By Mike Hermiad
Roughly 160 Hondurans began their journey by foot to Mexico and the United States on Oct. 12, 2018. Throughout the migration, more and more people joined the original Hondurans. By the time they got to the Mexican-Guatemalan border seven days later, a caravan with approximately 3,000 members had formed.
By the beginning of January, NPR reported that there were thousands of migrants from Central America stuck in Mexican cities that share a border with the U.S. Some have been there for six to eight weeks.
The phenomenon of migrant caravans has attracted much attention from North American media and politicians. However, most of these sources fail to mention the historical events that forced so many Central Americans to leave their countries
Most of the migrants are in Tijuana, which borders western California. Many of these migrants have requested asylum in the U.S. Some have gotten jobs in Tijuana, which has a labour shortage. Others have attempted to cross the border illegally but have been arrested.
There is no single reason why the caravan members are migrating. A Vox article from October compiled reasons migrants have shared with journalists. Many are fleeing gang violence and corrupt, complicit local governments. Many are trying to escape poverty and cannot support their families on $5 a day.
Some are deportees who are trying to return to their previous lives – including jobs they worked for decades or children who are U.S. citizens.
The phenomenon of migrant caravans has attracted much attention from North American media and politicians. However, most of these sources fail to mention the historical events that forced so many Central Americans to leave their countries.
U.S. INTERVENTION IN LATIN AMERICA
Many of these conditions (e.g. poverty, gang violence) that today’s Central American migrants are escaping are the legacy of U.S intervention in the region.
Caravan members are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – three countries that share an unfortunate history of U.S. intervention during the Cold War. This kind of intervention is called neo-colonialism. It seeks to control a country and exploit its resources not through direct rule, like traditional colonialism, but through modern means like economic intervention and covert intelligence operations.
An Al Jazeera documentary explains how the world superpower’s involvement in Latin America led to the current border crisis. In 1954, the CIA backed a coup that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected leftist president Jacobo Árbenz.
That caused a brutal civil war between the U.S.-backed military government and leftist groups that lasted four decades. Government forces ‘disappeared’ an estimated 200,000 civilians – 80% of them Maya, which Guatemalan tribunals have since called an act of genocide.
Similar U.S.-backed violence happened in Honduras and El Salvador, with U.S. backing military forces and death squads that terrorized and slaughtered civilian populations in the fight against leftist guerillas.
Most of the Cold War-era intervention was justified using anti-communist rhetoric. Speaking about the savage U.S.-supported military dictatorship in El Salvador, then-president Ronald Reagan said “the Government of El Salvador, making every effort to guarantee democracy … is under attack by guerrillas dedicated to the same philosophy that prevails in Nicaragua, Cuba, and, yes, the Soviet Union.”
THE LEGACY OF NEO-COLONIALISM
Part of the consequence of this neo-colonial intervention was a wave of Central Americans moving to Los Angeles from 1980 to 1991, as the Al Jazeera documentary How U.S. Involvement In Central America Led To a Border Crisis explains.
These communities were traumatized because of the horrible living conditions in their countries. To make matters worse, they were not granted refugee or asylum status by the U.S. government, which meant that they did not have access to services such as mental health resources. This situation created the conditions for gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) to rise.
And, years later, when the Clinton administration cracked down on undocumented immigrants who had committed a crime, gang members were sent back to countries that have been crippled by civil wars and dictatorships. This made it easy for the gangs to become powerful in Central America – especially with the so-called War on Drugs funneling substantial profits their way and destabilizing Latin American societies.
The resulting gang violence is a factor for the current mass exodus from Central America.
The U.S. is not the only country responsible for creating conditions in which so many people are leaving Central America. Canada’s role in the region’s mining has also caused much damage.
According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, with the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980s, many previously nationalized mines in Latin America became owned by Canadian transnational corporations. Since then, these transnationals have been growing in number and power.
With the prosperity of transnationals came hardships on the local communities. Mining companies’ operations often have disastrous environmental consequences, damaging local ecosystems and threatening people’s way of life. They can monopolize water resources, leaving locals with water shortages or polluted water.
When activists organize to resist mining companies or hold them accountable, the response can be brutal. For example, local organizations believe Vancouver-based company Pacific Rim is linked to the 2011 murder of anti-mining activist Juan Francisco Durán Ayala.
Durán Ayala was the fourth local environmentalist to be murdered, after the deaths of Marcelo Rivera (2009), Ramiro Rivera (2010), and Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto (2010). Santos Rodriguez, who was eight months pregnant, was shot in front of her two-year old son, who was also wounded.
It is easy to see how lack of clean water, the destruction of people’s livelihood, and political violence has left many with no choice but to escape their home countries.
THERE IS STILL HOPE
The activism of people like Durán Ayala is but one example of the hope that exists for Central Americans. Another source of it lies in the work of Pueblo sin fronteras, the collective that helped organize the caravan. Its website states that it provides “humanitarian aid and professional legal advice to migrants and refugees,” while demanding “human rights.”
Migrants themselves organize in such a way that inspires optimism. They chose to migrate in a caravan because it makes it harder for gangs and government forces to prey on or disperse them. Moving in massive numbers also helped them attract the solidarity of many Mexicans, who offered what they could (food, water, legal aid) to make their voyage a bit easier.
It is important for Americans and Canadians to understand that our countries played a great role in shaping the circumstances that forced many Central Americans to leave their home countries. North American foreign policy and corporate practice has created many of the conditions these migrants are fleeing.
We are used to hearing our politicians scaremonger about migrants, such as when U.S. President Donald Trump called caravan members “people who snuck across the border” who “could be murderers, thieves and so much else.” In reality, though, studies show that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than natural-born citizens.
The Trump administration also famously concealed government data showing that overall, refugees did not act as a drain on government services. Instead, they contributed a net benefit of $63 billion to U.S. government coffers over the past decade.
Welcoming the migrants would not only be just and compassionate – it ultimately would benefit us, while also helping people in a desperate situation.