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The Discovery of Central American Suffering

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh | CC BY 2.0

U.S. pundits and politicians just discovered, it seems, that Washington’s decisions harm Central American families. For the New York Times, “separating families…is something new and malicious,” reflecting Trump’s “heartlessness” and violating “fundamental American values.” “This, apparently, is how you turn off the idea of America,” Alex Wagner (The Atlantic) added. The Los Angeles Times thinks “the administration’s cold-hearted approach to enforcement has crossed the line into abject inhumanity,” departing– so we’re to believe– from past practice.

These are half-accurate charges: Trump’s policy is malicious, heartless, cold-hearted. But it isn’t new. Both in Central America and along its Mexican border, Washington has helped rip apart families for decades, forcing children to endure a world without their parents, mothers to cope with their children’s sickening ends. Abject inhumanity, in other words, is a U.S. foreign policy hallmark.

Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras– review their histories. You’ll be crushed by evidence revealing which values shape Washington’s conduct, which norms govern its behavior in a region where it enjoys immense influence. And you’ll begin to understand why many had to flee these countries. Start with Guatemala. Ríos Montt, the dictator the U.S. funded, armed, and encouraged, oversaw the Mayan genocide there. In one episode, on April 3, 1982, the Guatemalan army overran the village of Chel, slaughtering its residents and orphaning Pedro Pacheco Bop, whose great-grandfather, parents, and five siblings (aged two to 14) were all murdered, their blood draining into the Chel River where the troops hurled the dead. Tomas Chávez Brito was two years old when the army fell upon his village, Sajsibán, seven months later, torching his home with his mother, sisters, and other family members inside. In the mountains, where Tomas hid for the following year eating plants to survive, one can only imagine how the idea of orphanhood, his new reality, settled in his mind. Margarita Rivera Ceto de Guzmán’s family separation was quicker. Soldiers knifed her in the stomach, killing her unborn child.

Egla Martínez Salazar, addressing this genocide, explains that assaults on Maya households conveyed “the message that Mayas did not live in ‘real’ families, but rather in ‘living arrangements’ that constituted breeding spaces for ‘international communist indoctrination.’” Erasing these spaces required “the mass murder of children,” plus “the forced transfer of surviving Maya children to military and paramilitary families,” tactics Salvadoran forces also adopted in the 1980s. Apart from killing most of the 75,000 slain there from 1980-1992– the stretch when Carter, Reagan, and Bush I funneled $6 billion into the country– “soldiers [also] abducted children in what an international court says was a ‘systematic pattern of forced disappearances.’”  

Similar violence-patterns afflicted Nicaragua and Honduras. The Contras flaunted their family-destroying talents in the former, as when some 1,000 of them, on April 3, 1984, assaulted the village of Waslala. A father there, desperate to save his wife and children, sheltered with them in a ditch. The Contras found him, hauled him out. He was “tortured by having his fingertips and then his right hand cut off, and then killed with bayonets,” and then decapitated, Reed Brody recounts. As a final gesture to their mission’s purity, the Contras, into the dead man’s back, cut intersecting gashes– the shape of the cross. Brody tells another story: in “El Achote a band of contras dragged an agrarian reform worker from his home, and in front of his wife, 11 month old son, and three year old son, cut him into pieces with their bayonets. The man’s wife was then shot, but she lived to watch them behead her 11 month old baby.”

It was Battalion 316 that targeted Honduran families. The Baltimore Sun reported that the unit, “trained and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency,” “kidnapped, tortured and killed” hundreds in the 1980s. One example: Nelson Mackay Chavarría “was 37 years old and the father of five” when the Battalion found him. When searchers later discovered his corpse, “his hands and feet were tied with rope” and “black liquid spilled from his mouth”– criolina, “rubbed on cattle to kill ticks and mites.”

In more recent decades, the U.S. government has forged the Mexican border into a family-wrecking zone. President Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper, for instance, “only made it harder for people to cross the border at relatively safe places and forced them to cross in more dangerous places, such as the Arizona desert,” writes Carolina Bank Muñoz. She stresses that “the policy broke up families, as few families were willing to take such risks by crossing a dangerous border together.” Maggie Morgan and Deborah Anker, citing ACLU work, note that “the risk of dying while crossing in Arizona was 17 times greater in 2009 than only a decade earlier”– and that “the mortality rate almost doubled” from 2009-2012, on Obama’s watch, “with children constituting roughly 10 per cent of fatalities each year.” Todd Miller estimates these “Southwest ‘killing fields’” have taken some 21,000 lives since the early 1990s.

There’s no question Trump’s migrant policies warrant outrage. But his are only the latest from Washington rattling– if not terminating– Central American lives. If we delude ourselves, if we choose to believe his actions depart from some moral norm, we risk satisfaction with superficial policy shifts. A deeper overhaul is needed to ensure Central American suffering ceases.

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Nick Alexandrov lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com

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