The Ignored History of the Migrant Refugee Crisis
Friday July 25 will not make history as the first time a war criminal was greeted at the White House. Nevertheless, this was the day that Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who has been condemned for his role in the torture and murder of civilians by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission as well as journalists and academics, sat down with President Obama. Along with the Presidents of El Salvador and Honduras, the Heads of State gathered to discuss the causes of the massive northern exodus from Central America, as well as the 50,000 migrants—largely women and children—that have already been detained by the US government for crossing the border. The silence about the literal skeletons in Molina’s closet reveals a much larger historical legacy that has been ignored in the discourse around the border crisis.
The President’s are not alone in the diplomatic theatrics. Last month, a delegation of California lawmakers visited Central America to meet with the political leadership of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. According to press reports, the lawmakers hoped to explore the “political, economic, and social environments” of the nations in order to understand why thousands of people are fleeing north. Repeated references to gangs and violence seem to have satisfied the need for a push factor. However, as we might expect, this fails to understand the roots of the violence that plagues the Central American nations.
The thousands of children detained in warehouses and military bases in the Southwestern US have polarized the nation and illuminated the worst racial tensions that loom under the shallow surface. Among the worst of examples are the Ku Klux Klan using the recent publicity as a recruiting tool by advocating a “shoot to kill” border policy. Of the many repugnant versions that can be found in the back pages of California newspapers is a Letter to the Editor in the Fresno Bee in which Ed Miller, who identifies himself as a “freedom loving patriot,” recommends loading the “little crumb snatchers” onto cargo planes and flying them south of the border. When the plane is over its destination, Miller recommends, “fly in real low and slow and open the bay doors,” letting the children fall to their deaths.
On top of the abhorrent rhetoric floating around the reactionary US populace, the children have endured countless acts of inhumanity and degradation in the facilities of the US government. Girls have been forced to drink from toilets and faced physical and sexual assault from border patrol agents. One sixteen-year-old boy testified that a border patrol agent told him, “you are in my country now, and we are going to bury you in a hole.” According to the testimony of a seventeen-year-old Guatemalan girl, another border patrol agent told her, “we are going to put you on a plane, and i hope it explodes. That would be the happiest day of my life.”
Like most political discourse in the mainstream United States, what has remained absent is the history of Central America and, more importantly, the role of the US government in the region. As lawmakers—and the general public—prod into the causes of the northern exodus from Central America, it is helpful to take a quick look into the historical mirror. The history of the United States in Central America reveals a legacy of imperialism and violence, the effects of which still plague the region. For the US government, the migrants are but another case of the chickens coming home to roost.
Skeletons in the Closet: The U.S. in Central America
The post-war history of Guatemala begins with the 1954 coup of democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz. As a result of Arbenz’s left-leaning politics and agrarian reform—which expropriated thousands of acres from United Fruit Company with the intention of turning the banana republic into an independent nation—the CIA and United Fruit joined forces to organize and carryout the overthrow. Codenamed “Operation PBSUCCESS,” the CIA/United Fruit plot was condemned by the Security General of the United Nations as a violation of the UN charter. The coup plunged the nation into a 40-year violent civil war in which US-backed right wing governments battled Guatemalan rebels.
Guatemalan President and US ally Otto Perez Molina played a crucial role in this conflict. During the civil war, Molina received military training from the US government at the School of the Americas and became a high ranking military official. He was in charge of a military force which carried out the Guatemalan version of a “scorched earth” policy that resulted in the deaths of over 80% of people—almost exclusively indigenous—in villages of the Ixil region in 1982-83. Many journalists, scholars, and institutions, including the reputable Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, have characterized Molina’s actions during the Civil War as genocide.
Among the infamous victims of Molina’s military tenure is Efrain Bamaca, the Mayan guerrilla leader who, according to the Human Rights Commission, was captured, tortured, and murdered by paid CIA informants acting on the orders of Molina. Through the valiant efforts of Bamaca’s wife, the American lawyer Jennifer Harbury, the details of the Bamaca murder have been brought to a western audience. Surely there are dozens—or hundreds or thousands—of other Bamaca’s in the mass graves of Guatemala that were not married to American lawyers and will thus rest quietly. Their children, who suffer from the same violence of their parents, flee north and are likely among the ranks filling the detention centers in the Southwestern United States.
In El Salvador, the roots of the violence that forces thousands to flee north can be found in a similar civil conflict in which the US government was highly involved. After the 1979 success of Sandinista Revolution, the US government began pouring millions of dollars into right-wing political organizations and the Salvadorean military in order to prevent “another Nicaragua.” In 1980 alone, the US government provided over $6 million in aid to the Salvadorean military. Not coincidentally, it was in 1980 that the Council on Hemispheric Affairs named the Salvadorean military as the the worst violator of Human Rights in Latin America.
Among the victims were Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by the death squads under the control of Roberto D’Aubuisson, who also received training from US forces at the School of the Americas in 1972. Just before Christmas in 1980, four American nuns were raped and murdered by the US-trained and funded Salvadorean military. Soon after, the Carter government increased funding for the Salvadorean military to $10 million annually. By this time, the military had adopted the “scorched earth” policy of exterminating civilians in order to eliminate the hiding places for the FMLN guerillas. In 1981, this policy manifested into what has become perhaps the most infamous massacre of the war.
It was in this era of US-backed violence that large numbers of Salvadorean migrants fled north. The gangs that currently plague El Salvador were brought up in the culture of violence of the 1980’s. Although contemporary violence takes a different form—ie: gangs instead of Cold War guerrillas and death squads—it would require an effort of total historical ignorance to not recognize that the legacy of violence can be traced back, at least partially, to US-funded violence.
Lastly, the recent political history of Honduras offers another glimpse into the causes of the massive northern migration. In 2009, the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a coup which was set in motion by former US ambassador Charles Ford. According to Zelaya, the reason he fell out of favor was that he refused to allow Ambassador Ford to name his ministers, which had been common practice for decades. Making matters worse, Zelaya also refused Ambassador Ford’s request to grant asylum to Luis Posada Carilles, the CIA operative who bombed the Cuban airliner in 1976 and delivered military supplies to the US-backed Nicaraguan Contras. Furthermore, as Zelaya made steps toward an alliance with the fiery Left of Latin America by joining the Hugo Chavez led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), he secured his fate.
The children of these conflicts, which the US government had an integral role in creating, are the ones that flee Central America to escape the violence. When they cross our borders, as US-dollars and violence crossed theirs, they are criminalized, detained, and humiliated.
Those in charge of this unjust system—predominately white Americans—have largely forgotten that they themselves are descendants of undocumented immigrants. The wild-eyed buffoons that fled into the American west in the mid 19th century chasing riches in the gold rush savagely overran the Native Americans that had upheld a system of social and natural harmony for centuries. In the name of progress and civilization, these white undocumented immigrants annexed the land, drew borders, and wrote laws that legalized their conquest and kept others out.
This historical reality should be the place to start in any current discussion on migration. As lawmakers and the rest of us attempt to understand the factors driving Central Americans north, it is imperative that we look into the historical mirror.