At the beginning of the 1980s, during a meeting in New York with then ex-President Jimmy Carter, I accompanied Argentine Nobel Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel as his translator. At that time, wars were ravaging the Central American countries. I remember vividly how at one point Carter asked Pérez Esquivel, “And what do you think, Adolfo, that the U.S. should be doing in Central America?” Such a direct and honest question by a former U.S. president would be unthinkable today.
Pérez Esquivel responded that the U.S. should be more aware of the tremendous needs in the Central American countries; and that the U.S., rather than opposing popular movements should be supporting them, making sure that human rights were respected by all sides in the long-standing conflicts between the rich and the poor in the region.
This observation is very much related to today’s events. It has been estimated that almost 70 percent of the children who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border in 2014 came from what is called the Central American northern triangle, formed by Guatemala, Salvador and Honduras. Those three countries have suffered from U.S. intervention in their social and political affairs.
Perhaps Guatemala best exemplifies the consequences of this intervention. For many years the U.S. controlled coffee and banana trades in addition to demands of oil concessions from the Guatemalan government. As far back as 1918, the Woodrow Wilson administration warned the Guatemalan government, “It is most important that only American oil interests receive concessions.”
In 1954, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out a covert operation that deposed the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. The coup that installed Carlos Castillo Armas was the first in a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes in Guatemala and was preceded by U.S. efforts to isolate Guatemala internationally. Arbenz had instituted near-universal suffrage, introduced a minimum wage, and turned Guatemala into a democracy.
Castillo Armas quickly assumed dictatorial powers, banned opposition parties, imprisoned and tortured political opponents, and reversed the social reforms of the Arbenz government. The coup was universally condemned and gave rise to strong anti-U.S. sentiment throughout the Americas.
Nearly four decades of civil war followed, with leftist guerrillas fighting a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes. The consequence was the genocide of the country’s Mayan population, when more than 200,000 indigenous people were murdered by Guatemalan military regimes supported by the U.S.
During the mid-eighties I met in New York Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú in front of an automatic cash machine next to a United Nations building. She was with four other women, trying unsuccessfully to withdraw money from the machine. Trying to make light of the situation I told her, “Rigoberta, this machine seems to have been made by witches.” “No, César,” she responded, “This machine was made by the white man….”
As in Guatemala, the U.S. also supported the government in the war in El Salvador against the leftist guerrillas (FMLN), providing military aid in the amount of between one and two million dollars per day. U.S. officers took over key positions at the top levels of the Salvadoran military and made critical decisions in conducting the civil war, a war that lasted over 12 years (1979-1992) and resulted in more than 75,000 people murdered or “disappeared.”
According to the United Nations, while 5 percent of the murders of civilians were committed by the FMLN, 85 percent were carried out by the Salvadoran armed forces and the paramilitary death squads. The squads mutilated the bodies of their victims as a way of terrifying the population. The so-called Atlacatl Battalion, which savagely murdered and mutilated six Jesuit priests, was reportedly under the tutelage of U.S. Special Forces just 48 hours before the killings.
Honduras has had historically strong military ties with the U.S. In 2009, Manuel Zelaya, a liberal reformist, was ousted in a military coup. The U.S. refused to call it a coup while working to ensure that Zelaya did not return to power, in flagrant contradiction to the wishes of the Organization of American States. Today, the country is in disarray: violent gangs are everywhere, while government spending on health and education has declined.
In the last century, the U.S. military intervention leading to the overthrow of democratically elected governments –or support for tyrannical regimes– have played an important role in the instability, poverty, and violence that drive tens of thousands of people from the Central American countries toward Mexico and the United States. To these factors, one should add the destabilizing effect of natural disasters and a general climate of insecurity and violence in these countries.
Actions have consequences and interfering in other countries’ affairs can have long-lasting effects. This is especially true when one considers what happened in Central America. It would be naïve to blame the U.S. for all the ills in much of the region. But it would be equally naïve to ignore how the U.S. intervention has helped create the situation that plagues it today.
In a piece for the Atlantic (6/20/18), former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum countered statements by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, in which Hayes described a harrowing first-person account of a mother forcibly separated from her child at the US/Mexico border as reading like “the literature of a totalitarian government”:
“As Hayes elaborates his horror at the separation of mother from child, he seems to arrive at a conclusion that there is something inherently oppressive about any kind of immigration rule at all….The border crosser goes to them. She is not just ‘living her life … and then all of a sudden, the state can come in and wrench your life apart.’ She, of her own volition, traveled hundreds of miles to challenge the authority of a foreign state to police its frontiers. When her challenge failed—when she was apprehended and detained—what happened next must have felt harsh and frightening. But dictatorial? Totalitarian? In democracies, too, the wrong side of the law is an inescapably uncomfortable place to find yourself.”
Frum’s argument presents the US as unimplicated in the surge in Central American migration except as its victim, a “sovereign state” that must “police its frontiers.” His concluding worry about “the surges that will soon follow from the rest of the planet if the present surge is not checked” suggests he’s given little thought to the particular forces driving people from that region, much less how those relate to US foreign and economic policy.
Why those countries?
The immigrants that Frum is speaking of come largely from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, an area known as the Northern Triangle. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 3 million total immigrants from these countries in the US, and about half of those immigrants are undocumented. While Mexican immigration has been falling in recent years, Central American immigration has increased: from 2007 through 2015, the total number of Northern Triangle immigrants rose by 25 percent.
Yet much media coverage of immigration misses out on why large numbers of people from the Northern Triangle are migrating to the US in the first place.
Over the past three generations, the Northern Triangle countries, long marked by profound levels of inequality, have each experienced horribly destructive civil wars and military coups. Unsurprisingly, the United States has been intimately involved in each of these, supporting anti-Communist regimes during the Cold War and protecting US business interests with truly disastrous results.
In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup to remove President Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected leader of Guatemala, at the behest of United Fruit Company (now Chiquita), the country’s largest landowner. During the subsequent civil war that lasted until 1996, the US gave military and financial support to a succession of right-wing governments that committed large-scale human rights abuses that killed hundreds of thousands.
In Honduras in the 1980s, the CIA trained right-wing death squads like Battalion 316 that tortured and assassinated the government’s left-wing political opponents. In 2009, the US State Department under Hillary Clinton supported the overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by graduates of the School of the Americas, a notorious US military training academy. The coup created waves of protests and escalated murders of hundreds of activists, including indigenous leader Berta Cáceres.
In El Salvador, when a military coup in 1979 sparked the formation of a leftist guerilla movement known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), first the Carter and then the Reagan administration backed the anti-Communist junta in the ensuing civil war by supplying training, military equipment, arms and financial support totalling $6 billion. Much of the aid and arms ended up supporting the junta’s paramilitary death squads. In 1980, these death squads assassinated Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero during a sermon, and later that year raped and murdered four American nuns. In 1981, junta forces massacred over a thousand people, mostly women, children and the elderly, in the village of El Mozote. The perpetrators, the Atlacatl Battalion, had recently completed training with the U.S. military at Fort Bragg prior to the massacre.
The CIA also funded presidential candidate and junta leader Napoleon Duarte prior to his election in 1984 in order to throw a wrench in peace talks, a move that dragged the war on for another eight years.
The Salvadoran civil war, which ultimately ended along with the Cold War in 1992, is estimated to have claimed the lives of up to 75,000 Salvadorans, including over 50,000 civilians, with 85 percent of deaths at the hands of the Salvadoran government and its paramilitary allies. Top US officials like Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick each denied or obscured the human rights abuses and massacres in El Salvador order to maintain congressional funding for the Salvadoran military junta and other anti-Communist authoritarian regimes throughout Central America. Abrams later called the Reagan administration’s record in El Salvador “one of fabulous achievement.”
MS-13 a Policy Backfire
El Salvador provides perhaps the most striking case of how US responsibility is obscured in the current immigration debate, based on the notoriety of Mara Salvatrucha, a predominantly Salvadoran street gang better known as MS-13.
MS-13 has become a majorscapegoat for Donald Trump and right-wing media in rationalizing harsh immigration policies. The Trump administration has referred to MS-13 gang members as “animals” who “infest” the United States—rhetoric that, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent (5/25/18) noted, “slaps the dehumanizing slur on the least sympathetic subgroup and then conflates that subgroup with the larger group that is the real target.”
This scapegoating seems to have worked: According to a recent HuffPost/YouGov survey, over 85 percent of Trump voters believe that MS-13 is a major threat to the United States as a whole. This level of anxiety seems misplaced, considering that even the Justice Department claims MS-13 has only about 10,000 members in the US.
For Salvadorans, though, the fear is very real: In 2017, El Salvador had the most murders per capita on the entire planet (109 per 100,000), followed by Honduras (64 per 100,000), with Guatemala coming in at number nine (31 per 100,000). And with stories like “In El Salvador, the Murder Capital of the World, Gang Violence Becomes a Way of Life” (ABC News, 5/17/16) and “Organised Violence Is Ravaging Central America and Displacing Thousands” (Guardian,6/29/17), media have used that violence to fan fears of MS-13 making inroads into US cities and suburbs.
But what Trump’s racist rhetoric and fear mongering media alike ignore is that MS-13 is partially a product of US policy. The gang was actually founded in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles in the early 1980s, by Salvadoran immigrants and refugees from its civil war. Its subsequent growth from a small street gang in the US to a transnational criminal organization based out of the Northern Triangle provides an illuminating case study of how US foreign policy choices can backfire spectacularly.
Deportation’s Boomerang Effect
The violence of the Salvadoran civil war sparked a mass exodus of Salvadorans to the United States. In 1970, there were only 15,717 Salvadoran born immigrants living in the US. By 1980, there were 94,447 Salvadoran-born immigrants in the US, shooting up to 465,433 by 1990. Undocumented Salvadorans were granted Temporary Protected Status from 1990 through 1994; TPS was extended following a catastrophic earthquake in 2001, and has been periodically renewed since. However, the Trump administration recently revoked TPS for El Salvador, effective September 2019.
During and after the civil war, a majority of Salvadoran-born immigrants ended up in Southern California, particularly in ethnically segregated neighborhoods in Los Angeles, which was at the time in the midst of violence gang turf wars stemming from the crack cocaine epidemic—itself partially the product of plummeting cocaine prices as the result of drug-smuggling by the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contra rebels. In this atmosphere, young, impoverished Salvadoran immigrants formed small street gangs like MS-13 and the Eighteenth Street Gang (also known as Barrio 18) for protection from local African-American and Mexican gangs.
Following the end of the civil war in the ’90s and continued gang violence in Southern California and the Washington, DC, metro area—the other major destination for Salvadoran immigrants—the Clinton administration engaged in a policy of mass deportation of immigrants with criminal records, beginning with the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This was a continuation of policies of the Reagan administration, who deported thousands of Salvadorans seeking asylum from the civil war. An estimate by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime counted almost 46,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records (undocumented or not) to El Salvador from the US between 1998 and 2005.
El Salvador, just off its decade-plus-long civil war, was hardly equipped with the institutions necessary to deal with a massive influx of gang members from the United States. Gangs like MS-13 quickly integrated with already established street gangs within the country, bringing back elements of US gang culture such as symbols, identities and norms like tattoos or graffiti that helped bring local gang sets under the MS-13 umbrella.
The response of the Salvadoran government (and other Northern Triangle countries) was to crack down and lock up large numbers of suspected gang members in the early 2000s, a policy known as mano dura, or “firm hand.” Over 30,000 arrests were made under the policy in El Salvador, although many cases were thrown out due to illegal arrests and lack of evidence. Despite this, the arrests concentrated large numbers of gang members in one place: Jails and prisons served as effective locations for centralizing the organization of gangs that were previously only loosely affiliated.
While these newly integrated gangs in El Salvador are still less centralized than Mexican drug cartels, the mano dura policies nonetheless allowed gangs to better coordinate across varied gang sets, and expand extortion rackets to tax neighbors and businesses on their turf, using threats of violence. These extortion rackets, along with continued violence between gangs over turf, have created an atmosphere of fear that Salvadoran families quite reasonably want to get away from.
Pouring Fuel on the Fire
Increased deportations of Salvadoran gang members during the Trump administration will likely have the effect of further swelling gang membership numbers in El Salvador, which will in turn lead to more migration as Salvadorans flee gang extortion rackets and violence. Even police have reservations about the harsh immigration policies, and MS-13 gang members have acknowledged that deportation policies help expand their numbers.
Continued gang crackdowns by the Salvadoran government over the past few years are also an issue that the US has a hand in: Salvadoran security forces accused by the UN of extrajudicial killings of gang members have received millions in US aid and training from the FBI and DEA. Ongoing violent confrontations between Salvadoran law enforcement and gangs also contribute to a climate of fear and resentment among Salvadorans as well. Just as tough-on-crime policies have generally failed to reduce crime in the US, in El Salvador and the other Northern Triangle countries they have just as bad a track record, as shown by the failure of the mano dura policies.
The end of Temporary Protected Status for over 200,000 Salvadorans, and their likely subsequent deportation, will also have a major effect on the Salvadoran economy by decreasing remittances from the United States, which account for over about a sixth of the country’s GDP. The end of TPS, combined with high levels of unemployment and underemployment that are partially attributable to US neoliberal economic policies like the 2006 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), will likely increase the poverty that feeds youth gang membership and immigration. As Mark Tseng-Putterman noted in Medium (6/20/18),“There are few connections being drawn between the weakening of Central American rural agricultural economies at the hands of CAFTA and the rise in migration from the region in the years since.” Indeed, the destructive impact of US trade policy in Latin America over the years has been actively obscured by the devotion of corporate media to “free trade” nostrums. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explained when he endorsed CAFTA in a 2006 CNBC interview: “I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.”
While the United States does not necessarily deserve 100 percent of the blame for the conflicts and economic policies that have led to increases in Northern Triangle violence or immigration, it is certainly a major culprit, and has poured fuel on the fire every time it has had the opportunity to do otherwise.
Ignoring the Context
Yet media ignore this crucial context when discussing current American immigration policies. The Washington Post’s pieces on immigration or MS-13 have seldom mentioned the Salvadoran civil war when discussing immigration, let alone the outsized US involvement in the conflict. Out of hundreds of Post articles on Latin American immigration in the past six months, only a few even mention the Salvadoran civil war (1/11/18, 1/31/18, 2/12/18, 3/12/18, 5/30/18, 6/29/18, 7/2/18). One article in the DC Metro Weekend section (6/14/18) did mention immigration in relation to the civil war, but only in the context of where to get some tasty Salvadoran food in Maryland, while another article (3/2/18) on Venezuelan immigration mentioned the Salvadoran civil war in passing. Only Jose Miguel Cruz’s January 31 article and Micaela Sviatschi’s February 12 article mentioned any US involvement in the Salvadoran civil war. While the Post has explored the connection in greater detail in the past, one would think that the current child migrant separation policy and continuing high levels of Northern Triangle immigration would warrant nuanced and detailed coverage now.
The New York Times fared little better, only mentioning the Salvadoran civil war in the context of immigration or MS-13 a handful times in the past six months (1/13/18, 1/18/18, 1/31/18, 2/8/18, 2/17/18, 3/1/18, 4/30/18, 5/23/18, 5/26/18, 6/12/18), including a book review roundup (1/27/18) and a factchecking article on Trump’s claims about MS-13 (7/1/18). Yet of these articles, only three contained any mention of US involvement in the civil war: the January 13 op-ed by Lauren Markham, the January 18 op-ed by Linda Greenhouse and the May 26 article by Elizabeth Malkin. (Malkin’s piece was less focused on current immigration issues, centering on the El Mozote Massacre.) The rest of the articles only briefly mentioned the Salvadoran civil war.
The corporate press has done a generally good job of covering the staggeringnumber of humanrightsabuses of ICE, including the presence of immigrant detainment camps and the separation of over 2,000 child migrants and asylum seekers from their parents at the US/Mexico border. Other outlets have been better on connecting the imperialist history of US foreign policy with the current immigration issues, like Current Affairs (8/1/16), Vox (5/21/18), The Conversation (5/8/17), Vice (6/28/18) and the Philadelphia Inquirer (6/21/18). Even the Atlantic has published pieces (1/20/18, 3/4/18) that explore the web of US policies that have contributed to the current immigration crisis in Central America.
The fact that neoconservatives like David Frum continually obscure the blowback of imperialist US foreign policy is unsurprising. Perhaps more outrageous is the failure of the establishment press, especially the Washington Post and the New York Times, to grapple with how current immigration issues are connected to US intervention in Central America, and the subsequent gang violence it helped trigger. As Mark Tseng-Putterman (Medium, 6/20/18) aptly put it, the US empire thrives on amnesia. It is the job of the media to inform the public with the nuance and context necessary to understand America’s role in the current Central American immigration crisis.
The United States has been quietly funding and equipping elite paramilitary police units in El Salvador accused of extrajudicially murdering suspected gang members, according to a forthcoming United Nations report reviewed in advance by CNN.
Beginning with George W. Bush in 2003, successive US administrations have provided tens of millions of dollars in aid for Salvadoran military and police in support of the government’s “Mano Dura” (“Firm Hand”) security program, an aggressive campaign to combat out-of-control gang violence in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates.
“Mano Dura” aid increased significantly during the Obama administration, which compared the effort to Plan Colombia, the decades-long anti-drug campaign in which billions of US aid dollars funded mafia-like army units that, along with allied paramilitary death squads, kidnapped, tortured and murdered thousands of innocent civilians with impunity. As was the case with Plan Colombia, the new UN report will accuse Salvadoran security forces, in this case some of its elite police units, of “a pattern of behavior by security personnel amounting to extrajudicial executions” and a “cycle of impunity” in which such killings go unpunished.
One police unit, the Special Reaction Forces (FES), killed 43 suspected gang members during the first half of 2017, according to the UN report. While FES officers were executing suspects in the streets, the US government continued to fund and equip the unit. Washington’s total assistance increased from $67.9 million in 2016 to $72.7 million last year. The deportation of members of MS-13 – formed in Los Angeles by young Salvadoran refugees fleeing civil war in a homeland ruled by a US-backed military dictatorship – and other gangs has further exacerbated the crisis.
A spokesman for the US Embassy in San Salvador assured CNN that “the US government takes allegations of extrajudicial killings extremely seriously,” that it has “consistently expressed concerns” regarding human rights abuses and that it heavily vets units receiving aid. These assurances ring hollow to many Salvadorans who recall how the Ronald Reagan administration covered up horrific human rights violations in order to keep military aid flowing to the anti-communist military regime during the 1980s civil war.
MS 13 member
That aid, which included forming, training, funding and arming military death squads, began during the Carter administration and dramatically increased under Reagan. Officers, troops and police were trained in kidnapping, torture, assassination and democracy suppression at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), also known as the School of Coups and School of Assassins because it produced so many of both.
SOA graduates and other US-backed Salvadoran security forces planned, ordered and committed the most heinous atrocities of the 12-year civil war, including the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of four American nuns and church volunteers in 1980, the assassination of the country’s beloved Catholic archbishop, Oscar Romero, that same year and the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989. After the four churchwomen were slain, the Reagan administration undertook a shameful effort to place blame on the victims.
The most notorious Salvadoran army unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, was created in 1980 at the SOA and hailed as “the pride of the United States military team in El Salvador.” As a rite of passage its new troops collected roadkill carcasses – “dogs, vultures, anything,” according to one former member – and boiled them into a soup they all drank. Atlacatl Battalion’s human victims fared even worse than the dead animals its recruits consumed. The unit committed countless massacres, including the slaughter of 117 men, women and children at Lake Suchitlan in 1983 and the mass murder of 68 civilians, many of them children, at Los Llanitos the following year.
But even these massacres paled in comparison to Atlacatl’s deadliest crime, the wholesale slaughter of more than 900 villagers, mostly women, children and the elderly, at El Mozote on December 11, 1981. There, soldiers shot, stabbed, hacked, smashed, and hung helpless villagers to death. They gang-raped women and girls before killing them. They skewered babies on bayonets. They dropped large rocks on the bellies of pregnant women. When the raping and murdering finished, they burned El Mozote to the ground, reducing the village to what one witness called “a moving black carpet” of scavenging vultures, flies and dogs feasting on the victims.
The day after El Mozote made front page headlines in the US, President Reagan officially certified that El Salvador was “making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights,” and was working to “bring an end to the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadoran citizens.” Meanwhile, Elliott Abrams, then a State Department human rights official who was later convicted in the Iran-Contra scandal before serving as a special assistant to President George W. Bush, helped lead an effort to deny the El Mozote massacre ever happened.
US aid to El Salvador was doubled, and heinous atrocities continued through the end of the civil war.
It wasn’t just El Salvador. The United States also supported or covered up death squad activity throughout Central and South America in the 1970s and ‘80s. In Guatemala, it backed right-wing military dictators including Efraín Ríos Montt, who recently died facing genocide charges, as well as brutal death squads like the army’s elite Kaibiles unit, which tortured, raped and murdered more than 200 villagers at Dos Erres in December, 1982.
In Honduras, Reagan’s ambassador, John Negroponte, supervised the creation of the notorious Battalion 316, which was tasked with eliminating students, academics, labor unionists, clergy, journalists, indigenous rights activists and others deemed a threat to the dictatorship. Negroponte also played a key role in supporting the US-backed Contra army as it waged a terrorist war against the people of Nicaragua.
It also wasn’t just in the past. After a 2009 military coup deposed the progressive Honduran president José Manuel Zelaya, Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton backed the repressive right-wing regime even as reports of its brutality, which included forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions of opponents, were revealed. Despite the assassination of high-profile critics including the environmental activist Berta Cáceres, the Obama administration lavished the Honduran coup regime and its murderous security forces with tens of millions of dollars in military and other assistance.
The United States has long operated or supported death squads, from the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam (40,000 killed) through the implementation of the “Salvador option” during the recent invasion and occupation of Iraq. The latter effort was run by Col. James Steele, a decorated veteran of Central America’s dirty wars, including a stint training Salvadoran death squad units during the civil war. Unsurprisingly, secret prisons, torture and extrajudicial killings became commonplace throughout occupied Iraq.
It now appears that the “Salvador option” has made its way back home from halfway around the world, further terrorizing guilty and innocent alike in what was already one of the most frightful corners of the planet.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. This originally appeared at CounterPunch.
She spent 10 years in jail after her baby was found dead and she was sentenced for murder.
Complete ban on abortions
El Salvador is one of a handful of countries in the world where abortions are completely banned and carry heavy sentences.
The punishment is up to eight years in jail but in many cases in which the foetus or newborn has died, the charge is changed to one of aggravated homicide, which carries a minimum sentence of 30 years.
While El Salvador is not alone in Latin America in having a total ban on abortions, the country is particularly strict in the way it enforces it.
Doctors have to inform the authorities if they think a woman has tried to end her pregnancy. If they fail to report such cases, they too could face long sentences in jail.
Human rights groups say this results in a criminalisation of miscarriages and medical emergencies, with more than 100 convicted of abortion-related crimes in El Salvador since 2000.
The US Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that it is terminating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for more than a quarter-million immigrants from El Salvador. The immigrants, a large majority of them poorer workers, have 18 months, until September 9, 2019, to leave the US or be arrested and deported.
Including the roughly 190,000 children of the 262,000 Salvadoran TPS recipients, the total population immediately affected is larger than the population of a city the size of Toledo, Ohio or New Orleans, Louisiana. Rounding up the TPS recipients for deportation will require Gestapo-type operations in the Washington DC metropolitan area, where 50,000 Salvadoran TPS recipients live; Los Angeles, where 40,000 live; and Houston and New York City, where a combined 50,000 reside.
The Salvadorans are the largest single group covered by the TPS program, under which the DHS secretary may allow people fleeing natural disasters or civil wars to stay in the United States for more extended periods of time than under traditional refugee status.
The Salvadoran TPS recipients constitute a significant section of the working class in the US, where most have put down deep roots. The average Salvadoran covered by TPS has been living in the US for 21 years. Those now facing deportation are primarily of middle age and have lived here for most of their adult lives. By one estimate, removing these workers will slash the US gross domestic product by nearly $110 billion over the next 10 years.
Some 190,000 were admitted before 1994 and all 262,000 entered the country before 2001, when several major earthquakes devastated El Salvador. Tens of thousands escaped the civil war that ravaged the country from 1980 to 1992, during which US-backed death squads razed villages and massacred the population, including the estimated 1,200 peasants murdered in the village of El Mozote 37 years ago last month in what is known as El Salvador’s My Lai.
The move is a death sentence for hundreds or even thousands of those who will be sent back to a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, dominated by criminal drug gangs that operate with impunity, protected by a corrupt military that rakes in money from both narcotics trafficking and US military aid. According to a 2015 report in the Guardian, dozens of deported Salvadorans were murdered after being deported by Obama in 2014-2015 alone.
The decision to terminate TPS for Salvadorans signals the Trump administration’s determination to put an end to the program entirely. Previously, DHS Acting Secretary Elaine Duke terminated TPS for 2,500 immigrants from Nicaragua, giving them until January 5, 2019 to leave the United States, and for 57,000 immigrants from Haiti, whose TPS status is set to expire July 22, 2019.
But equal responsibility for the move lies with the Democratic Party, which paved the way for Trump’s mass deportation program during the Obama administration. President Obama deported 2.7 million immigrants, including hundreds of thousands when the Democratic Party controlled Congress in the first years of his administration.
This makes the phony statements of support for immigrants by leading Democrats all the more cynical. Barack Obama jailed tens of thousands of Salvadoran children and their mothers who crossed into the US during a flare-up of Central American violence in 2014.
As for Trump’s request for $15 billion more in funding for border “security,” the Democratic Party has long embraced the militarization of the border and has made clear it will back the allocation of additional billions to increase what is already a small army of border police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
The Democrats’ opposition to Trump’s demand for $18 billion to build a physical wall along the US-Mexico border is a political maneuver to divert attention from their basic agreement on stepping up the war against undocumented workers.
When the precursor to Trump’s wall was first proposed in the 2006 Secure Fence Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush, top Senate Democrats backed it, including then-senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, as well as Charles Schumer, now the Senate Democratic leader. As a result of this and other bipartisan border militarization measures, up to 27,000 immigrants have died crossing the desert in the last 20 years.
In 2013, the Democrats agreed to spend $40 billion on border security, doubling the number of Border Patrol agents to 40,000 and expanding the use of high-tech surveillance equipment, including sensors and drones. The Democrats also agreed to eliminate the visa lottery, exclude siblings of US citizens from family reunification visas, and expand visa offerings based on education levels and work expertise, along the lines demanded by US corporations seeking highly skilled labor. The bill was voted down by the Republicans.
Today, they are proposing to go above and beyond their previous anti-immigrant pledges. The move to deport TPS recipients comes as the Democratic Party and Trump are engaged in Kabuki theater negotiations over the fate of 800,000 young people brought to the US as children who are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program enacted during the Obama administration. Trump rescinded the DACA order, effective March 5, at which point mass roundups of former DACA recipients could begin, using the information they supplied to the government as part of their applications for DACA.
The White House is also demanding cuts in legal immigration as part of a “compromise” on DACA, including the elimination of the visa lottery program and so-called “chain migration,” which allows US citizens and legal residents to sponsor family relations for entry.
Last week, Senator Schumer made clear in advance of talks on DACA that he supported further measures to militarize the US-Mexican border. Senator Bernie Sanders reiterated his support for stepped-up attacks on undocumented workers in an appearance Sunday on the ABC program “This Week.” Sanders declared that while he opposed Trump’s border wall, “I don’t think there’s anybody who disagrees that we need strong border security. If the president wants to work with us to make sure we have strong border security, let’s do that.”
Sanders, in line with the trade union bureaucracy, echoes Trump’s economic nationalism and pseudo-populist attempts to pit American workers against their class brothers and sisters in other countries.
The vast majority of Americans disagree with the anti-immigrant nationalism of Trump, with nine in 10 believing the government should give citizenship to immigrants who have lived in the US for a number of years. Mass protests broke out at airports across the country in January and February 2017 after Trump announced his initial travel ban. Since then, the Democratic Party has worked systematically to divert and suppress popular opposition to Trump’s anti-immigrant, pro-corporate and pro-war program. It has instead promoted reactionary, anti-democratic campaigns.
These include the so-called “Me Too” movement, which rejects basic democratic principles such as the presumption of innocence and due process in order to promote the feminism of privileged layers of the middle class; the anti-Russia campaign, which seeks to shift American foreign policy to an even more aggressive military posture against Russia; and the campaign against “fake news,” which is being used to justify censorship of the Internet and social media.
In December, the Supreme Court allowed a revised version of Trump’s travel ban to take effect shortly after House Democrats voted two-to-one against a move by a Democratic congressman to introduce articles of impeachment citing Trump’s mass deportation program.
Socialists reject the entire reactionary framework of the so-called “debate” over immigration “reform.” The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) rejects the position of Democrats and Republicans alike that undocumented workers are guilty of a crime and must be made to “pay” in one fashion or another for their supposed misdeeds.
The SEP upholds the right of workers from every corner of the globe to live and work in whatever country they choose with full citizenship rights, including the right to return to their home countries without the threat of being barred from re-entry to the US and being separated from their families.
The total number of people who work in the same factories, construction sites and other industries alongside the 262,000 Salvadoran TPS recipients number in the millions or tens of millions. The attack on them is an attack on the entire working class.
Only the power of the working class—united across race and nationality—can block the drive to destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran workers living in the US.
Between Dec. 11 and 13 of the year 1981, soldiers from the the Atlacatl Battalion — a Salvadoran death squad trained at the U.S. military’s School of Americas — massacred nearly all of the residents of El Mozote, a small village whose residents were suspected Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) sympathizers.
Between 900 and 1,200 villagers were massacred without mercy, the majority of them women, children and the elderly.
El Salvador at the time was two years into a civil war between the FMLN— a coalition of left-wing guerrilla groups — and a vicious military government backed by Washington.
It was not until many years later that bodies began to be exhumed. For years, successive national governments that came after the bloody episode denied having any role in the massacre. But in 2012, the government of President Mauricio Funes acknowledged the state’s role and apologized to the victims’ families.
El Mozote became synonymous with the U.S. government’s support for atrocities in a brutal campaign to stave off left-wing and communist movements in Latin America and the rest of the developing world.
The main purpose of this documentary is to expose the paramilitary death squads Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld created in Iraq. Their ultimate was to suppress the Sunni insurgency which formed in early 2003 to oppose the US occupation.
The film goes a long way towards debunking the propaganda Bush and the corporate media dispensed to the American public that the US enemy in Iraq was an international terrorist organization called al Qaeda. The military force responsible for suicide bombings and roadside IEDs (improvised explosive devices) was actually a spontaneous uprising in response to the US invasion and occupation. It was largely organized by Sunni troops and public servants who served in Saddam Hussein’s government and were stripped of their occupations and careers by Bush’s disastrous de-Baathification program.
Cheney and Rumsfeld knew the guerrillas fighting the occupation represented a genuine insurrection. Determined to preserve their puppet Baghdad government at all costs, they called in James Steele, their foremost counterinsurgency expert. Steele, a retired military officer, had extensive experience creating and managing local paramilitary death squads in Vietnam and El Salvador.
In Iraq, Steele organized death squads out of Shia militias who had been brutally oppressed by Saddam Hussein and were eager for revenge. What resulted was a bloody civil war between Shia and Sunni-led fighters. The civil war was responsible for 3,000 deaths a day prior to the withdrawal of US troops in 2011.
The film starts by interviewing embassy and DEA officials who worked directly with Colonel Steele when he was running El Salvador’s paramilitary death squads out of the US embassy in San Salvador. The preponderance of evidence suggests it was Steele who oversaw the massacre of 25,000 Salvadoran civilians and most likely the assassination of human rights advocate Archbishop Oscar Romero (in 1980 while he was saying mass) and the 1980 rape and murder of four American nuns (Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clark and Ita Ford).
Reportedly it was Cheney who recruited Steele to implement the “Salvadoran option” in Iraq. As an ex-military civilian, Steele’s official cover was “energy consultant.” Nevertheless the Iraq commanders who worked with him leave no doubt he was in charge of the specially trained 5,000-strong police commando group formed from Shia militias.
The filmmakers also interview a number of Iraqis who worked in Iraqi prisons and interrogation centers and directly witnessed the torture overseen by Steele. Several members of the Oregon National Guard (deployed to an Iraqi prison detail) were so horrified by one torture session they tried to intervene to stop it. When their military superiors ordered them to stand down and forget what they had seen, they went straight to a local Oregon newspaper. The resulting scandal would lead to the withdrawal of Steele, Coffman and Petraeus from Iraq and the sacking of Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.
Gang violence continued to worsen last year in the three countries that make up Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. According to police data, these countries collectively saw 17,422 murders in 2015, 11% more than in 2014. However, there are signs that security challenges are changing, both in the Northern Triangle and across Central America as a whole.
The homicide rate in El Salvador increased by 67% between 2014 and 2015: its 6,657 annual murders equate to around 103 per 100,000 inhabitants. This is among the highest in the world, and higher even than Honduras, which has had the highest homicide rate in the region for years. Indeed, the 2014 murder rate in Honduras fell from 68 to 57 per 100,000 people.
Guatemala’s murder rate was relatively stable, at 30 per 100,000 in 2015 compared to 38 per 100,000 in 2014 – but in the other two countries, the data suggests that the focus of the violence has been shifting.
El Salvador’s sharp spike in murders has its origins in May 2013 with the formal breakdown of a truce between two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara 18 (also known as Calle 18). These two groups had negotiated a 2013 peace agreement with help from the ruling Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, itself a former guerrilla movement, and the Catholic church.
In return for ceasing hostilities, gang members were moved out of maximum security prisons into minimum security facilities closer to their families. This was an important move, as prisons are important administrative hubs for the gangs.
For a while, the truce appeared to be working and El Salvador’s homicide rate was 4% lower in 2013 than in 2012 – although gangs continued to extort businesses and engage in other criminal activity in their strongholds. However, a change of government led to a change of strategy, and gang members were moved back into maximum security detention. The truce soon broke down, unleashing the high levels of violence that led to the homicide rate jumping 56% in 2014.
Across the border
During the truce, the focus for violence shifted to Honduras, where rivalry between MS-13 and Mara 18 traditionally has been particularly intense. In addition, the country is a transit point for much of the cocaine being shipped from South America to the US, which has led to turf wars involving two Mexican cartels, the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas. The city of San Pedro Sula in particular has become a hub for mara (gang) involvement in cartel activity.
Central America’s various maras have long been a transnational problem. They have their roots among the young Salvadorans displaced to Los Angeles during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s; they acquired significant knowhow both from other gangs and from fellow inmates in prison.
When the US began large-scale deportations of convicted criminals back to El Salvador in the 1990s, the gang threat grew. El Salvador sought to deal with it robustly, deploying the military and taking a punitive approach to gang members who were caught. While the leaders of MS-13 and Mara 18 remained in the US, both gangs’ activities spread into Honduras and Guatemala.
The latest shift of violence back to El Salvador following the breakdown of the truce there raises the question of whether the maras are becoming more transnational. Violence had increased in Honduras after the truce. Traditionally, while gangs operated across multiple countries, there was little cross border co-ordination, and most leadership was at a local level.
In addition, there have been signs of increased collaboration between the maras and the Mexican cartels. One consequence of this is that that organisation of the maras has become more sophisticated, with cells co-ordinating more closely. In part, this facilitates mara involvement in drug trafficking, but undoubtedly it also internationalises their operations. Therefore, it is no coincidence that a decline in gang violence in one Northern Triangle country leads to an increase in another.
But it’s important not to overstate the internationalisation of the maras and their role in Central America’s cocaine trade. Plenty of domestic factors are implicated in the changing homicide rates; the truce meant urban tensions expressed though violence were pent-up, so its collapse inevitably led to a spike in violence. There was also a rise in political violence following the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted Manuel Zelaya from the presidency.
There is little doubt that the Northen Triangle’s murder rates will remain exceptionally high, and extortion and other gang activity are going nowhere any time soon. There is every chance that homicide rates will continue to fluctuate across El Salvador and Honduras. In addition, there have been signs that the maras are increasingly active in Costa Rica, which previously was a relative safe haven.
Governments keep returning to tough and punitive approaches to the problem. These have failed in the past, and they won’t suddenly start working now. A better bet would be meaningful co-ordination and co-operation between countries. There have been some moves towards this, albeit led by the US. Nonetheless, a lack of resources means that there is little prospect that regional security forces are going to be made more effective – and all the while, the violence they need to tackle is changing shape and spreading.
“Our citizens should know the urgent facts…but they don’t because our media serves imperial, not popular interests. They lie, deceive, connive and suppress what everyone needs to know, substituting managed news misinformation and rubbish for hard truths…”—Oliver Stone