Context is everything. That’s one of the critical issues that we have in this country: that the coverage of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico tend to be these sort of thin, human-interest stories about, you know, a particular mother whose son was killed and the gang went after her and now the mother and her other children are fleeing to the U.S. But there’s no real context other than these are “shitty, violent countries.”
Historically, Guatemala and El Salvador both experienced excruciating and barbaric civil wars while Honduras experienced what people in this country call a “low-intensity conflict”—but if you were Honduran, there was nothing very low-intensity about it.
The reason Honduras never escalated to full-scale civil war, in part, was because the country was used for U.S. military efforts: we spent hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars turning it into a staging ground for actions against Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. That created a tremendous amount of pressure from the U.S. towards Honduran authorities to contain their own leftist movements. So, they never really escalated to full-scale civil war: it was repressed before it ever got started.
But, when we talk about the three countries, we can still talk about them in the context of civil war, even though Honduras didn’t have that full-blown civil war that Guatemala and El Salvador did. What you have is countries that have been devastated over the course of generations – economically, socially, culturally – and U.S. intervention supporting the economic elite within those countries. That, of course, was done to the disadvantage of the population as a whole. So, you found these incredibly unequal, demented kind of societies from the very beginning.
A cross in the Nueva Suyapa mountainside neighborhood overlooks Tegucigalpa.
As the wars really ramped up [in the 1980s], there was a surge in immigration to the U.S., particularly from El Salvador. When those kids arrived in this country, they were incredibly marginalized and subjected to a lot of violence, and they were oftentimes here without family. Some percentage of those kids ended up affiliating with gangs in the United States, primarily in southern California.
Then, in 1996, the U.S. passed a new immigration law which resulted in massive deportations to the region. And so they were shifting these people back en masse a decade later that had either direct gang experience, or at least peripheral exposure to societies whose civil wars had just ended, and whose economic, social, and political infrastructure had been devastated. These kids were returning to cultures where they oftentimes no longer had ties to the community: there was no social structure to reintegrate them. A lot of them didn’t even speak Spanish. So they simply took their gang experiences from the United States and began to leverage that experience in order to try and survive in El Salvador, and later Guatemala and Honduras. There were neighborhood-oriented, very unsophisticated youth gangs before, but they were nothing equivalent to MS 13 or the Mara Salvatrucha. The same is true with Guatemala and Honduras.
What also happened is as the wars began to wind down, guerillas and military personnel suddenly found themselves completely disenfranchised. They had no wars and that meant there were no paychecks. And so a lot of these folks began to leverage these war-era logistics, intelligence and contraband networks to facilitate the development of new kinds of criminal organizations, including gangs.
The gangs now are so sophisticated and they’re so entrenched at so many levels within the lower and the lower-middle economic sectors of the three countries that they truly do dictate the flow of life. They control every aspect of day-to-day life, including checkpoints in and out of neighborhoods so that they can keep track of who’s coming and going. They are, by all measures, more of a presence than the governments themselves.
There are still police and there is still military with boots on the ground, but the gangs are really the ones who hold sway. It’s just a complete nightmare, and the government of those three countries is both unable and unwilling to even begin to challenge these gangs for supremacy over the neighborhood.
The gangs establish control over physical territory and criminal markets through the use of terror. That’s the only leverage point they have: you take away terror and these criminal groups have no leverage in society. Everyone would just tell them to go fuck off and they would kill them, you know?
Within this larger strategy of terror, violence against women is a central element. In part, it’s a way for gangs to both punish women who have somehow defied them, but, more importantly, it’s a vehicle through which they can demonstrate their audacity and their barbarism, and demonstrate that there are no limits to their willingness to engage in violence.
And so, acts of violence, particularly towards women, are done in the most graphic and publically-visible manner. That’s why you will see 15-year-old girls gang-raped and beheaded, their body parts scattered around their neighborhoods. And this, of course, occurs within a context of very machista, patriarchal societies, in which violence against women is fairly rampant. It’s all part of the strategy of terror and women are a central element. Within the hyper-masculinized social context of Central America, gang members are the most hyper-masculinized of all.
I don’t think I’m out of line by saying probably 70% of these populations are walking around with significant symptoms of PTSD.
You think about what it’s like to see a young girl’s body parts spread out across soccer fields, but it’s so common that it’s not even reported in the news. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, her head was over there on the goal post.”
And you start adding to that the fact that the very police that you could theoretically turn to are often on the payroll of gangs. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to over the years who sought out a police officer and then that officer rolls down his or her lip and shows an MS-13 tattoo on the inside of his mouth. It’s absolutely horrifying!
There certainly are some fuzzy overlaps especially between The Zetas and The Sinaloa in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. But, the presence of those Mexican groups [drug cartels] are far more relevant as it pertains to corrupt officials and local drug-trafficking groups, than they are to the gangs. The gangs may act as hitmen or enforcers, or transportistas [transporters], but they’re not the big players to any degree whatsoever.
And that’s the other thing in the background to these countries: it’s not like gangs are the only criminal operators running around, wreaking havoc. You’ve got massive presence of corrupt police – in fact, in Guatemala and Honduras, the last two times I was there, the focus of the research had nothing to do with gangs, per se. It was looking at the relationships between corrupt officials, organized crime, and the private sector elite. And that is its own horrifically dirty game.
I interviewed a very high-ranking official – former official – from Honduras, and I said to him, “Well, you know, Mr. Ambassador, my observation of Honduras over the last several years has been that it really is a criminalized state, but I’d like to get your perception of that.” He not only agreed that Honduras was a fully-criminalized state, he went on to say that the public has absolutely no access to a legal mechanism to affect the influence of corruption in their lives, and if they were to attempt to do so it would result in massive repression, some of which would be supported by the U.S. government vis-à-vis the military and the resources of the private sector in Honduras.
It’s a completely disempowered population living within a fully criminalized state.
I don’t get to say this in court, but I can say this to you: The United States is right at the heart and soul of these problems that force people to leave in the first place and head to this country. We have been part and parcel of creating the social conditions that gave rise to this kind of criminality and violence, yet we take absolutely no responsibility as a government or a culture for dealing with the fallout of our own creation, which goes back decades.
The U.S. government had a very direct hand in creating this nightmare and we have also had a very direct hand in giving a wink and a nod to judicial systems that are defined by corruption and all sorts of other institutional weaknesses. So, one of the things that I wish I could talk about is the fact that we have a responsibility to, in a humane way, give some sort of protection to the people who are now suffering as a result of, in part, our policies.
Now, there have always been a lot of bad people in Latin America—it’s not like these problems exist exclusively as part of the creation of the U.S. government—that would be a hideous mischaracterization. But, having said that, this country has a moral obligation as a civil member of international society to abide by international law.
One of the things that is really critical along those lines is whether the people fleeing persecution are deemed “immigrants” or “refugees.” If they were deemed refugees, then there are international protections that the U.S. government would be obligated to afford them. But this government is not going to define them as refugees.
The whole immigration discussion is so uninformed and so politically-charged. My sense is that if the U.S. population had any idea the terror that people are living with in Central America and parts of Mexico, I don’t think they would say, “Oh, yeah, let’s send a 14-year-old or a 17-year-old girl back to be gang-raped and chopped into pieces with a machete.” But, that’s not part of the discourse, you know? People would rather hear simple explanations to complex problems and these kinds of mindless solutions like Donald Trump and Marco Rubio are promoting.
The only thing that gives me hope is that throughout my years in Central America I’ve consistently run across people of passion and skill and dedication who are addressing issues of human rights and dignity and attempting to change the discourse and the policies of those states. But, I don’t see any magic bullets. At this point, the only thing that we can do is try to affect public opinion and policy in this country. If we can undermine the bankrupt political dialogue that exists now, that dominates the landscape, coming from people like Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, if we can begin to infuse the discourse with some level of rationality and humanity and context for what’s really going on—that is the thing that I would feel optimism about.
I’m very much a person of faith and I’ve never seen anything from the Bible or the Buddha or Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela, or any of these other people that we hold up as exemplars of all that’s good and decent, I’ve never heard one of them say, “Protect the vulnerable, until it is no longer politically-expedient. Then cast them off.”