If not for the United States, thousands of men, women, and children would be sitting at home in peace and comfort, not risking their lives across several thousand miles of dangerous terrain to reach the U.S-Mexico border. Mexico wouldn’t suffer from a bloated asylum and visa caseload because the U.S. won’t let in would-be asylum seekers. And Central America wouldn’t be plagued by the abject poverty, gang violence, and authoritarian regimes that characterize it today.
For the past 150 years, the U.S. has invaded and laid waste to any country unwilling to support its financial or military aspirations. Central America has borne much of the brunt. While the U.S. initiated a colonial relationship with Latin America in the 19th century, its penchant for orchestrating military coups and training death squads didn’t form until the 1950s. The U.S. has a disturbing history of involvement with each of the countries in the “Northern Triangle,” the Central American region that comprises Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. It’s also, unsurprisingly, the area that most migrants come from.
In 1952 Jacobo Arbenz, then-President of Guatemala, distributed United Fruit Company (UFC)-owned lands to 100,000 poor landless families. Even though Arbenz intended on compensating UFC, they weren’t willing to wait. Executives from UFC intensely lobbied the Eisenhower administration for Arbenz’s overthrow. Their message was well-received: then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, were previously lawyers for UFC and still owned company stock. Two years later, the CIA had replaced Arbenz with a ruthless dictator (the Kennedy administration intervened again in 1963); forty years of civil war ensued, resulting in a genocidal campaign against the indigenous Maya. Under dictator Efrain Rios Montt, the U.S.-backed Guatemalan military murdered over 200,000 people.
El Salvador also experienced a civil war at the same time. From 1980 to 1992, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) fought against the Salvadoran military junta. The Reagan administration offered military assistance and training to the Salvadoran special forces. Infamously horrific, the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran military—trained by none other than the U.S.—stormed into the village of El Mozote and massacred 1,000 people, many of whom were women and children. During the entire Salvadoran civil war, U.S.-backed Salvadoran death squads ruthlessly slaughtered 80,000 people.
After the end of its civil war, the U.S. stopped sending aid to El Salvador, leaving the country in absolute ruin. Congress granted Salvadoran refugees Temporary Protected Status in the 1990s. This resulted in an influx of Salvadoran teens into major cities like Los Angeles. In the face of discrimination from other Latin Americans, the teens formed the Mara Salvatrucha gang which eventually became MS-13. The gang grew even larger with the aid of the California prison system. Then, in the early 2000s, the U.S. deported 20,000 convicted Salvadoran criminals to El Salvador without telling the government who was who. As a result, MS-13 now exerts much influence across the Northern Triangle; many people flee simply because they fear their and their families’ lives.
Last but not least is Honduras. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration, once again, funded and trained right-wing death squads to fight against the leftist Honduran government. Known as the Contras, they gained much notoriety for their indiscriminate torturing and murdering of innocent people. Reagan nevertheless proclaimed them the “moral equal of our founding fathers.” Then, in 2009, the Obama State Department backed the overthrow of leftist president Manuel Zelaya—led by a general trained at the U.S. Army-affiliated School of the Americas. The Obama administration immediately recognized the new Honduran government and refused to support the “immediate and unconditional return” of Zelaya.
After concluding its military interventions, the U.S.—in concert with the IMF and World Bank—began to impose severe austerity policies on Central America. In 2005 and 2006, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala all entered the CAFTA-DR free trade deal (amid mass protests). Almost fifteen years later, the agreement has decimated domestic food production in these countries—because of CAFTA, the U.S. can endlessly flood Central American countries with its industrial and agricultural exports. Farmers in Central America can no longer profit from agricultural exportation; many move to cities with their families out of sheer economic desperation. But a lack of decent-paying jobs combined with rapid urbanization means people are inevitably drawn into the underground labor market. With a large concentration of poor young men and recently deported violent criminals, it’s not surprising that gang violence is so widespread.
Gangs like MS-13 traditionally make their profits through drug trafficking. The truth is American citizens’ drug use fuels Central American cartel violence. After Richard Nixon initiated the War on Drugs in 1971, drug trafficking routes changed, and drugs began to flow through Central America, specifically Colombia. Plan Colombia was a $7.3 billion dollar U.S.-led operation to furnish the Colombian government with military aid. In turn, cartels moved their operations further north. Once the cartels had established a significant presence in Mexico, the U.S. financed another drug war, the Merida Initiative; since 2006, the Mexican war on drugs has led to the death or disappearance of over 1,000 Mexicans. The horrific violence committed by drug cartels directly results from the hyper-militarization of the war on drugs. If you use the military to suppress drug cartels, you ought to expect those cartels to ramp up their brutality in response. Meanwhile, since 1971, drug use in the U.S. has barely budged.
If gang violence and poverty fail don’t provide an incentive to leave, the effects of climate change will inevitably force migrants out. All of the countries in the Northern Triangle lie along the “dry corridor” of Central America. Over the past ten years, this region has experienced devastating droughts, leading to crop failure and land disputes. In fact, the World Food Programme estimates that as of this very moment more than two million Central Americans face hunger crises. The U.S. bears much of the responsibility for global carbon emissions since 1850 (27 percent, to be exact), and ought to take much of the blame for Central America’s predicament. Indeed, the U.S. has emitted 678 times more CO2 than all of the countries in the migrant caravan combined.
But our refusal to acknowledge the irreversible damage we have done to the environment and thus the world’s poorest people guarantees that Central Americans will suffer in silence. The U.S.’s direct complicity in creating epidemic violence, poverty, and climate crises across Central America means that we have a moral responsibility to save those fleeing the conditions of our own creation. We can never wash the blood from our hands. But we need to stop the bleeding.