Why do people leave their homelands enmasse? Why does a steady stream of immigrants continue to attempt to cross the southern border of the United States illegally or to seek asylum in the United States? Are they simply criminals seeking to bring their “poisons” to the U.S.? Freeloaders hoping to take advantage of the welfare system in the U.S? Might there be reasons that most of the American public is unaware of?
Eighty-five to ninety percent of those seeking refuge in the United States give gang violence or domestic abuse as reasons for fleeing their homeland. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered immigration judges to stop granting asylum to persons, mostly women, who are fleeing gang and domestic violence. Asylum seekers report death threats from local gangs, the murders of family members, retaliatory rape, and political persecution.
These asylum seekers come from Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” which includes El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. What do these three countries have in common?
First, they are overrun by the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13, which has become an international criminal enterprise. MS-13 began in El Salvador, one of the most dangerous countries in the world and one of the poorest. Cliques of MS-13 then established themselves in Honduras and Guatemala. The documentary, “The People vs The Mara,” follows the lives of MS-13 gang members imprisoned in Ganja Canada Prison in El Salvador. At least 1500 of the inmates are members of MS-13. What is so heart wrenching is to hear the ages of which young boys became gang members and killers. One young man joined the gang when he was only five years of age; another, now 24 and serving a 286-year sentence for murders committed, killed his first victim at age nine. There is a desensitization to violence that has come from unbelievable childhood trauma. True, these young men are brutal murderers, but they were not born that way; although some Americans may believe that their brown skin is the cause of their criminality.
What was the social fabric of the society in which they grew up that at such early ages they become brutal killers? What horrors in their daily lives desensitized them to violence of the most terrible kinds? What poverty, oppression, and trauma did they suffer to turn them against everything? The result of a childhood filled with violence and despair is MS-13 – children of violence and despair. The results of witnessing and experiencing adults engaged in civil war shapes the consciousness, the moral code of children when they no longer feel safe or protected by the adults, the police, or their government. The social conditions created in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for decades tell the backstory of the current United States border crisis.
Guatemala: In 1944, the United States backed the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico, a puppet of the United Fruit Company who was overthrown by a popular uprising. The United Fruit Company virtually enslaved the population. The UFC stripped campesinos and the indigenous people of their lands. Any who disobeyed were brutally punished by police working for the UFC. The government of Guatemala attempted to end exploitative labor practices by giving land to the Mayan Indians in the highlands. These policies threatened the United Fruit Company, and “defeating Communism” became the code words for protecting U.S. corporate interests. In 1954, continuing to protect American corporate interests, the CIA helped to organize a military coup to depose the democratic government of President Jacobo Guzman.
Honduras: As in Guatemala, the United States intervened in military coups to protect American corporate interests. Honduras was used as a base to attack Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in the 1980s. In 2009, the United States failed to stop a coup which overthrew a democratically elected president and further destabilized the country.
El Salvador: A brutal civil war was waged in this country during the 1980s, pitting leftist guerillas against the American-backed government. More than a million Salvadorians sought refuge in the United States. Many settled in the Rampart section of Los Angeles but were unwelcome and harassed by Mexican gangs. Many of the youth, because of the brutality of their lives in El Salvador, were susceptible to gang life. The Mara Salvatrucha (MS) was formed. When the civil war ended in 1992, a second wave of immigrants came to Los Angeles, and the MS-13 initially formed for protection , now focused on respect and power. The new arrivals included veterans from both sides of the civil war who had weapons training and who had experienced the brutality of war. The majority of the MS members were between the ages of 11 and 40. The level of violence escalated and in the 1990s, gang members were deported back to El Salvador, a destabilized and poor country. Once there, members migrated to and established cliques in Guatemala and Honduras.
According to Elizabeth Oglesby, Associate Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, “People were fleeing violence, massacres, and political persecution that the U.S. was funding directly and at the very minimum, covering up and excusing. The violence today in these countries is a legacy of U.S. involvement.”
What does this mean for “awakening” Americans? Should we perhaps pay closer attention to what our government is doing? Should we condone the overthrowing of democratically elected governments to protect U.S. corporate interests? How do the American people win or lose when our government interferes in the affairs of a sovereign nation? What is the cause and effect of American involvement in the affairs of other sovereign nations? Is the border crisis simply the logical consequences of U.S. foreign policy? Or do we believe that the United States has the divine right (Manifest Destiny) to control the world and especially this hemisphere? The children and families seeking asylum in the United States are here because we (our government) are there, in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Do we, the citizens of the United States, have a moral and humanitarian responsibility to give refuge to these frightened and impoverished people who through no fault of their own were uprooted and driven from their homes?