remesas) of nearly three
billion dollars per year. If the country were reliably secure and prosperous,
with wealth distributed reasonably among its people, it
would no longer need this foreign cash machine. But the most significant
form of voting in El Salvador is done with one’s feet: If one
can leave, one does.
Those who have stayed behind have become increasingly frustrated.
The unwavering grip that ARENA has on power–with
conspicuous assistance from Washington–reminds many of the
oligarchy’s brutal control prior to the civil war. Organized protests
have turned increasingly violent, and many fear the country is once
again coming apart at the seams.
On July 5, 2006, student protests against bus fare increases resulted
in gunfire, with two police officers killed and ten wounded.
President Tony Saca blamed the FMLN before any credible evidence
was available (and subsequently retreated from this position).
The FMLN responded by condemning the violence. As it turned
out, a gunman caught on tape was identified as an expelled party
member, now belonging to a splinter group calling itself the Limon
Beatrice Alamanni de Carillo, the Human Rights Ombudsman,
remarked, “We have to admit that a new revolutionary fringe is
forming. It’s an open secret.”
Gregorio Rosa Chávez, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador,
stated, “We signed the treaty but we never lived the peace. Reconciliation
is not just based on healing wounds, but healing them
well. . . . People are losing faith in the institutions.”
The “Salvador Option”
If we described honestly the real state of affairs in El Salvador,
would ordinary Iraqis truly wish that for their future? Would
Americans consider the cost in human life, not to mention billions
of dollars per day, worthwhile? Forget all the blunders along the
way (or the more jaundiced view that democracy was never the
issue)–is this truly a sane model for a stable state?
It’s too late to pose the question, of course. The New Right’s distorted
understanding of the past and present in El Salvador has created
an almost eerie simulacrum in Iraq, with even ghastlier results.
Taking one particularly ominous example: In the summer of 2004,
as American efforts to stem the Iraqi insurgency foundered, U.S.
officials decided to employ what came to be known as “the Salvador
Option.” American advisers oversaw the establishment of commando
units composed of former Baathists. The commandos began
to exert themselves in the field, enjoying successes the Americans
envied, but also employing methods American troops shunned, especially
in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal. The American
advisers overseeing the commandos–who had extensive backgrounds
in Latin America and specifically El Salvador–adamantly
stated they in no way gave a green light to death squads, torture, or
other human rights violations; they may well have been sincere. But
matters spiraled murderously out of control when Shiites dominated
the elections of January 2005 and took over for the Interim
Government: Shiite death squads, linked to the Badr militia but acting
under the aegis of the Ministry of Interior, soon began systematically
hunting and killing Sunni men, creating a sectarian bloodbath
that continues to tear the country apart. American calls for transparent
investigations of the murders have netted little in the way of
Regardless of what the future holds for Iraq, these commandos,
along with the paramilitary units and the other sectarian militias operating
in Iraq, will not melt away into nothingness. Many of their
members are tomorrow’s gangsters (whose rackets will predictably
fund terrorist organizations).
Meanwhile, the escalating bloodshed has caused, among countless
other troubles, the dislocation of millions of refugees, and the
flight from the country of large portions of Iraq’s professional class,
who like ordinary Salvadorans realize the future lies elsewhere.
Given all this, it’s difficult not to revisit the notion of a curse. In
achieving sole superpower status, we have relied on false notions of
ourselves and others, excused atrocity under the guise of expedience,
sought our own national interest over all other considerations (with
at times a cavalier appreciation of whether short-term successes
might in fact poison long-term ones)–all the while proclaiming,
not without some merit, all the best intentions in the world. To
think this wouldn’t come back to haunt us is to believe in notions of
power and innocence too fatuous for an adult mind to entertain.
One last example should make the case conclusive. Consider our
support for the Contras, a makeshift band of mercenaries assembled
for the sole purpose of causing as much havoc as possible for the
Sandinista government in Nicaragua, whom we accused of supporting
the Salvadoran guerrillas. While President Reagan steadfastly
proclaimed the Contras to be the “moral equivalent of our Founding
Fathers,” an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff called them “just
a bunch of killers.” By 1985, the Contras had murdered at least four
thousand civilians, wounded an equal number, and kidnapped perhaps
five thousand more. Even the CIA admitted the Contras steadfastly
refused to engage the Sandinista military and instead preferred
to execute civic officials, heads of cooperatives, nurses, judges, and
doctors, while showing a stubborn propensity for abducting and
raping teenage girls. The strategy: not to seize power or even prevail
militarily, but simply to terrorize average Nicaraguans, and demonstrate
that their government could not protect them or provide even
And who has steadfastly imitated this strategy?
The jihadists and insurgents in Iraq.
Like the victims of, yes, a curse, we find ourselves trapped in the
exact same position in which we put our previous enemies. Not even
Sophocles could have devised it more neatly.
The Murder of Gilberto Soto
The historically suspect pronouncements of Messrs. Cheney and
Rumsfeld and their camp followers were not the only topical incidents
of relevance to occur during the writing of this book. Another,
far more chilling event also took place, an event that not only
underscored the deterioration of civil society in El Salvador, but eerily
echoed elements of the novel’s plot: the murder of an American–a
Teamster named Gilberto Soto.
He was visiting family in El Salvador–and also hoped to meet
with port drivers to discuss possible plans to unionize–when gunmen
shot him dead outside his mother’s house in Usulután. Many of
the trucking companies that would have been affected by
unionization are run by ex-military officers, but the police investigation
never pursued this. Instead, two gang members were pressed
and possibly tortured into confessing that the victim’s mother-inlaw,
who had less than a hundred dollars to her name, hired them to
kill Soto out of some vague, illogical family rancor.
Two of the three defendants, Soto’s mother-in-law and the alleged
triggerman, were acquitted in February 2006. The man alleged
to have supplied the murder weapon was convicted, despite
the fact the Human Rights Ombudsman, in her scathing critique of
the investigation–an investigation which was not conducted by the
local prosecutor, but the PNC’s notoriously corrupt Directorate for
Investigating Organized Crime–specifically noted that no chain
of evidence existed concerning the gun and bullets.
This murder took place during the American debate over ratification
of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA),
and only by considerable arm-twisting was the Bush administration
able to secure the necessary votes for passage. (CAFTA passed the
House by a mere two votes.) How can there be free trade, opponents
argued, if men and women seeking a just wage can be murdered
with impunity? But such arguments did not prevail.
A Final Note on Blood of Paradise
All of which leads to a brief summarizing glance at two of my characters,
Jude and Clara.
Like Neoptolemus, Jude allows himself to be seduced by a
morally questionable elder into a reckless scheme. In a sense, he
stands for all of us: an everyman who wants to do good in a world
he knows needs plenty of it, but who also suspects that to accomplish
that end a few nefarious deeds must be indulged. He wants to believe
as well that one can withstand such evil, rise above it, even as one does
its bidding: Good intentions, sound character, and professional skill
will prevail over necessary compromises with immorality. Who
knows, it might even be fun–kick ass, take names, shake hands
with the devil but don’t let him hold your wallet. We’re Americans
after all, blessed by God and history. How can we not prevail?
Clara–Salvadoran war orphan, rape victim–sees the matter
differently. She ultimately understands that only through real sacrifice
can the future possibly redeem the past. Being deeply religious,
like many Salvadorans, she sees this call for renunciation as the challenge
of the crucifixion. And so, in the end, she finds the heart to act
upon her conviction–not in an empowering act of violence, but in
a selfless, agonizing act of love.