This post is the first in a series that will delve into the plight of the Central American children and families fleeing violence in Central America. The series will examine the historical context of the crisis, challenges that refugees face, international human rights obligations, and costs of a response.
Even before the U.S. refugee law was passed in 1980, during the final months of the Carter administration, Central American refugees faced an unequal and uphill battle for recognition. The resistance movements that challenged repressive and genocidal regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala were also up against anti-communist ideological fervor in the United States, which translated to U.S. economic, political, and military support for those regimes and their armies.
El Salvador’s civil war is generally said to have begun in 1980, but right wing death squads operated prior to that time, and so did the FMLN resistance to military-led governments, which repressed any human rights and labor organizing activities. 1980 was marked both by the election of the first civilian president since 1931 and by the military-backed assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Massacres, assassinations, and violence continued into the early 1990s. In 1991, a U.N.-sponsored peace accord led to recognition of the FMLN as a political party. President Marco Funes, elected in 2009, is a member of the FMLN political party.
In Guatemala, the CIA collaborated in the overthrow of a democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954. A military government that replaced him ended any attempts at land reform or labor rights, and solidified the controlling position of U.S. banana companies. Guatemala’s long civil war began in about 1960 and did not end until 1996. It was marked by brutal right-wing regimes that promoted genocide against the Mayan half of the Guatemalan population, and particularly targeted teachers, religious figures, and peasant and union organizers. Current president Otto Perez Molina, a former general, was elected at the end of 2011 on a platform that promised he would rule with an iron fist. His promise to take on gangs and drug dealers has not met notable success. Extreme poverty, crime, and organized gang violence remain commonplace.
BBC calls Honduras “one of the least developed and least secure countries in Central America,” with “a spiraling homicide rate.” Its military allied with the United States in the 1980s, turning the country into a staging ground for the U.S.-sponsored contra war in Nicaragua. Though governments were elected after 1986, death squad activity continued. In the 2000s, gang activity escalates. A military coup in 2009 threw out a moderate-to-left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya, and drove him into exile. The current elected President Juan Orlando Hernandez was inaugurated in January 2014. Extremely high rates of gang activity continue, as do sometimes-violent conflicts over land ownership and use, mining, and human rights issues.
Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, especially from El Salvador and Guatemala, fled to the United States during the 1980s. Because the United States backed the right-wing governments in those countries, it generally rejected their claims for refugee or asylum status. Then, as now, the United States offers unquestioned asylum to Cubans arriving on our shores because they fit U.S. anti-communist political ideology. Then, as now, the United States rejects Central American refugees because they don’t fit that easy anti-communism.
Even after the civil wars ended, repression of unions, human rights advocates, journalists, and others continued. In addition, Central American youth who had formed gangs in Los Angeles were deported back to their home countries. They brought gang structure and connections with them, proving stronger than the often-corrupt police. One police response was to target young people. Violence — both as part of gang culture and as standard police practice — was one of the legacies of the civil war era.
The 2006 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) further marginalized poor people in Central America. While granting some advantages to manufacturers, it disadvantaged small farmers, who now faced competition from cheaper (and subsidized) U.S. corn. Eight years after CAFTA implementation, poverty is still endemic in Central America, and particularly in Honduras and Guatemala.
Finally, the U.S. War on Drugs has shifted drug trade routes to Central America, with disastrous consequences. As Charles Kenny wrote in Bloomberg Business Week:
Trade routes can also be displaced. Around 2006, when Mexico declared war on its own drug cartels, violence ticked up in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. One result: The homicide rate in Honduras is now the highest in the world. The number of murders has more than doubled since 2006 and the rate is now 19 times that in the U.S., according to the United Nations.
Today’s refugee children flee violence, corruption, and instability in their home countries, a disaster fed by the unholy trinity of last century’s wars, CAFTA, and war on drugs.
By guest blogger Mary Turck, a freelance writer and editor, and an adjunct faculty member at Macalester College and Metropolitan State University, teaching occasional journalism and writing courses. She edited the TC Daily Planet, an online daily news publication, from January 2007 to July 2014, and before that, edited the Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG. In earlier years, she worked as a freelance writer and editor, practiced law in Chicago and Minnesota, taught in elementary schools, colleges and prisons, and worked as a community organizer. She is also the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues. She currently lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.