|Seven-year-old children wandering alone through desert landscapes are the result of a long string of events that are now demanding a closer look from mainstream media and a wider audience in the United States.
“How did it get this bad?” is the phrase repeated daily by television pundits as they seek out explanations for the current immigration crisis along the U.S. border, often placing the spotlight on criminal gangs and corrupt governments in Central America.
Yet, “How did these gangs and governments come to power?” is the follow-up question largely absent from mainstream debates. In effort to guide a more accurate discussion, a growing chorus of activists, journalists and historians are pointing to U.S. foreign policy in the region as the root cause for mass migration movements in recent years – if not decades.
“Every major wave of Latino migration has been very directly connected to actions taken by the United States in Latin America to either further the country’s economic or military interests,” said Eduardo Lopez, co-director of Harvest of Empire, a film based on a book by journalist Juan Gonzalez that links immigration trends to U.S. intervention in Latin America.
From military coups that overthrew democratically-elected governments to free trade agreements that destroyed the livelihood of countless independent farmers, the U.S. had a hand in many events that shaped Central America; and the same continues today in Honduras, where the largest share of migrants have been originating from in recent months.
Over the last five years, the U.S. has funded a widely corrupt Honduran government that has only increased the nation’s record crime rates while dismantling labor rights and reducing economic opportunities, making life extremely difficult for many for its citizens, said Dana Frank, a professor of history at University of California Santa Cruz who has focused much of her research on Honduras.
“The thing that’s missing [from mainstream media coverage] is that the Honduran government itself is a terrifying, dangerous and violent government backed by the United States,” Frank said during a phone interview in July. “We’re, once again, supporting a repressive regime in Latin America and people are fleeing it. So it’s not like we can say ‘oh, that’s their problem down there.’ We are directly responsible, in part, for the ‘problem’ of Honduran kids fleeing.”
Bankrolling Impunity in Honduras
Following the illegal military coup that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the United States was among the first nations to recognize the Porfirio Lobo Sosa government as a legitimate leader. Soon after, U.S. officials fostered ties with the new regime and agreed to help finance Honduran security forces in effort to fight a growing number of drug trafficking operations in the country.
Yet even with U.S. funding, violent crime skyrocketed to unprecedented levels in the years following the coup. Honduras now has a higher homicide rate than war-torn Iraq and is considered one of the most dangerous places on earth.
The reason behind the spiraling violence, Frank argued, is that Honduran gangs, police and government officials are all interlaced up to the highest levels.
“Alfredo Landaverde, a former [Honduran] congressman and police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, declared that one out of every ten members of Congress [in Honduras] is a drug trafficker and that he had evidence proving ‘major national and political figures’ were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated on December 7, 2011,” Frank wrote in an article for The Nation magazine.
In 2013, a Honduran government commission charged with overseeing the cleanup of security forces admitted 70 percent of the Honduran police were corrupt “beyond saving”, Frank pointed out in a recent article for The Huffington Post.
Regardless of this widespread and documented corruption, Frank found the U.S. sent $27 million to Honduran security forces in 2012, followed by $25 million in 2013, while the U.S. is now preparing to send an additional $18.5 million to “to support community policing and law enforcement efforts” in 2014.
“We’re basically rewarding this government,” Frank said. “They drive their children out and we give them even more money.”
To date, the U.S. has sent nearly $100 million to Honduras to help clean up the police force, with seemingly no effect, Frank said, and little is likely to change after the elections in January. Current President Juan Orlando Hernández, was inaugurated on the promise that he would use funds to further militarize security forces and “put a soldier on every corner” in order to deter criminal activity.
“The answer is not further militarization,” Frank said. “Hondurans are telling me the military presence, including the terrifying new military police, is greater now than during the 1980s, during the Reagan era. This militarization is very dangerous. It is really about intimidating the population and any opposition.”
Citing a recent example, Frank said Hernández’s new military police – now 5,000 strong – surrounded the Honduran hall of congress on May 13, 2014 to tear-gas, beat up, and eject 36 congressmembers from the center-left opposition party, LIBRE. The move was carried out with complete impunity, both from the Honduran and U.S. governments.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, met with President Hernández a few weeks later to reaffirm continued U.S. military support for the Honduran government through a program known as the Central American Regional Security Innitiative (CARSI), disregarding the recent anti-democratic events.
“Yes, gangs are rampant in Honduras,” Frank wrote on The Huffington Post. “But the truly dangerous gang is the Honduran government. And our tax dollars are pouring into it while our top officials praise its virtues.”
Lessons from El Salvador
The U.S. financing of corrupt security forces is nothing new in Central America. From Guatemala to Panama, armed militias have terrorized political opponents, union organizers and the civilian population at large since the region claimed independence from Spain in the early-1800s.
A well-documented example includes the U.S.-funded Contra militias that attacked Nicaragua’s revolutionary party between 1979-1990 and devastated the nation’s economy to the point where it now stands as the second-poorest country in the Americas.
During that same period, the Salvadoran government unleashed death squads to exterminate thousands of dissidents with U.S. financial support. These militias were ordered to quell all forms of opposition to the oligarchic government in El Salvador and made international headlines in 1980 with the assassination of San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, a fierce critic of the violent regime, as well as the murder four American Catholic nuns, who were raped and buried with their panties stuffed into their mouths by soldiers operation under U.S. tax dollars.
In response to the violence, “Washington quickly turned El Salvador into the biggest recipient of American military aid in Latin America,” wrote Juan Gonzalez in Harvest of Empire. “Seventy percent of the record $3.7 billion the Unites States pumped into El Salvador from 1981 to 1989 went for weapons and war assistance. As the number of weapons in the country escalated, so did the number of Salvadorans fleeing the devastation those weapons caused.”
Eduardo Lopez, a Salvadoran and co-director of the Harvest of Empire film, recounted his country’s modern history during a phone conversation in July and traced the rise of Salvadoran immigration to the nation’s civil war.
“El Salvador is the smallest country in all of the Americas, aside from islands, and in 1980 there were fewer than 100,000 Salvadorans in the United States, according to the Census,” he said. “Today, just a little over three decades later, there are nearly 2 million Salvadorans in the United States and again, according to the Census, Salvadorans have already surpassed the number of Cuban-Americans and we have become the third largest Latino nationality in the United States. How could something like this happen?”
“If the conservative argument was right,” he continued. “And the majority of Latino immigrants were coming to take advantage of social services or they were just trying to simply escape difficult conditions at home then we would’ve always had a large migration from El Salvador, because El Salvador has always been a country beset by very great problems with poverty and corruption in the government. But that was not the case, that’s not what happened.”
“What we see today is El Salvador, like Honduras and Guatemala, is trying to deal with the terrible legacy of violence that the United States left in its wake,” Lopez said.
Free Trade and the “Failed State”
Violence is not the only issue driving Central Americans to the United States. There is also a lack of sustainable job opportunities for the majority of citizens in the region, Frank said.
The signing of both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) forced independent farmers south of Rio Grande to compete with low-priced corn and food commodities from agribusiness corporations, which received subsidies from the U.S. government. The farmers simply could not afford to lower their prices to match the subsidized products and went out of business. The end result has been bankruptcy for many rural families, along with the creation of mass migration patterns to urban centers and, eventually, across borders.
In Honduras, government officials have worked to dismantle basic labor rights since the 2009 coup, Frank said. Their actions have lowered wages for workers in effort to attract foreign investment, which have since prompted the AFL-CIO to file a complaint to the US Labor Department for unfair labor practices. Yet Frank said the assault on worker’s rights goes far beyond minimum wage.
“In November 2010 a law went into effect encouraging employers to convert permanent, full-time jobs into part-time and temporary employment—under which workers will no longer be eligible for healthcare and will lose the right to organize a union,” Frank wrote in The Nation magazine.
“Perhaps most extreme,” Frank continued. “Is a new ‘Model Cities’ law, passed in July , which allows for autonomous economic zones in which the Honduran Constitution, legal code and most basic democratic governance structures won’t apply, and where transnational investors will be free to invent their own entire society.”
At the same time, the Honduran government has cut spending for public housing, health care and education, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Citing worsening economic prospects for the general population along with the rampant crime levels in Honduras, some analysts have said the country is on the verge of becoming a “failed state,” yet Frank said she disagrees with the term during our phone interview.
“I don’t use that term because I think the state is extremely functional for many interests,” she said. “Who profits from this? U.S. corporations are profiting. Mining, hydroelectric and agribusiness corporations are all profiting from this. The US is expanding its military presence in the country. Many actors are profiting from this.”
“Obviously, the drug traffickers are profiting from [this, as well],” she continued. “[Also] the Honduran oligarchic families that own most of the assets in the country – 90 percent of its wealth. They control almost all the television stations. They control all the newspapers. They are raking it in. They are robbing the country blind … the state is not failing them, it’s actually serving these dangerous oligarchs well.”
Reaping the ‘Harvest of Empire’
Lack of security, lack of opportunities, and lack of accountability for those in power – all with continued support from U.S. officials and corporations.
Counter to common portrayal of immigrants in mainstream media, Lopez said Latinos are not crossing into the United States to fulfill ‘The American Dream’ with aspirations of permanent residence. Rather, their countries have become uninhabitable and they have no choice other than to seek refuge elsewhere as they wait for conditions to improve back home.
“Immigration is incredibly difficult experience,” Lopez said. “Being ripped away from your family, from your children, from your language, from your culture and having to adapt to a culture that’s very different, to a language you don’t know, to an environment that’s fairly hostile. This is an incredibly difficult life experience.”
“I believe that many, many immigrants would prefer to stay in their home country,” he continued. “But again, the conditions that U.S. corporations and U.S. military make in Latin America make that [option] impossible.”
Disturbed by the language used to describe immigration in mainstream debates and the general misunderstanding of its root causes, Lopez spent seven years to co-direct his film with the hope of informing audiences on the link between foreign policy and immigration.
“As we’ve seen from history, almost always [the U.S.] takes foreign policy decisions to favor our large corporations and it works great, the corporations make billions of dollars, but again, the unintended consequence is migration,” Lopez said. “When you look at it that way, you understand the national conversation on immigration has to be much more humane [and less] punitive.”
“Tragically, all I hear in our national talk on immigration is punitive, is trying to punish these immigrants, but the reality is that the immigrant is the least powerful player in this situation,” he added.
Lopez said the lack of progress on U.S. immigration reform has also exacerbated the problem. When a migrant crosses through the barren desert terrain along U.S. border to find work and send back remittances, they are often reluctant to endure the trek a second time out of safety concerns, creating a situation where many become stuck in the U.S. without the ability to return home.
Immobilized and faced with worsening economic prospects in their countries, many undocumented workers see few options other than to pay exorbitant prices to one of countless human smuggling operations and have their relatives guided across the U.S. border, regardless of how old they may be.
“So many parents and close relatives of the minors that are now at the border have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for immigration reform to happen,” Lopez said. “And now [they] have come to the terrible realization that Republicans have refused to pass any kind of immigration reform and that they are looking at many more years of separation from their children.”
“When you tell parents, ‘You’ve been separated from your children for 4 years, why don’t you wait 5 more?’ Well, what is a parent supposed to do?” Lopez asked.
As Central American children continue streaming into detention centers along the U.S. border, government officials in Washington are confronted with the consequences of their own decisions. By supporting corrupt governments and unsustainable economic models, the U.S. has helped create conditions so horrendous, the United Nations claimed most child migrants qualify for refugee status and should not be sent back home.
Today, just as in the past, the problems fostered south of the Rio Grande can only be ignored until they come knocking at the nation’s doorstep. This time they arrive in the form of unaccompanied minors. What comes next remains to be seen.