Children forced on a dangerous journey

July 9, 2014

Justin Akers Chacón, author of No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, explains the background to the surge of young migrants.

THE ARRIVAL of Central American refugees, including many young children, has garnered much attention in the U.S. media and among the anti-immigrant right.

True to the dominant right-wing discourse emanating from Washington, D.C. over the last decade, the knee-jerk reaction has been to analyze this latest development through the "tough on enforcement" framework. This has allowed the spotlight to be turned toward the actions of small groups of racists and reactionaries in Murrieta, Calif., giving them a national platform to promote a spectacle of resistance to immigration, using the coded racist rhetoric of white nationalism.

Lost in all of the noise is the plight of tens of thousands of children, why they are migrating or their basic human rights.

Like all discussion of northward migration in the mainstream media, there is a willful, collective ignorance of the interconnectedness of regional U.S. policies and geopolitical strategy in Central America. The factors that jolt economies or alter the political landscape in detrimental ways, leading to the sporadic displacement of whole generations of people, are simply missing from the media depiction.

Children packed into cages at an immigration detention center in Texas
Children packed into cages at an immigration detention center in Texas

The children and youth coming to the U.S., chiefly from Central America in the current wave, are victims of faceless economic, political and military policies engineered and implemented by the U.S. government, either unilaterally, or working through ruling elites in the region.

These young migrants are journeying north to be reunited with their families or in a desperate search for work and security. It is a further indictment of the U.S. government's inhuman immigration policy that these innocent victims are treated as criminals and undesirables.

WHAT IS it that the media and political elites won't discuss about the Central American migrants?

We can start with Washington's dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s. The U.S. government supported the rise and maintenance of military rule in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as a means to suppress opposition to the primacy of U.S. corporations and small, U.S.-aligned oligarchies.

The U.S. funded them annually to the tune of $1.3 billion a year to crush popular movements seeking to overturn extreme inequality. With U.S. dollars and CIA support, Central American military regimes used extra-judicial death squads, torture and other techniques as a means to eliminate opposition to their rule. The U.S. also funded the contra army to fight a war of terror against the region's one left-wing government established in Nicaragua after the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza.

The effects of civil war and large-scale repression were devastating for the region's poor and working majority. According to research produced by Comisión Económica para América Latina, poverty rates reached nearly 60 percent throughout Central America by 1990, topping 80 percent in Honduras, 73 percent in Nicaragua, 65 percent in Guatemala and 54 percent in El Salvador; with half or more of the poor in each country classified as living in extreme poverty.

The defeats of the Central American popular movements of the 1980s--thanks above all to U.S. aid and weapons to the military regimes--opened the door for the expansion of neoliberal policies into Central America, which took place in conjunction with the re-establishment of a conservative consensus throughout the region and aggressive U.S. efforts to expand "free trade" throughout Latin America.

Beginning in 1984, the U.S. established the Caribbean Basin Initiative, designed to confer political legitimacy, allocate aid and award favored trading status to those Central American and Caribbean governments actively opposing or repressing popular social movements, all of which were broadly categorized as "Communist" by the Reagan administration.

This development coincided with the creation of "export-processing zones" in Mexico and other Central American countries, opening the door to the establishment of maquiladoras, or assembly plants, where companies were exempted import and export duties, quotas and other trade barriers so long as they bought their raw materials from the U.S. Furthermore, U.S.-based corporations were offered tax incentives to relocate to the region.

In exchange for foreign investment and aid, right-wing governments, especially in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, suppressed unions, jailed or disappeared human rights activists, and used other measures to guarantee the low wages, long hours and poor working conditions that have made the maquiladora sector highly profitable, at the expense of regional under-development.

In effect, the governments of Central America managed their societies in the interests of U.S. capital, creating optimal conditions for profitability and the basis for leveraging economic power within Central American nations as a bulwark against challenges from political resistance.

THE BOOM in profits and the larger strategic objective of weakening the regional social movements culminated in the passage of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (known by the acronym CAFTA-DR), to expand the export-processing-zone model throughout the economy.

Modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement struck between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, CAFTA lowered tariffs for U.S. goods, eased regulations on the operations of foreign capital, instituted intellectual property rights and restricted the role of government in business operations.

Like NAFTA, the Central American deal was purportedly initiated to entice foreign direct investment; increase trade within the global economy; and increase employment. In practice, it has served to perpetuate the same policies of exploitation and under-development embodied in previous neoliberal policy. Language was inserted into the agreement to establish worker protections--but this has proven futile and remains unenforced.

As a result of the vast difference in economic scale between the two economies, Central America and the U.S., the opening of markets had a disruptive effect on Central American workers. A massive influx of U.S. agricultural products, for instance, displaced thousands of small farming families in large rural sectors across Central America, after they found they were unable to compete with cheaper goods coming from the U.S.

More than 200,000 displaced rural workers have fed into the maquila zones, whose growth has contributed to urban de-industrialization as local manufacturers get pushed out of business. While the maquiladora zones have expanded, they have failed to translate into springboards for social development.

According to an AFL-CIO report in 2008 that investigated maquiladoras in Guatemala, there is widespread sexual violence against women workers, common use of child labor, various forms of anti-union intimidation and violence, blacklists and mass firings, and a general failure to comply with basic labor codes established by the International Labor Organization. Other organizations have pointed to similar trends in maquildoras in other participating Central American nations.

People not absorbed into the maquila sector have either joined the informal sector of the economy or migrated. According to the Center for Women's Rights in Honduras, "Free trade has weakened the productive structure of employment, diminished the agricultural sector and 60.7 percent of the jobs created in the country are in the informal sector."

U.S.-supported local elites don't look kindly on threats to the CAFTA system. When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya began to shift leftward in the late 2000s, allying himself with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, it raised the possibility that Honduras might withdraw from CAFTA to join the Venezuelan-led trade pact known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America-Peoples' Trade Treaty (ALBA, by its Spanish acronym). The Honduran military promptly disposed of Zelaya in a coup, with full U.S. support.

AFTER A decade of CAFTA, little has changed for most Central American workers and the poor, while corporate profits for U.S. multinational corporations and income inequality within Central American states have skyrocketed.

According to a 2013 United Nations report titled Social Panorama of Latin America, between 2000 and 2012, per capita gross domestic product in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras stayed flat or shrunk, and unemployment rates remained constant. There was a mixed record on wages, with modest increases in Guatemala and a significant drop in El Salvador (no information is available for Honduras). The report also indicates sharp increases in the cost of basic food and other essential items. For example, the consumer price index rose by 18.7 percent in Honduras, 16.2 percent in Guatemala, and 9.3 percent in El Salvador between 2000 and 2012.

Taken together, state repression, economic underdevelopment and poverty produced a substantial out-migration since the 1980s. According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 2 million Central Americans moved into the U.S. by the year 2000--disproportionately from the populations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which were most devastated by state repression and displaced by the introduction of neoliberal free trade policies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Between 2000 and 2010--coinciding with the implementation of CAFTA-DR in 2006 and the onset of global economic crisis in 2008--the number of Central American migrants present in the U.S. grew to 3.1 million, surpassing the migration rates of people coming from Mexico. By 2011, the largest percentage of migrants entering the U.S. came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Meanwhile, there was one more factor to afflict Central Americans in the 2000s: The expansion of the U.S.-led drug war into their front yards.

THE ABYSMAL failure of the U.S.-led "war on drugs" has now been pushed into Central America, adding a new dimension of conflict and displacement. Drug consumption is a hemispheric reality, but primarily driven by U.S. demand. The United Nations estimates the total value of the illicit drug trade at $320 billion worldwide, and the Chicago International Law Review estimates the U.S. share at $200 billion.

Since 1971, successive U.S. administrations have chosen the strategy of criminalization, despite the piles of evidence showing its epic failure in stopping drugs distribution or consumption, or in preventing violence. In fact, the opposite trend has resulted. According to the 2010 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, most categories of drugs are more available now than ever before--production has expanded and become more fluid, and distribution networks are broader and more diffuse.

Despite this damning evidence, the "war" continues, and its destructive by-products accumulate. For instance, an estimated 80 percent of those in U.S. prisons are low-level distributors or users, leaving the U.S. with the largest prison population in the world.

As the UN report points out, since the 1990s, the U.S. has restructured drug policy to push drug violence out of its own territory and further south. This began in the 1990s with the concentration of enforcement resources in the Caribbean zone to close the Colombia-to-Florida corridor. More recently, this model has been expanded to shift the war zone to Mexico.

The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, beginning on a large scale in 1994, was in part a strategic reorientation towards the drug corridor now extending from Colombia through Central America and Mexico. It also coincided with the passage of NAFTA, and the anticipation of large-scale economic displacement and migration from Mexico.

Instead of containing migration, the border complex is directly responsible for more than 6,000 people dying as they tried to cross into the U.S., through deserts and mountainous areas between the fortified parts of the border. Border enforcement has since morphed into a feature of another war: the "war on terror." Tens of thousands of migrants are detained and warehoused on a daily basis under this pretext, too.

But instead of stemming the flow of drugs, the "war on drugs" instead created a several thousand-mile war zone, with cartels forming and battling for control of distribution and later production for U.S. markets.

Since 2005, the U.S. has exported the war on drugs model to Mexico through the Mérida Initiative, which has provided $1.3 billion in aid and military technology. With this has come the militarization of Mexican society and a bloody war that has claimed close to 100,000 lives.

Mexico's ruling parties have also replicated U.S. border strategy in policing their own southern border. This, along with corruption of enforcement agencies and the presence of criminal gangs targeting migrants, has made crossing through Mexico a dangerous and even deadly trek.

Meanwhile, the war within Mexico has pushed the cartels to further internationalize--many have crossed or expanded into Central America, where there is little infrastructure to impede their efforts and new markets to penetrate.

Despite these failures, the U.S. continues to shift more resources into pushing the war into Mexico and Central America. In 2010, the Obama administration re-launched the Central America portion of the Mérida Initiative as the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). CARSI provides equipment, training, and technical and logistical support for drug interdiction operations.

The $803 million allocated to Central American governments to date has gone directly into the hands of the governments and military apparatuses to ostensibly provide support in their efforts to curtail the cartels. In fact, the cartels have only increased their power in relation to the governments, and whole regions have become destabilized as a result of increasing crime and drug-related violence.

Murder rates in Central America have spiked, making it one of the deadliest regions in the world. Over the last decade, according to the Los Angeles Times, homicide rates for the region have increased nearly 100 percent. In 2012, the homicide rate per 100,000 people in Mexico in 2012 was 21.5. In Honduras, it was 90.4; in El Salvador, 41.2; and in Guatemala, 39.9. The destabilization caused by violence, coupled with repressive or weak governments and judicial systems in these states, has only intensified the existing poverty and unemployment.

THIS IS the backdrop that explains why more Central Americans--including the youngest among them--are fleeing their homelands.

The thousands of youth appearing at the U.S. border are a part of a broader process. Many are seeking to reunite with parents already in the country, others hope to find work to support those they left behind, and still others are simply trying to find peace and security.

Instead of telling their story, they are dehumanized and reduced to objects in the media. The journalism about them only begins with their abrupt appearance at our southern border--they are not deemed worthy of a back story.

Since the underlying nature of their displacement can be traced to current U.S. policy, that is left out of the narrative. And this simultaneously opens up the political space for far-right, anti-immigrant groups to go on the offensive, whipping up a racist frenzy and pushing for further criminalization and demonization. Meanwhile, the (barely) respectable faces fronting for the hate-mongers, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seize a new opportunity to hog the spotlight.

In reality, the U.S. government has had a direct hand in creating the conditions of these migrants' impoverishment and displacement. Therefore, it should provide protection, sanctuary and support for all of the Central American migrants crossing into the United States.

Further Reading

From the archives