Laguna native William Wheeler will discuss and sign his first book, “State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence,” at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, at Laguna Beach Books, 1200 S. Coast Highway.
Wheeler’s publisher, Camille McDuffie, calls Wheeler “an intrepid foreign correspondent.” He is also an award-winning journalist and producer who has reported on political affairs around Africa and the Middle East, South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Global Post, Playboy Magazine, McSweeney’s Quarterly, TIME, USA Today, GOOD magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and others.
Wheeler has covered the Libyan refugee crisis and the fault lines of the E.U., the rise of Europe’s far right, the radicalization of a Danish jihadist, the murder of a Honduran environmentalist, and a Cold War assassination attempt on Bob Marley. He was a part of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting team that won National Press Club and Society of Professional Journalists awards for coverage of the rebuilding effort in Haiti, and his feature from Pakistan on geopolitical tensions over the Indus River won an Earth Journalism award at the Copenhagen climate summit.
In “State of War,” Wheeler tells the story of how in the 1980s, the U.S. supported the repressive Salvadoran government in a civil war, sending many Salvadoran families fleeing to America― especially to Los Angeles, where teenagers in poor neighborhoods founded the gang MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha). A decade later, the U.S. responded to rising anti-immigrant sentiment by deporting many Salvadorans back home, helping to make El Salvador one of the most violent countries in the world.
For the book, Wheeler interviewed gang members, intelligence officers, and crime investigators who gave insider reports of how corruption at the highest levels has helped the gangs become stronger, richer, and more influential.
“People gave interviews because they wanted to be understood,” Wheeler said, adding that the international press doesn’t always get the reporting completely accurate. “State of War” explains why Salvadorans are fleeing their country, and posits that the current harsh immigration and asylum policies may only empower the gangs more.
Wheeler graduated from Laguna Beach High School in 1998 after having served as captain of the football team, being appointed Junior Citizen of the Year in the Patriot’s Day parade, and participating in the American Legion’s Boys State, an educational program in which students become part of the operation of local, county and state government. He was also ASB treasurer and was an Irvine Company scholarship recipient.
Wheeler called “work trips” with his church—his mother is the Methodist minister Rev. Ginny Wheeler—in the early 2000s to Zimbabwe, Cuba, Fiji and Tanzania “formative experiences.” After earning an undergraduate degree in Berkeley, Wheeler went on to receive graduate degrees in international affairs and journalism from Columbia University. The war in Iraq sparked his interest in journalism, he said in a phone interview.
After writing about the global water crisis, witnessing climate change in the Himalayas and fresh water pollution in Haiti, Wheeler said that it is necessary for journalists to educate themselves about the science of climate change in order to sustain interest in the subject.
In a blog series for the Ground Truth Project, Wheeler was awarded the first annual GroundTruth fellowship for field reporting on emerging democracies in the Middle East. After covering Quaddafi’s fall in 2011, he continued reporting, going inside the militias that dominated in the aftermath of Libya’s civil war.
In 2014-15, Wheeler was a recipient of a German Chancellor Fellowship that took him to Berlin to study immigration just as Germany was experiencing an influx of refugees from Syria. “It was similar to the flood of refugees from South America on our border,” he said. His 18 months in Germany enabled him “to interact with peers from around the world all coming to terms with a global migration crisis,” he said.
For the last four years, Wheeler has been working on documentaries, a docuseries and a podcast, “Detours,” in which he hosted a mix of journalists, photographers and filmmakers, who discussed the challenges of reporting from the field and the motives that drive them onward.
He has also consulted on a Netflix documentary about the protests in Hong Kong, and worked on a documentary, “The Trade,” which followed migrants from Central America to the United States (and back home after deportation), the people who attempt to smuggle them across the border, and those who try to obstruct the process. Most recently, he has worked on Ai Weiwei’s documentary, “Human Flow,” about the global refugee crisis.
“We are proud to be publishing “State of War” and hope it gives readers much-needed historical context on the U.S. border crisis,” McDuffie said.
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