Rolando was 15 when he fled the home he shared with his mother and three brothers in a Guatemala City neighborhood so controlled by gang members that they blocked unknown cars from passing through it. While riding on a public bus, he had been mistaken by local gangsters for someone else and barely escaped with his life. After returning home, Rolando was hidden by his mother for a month before he and an aunt began the dangerous journey north to the U.S. border.
On Friday, June 16th, a meeting was held at the Miami headquarters of the U.S. military’s Southern Command (Southcom) between the Presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and Mexican and American officials. The choice of venue, as well as the guest list, which included Vice President Pence and the Secretary of Homeland Security, former Southcom chief John Kelly, suggested that the Trump Administration is going to further militarize the American response to very complex regional issues in the three countries sometimes collectively referred to as the Northern Triangle.
While it hasn’t been much in the news, the region is actually at the center of two major issues for President Trump and Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress: immigration and the continuing War on Drugs.
In terms of immigration, the meeting (and, to a lesser extent, the one that preceded it, which brought together representatives from some of the world’s biggest companies, including Walmart and Coca-Cola, as well as officials from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) shows some belated acknowledgment on the part of the Trump Administration that the 2014 child migrant crisis that saw tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.’ southern border didn’t originate in Mexico.
The truth is, outgoing migration from the Mexican Republic has been at or near zero for some time. Since 2007, more than one million undocumented Mexican citizens in the U.S. have returned home.
And it isn’t only the United States and Mexico that have seen an increase in migration from the Northern Triangle countries, neighbors like Costa Rica, Belize and Nicaragua are also dealing with large numbers of displaced people fleeing the extortion and violence of criminal gangs called Maras who are active in all three.
Maras: Gangs or insurgents?
Jennifer, who lived with her parents and brother in La Lima, Honduras, was being bullied at her school by a group of girls affiliated with the Barrio 18 gang who she eventually reported to school authorities. As a result, she was sexually assaulted by members of the gang, leaving her pregnant; this trauma was compounded by the fact that she lost the baby due to a miscarriage six months later.
The entire time she was dealing with the rape and subsequent pregnancy the gang left threatening messages on her bedroom window promising to harm her and her parents and brother.
Terrorized by the gang, she and her family went to live with relatives in another part of the country but were soon discovered by members of the gang. This led to the family’s flight in search of safety in the United States.
The criminal gangs afflicting these three countries originated in the United States as a direct result of U.S. intervention in Central America’s dirty wars of the 1980s and 90s, a history that is all but forgotten today. As refugees and new immigrants from the region settled in the United States, mainly in Los Angeles, these newly arrived Central Americans faced hostility from other ethnic groups, especially pre-existing Mexican gangs and had, like many before them, banded together for protection and, over time, profit.
One big difference between the Maras and the earlier immigrant groups who eventually left gang culture behind them when they integrated into American society, was a change to immigration law under then President Clinton in 1996 that allowed anyone sentenced to more than a year in jail to be deported back to their country of origin. In the case of large numbers of gang members from the Northern Triangle, they were returned to countries they hadn’t seen since they were children and that their families had fled as the result of the wars that ravaged them.
They would bring what they learned on the streets of Los Angeles back to their countries of origin and begin recruiting from local youth, at the same time using their connections to turn themselves into transnational criminal forces with ties to cocaine traffickers to the south and Mexican Cartels to the north.
Repeating the same mistakes
Axel was about 13 years old when his 12-year-old nephew disappeared and his older brother was murdered. Although his family reported these crimes, attributed to the Calle 18 gang to authorities nothing came of their complaints. After threats to the lives of himself and other family members, he and his 19-year-old sister, along with her young son, attempted to travel from their crime ridden neighborhood in Honduras to the United States to reunite with his mother.
They never finished their journey as they were detained by Mexican authorities in Tapachula, Chiapas. Mexican authorities ignored their pleas for asylum and the documents they had carried with them related to their case.
Axel, now 15 has been returned to Honduras where he doesn’t attend school and explained to interviewers from the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), “Can you believe I even stopped going to church, because the gang members who threaten us live nearby, so I’m scared and I’d better not leave the house.”
Using a promised renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as leverage, Trump’s 6 month old Administration has demanded that Mexico step up its control over its porous southern border and deportations of Central American migrants are increasing there significantly, already surpassing the numbers being returned from the United States (a trend the current President can’t take all the credit for as it began in 2015).
Although the Miami meeting tellingly didn’t include civil society groups and other NGOs, well over 100 from around the world sent an open letter to American Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to make plain their worries about the meeting’s perceived goals, especially in terms of regional ‘security’, explaining “Militarized approaches to law enforcement put Central American citizens at risk and do not build sustainable approaches.”
While the response of the Obama Administration to the 2014 migrant crisis was punitive, deporting more Latin American migrants than any president before him, there was at least the appearance of an even handed approach in the aftermath, encompassing both security assistance and development aid to the three countries under the $750 million Alliance for Prosperity.
Unfortunately, 60% of this money was earmarked for “security measures” in a region long known for the corruption and impunity of those who would be the ones to implement such measures. Perhaps even more problematic over the longer term, the same Council on Hemispheric Affairs report cited above also claims that, “At least 75 percent of the total funds are to be preconditioned to the implementation of structural changes in the countries’ fiscal, commercial, and investment legislation.”
This is another way of saying that even greater austerity measures will be introduced into countries that are already suffering from extreme levels of poverty and inequality. At the same time, while the Alliance for Prosperity is supposed to be tied to advances in human rights but this doesn’t seem to be the priority, especially in terms of the current administration.
The role of Homeland Security’s John Kelly, a former Marine general, gives many observers pause due to his promotion of Plan Colombia as a model for the very different problems facing the Northern Triangle. While it’s true that the more than $10 billion poured into Colombia, most of it as security assistance over almost two decades, did bring left wing insurgents including the largest, the FARC, to the negotiating table to iron out a peace deal, the costs of this scorched earth campaign are rarely talked about in the English language press.
As just one major example, Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced people (IDPs), over 7 million, of any country in the world not officially at war.
The context in each of the Northern Triangle countries is also very different from the situation in Colombia. While El Salvador is a mostly Spanish speaking country, both Honduras and Guatemala have large indigenous populations (in the latter a majority) who will be wary of the security services who have usually only stopped neglecting them to abuse them in the past.
While the FARC and others moved into the cocaine trade for financing (alongside the right-wing paramilitaries that fought them with covert support from the government) they were an organized non-state military actor operating mostly in the countryside. Trying to apply the Colombian solution to the Triangle’s Maras, who have no ideology beyond survival and are deeply entrenched in urban centers, could be an even bloodier undertaking.
Further, as explained by John M. Hagedorn of the University of Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, policy makers might be making a mistake in assuming that it is simply violence on one side (the Maras) that explains the problems facing these countries, “Central American countries with a high homicide rate also have a high rate of state violence. The direction of causality, however, cannot be assumed. In other words, the common perception is that gangs cause violence that in turn brings a violent response from the state. But in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, high levels of state violence have existed for decades.”
Historically military aid, even when handed over with the best of intentions, is often used in other ways. In one region, of Honduras, Bajo Aguan, where a military task force, the Xatruch is based, and where there is a history of disputes over land, over 100 peasant activists have been killed in recent years.
The last thing these countries need is a further escalation of violence and new approaches for dealing with what is in large part a youth problem need to be put forward. At the same time, the grinding poverty faced by so many in the region will not be cured by the same old neoliberal solutions offered for decades, while local elites collaborate with foreigners to loot their wealth.
Civil society in these countries is incredibly fragile as I learned traveling through Guatemala a few years after its civil war, and street gangs aren’t the only ones who act with impunity. Sadly, it appears that policy makers like John Kelly only see these places through the lens of battles to be fought and wars to be won.
* The individual stories of Maras’ victims in the Golden Triangle were culled from the Center for Migration Studies – Cristosal report from June. 2017. You can read the whole, heart-breaking report in PDF form here.