This essay develops the concept of biospectacle, in which the politics of managing populations becomes sensational visual display. It does so as it explores a series of events in 1999 surrounding the arrest and trial of “El Directo,” a gang member in El Salvador who, at age seventeen, was accused of seventeen murders. The episode occurred at a key political conjuncture, at the end of a brutal decade in which staggering crime rates belied the Central American country's claim to an internationally lauded “peace.” The El Directo biospectacle emerged from the convergence of a widely shared sense of out-of-control postwar criminality with the potent memory of past “terrorist subversion” of the war era and before. It was orchestrated by media moguls, powerful politicians, and law-enforcement leaders who opposed legal limits on sentences for juveniles imposed by United Nations conventions. They also hoped to reassert the mano dura (or iron-fist style) penal order that had been loosened after the war. But as a symbolically dense figure, crystallizing the contradictions of the moment, El Directo's meaning would be reconfigured on multiple planes. The biospectacle represented both anxiety and affinity, meeting a desire in the larger population to grasp palpable insecurity, to understand what was happening in a future once imagined as “peace.”

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