What is forcing thousands of migrants to flee their home countries?
The United States is more to blame for its immigration problem than it would like to take credit for
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The mass of humanity living in a makeshift encampment at the US border with Mexico is driven by historical forces of which many Americans are only dimly aware.
Demonized by Donald Trump as an “invasion” of miscreants who should be housed in concentration camp-like tent cities, the migrants, many of whom are in fact planning on applying for asylum, persist under the weight of a US history in their home countries as heavy as any burden they carry with them.
Though several caravans have made the trek to the United States over the last year, the one that attracted Trump’s attention left San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, on 12 October. It was largely made up of citizens of that country, as well as some from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Traversing a route infamous for its danger – the Mexican leg of the journey crosses states long in thrall to the country’s powerful drug cartels – their safety in numbers logic is self-evident. What is forcing thousands of people into such a precarious flight?
In Honduras, where the caravan originated, the past decade has seen the terrorizing effects of street violence by criminal gangs exacerbated by an increased presence of Mexican cartels, police abuses and the murder of human rights and environmental activists, most notoriously that of Berta Cáceres in 2016.
Much of this current instability can be traced back to the June 2009 ouster of its then president, the erratic leftist Manuel Zelaya. Though the then US president Barack Obama declared the ouster “not legal”, his administration subsequently worked with regional powers such as Mexico to assure Zelaya did not return to office.
After Zelaya’s overthrow, Honduras was run by a series of rightwing leaders. When the most recent of them, Juan Orlando Hernández, looked likely to lose his re-election last year to the former journalist Salvador Nasralla, his government responded with a repression that Amnesty International characterized as having “violated international norms and the right to personal integrity, liberty and fair trial guarantees”.
At least 31 people, the vast majority civilians, died in the violence, but Orlando Hernández continued in office, with Trump’s state department congratulating him on his victory while stressing “the need for a robust national dialogue”.
Honduras is hardly the only country whose society has been undermined by US political decisions both recent and historic.
In neighboring Guatemala, the US provided extensive aid to the Guatemalan military during the country’s 1960 to 1996 civil war, which killed an estimated 200,000 people. The war itself was to a large extent an outgrowth of a US-backed coup that ousted the country’s democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz, in 1954.
More recently, the Trump administration has lent its support to attempts to neutralize the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (Cicig), a United Nations-backed body tasked with investigating organized crime and its links to political actors.
One of those actors is Guatemala’s current president, former comedian Jimmy Morales, who is under investigation for allegedly accepting illicit campaign contributions, and came to power with the support of some of the most reactionary elements of the country’s military.
Under the rule of Morales, the Guatemalan government was one of only a handful that followed Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this past May. With his undercutting of Cicig, many view Trump as returning the favour.
But perhaps no country’s history attests to the US role in helping to create the conditions for this latter-day exodus than El Salvador.
After an October 1979 coup resulted in a military-civilian junta, the US government, first under Jimmy Carter and then under Ronald Reagan, supported the junta even as its civilian members resigned and it grew more violent.
As political polarization accelerated, a bubbling multi-front guerrilla insurgency united under the umbrella of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). In turn, the FMLN was met with increasing death-squad activity by the right. Much of this violence was orchestrated by US-trained Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former intelligence official.
The United States worked furiously to prevent a D’Aubuisson victory in 1984 elections that saw center-right José Napoleón Duarte come to power. Despite its role in preventing D’Aubuisson’s election, the US government for years poured money into Salvadoran military bodies such as the Atlacatl Battalion, whose chief military maneuver appears to have been the massacre, a tendency which it carried out in mass killings in hamlets such as El Mozote and El Calabozo and even in the capital, where it murdered six Jesuit priests and two lay workers in 1989.
Both during his campaign and his president, Trump has frequently inveighed against criminal organizations with links to El Salvador and their malign influence on the United States. Here, too, the history is more complicated – and more shaped by the US – than many acknowledge.
During El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted until 1992 and killed an estimated 75,000 Salvadorans, hundreds of thousands fled to the United States, especially to southern California. There, young Salvadoran boys found themselves endangered by local gangs and coalesced into their own groups, including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
When some of these young gang members, not US citizens though culturally American, were deported back to El Salvador, they took California’s gang culture with them. The gangs have since proliferated throughout Central America. Though MS-13 remains the bete noire of Trump and his acolytes, the American origins of the gang go almost unreported.
All this being the case, it is rather irresponsible for the United States to take such an active role in creating the conditions that make people want to flee the countries that make up the Central American isthmus and then profess shock when they do so.
The caravans themselves push on, as the assassinated Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton once wrote, “far from where hope is already left behind”.