America Should—But Probably Won’t—Take Responsibility for Promoting Violence in Central America
When you are Donald Trump or one of his surrogates, and regularly divorce cause and effect — or are simply divorced from reality — you are free to distort details and expel falsehoods to support your narrative. Though it has been repeatedly observed, it’s worth stressing that Trump started his presidential campaign spewing inaccuracies about Mexican people as criminals and rapists, without revealing any master plan to fix this “broken” immigration system. It was outrageous. It was reprehensible. What’s more, it worked.
Since then, Trump and Co. haven’t exactly gotten more accurate or presidential over time. While concern for the separation of immigrant families, how and where they’re being detained, and how and when — if at all — those already separated will be reunited have dominated headlines, the Trump administration hasn’t softened its rhetoric any. Outside of relenting on the issue of separating children from their mothers, President Trump has authorized the creation of a “denaturalization” task force, one that seeks to remove naturalized citizens on clerical or other “technicalities” and which has evoked comparisons to the Red Scare.
Critics of the White House’s immigration policy have taken to referring to it in rather dark terms, labeling it “ethnic cleansing.” They’re not wrong, either. Amid the elaboration of a white nationalist agenda which has seen senior advisor Stephen Miller and Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen emerge as figureheads of the ongoing crisis and, at that, perpetrators, Trump has engaged in more than his fair share of scaremongering in public speeches, at rallies, and on Twitter.
A particular source of animus — and deservedly so in light of their actions, let’s be clear — is Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13. The international gang, associated with various acts of criminality and violence, has served as a go-to bogeyman for Trump in his attacks on Democrats. As Trump would have it, a vote for the Dems in November is a vote to “let MS-13 run wild in our communities.” ICE, meanwhile, is “liberating” communities every day from the organization whose motto reportedly is “kill, rape, control.”
Indeed, MS-13 and other gangs that recruit from Central America and Mexico are a real concern, but Trump is using the specter of past incidents involving its members and existing fears and urban legends about gang violence to try to drum up support for his “zero tolerance” immigration policy and enhanced border security measures. Even belaboring the use of the word “animals” to describe MS-13 has a dog-whistle underlying meaning, as Trump’s indiscriminate employ of this pejorative has been interpreted as a general dehumanization of immigrants and people of color. If Trump hadn’t kicked off his presidential bid denigrating an entire country and its people, we might have a chance of giving him the benefit of the doubt. By now, though, many of us know better, and that Trump knew exactly what he was saying when he used the word “animals” with all its vagaries.
It’s bad enough that Donald Trump and his flunkies embrace an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to undocumented immigrants as a subset of the larger conversation about who is or isn’t considered a “true” American. You know, largely because of that whole “being a decent human being” thing that Trump seems not to be able to understand. What makes this stance yet more problematic is the notion it fails to recognize —unconsciously or willingly — the United States’ complicity in the conditions which have led to a refugee/asylee crisis in Central America, notably in its “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras).
Cole Kazdin, writing for VICE Media, outlines how the U.S. has had a hand in destabilizing Central American nations long before the era of Trump. Citing Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor of Latin American studies at the University of Arizona, heavily throughout the piece, Kazdin depicts a pattern of American intervention on behalf of its own interests — and usually at the expense of competing interests within those countries.
In Guatemala, back in the 1950s, under the guise of fighting communism, the United States helped organize a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected government and continued to train the Guatemalan army into the 1970s, a civil war that Oglesby characterizes in no uncertain terms as “genocide.” In 1970s Nicaragua, the U.S. government directly inserted itself in the clash between the democratic nationalist Sandinistas and the dictatorship helmed by the Somoza family, later supporting the Contras, a material relationship that infamously saw the Reagan administration fund these contrarrevolucionarios through the covert sale of arms to Iran. In El Salvador and Honduras, meanwhile, the U.S. intervened on behalf of the Salvadoran government to squelch the socialist group FMLN and held military exercises in Honduras.
As Kazdin notes, this is before we even get to the “war on drugs,” an ongoing situation set in motion as part of Richard Nixon’s political agenda that pushed cartels out of Colombia and into the impoverished, unstable Northern Triangle. Going back to MS-13, while its activities are relevant to the war on drugs and their criminality is certainly not to be lauded, Kazdin, via Oglesby, stresses that while the group has strong Salvadoran roots, its origins are traced back to Los Angeles, not Central America.
Furthermore, dwelling on MS-13 overlooks the larger issue of government-linked crime networks that come directly out of the counterinsurgency experience of the 1980s,” according to Oglesby. The American government may not be directly encouraging the rise of gang numbers, but by indirectly paving the way for their growth, its influence looms large. As it is in the Middle East and elsewhere, regime change can produce some unfortunate unintended consequences.
With all this in mind, and getting to the issue of migration and asylum-seeking, despite its hand in catalyzing unsafe, untenable situations in Central America, the United States has made it a habit of refusing asylum to applicants from south of its border, particularly those coming from El Salvador. Now with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement that domestic violence and gang violence are no longer grounds for asylum, there is every concern that people will continue to try crossing the desert and relying on criminal networks to help smuggle them north, which presents a new set of dangers. Trump and Co. are keeping with the historical trend, but in a way that is seemingly even more overt in terms of racism and xenophobia, and holding to the idea that these additional perilous hoops through which to jump will prove an effective deterrent to illegal immigration, and a disincentive to would-be gangbangers near and south of the border.
Here’s the thing, though: these methods may not be having their intended effect, or may be even serving to exacerbate the situations they profess to fix. On the migration front, Elizabeth Oglesby indicates that militarizing the border serves only to increase migration. Not only has the price of smuggling people north soared commensurate with the uptick in danger, but since it is that much more difficult to return, more families are migrating together to try to keep the unit together.
Another point worth considering: what people are trying to escape in Central America might be as bad or worse than what they face trying to immigrate illegally into the United States. Andres Oppenheimer, writing for The Miami Herald, agrees, and believes the problem will keep getting worse as long as parents have to fear for their lives and those of their children.
Oppenheimer cites Roger Noriega, who served in the State Department under George W. Bush, and who points to gang violence and organized crime — fed to a large extent by a demand for illegal drugs in the States — as destructive forces to economies and state institutions, not to mention individuals who run afoul of bad actors. For too many families in Central America and Mexico, there is a real risk of their children being forced into the employ of gangs and/or having to pay these gangs off for “protection.” Moreover, governments and officials are too often corrupt, powerless to diminish the influence of gangs or both. Such is not a recipe for substantive positive change.
Trying to put a bandage on the illegal immigration situation in the form of fences/walls and more Border Patrol agents, as Oppenheimer and others would argue, therefore does a poor job of stopping the bleeding when the underlying health of these source countries for asylum-seekers is suspect. In terms of possible solutions, therefore, it would seem prudent, if not necessary, to invest in these countries in a humanitarian capacity and to help fund and mobilize efforts to help combat corruption and crime. Instead, Congress has reduced assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras by almost $85 million since 2017, which almost certainly won’t help willing governments combat the influence of criminal organizations. In other words, isolationism isn’t the answer.
As for MS-13, treating its influence with a “firm hand” may limit its effectiveness and bring up a new set of ethical and moral issues about the procedures used to combat gang violence. In El Salvador, the U.S. government has thrown millions of dollars at curbing the influence of Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs, and the brutality and corruption associated with the Salvadoran government’s approach may be proving counterproductive. A detailed special report for CNN by Nick Paton Walsh, Barbara Arvanitidis, and Bryan Avelar on the link between U.S.-funded police and illegal executions in El Salvador provides a sense of perspective on this note:
While the US program is aimed at improving the effectiveness and legality of El Salvador’s fight against gangs, narcotraffickers and human smugglers, the “Firm Hand” strategy being deployed now by the country’s government — against a gang culture so widespread it amounts to an insurgency of sorts — runs counter to lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to some analysts. In those US-led conflicts, corrupt security forces and brutality exacerbated the ferocity of the insurgency.
Analysts have noted that brutal police tactics have previously backfired, as the gang members killed are sometimes looked upon more favorably in their neighborhoods, or less guilty than intelligence suggests, causing anger in the community and prompting some residents to turn away from the police and towards the gangs.
Not for nothing, but Afghanistan and Iraq are not the kind of examples you want to lead with as analogs of success in dealing with hostile groups. Even when dealing with a potential criminal element in an environment as conducive to drug-related violence as El Salvador, abuses by authorities are liable to produce a backlash, despite the public’s desire for their leaders to be tough on crime. Simply put, a balance has to be struck, and extrajudicial killings tip the scales the wrong way.
At the end of the day, and at a fundamental level, the questions that should be asked by the Trump administration are as follows: 1) “What are we trying to accomplish regarding immigration and violence as it impacts the United States, Mexico, and Central America?” 2) “Are we accomplishing what we have set out to accomplish?” and 3) “If so, are the solutions worth the costs?” Thus far, however, there is little to suggest the relevant problems have even been adequately defined, let alone sufficiently addressed, and with all the finger-pointing that President Trump has done, you can be sure he hasn’t considered America’s role in perpetuating worrisome trends.
Returning to Cole Kazdin’s column for a moment, while Elizabeth Oglesby’s damning analysis of U.S. relations with Central America features prominently in her analysis, the words of civil rights advocates and other experts carry as much weight — if not more — and succinctly state the case for America’s direct engagement with Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle in a more diplomatic and even-handed way.
Per Xochitl Sanchez, TPS (Temporary Protected Status) coordinator for CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, the United States has “a moral and social responsibility to this population of immigrants as they are complicit in the creation of the conditions of forced migration” of these countries, notably El Salvador. Charles Kamasaki, senior cabinet advisor for UNIDOS US, also cited within Kazdin’s piece, likewise believes in acting in accord with a moral imperative steeped in equanimity and reciprocity. As Kamasaki puts forth, “For those who felt strongly that we should intervene in Central America, whether it was to fight communism, or to maintain good conditions for business so American consumers could enjoy cheap bananas or Nicaraguan coffee, I would argue that responsibility’s a two-way street. If we enjoy benefits, then that brings with it some obligations.”
Alas, “diplomacy” in the era of President Donald Trump evidently involves starting trade wars and other confrontations with our presumed allies, railing against the likes of Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel while praising dictatorial leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. If we can’t get along with Canada, a row with whom comedian Seth Meyers likened to “holding a grudge against a golden retriever puppy,” there’s obviously little room for a spirit of cooperation with countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, nations replete with brown-skinned individuals who speak Spanish and, therefore, must be demonized as part of Trump’s demagoguery.
For Christ’s sake, the man picked a fight with Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the island was hit by a devastating hurricane. These storm victims are American citizens. Just because they are people of color and can’t vote in congressional and presidential elections doesn’t mean they should be an after-thought, especially not when noting the mainland’s role in loading the territory with crippling debt. Instead, Trump being Trump, he lashes out on Twitter and calls people names — especially when they are women and/or people of color and dare to challenge him. I mean, if one were to visit the Oval Office and find a dartboard with a picture of Maxine Waters’s face on it, would he or she be really surprised? Dude’s got an ax to grind.
While harboring guilt about the treatment of Central America’s Northern Triangle to the extent it stunts our ability to act and move forward would be its own issue, that the United States’ historical culpability continues to go largely unspoken makes the prospects of fixing problems which affect North America too (such as gang violence and mass migration) rather grim. America should take more responsibility for promoting violence in Central America. But it probably won’t, and until it does, it would seem the wounds that mark many Central American institutions will continue to stay open.