How US Policy Created the Refugee Crisis in Central America
The modern Central American refugee crisis is a result of years of intervention by multinational corporations and the U.S. institutions that supported them.
Despite all the vitriol surrounding immigration policy, the reasons behind the crisis in Central America are rarely examined in depth by mainstream media outlets. This article will provide a brief, and by no means exhaustive, summary of the United States involvement in the Central American countries that are home to the caravan of asylum seekers currently stirring controversy in the United States.
Latin America During the Cold War
During the Cold War, Latin America’s sovereign political institutions were molested with total impunity by the United States. When the CIA overthrew the democratically elected president of Guatemala in 1954, it was with the pretext of protecting national security and preventing communist expansion. But in truth, the president of Guatemala was redistributing unused land from a US-based multinational corporation, United Fruit Company, to the people of his country. The director of the CIA and the Secretary of State at the time were stockholders and former legal advisors to United Fruit Company, and used the full might of the US deep state to safeguard the business interests of their client.
The political backlash against the US-backed coup-de-tat, and the vicious leaders who assumed power, ignited a 30-year civil war that Guatemala has still not completely recovered from. This is not a controversial conspiracy theory, this is a historical fact confirmed by CIA declassifications. Unfortunately, this story is far from unique.
It would be reductionist to place the entirety of blame for Central America’s problems on the US and the exploitative multinational corporations it has facilitated. Immigration policy is complex and there is an important debate to have about the best solution to these crises. However, that debate cannot be held without accountability for the facts.
To understand the violence and impunity driving the refugee crises in the Central American Republics of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, we will start with a short history of the United Fruit Company, the first truly modern multinational corporation.
United Fruit Company
United Fruit originated in 1870’s Costa Rica when a young entrepreneur named Minor Cooper Keith began to plant bananas as a side hustle to his existing railroad business. The fruit quickly became a huge hit in the United States, and Keith’s railroad network aided the rapid expansion of his business. Recognizing the importance of compliant governments in optimizing profitability, the budding young company would soon enter the business of regime change.
In 1911, the Honduran government blocked production of the fruit giant, concerned by its capacity for wealth extraction and dominance. The fruit company subsequently financed its first successful regime change in Honduras, overthrowing President Miguel Dávila and installing a leader who would be friendlier to their commercial interests.
Honduras and Guatemala are the original “banana republics,” a term coined by the American writer O. Henry in 1901. A banana republic is a country in which an oligarchy colludes with favored monopolies to dominate a nation’s public lands and privatize the profits from their cultivation for the exclusive benefit of the ruling class. Banana republics are characterized by their reliance on grand-scale agriculture, and by their dependence on the exploitation of an impoverished working class. But while privatized profits benefit only a few, debts acquired become the responsibility of the state. In Honduras, extreme debt after the 1911 coup allowed private corporations like United Fruit to seize public assets (natural resources) and entrench dominance in the country’s economic infrastructure.
“There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation. One is by Sword. The other is by debt.” – John Adams, 1826
Throughout the early 20th century, the US military displayed remarkable commitment to sustain booming business abroad, invading Honduras seven times to crush the strikes and revolutions of disgruntled laborers. These conflicts, which resulted in the deaths of thousands, are now referred to as the “Banana Wars.” A US Major General (the highest rank at the time) and WWI veteran named Smedley Butler detailed his experiences in these campaigns in a book published in 1935. As the only man to have received both the Marine Corps Brevet Medal and two Medals of Honor (not to mention 13 other medals), Butler was the most decorated Marine in US history at the time of his death. This an excerpt from his book:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903… Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.” – Major General Smedley Butler, 1935 (War is a Racket)
The nexus between the military and the fruit goliath doesn’t stop there, as United Fruit lingers in the shadows of some of the 20th century’s most significant historical events. For example, United Fruit contributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis with part of its “Great White Fleet” of 100 refrigerated ships, the largest private navy on the planet. Its operations in Cuba were instrumental in the rise of Fidel Castro, who warned the US that “Cuba is not another Guatemala” in one of the failed diplomatic exchanges before the event.
United Fruit Company was the first truly modern MNC (multinational corporation), in that it sought to avoid taxes, minimum wages, and regulations by operating abroad, and in leveraging its ties with US institutions to dominate the governments of foreign countries. It also helped form the modern MNC template by its early utilization of the art of “Public Relations.” After decades of regime change in Central America, the company had developed a bad reputation.
To help rebrand the company’s increasingly unsavory public image, United Fruit hired Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, as a consultant in 1941. Bernays, who is known as the “father of public relations,” utilized Freudian principles of psychoanalysis to advise corporations on their advertising practices. In his 1928 text “Propaganda,” Bernays argued it was the duty of the intelligent minority to manipulate the instinct-driven masses, for the noble maintenance of freedom and democracy.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country…We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. -Edward Bernays, 1928, (Propaganda)
In 1954, Bernays sent contacts to Guatemala to spread news of “communist terror” to lay the psychological groundwork for the destruction of the democratically elected government.
This is where John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under the Eisenhower Administration from 1953-1959, and his brother Allen Dulles, the longest-serving director of the CIA (1952-1960), come into the picture. The Dulles’ brothers law firm represented United Fruit, and they were also stockholders in the company (Allen was a board member). The Dulles brothers dominated the foreign policy of the Eisenhower Administration, and committed a plethora of other shadow operations beyond the scope of this article (Reinstating Nazis into power in post WWII West Germany, overthrowing the democratically elected of Iran, as well as the elected leader of the Congo, just to name a few).
Few know much about the Dulles brothers beyond the DC airport named after John Foster, but the ramifications of their actions are felt today. The ability to classify information in the name of national security allowed them to use the full power of the US intelligence apparatus for nefarious purposes without any oversight. This non-transparent alliance between MNCs, the intelligence community, and the US military is exactly what President Eisenhower was referring to in his famous farewell speech, in which he warned of the “Military Industrial Complex”:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” – President Dwight Eisenhower, 1960
During President Arbenz’s ten years of power in Guatemala, he provided 100,000 Guatemalan families with access to credit and land, as agricultural production increased and poverty fell. The United Fruit Company wildly understated the value of its holdings, paying a fraction of the taxes it truly owed to Guatemala as it paid employees grossly unfair wages. To reverse Arbenz’s progress, the CIA dropped bombs on Guatemala City, trained and armed militias to overthrow the government, and conducted a vast propaganda campaign under Eddie Bernays. The CIA had a specific strategic goal in mind: terrorism.
“What we wanted to do was have a terror campaign, to terrorize Arbenz particularly, terrorize his troops, much as the Germans terrorized the population of Holland, Poland, at the onset of World War II.” -Howard Hunt, Head of CIA Operations in Guatemala
The same year that John Foster instigated the replacement of a democratic government with a military dictatorship, he was awarded Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.”
The counterculture revolution of the 1960’s brought a heightened criticality to US imperialism that worked against United Fruit, who eventually assented to giving workers a living wage and benefits during the second half of the 20th century. After a century of dominance, the colossal fruit company finally met its end alongside its final CEO, Eli Black, in 1975. Black had bribed the Honduran president, Oswaldo Lopez Arellano, with $1.25 million to pull out of a deal with domestic companies that would limit United Fruit’s operations. As the scandal was set to break in the news, Black couldn’t endure the shame, so he jumped out of a building on Park Avenue and killed himself.
Eli Black’s suicide shocked Wall Street and public inquiry into United Fruit’s disturbing history resulted in crashing shares, ending the reign of what the Hondurans named “El Pulpo,” the octopus whose tentacles stretched across the continent and smothered its rich natural resources.
Chiquita and Dole
United Fruit has dissolved, but lesser, modern-day companies such as Dole and Chiquita maintain the fruit industry’s legacy of committing reprehensible crimes in the name of profit. In 2007, Chiquita plead guilty to paying over $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a US terrorist-designated organization. Chiquita admitted they paid the terrorist organization to silence union organizers and intimidate farmers into selling solely to Chiquita. Chiquita was also accused of smuggling 3,000 AK 47’s to terrorists, but the US Department of Justice and State Department refused to extradite the responsible employees.
One of the most alarming things about this story is that former Attorney General Eric Holder served as Chiquita’s attorney and represented the banana company during the scandal. Holder brokered a deal for Chiquita to pay $25 million to the Department of Justice in place of answering for their crimes in a hearing, continuing an alarming trend in which companies can pay fines directly to the justice department and evade public trial. With this justice system, corporations can break laws with impunity and calculate their payments to the DOJ later, avoiding the bad press that comes with a public trial.
This is Holder’s comment on the settlement:
If what you want to encourage is voluntary self-disclosure, what message does this send to other companies? Here’s a company that voluntarily self-discloses in a national security context, where the company gets treated pretty harshly, and then on top of that, you go after individuals who made a really painful decision. – Eric Holder, 2007.
Holder’s professed empathy for the individuals who made the “painful decision” to fund and arm US-designated terrorist organizations that intimidated and murdered workers would be better placed with the victims of extortion and homicide. Even Chiquita deserves legal representation, but one would hope for a higher standard in the person selected to head the department responsible for fighting terrorism and holding corporate crime accountable. Interestingly, when serving as attorney general a few years later, Holder authored a crime memo stating, “the prosecution of a corporation is not a substitute for the prosecution of criminally culpable individuals within or without the organization.”
In a sworn statement given in 2009 by ex-paramilitary “Carlos Tijeras,” the fruit companies provided up to 90 percent of his terrorist organization’s income for years:
‘”Managers for Chiquita and Dole plantations relied upon us to respond to their complaints…We would also get calls from the Chiquita and Dole plantations identifying specific people as “security problems” or just “problems.” Everyone knew that this meant we were to execute the identified person. In most cases those executed were union leaders or members or individuals seeking to hold or reclaim land that Dole or Chiquita wanted for banana cultivation.”‘
This is only one of many confessions by ex-militiamen and paramilitary commanders in Colombia.
Beyond what has already been stated about the US-led coup of the Guatemalan government in 1954, (and US support of genocidal death squads throughout the following decades) Citizen Truth gained insight about the culture of legal impunity and violent misogyny in Guatemala by interviewing Robin Schmid, the Development & Communications Coordinator of the Women’s Justice Initiative, a Guatemala based NGO.
“Instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their most basic human rights.” – Archbishop Oscar Romero, Letter to President Jimmy Carter, 1980
Weeks before his murder in 1980, El Salvadoran leader and Archbishop Oscar Romero implored the US government not to arm the ruthless, right-wing military junta. A year after his Romero’s murder, President Carter sent $5 million in military aid to the brutal security forces. While Carter was still president, documents revealing the implication of right-wing militia leader Roberto d’Aubuisson in the murder of the Archbishop were ignored. Romero’s murder would mark a turning point in which El Salvador descended into one the most horrific civil wars in modern history.
Throughout the next twelve years, the US would spend six billion dollars supporting the government, involving itself in every aspect of the war from intelligence gathering to training foot soldiers. But the most appalling element of US involvement in the civil war is the tremendous measures US officials took to hide human rights atrocities committed by US-supported militias, and their continued support after the sadistic nature of the El Salvadoran military had become unquestionably clear. Much of the following information comes from investigative journalist Raymond Bonner, author of Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War.
Four American churchwomen were sexually assaulted and murdered in El Salvador in December 1980. Secretary of State Alexander Haig told a congressional committee that the nuns were trying to run a roadblock when they were killed. Top Reagan foreign policy advisor Jeanne Kirkpatrick denied government involvement as well, adding that “the nuns were not just nuns. The nuns were also political activists.”
Ambassador Robert White was fired from the State Department when he refused to participate in the cover-up of the Salvadoran military’s rape and murder of the American churchwomen. Another official with integrity emerged from the otherwise mendacious administration, junior diplomat H. Carl Gettinger of the US embassy in El Salvador. Gettinger engaged in an independent investigation and discovered the Salvadoran soldiers guilty of murdering the churchwomen. The Salvadoran military had successfully covered up the scandal until Gettinger exposed the truth.
In 1981, a US-trained division of the Salvadoran military, the Atlactl Batallion, performed one of the worst atrocities of the war, in what is known as the “El Mozote Massacre.” The battalion rounded up 700-1,000 plus people from the mountainous villages of northeastern El Salvador, and separated the men, women, and children before slaughtering the groups one by one. An exhumation found that the average age of the murdered was six.
The Reagan administration steadfastly denied allegations that government troops were involved, calling reports “guerilla propaganda.”
Declassified documents and findings from the UN Truth Commission proved the Reagan Administration’s knowledge of the massacre and complicity in the terror campaign. The UN Truth Commission found that the civil war in El Salvador killed at least 75,000 civilians, and that more than 85 percent of the atrocities were committed by the US-supported Salvadoran military. The El Salvadoran government, which was ruled for years by the right-wing militias who won the war, overturned an amnesty for war crimes law two years ago, and generals who ordered these massacres have begun to be prosecuted.
In 2015, El Salvador was rated as the most violent country in the world, with a homicide rate of 104 per 100,000 inhabitants.
This is in part because MS-13 does not originate in El Salvador, it originates from California gangs. The US deported around 20,000 convicts to the country between 2000 and 2004, without informing the Salvadoran government which of the deported people had criminal histories. With weak institutions shaped in the aftermath of the war, MS-13 quickly grew to become a dominant presence in the country and now a US-designated “transnational terrorist organization.”
It cannot be understated how abnormally sadistic the Salvadoran military was during the civil war. This article has barely described the details of its most revolting atrocities. The United States funded and supported a military that slaughtered a peaceful resistance formed by churches and peasants, a military that tortured and killed children in monstrous ways. They knew the grisly details for years, and they protected sadists from prosecution. They tried to deport or silence those who spoke the truth. Now many of the people involved in the US’ Central America foreign policy cover-ups of the 1980’s are celebrated as esteemed statesmen.
Elliot Abrams, who called the El Mozote massacre “commie propaganda” and said that “the Administration’s record on El Salvador was one of fabulous achievement,” was found guilty of two counts of lying to Congress but pardoned by George HW Bush. He then went on to an illustrious career as a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, Professor at Georgetown, Advisor to George W. Bush, and foreign policy advisor to Senator Ted Cruz. Former Exxon Mobil CEO and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allegedly chose Abrams as his first pick for Deputy Secretary of State, but was blocked by Trump because he didn’t support the President’s campaign.
Terrorist supporter and perjurer Oliver North is now the head of the NRA. North’s connections to drug trafficking led Costa Rican president Óscar Arias to ban the White House official from entering his country in 1989. When North was coming under investigation for the Iran-Contra scandal, he ordered so many files to be destroyed that the shredder crashed and White House maintenance had to be called to fix it. He was pardoned by George HW Bush in 1991.
John Negroponte was President Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras, which served as a central base in the administration’s various covert wars in Central America during the 1980’s. During Negroponte’s tenure, military aid to Honduras increased from $5 million to $100 million. Extensive investigations later revealed Negroponte’s knowledge of human rights abuses in Honduras were far greater than he chose to share with the State Department. He later served as the George W. Bush Administration’s ambassador to Baghdad and is now a professor of International Affairs at George Washington University. Negroponte’s suppression of information about death squads and human rights abuses in Honduras leads to an examination of the current state of Honduras, the home of the original caravan heading towards the US-Mexican border.
It is not a coincidence that Honduras has the highest murder rate for environmental activists in the world. Since the military coup in 2009, at least 110 environmentalists have been killed, as well as soaring numbers of journalists, trade unionists, and human rights activists. Most famously, esteemed environmentalist and indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was murdered in 2016 after receiving forty filed death threats for opposing development projects like dams, mines, and illegal timbering. Berta was a congresswoman and mayor of her city who codified a national law requiring consent from local Honduran communities before companies could begin development projects on their land.
“These are not isolated incidents – they are symptomatic of a systematic assault on remote and indigenous communities by state and corporate actors.” – Billy Kyte, Global Witness
Of the eight people arrested for the murder of Cáceres, six have connections to government security services, and two have links to the Honduran company behind the dam project, Desarrollos Energéticas. Due to the outcry after her assassination, Chinese, Dutch, and the Finnish investors all pulled out of the project. Caceres’s successor, Tomas Gomez Membreño, described the situation, “We are seeing the recolonization of our country. More and more of our natural resources are being handed out to foreign corporations. There is more and more repression of people who fight back.”
On June 28, 2009, democratically elected leader Manuel Zelaya was forced onto a military plane and ousted from the presidency. While the UN, EU, and OAS condemned the Honduran military coup of 2009, the US equivocated on its official legal designation, as declaring a coup would have restricted relations with the country. A batch of WikiLeaks cables released in 2015 show Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushing the Organization of American States to support new elections and to keep Zelaya from regaining power.
Before the coup, President Manuel Zelaya had introduced a minimum wage and had ordered an investigation into land disputes between palm oil conglomerates and peasant farmers. His ouster followed a referendum to the constitution that would have allowed him to seek reelection. Clinton feared his ties to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, and Honduras’s ruling class feared he would threaten their business interests.
“There is no doubt that the military, supreme court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the executive branch.” – Hugo Llorens, US Ambassador to Honduras
In the years after the coup, reports of killings and human rights abuses have skyrocketed, but the US has increased military assistance. The femicide rate increased by 260 percent between 2005 and 2013. LGBT murders have gone from an average of 2 per year before the coup to 30 per year after. Organized crime has gained dominance of Honduras, which was the most violent non-warzone country in the world from 2010-2014, with 80 percent of cocaine smuggling flights between the US and Latin America estimated to pass through it.
Poverty and inequality have spiked rapidly alongside a debilitated economy that has gutted social services, as the militarized police is used as a weapon against protests. The World Bank continues to underwrite cheap loans to huge landowners on lands stolen from small farmers to help them export cash crops. A new law in Honduras breaks up full-time jobs and prevents employees from forming unions, earning a living wage, and accessing the national health service. Citizen Truth previously reported the details behind a healthcare scandal that saw the current president steal millions from the National Health Service and funnel the money to his political party.
“We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” – Hilary Clinton, Hard Choices
The US is the most powerful external actor in Honduras by far. Two hundred US corporations are in operation in the country and nearly half of Honduras’ total economic activity is tied to the US. The elections following the coup have been widely condemned as fraudulent and the US continues to fund and train a militarized police force that violently suppresses the population.
Where We Are Now
In 2015, the Honduras newspaper La Prensa showed that citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras collectively made $651 million in extortion payments to criminal organizations annually. Many asylum seekers in the US claim that they will be murdered if they fail to make these payments. Boys are forced to join gangs and girls are forced into prostitution. These people are not willing to embark on the extremely dangerous journey to the US border because they have a better choice.
Dehumanizing people for their nationality and race is unequivocally wrong. Separating children from their families is child abuse, as corroborated by psychologists who have condemned the traumatic consequences of the Trump Administration’s policy. In April, the Intercept reported 1,224 complaints of sexual and physical abuse in immigration detention centers, half of which were made by employees of ICE. Nineteen ICE agents signed an open letter asserting that the immigration crackdown was drawing attention away from real national security issues.
Furthermore, deporting hardened criminals to countries with legal impunity and corrupt institutions is only going to perpetuate a crisis caused by people fleeing violent crime.
Additionally, it cannot be understated how much the demand for drugs in rich Western countries incentivizes criminals to form sophisticated cartels that circumvent the expensive apparatus of law enforcement entities built to wage the War on Drugs. Cocaine is cheap to produce, but its value soars when factoring in the cost and risk of doing business in the shadows of the US federal government. John Kelly, former Department of Homeland Security and current White House Chief of Staff, agrees:
“Yes, we try to rehabilitate drug addicts. Yes, we try to arrest our way out of this, but we do very little in our country, my country, the United States of America, to try to get at this incredible drug demand . . . that as a direct result is what is happening in Central America: a breakdown of societies, lack of police effectiveness and a lot of other things.” – John Kelly, 2017.
“There are some in officialdom who argue that not 100 percent of the violence today is due to the drug flow to the U.S., and I agree, but I would say that perhaps 80 percent of it is” – John Kelly, 2014 (“Central America Drug War a Dire Threat to US National Security,” Military Times)
The CIA has a term for the unintended consequences of an operation: Blowback.
In the notorious Iran-Contra scandal, the Reagan administration funded Contra rebels in Nicaragua (with money sold by illegally selling weapons to Iran) who supported themselves through the cocaine trade. Simultaneously, the government passed reforms to “get tough” on drugs domestically, with the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse law that put full accountability on users, spiking the number of nonviolent drug offenders imprisoned. The cycle then continues with a criminal justice system characterized by high levels of recidivism.
We support drug manufacturers abroad while bloating the criminal-justice system domestically, and deport refugees who have been hardened into criminals within our prisons to violent countries that have been destabilized by our foreign policy decisions.
The US support of fascist dictators in Latin America to streamline ruthless exploitation legitimized radical leftist revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Guevara was in Guatemala during the CIA-led coup, after which he told his mother “I left the path of reason.” The United Fruit Company fanned the flames of communism by causing extreme anti-US sentiment and exemplifying the worst version of capitalism possible. The total hypocrisy of a country that constantly congratulates itself on its dedication to freedom and democracy, but regularly performs heinous crimes against its avowed principles throughout the world, ultimately leads to the abandonment of public trust in the government.
Refugee crises will worsen in the coming years as climate change strengthens freak storms and droughts destabilize crop cycles. The shortsighted greed of elites has paved the way for the populist rage that is defining our era, everywhere from the United States to Europe and most recently in Brazil. Demagogues like Donald Trump take advantage of the people’s anger, directing it towards the vulnerable when it really should be aimed at people like him. But if we are to preserve this beautiful Earth and create conditions in which everyone has the opportunity to succeed, we must recognize the limitations of anger and engage in a hard conversation about the evils of the past, and how we can change to fight for a better future.