Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 397 | Agosto 2014


Central America

Does the US bear responsibility for the violence they’re fleeing?

The cruelest forms of violence Central Americans are fleeing from are associated with the region’s relationship with the United States: it involves the deportation of gang members, the dynamic drug market, the strengthening of the military, the creation and training of repressive forces, and the arms trade that supplies organized crime. Humanitarian organizations neither name nor explain these factors. They’ve generally ignored the background to asylum requests, concentrating instead on “unaccompanied minors” to appeal to the general public’s compassion.

José Luis Rocha

There have been Central American refugees in the United States for a long time. The large numbers of children currently crossing the Mexico-US border are what have caught the world’s attention and triggered statements by international organizations, churches, the media, NGOs and political officials in several countries. The attention was deserved and the statements urgently needed.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t forget that the 20,805 Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran minors arrested by border guards in 2013 only represent 19.5% of the total number of detainees from these three countries. On top of that are all the immigrants who haven’t been arrested, some children and many more adults, and are spread out throughout the US, swelling the ranks of the undocumented but dynamizing the economy of a country that by turns treats them like indispensable enemies and criminals or the core of the national creed.

Prediction fulfilled

The “irregular” US population is still growing, with two new undocumented migrants for each deportee. With the State’s grudging consent or evading the Immigration and Customs Service patrols, sensors and helicopters, children and adults have continued a tradition significantly heightened if not begun by Central Americans in the 1980s.

They are fulfilling the prediction that Susan George put in the mouth of the experts charged with saving capitalism in her fact-based fictional document, “The Lugano Report II”: “We are going to see an increase in migration pressure, millions of people will try to escape from their places of origin when conditions become impossible. The majority will move to other regions of their own countries but many will try to reach rich northern countries. Up until now, Europe and North America have responded forcefully to migrations, exclusively using the military and the police. Nevertheless, estimates of the number of migrants who have illegally crossed their borders suggest that those efforts have failed: at least 11 million illegal immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America in the United States and tens of thousands in the European Union.” (envío’s translation)

Little willingness to grant asylum

Many arrested immigrants request “defensive asylum” in their hearings with immigration judges, the narrow door to asylum for those who are caught. The problematic circumstances of these requests lead to lower approval rates than for “affirmative asylum” requests made through voluntary presentation to the asylum offices. Immigration lawyers, including those who provide their services pro bono and who can be assumed to have the best intentions, know that gang victims or those escaping drug traffickers and street violence have very little chance of being granted asylum.

Mimicking the first article of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the US Refugee Act demands that those requesting asylum demonstrate that they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Lilia Velásquez, lecturer at the California Western School of Law and a practicing immigration lawyer in San Diego, is well aware of the difficulties faced even by the victims of multiple traumas. “A 37-year-old man wrote to me from prison. He is transgender, has no money, is poor and his family wants nothing to do with him. He told me he had been raped by his cousins since he was seven and by police officers when he was 12. He’s HIV positive; that is, he has the virus. He asked for asylum and was refused. They deported him. Afterwards he returned and was kidnapped. Now he’s in jail and doesn’t qualify for bail. He has been arrested everywhere. Because there’s torture in his home country, which has been documented, they can’t send him back. Deportation and asylum cases are incredibly complicated.”

The instability of legal resources makes the cases very difficult to argue. The common law system increases the lawyers’ work and their number of sleepless nights. Originating in England then exported to the colonies, this system gives enormous weight to legal precedent in establishing law. Immigration lawyers have to keep up to date with new decisions that, by establishing precedents, shift the balance one way or another. The results of a number of trials have made being targeted by gangs less and less admissible as a reason for being granted asylum. In some cases, being the victim of homophobia is accepted but there’s no guarantee of success and even less of cases being dealt with urgently. It’s quite normal for a year to pass between hearings before an immigration judge.

Central Americans:
Ineligible for refugee status

The statistics speak eloquently about the complicated nature of the cases. In 2013, 11,598 Central Americans requested asylum in the US: 4,649 Salvadorans, 4,314 Guatemalans and 2,635 Hondurans. Their countries of origin were in fourth, fifth and seventh place, respectively, on the list of nationalities requesting asylum. The United States is Central Americans’ “natural” refuge and priority destination, receiving 95% of the 12,197 asylum requests made to industrialized countries by citizens of these three nationalities. In the cases of El Salvador and Guatemala, the numbers of applications are very close to those in the mid-1990s, just after the official end of the internal conflicts.

Hondurans are facing a relatively new but explosively growing phenomenon. In 1996 there were 1,266 new asylum requests by Hondurans then between 2000 and 2005 the numbers ranged from only 236 to 373. A watershed moment came in 2011 when the number of requests more than doubled the previous year’s figure, jumping to 1,351, but that was moderate compared to the 2,066 requests in 2012. Nevertheless, only 141 applications for affirmative asylum and 93 for defensive asylum were accepted in 2011. The next year, 11,598 Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans applied but only 1,097 were accepted. Some Central Americans explored a less random route, requesting refuge before arriving in the US: under US law, asylum requests are made once in the country, refuge is requested from outside. The Central American refugee centers in the US are empty. Central Americans aren’t eligible for refugee status a priori, so they seek it a posteriori.

Human rights depend on nation-States

Strong support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for these requests might have made a difference. Nonetheless, its statements were lukewarm, lacking any clear commitment. It recommends that Central American minors’ need for international protection be recognized, ensuring that they are protected on arrival and identifying their needs for international protection. No “national” obligation is imputed for these “international” needs. In this, the UNHCR remains faithful to the spirit and letter of article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The troubling detail is that the declaration doesn’t establish any responsibility to grant this asylum.

Universal humanitarian principles are inoperative if they aren’t matched by corresponding commitments by nation-States. The words written by Hannah Arendt more than 60 years ago in The Origins of Totalitarianism continue to be relevant. She wrote that the multitude of stateless people and refugees left like an ominous sediment of the First World War had destroyed the illusion of human rights since the exercise or denial of those rights is in the hands of nation-States despite the fact that their “inalienable” nature should also make them independent of all governments. In a kind of bitter homage to Edmund Burke, critic of the French Revolution and its declaration of rights, the stateless refugees showed that the loss of national rights is identical to the loss of human rights.

The bishops made direct
demands to Obama’s government

Burke contrasted these vague, abstract and speculative human rights with the verifiable, concrete and tangible rights of the English. This legal limbo was supposedly abolished by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, whose articles 31 and 33 on “refugees unlawfully in the country of refuge” establish that “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees … [nor] expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened....”

Nevertheless, it is not this commitment that stops the US from rapidly expelling child refugees. It is rather the application of the anti-trafficking statute agreed to by Republicans and Democrats in 2008, which requires that their cases be reviewed by immigration courts. Once again, an abstract right was only made concrete by a tangible national agreement.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document includes more daring and explicit warnings: “Denying them asylum and sending them back to the gangs and drug traffickers persecuting them could ensure their demise.” What political philosopher Giorgio Agamben postulated as an analogy would become literally true: “When their rights are no longer the rights of the citizen, that is when human beings are truly sacred, in the sense that this term used to have in the Roman law of the archaic period: doomed to death.” To avoid such consecration, the bishops made direct demands to the US government: strengthen the protection measures for unaccompanied children, including tracing their families and seeking reunification. In fact, the government was already doing much of what the Conference requested, as can be inferred from the fact that, according to declarations by US Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, Kenneth J. Wolfe 96% of the unaccompanied minors are now with their families.

Youth is only a word

The Achilles heel of the humanitarian organizations’ strategy is that they have opted for a minimalist approach, with the plausible intention of protecting the most vulnerable, advocating on behalf of children but not of the adults who have also emigrated to escape identical violence. In seeking to protect the most defenseless, to avoid the great injustice committed against minors, the principle of summum ius summa iniuria leaves the migrants in a Procrustean bed. They eliminate the excess, the issues that don’t sit comfortably with the moving images of childish faces pleading for asylum; that don’t fit in the tearful postcard they can sell to donors.

It’s true, however, that humanitarian organizations fight on behalf of adults in many other ways. It’s well known that support for children has the real or potential advantage of generating more support. It’s also true that several legal instruments have provided children with some, albeit limited access to the American dream. Nevertheless, the distorted presentation of the migration reality shifts the discussion from a focus on violence to one on children despite the fact that asylum is an issue that both now and in the past has revolved around the question of violence.

The majority of the “children” who are the focus of the discussion are aged between 15 and 17. Those whom humanitarian organizations refer to as “minors” aren’t always considered as such by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. This may be because they wish to apply the law indiscriminately but it may also be because they know that these minors aren’t culturally minors since they’ve been working for years and may even have dependent children. It may even be that these officials intuitively understand what Bourdieu reminded us in an interview titled “Youth is only a word”: “[A sociologist’s] professional reflex is to point out that the divisions between the ages are arbitrary. It’s the paradox identified by Pareto, who said that we don’t know when old age begins, just as we don’t know where wealth begins.”

The status of “minors”
or the problem of “violence”?

Bourdieu also sustained that “the ideological representation of the division between young and old grants certain things to the youngest, which means that in return they have to leave many things to their elders. (…) It seems that one of the most powerful effects of the situation of adolescents derives from this kind of separate existence, which puts them socially out of play.” In the present case, this distinction deprives adults of the concessions the State is willing to concede to, and humanitarian organizations demand for, the young.

Those who defend the minors have not only exploited this legally-endorsed arbitrariness but have also begun a struggle centered on “minors,” a status shared by very few migrants, rather than the monumental problem of violence and its roots, which affect the majority: children, youths and adults. We can and should increase the scope of the struggle to include those violence affects most, at a minimum all those up to the age of 30. After all, who can put age limits on violence? Given the impossibility of imposing limits on violence, age limits are drawn to contain the petty meanness of asylum.

A Manichean dichotomy:
Innocent children, delinquent adults

Doubtless inspired by genuine concern for children, humanitarian organisations insist they be given asylum, although for UNHCR it’s enough that they be given assistance. Nevertheless, this minimalism, together with the shift from the problem of violence to the status of minors, leads to the following idea: For Central American children, everything; for Central Americans as a people, retention programs and the dissuasion of migration—a version of the dire formulation “For individual Jews everything. For the Jewish people, nothing.”

Accepting the rules of the political economy of compassion reinforces a dichotomy that runs directly counter to the efforts on behalf of immigrants. In this Manichean dichotomy, children are innocent, forced to emigrate and exposed to abuse. Adults are seen as delinquents, willful illegal immigrants and abusers.

The fetishizing of an age range is far from innocuous. The age of 18 marks a thin line that separates those who should be treated with compassion from those who should face the full rigor of the law. UNHCR talks about the displacement of children and “others” without mentioning that those others constitute the vast majority of displaced people. The agency appeals to a humanitarianism that can provoke exclusive or at least more compassion for children than for other migrants, even though they may include people who are more vulnerable or who have suffered worse violations, for example: women who have been raped or beaten by their husbands, homosexuals persecuted by homophobes, ex-guerrillas escaping old vendettas, street vendors harassed by extortionists and many, many others. Children are the lowest common denominator on which humanitarian organizations are betting as a means to increase the acceptance of asylum. Nevertheless, violence is the highest common denominator that supports their requests.

The United States bears great responsibility

The loud refrain in defense of children fleeing chaotic violence has the effect of making the US seem no more than a chance oasis, whose only relation to the dramatic situation is that it is a prosperous nation and a peaceful haven. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the relationship between the US and violence in Central America.

The US government has direct responsibility for the production of the anti-insurgent orientation that permitted the growth of the criminal forces that foment and use violence, as can be shown from the testimony of migrants and any serious effort to historicize violence and its instruments, both weapons and humans. Violence must be historicized so the continuity can be seen. A focus on “minors” glosses over this historicization and its political causes. It allows the new refugees to be treated as people with no history, who aren’t asked what caused the problems they’re trying to escape.

Historicization is obstructed by postwar optimism, a teleological view of history and the induced conviction that we’re living in a new era. This is why the current violence in Central America causes so much confusion. This perplexity is based on the assumption that epidemic violence is an anomaly reserved for times of war, economic collapse and extreme state anomie.

The peace accords in Nicaragua (1990), El Salvador (1992) and Guatemala (1996), together with the related ending of Honduras’ status as the base for three foreign armies, created the hope that the region was leaving behind entrenched violence. At least four changes came into view: the decades of militarization had reached their end; the choice of violence as the preferred means for settling political differences would become a museum curiosity; the peace dividend would free up productive resources; and foreign investment flows would be abundant.

All these predictions came true but neither in the measure nor the direction expected. The scaling back of the armies led to increased organized crime, as active and retired soldiers consolidated their clandestine, murderous power, an open secret despite being called “hidden power.” The choice of violence became more widespread with the ending of the state monopoly in the matter. The peace dividend was an illusion as the previously abundant handouts of the war’s patrons began to dry up. Foreign investment increased foreign dependency, exported profits and labor instability as it focused on buying up existing businesses, selling imported goods and generating subsistence-level employment in maquilas, the assembly plants for re-export. Instead of the predicted bonanza, Central America postwar countries continue to be violent scenarios and the bases of transnational crime. They are exposed to the four dangers enumerated by sociologist Edelberto Torres-Rivas: reversion of unconsolidated democracies, pervasive violence, trivialization of horror and state terrorism.

Violence, injustice, corruption, impunity

Optimism about the peace dividend, both financial and social, is based on the assumption that violence is a feature of primitive stages of human development and that, insofar as a society advances to higher stages of civilization, high murder rates and other types of violence become a thing of the past. These are ideological assumptions without any empirical basis, mere wishful thinking.

The pogroms, the Nazi holocaust and, to cite a recent example, the war in Kosovo have demonstrated the reality of the theoretically unthinkable coexistence of modernity and brutality, civilization and holocaust, democracy and increasing murder. Sociologist Hans Joas recommends that those who investigate violence should not only distance themselves from faith in progress but should also seek to immerse themselves in the history of violence, “which makes clear the tortuous and insecure nature of all roads to progress and how the retrospective tracing of straight lines from the past to a good present or an even better future are more often than not nothing but optical illusions.”

Political philosopher John Gray holds the same opinion: “As human power has increased, science has created the illusion that humanity is the master of its own destiny. As a consequence of a torrent of inventions, the modern world believes that it has left the past behind.” He adds: “Ethnic and religious differences, shortages of natural resources and the collision of conflicting values are constant sources of division. These conflicts cannot be overcome, they can only be moderated.” Central American countries are suffering the paradox of Brazilian democracy as analyzed by James Holston: just when democracy is trying to put down roots, violence, injustice, corruption and impunity have grown dramatically. As a result, many Brazilians, and Central Americans, feel less safe under representative democracy, achieved with such difficulty, and are more physically threatened by everyday violence than they were by repressive dictatorships and military regimes. A similarity with a previous era presents an ominous sign of the times: from 1982 to 1984, in the middle of the armed struggle, the murder rate per 100,000 young Salvadoran men was 249.3. Two decades later, in 2005 in times of “peace,” it was 223.

Our violence must be historicized

According to Holston, at the same time that a generation of insurgent citizens was democratizing urban space and key aspects of planning, creating unprecedented access to resources in Brazil, public spaces began to be permeated by a climate of fear and incivility, leading to their abandonment, the fortification of residential areas, criminalization of the poor and support for police violence.

Most of this vision can be applied to Central America today, with the difference that it hasn’t experienced any democratization of urban space or conquest of rights through citizens’ insurgency. Instead, there has been what Dennis Rodgers calls an “elite rebellion,” which can be seen in urban redevelopment to ease the movement of elites through secure spaces between their residential areas, places of work and recreational areas.

The private city of Paseo Cayalá in Guatemala is an extreme version of this self-segregation by the elites, perhaps providing an example other countries will follow. A perimeter wall encloses this city of 14 hectares, where the rich live out the artificial isolation dramatized in Rodrigo Plá’s Mexican film “La Zona” (2007). This peaceful womb has houses, clinics, hairdressers, shops, 47 restaurants, 4 banks, a municipal office, cinemas, a Parthenon, bell tower, parks and a reserve where you can do canopy tours, all in a country where the cost of land is exorbitant. “For me, Cayalá provides Guatemalans with a new opportunity, free of the fear of failure in the face of violence,” says Diego Algara, general director of a company that has two restaurants and a discotheque. “I moved here because of its convenience and because I don’t feel safe in other parts of the city.”

The principal manifestations of violence from which the elites are escaping to their marble-barred citadels and lower-income people to the US are very complicated. They can’t be explained just in economic, moral or developmental terms. In our secularized world, material motivations such as poverty, greed, inequity, competition for limited resources and others present in violent societies have gained relevance as explanations of social actions, but they don’t have much explicative value regarding the “how” or the meaning of violence for the protagonists, nor do they explain how their victims experience and deal with it.

The roots of so much violence

If we say that violence is caused by the voraciousness of the oligarchs, as does El Salvador’s Joaquín Villalobos in an article titled “Niños inocentes y oligarcas voraces” he wrote for el joropo.com, not forgetting the Pantagruel-like diet of transnational capital and the transnationalization of local elites with their correspondingly reduced involvement in local politics, we do no more than repeat an old refrain and add nothing to an understanding of the phenomenon. This assertion can be considered “technically” plausible as it was “theologically” believable in the Middle Ages that all evil originated with the apple Adam and Eve ate in spite of the divine warning. Nevertheless, these “roots” of evil have little explanatory power by themselves because they neither reflect the wide range of types of violence nor respond to its current characteristics. More importantly for the issue at hand, they can’t be used as arguments to support asylum requests.

The democratization of violence

The characteristics of violence are as important as its causes. One of the most significant is the democratizing of violence as a consequence of increasing numbers of weapons and the decline of the State. Dutch academics Dirk Kruijt and Kees Koonings argue that the end of the wars in Latin America was followed by a period in which the State lost its monopoly on violence and we entered a stage in which the means and exercise of violence became widely disseminated. The war provided the means and the know-how. The postwar period brought the reduced role of the State as an employer. The State also was weakened in its both its harsh patriarchal and motherly welfare aspects, losing coercive power and reducing its social spending.

This characteristic highlights the lack of “motives” that can be offered as a rational basis for asylum requests. Materialistic explanations are insufficient. Salvadoran Chepe Melgar explains it this way: “Before, people weren’t happy if nobody died. When people heard there had been a death they said it meant fresh meat, because there were tamales and coffee at the wake. That was the only happiness people had in that town. Do you think those people feared God? They didn’t love life. The military used to arrive with bombs. Boom! They tossed a bomb into a party: suddenly people with no eyes, no feet, dead bodies without their guts, some with extra guts. There’s a canton called El Palón [in Lolotique, San Miguel] where not long ago five people were killed with an AK-47. Drunks. Just some of those bums who play cards in the street, who sit around in little groups. They’re people accustomed to looking for a little place with rocks they can sit on to play cards. A group of those gang members went by and killed five people with an AK-47. It’s their only motto: kill people. Nobody knew who did it or why.”

Sergio Argueta sees it the same way: “I lived in Guatemala City for a year. One day I was chatting with a friend. Somebody came up on a motorcycle and shot him. Just like that. For no reason.” He could have said “Because he could.” Or because there are more than enough means for doing it.

When I lived for three years in Aguán Valley, in Honduras, one of my best friends was murdered. Alba coordinated a Catholic youth group in Quebrada de Arena. One day, an acquaintance walked into the family pool hall and, without saying a word, shot her straight in the heart. Could she have requested asylum with any chance of success? What could she have said to support her request? The murderer wanted a revolver, one of those that change hands all the time and that Alba’s brother had refused to sell him. A life cut short for such a trivial matter.

Death without ideology

The democratization of violence doesn’t even give people the dignity of a meaningful death because, unlike the violence that predominated in the 1980s, it has no ideology. The loss of ideology is, as Polish sociologist Zygmunt Baumann said, a dubious blessing.

This democratization has consequences for refuge. The migrants are “innocent” but in the sense used by Arendt: a total absence of responsibility, the mark of a lack of rights and loss of their political status. They haven’t been involved in political activities that could lead to their persecution but their bigger problem relative to current asylum laws is that they can’t allege that they belong to any of the groups that are the specific target of persecution. The democratization of violence, the characteristic that makes it so unpredictable and ubiquitous, gives it the terrifying particularity that it strikes anyone without distinction. What Arendt calls the “all-pervading unpredictability” of violence can be seen here in full force. No religious, political or ethnic group can convincingly claim to be at the center of the spiral of violence. Consequently, each case has to be dealt with individually. The requirement of group prosecution a priori blocks any attempt at mass asylum.

Many of the testimonies I heard during my interviews in the United States are like that of Sofía Villatoro from Quetzaltenango, stories of escape from depoliticized, democratized and ubiquitous violence, signs also of a communitas in a process of recomposition… or decomposition. “I came here in 1999 when I was nine. My granny sent me with a coyote. She thought it was dangerous to stay in Guatemala and that I was old enough. More than anything, I never went out of the house because my granny was worried I would be kidnapped because people knew my parents were here in the US. We had already been robbed at gunpoint in our house five times. That’s why my granny was very concerned about me.”

For the time being, Sofia is protected by the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the measure the judge used to close her deportation case; not because she was a minor but rather because of her violent environment in Guatemala, and possibly also because her case had been publicized in the local media.

The mass dissemination of weapons

Arendt said that violence “always needs implements.” The democratization of violence is made possible by the spread of weapons. Castellanos and Godnick have argued that the Central American peace agreements and subsequent disarmament failed to anticipate the degree to which weapons would flow from the rebel groups, paramilitaries and military into the hands of private citizens. The result is an unknown number of unregistered private weapons. Many of those currently circulating among criminals, gangs, hit men and ordinary citizens are left over from the war.

For anthropologist Jon Wolseth, a specialist on Honduras’ variant of the particularly virulent Central northern American gangs known as “maras,” these remnants of the war explain how criminals can supplement the omnipresent pistols, revolvers and home-made guns with heavy automatic and semi-automatic weapons such as AK-47s, Uzis, grenades and even bazookas. But the weapons aren’t just war leftovers. There’s a bustling illegal weapons trade that defies regulation and channels ammunition and weapons from law enforcement agencies to the public.

Mexican journalist Diego Enrique Osorno explains that “the gun shows in frontier cities are the principal sources of AK-47s, AR-15 rifles and Beretta pistols. This is no secret. We aren’t talking about underground groups. Over 100,000 permit holders legally sell weapons all along the border.” And from there they flow to the drug traffickers and further south.

American weapons sold in Mexico

In her book El tráfico de armas en México, Magda Coss Nogueda relates how “it is easier to buy a gun than to get gasoline in Texas, close to the Mexican border,” how “almost two thousand firearms enter Mexico every day, coming mainly from the US” (five million illegal weapons entered between 2000 and 2008) and how many of those that were traced have been found in Guatemala. The Tepito cartel has at least 35 places where it sells weapons, either coming from the US or stolen from Mexico’s National Defense Secretariat (SEDENA), which amount to 60% of the ones seized. In 1994, “40 tons of weapons acquired by SEDENA in the US and transported in military airplanes went to drug traffickers.”

Of the weapons traced after being illegally introduced into Mexico, 40% came from Houston, Dallas and McAllen, Texas. But weapons from Asia and Europe also reach Central America, where Guatemala and Nicaragua are the two countries that Coss Nogueda says has the most gaps in their surveillance.

The US also has an important and growing role in the region’s legal arms trade, particularly in El Salvador where military supplies spending increased from US$473,000 in 2006 to US$3.3 million in 2013, accounting for 47% of all the country’ purchases of arms and munitions.

Are gangs the biggest threat?

Taking advantage of the availability of weapons, the region’s maras have cultivated a fearsome reputation, making it easy for their critics to create a dark legend that has spread around the world in documentaries, BBC reports, terrifying profiles on the History Channel and books like De los maras a los Zetas by Jorge Fernandez Menendez and Victor Ronquillo. Unscrupulous hacks claim that mara members have received terrorist training in Afghanistan and are creating a corridor from Colombia to Los Angeles for drug and people trafficking.

The maras have been presented officially to public opinion as the main threat to public security and even as new urban insurgents capable of taking control of the State. The creation of these exaggerated ideas is intentional, leading to the criminalization of young people out of all proportion to their actual participation in violence. Above all, it is intrinsically related to certain national myths, to the generation of stereotypes to mold public discourse and to a wish to revive the militarized State of the recent past. It also avoids proper consideration of a very poorly understood phenomenon, instead painting the darkest of pictures and fueling a punitive populism that makes or breaks political careers.

Where did the maras come from?

As we now know, the maras came about through the hybridization of local gangs with a transnational strand. The term was first applied to the Mara Salvatrucha, formed by Salvadorans in Los Angeles. For a cohort of Salvadorans who emigrated during the final years of the civil war and received a hostile welcome from Latino groups already established in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles, this gang became an institutional means of reasserting themselves. It eventually came to control the area of 13th Street, becoming known as Mara 13, and engaged in confrontations with the 18th Street gang members (Barrio 18, which had existed since the 1960s) in a rivalry that turned a nationalist focus into a territorial one.

Through a thus far poorly understood process, these maras absorbed the small gangs that previously existed in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador until their trans¬national corporate brand imposed itself on the myriad of local gangs. This process gave birth to what were perhaps the first “glocal” gangs; functioning like a network of small local gangs that maintained their autonomy despite their transnational relations. This fusion was facilitated by the massive deportation of mara members among the Central Americans facing criminal charges who were expelled from the US between 1993 and 1998: 7,223 Salvadorans, 4,274 Hondurans and 3,638 Guatemalans, who respectively made up 41%, 25% and 24% of the deportees of those nationalities. This origin left vestiges in an umbilical cord that continues to link the Central American maras to their counterparts in Los Angeles through the active circulation of members, rules, directives, international backing and funds to purchase weapons.

The maras use violence to
reject those who reject them

In the context of this glocal reorganization, those stigmatized made that stigma into a badge of honor. Zygmund Bauman explains some aspects of their violence as a reaction by excluded youths to the changes in the postmodern world that discriminate against and marginalize them as outsiders, stripping them of their personal uniqueness, the only thing that obstructs the stereotypes and overcomes or mitigates the reductionist impact of the law, including criminal law. Given that rejection and exclusion by the commissar-State actively seeks that those who are rejected and excluded come to accept their imperfection and social inferiority, Bauman finds it unsurprising that the victims defend themselves. Rather than submit to their rejection and convert the official act into an act of self-rejection, they prefer to reject those who have rejected them.

The rejected individuals make their rejection into an emblem and “turn to the only means they have available, which contains a certain degree of violence”: they reoffend and become more violent. With a kind of punitive populism that exchanges votes for sticks and fire in the absence of bread and circuses, Central American governments took it upon themselves to identify new public enemies, always young people, exchanging the discourse of national security for public safety but maintaining their murderous old habits in the shape of social cleansing operations in the streets and prisons. “Accidental” fires and weapons that mysteriously appeared in the prisons reduced the number of gang members but fueled their anger.

In his 2008 compilation of family testimonies about the murder of children and youths in Honduras titled El dolor de la ausencia (The pain of absence), journalist José Manuel Torres Funes writes about the relentless crusade against both gang members and non-members that produced crimes such as the case of the Four Cardinal Points. That case culminated in the September 2006 condemnation of the State of Honduras by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for the killing of four teenagers who had been arrested as suspected gang members by government security forces 11 years earlier. The bodies of the youths later appeared in four different parts of the city, with unequivocal signs of execution, cruel treatment and torture, as well as shots to the head to ensure their death, all inflicted by the same gun. Casa Alianza, an international NGO that works to rehabilitate and defend street children in Honduras and other Latin American countries, charged in its 2012 annual report that there had been similar acts totaling 1,068 extrajudicial executions of young people under the age of 23 in Honduras in 2011 and 911 in 2012; there are already more than 300 as of April this year. Those accusations cost Casa Alianza’s director detention and a public beating and torture by the Honduran police in May of this year.

Measuring the maras’ violence

Humanitarian organizations make no reference to this complex context in which the maras act. It is no light matter that they joined the chorus of those looking for a scapegoat, insistently emphasizing in their reports the violence of the maras’ extortions, beatings and forced recruitment, motivated by the desire to establish once and for all that persecution by the maras is sufficient grounds for asylum.

Appealing to the dark legend spread by the media, they repeatedly mentioned that children are fleeing the maras. Out of love for children, but leaving aside the fact that many gang members are themselves minors, they further provoked young people’s criminalization and gave support to the terror agenda that increases police solutions and budgets.

There’s a clear lack of proportion between the testimonies I collected during my recent tour of the Mexican-US border and the role attributed to the maras in the reports. Celvin Paguada and Zacarías Orellana, bus fare collectors in Tegucigalpa, told me: “We left because we couldn’t stand the gang members extortion any more” but their statement wasn’t prototypical. Reference to the maras should be in proportion to the violence that can be attributed to them; not all crimes are committed by them nor does gang membership equal criminal activity. It should also deal with their origins: as researcher Sonja Wolf indicates, the USA sought to rid itself of a home-grown problem through deportations. We should also realize that the environment in which the gangs operate is as violent as they are: government repression, highly competitive entrepreneurship and the marketing techniques of drug businesses have stimulated their bellicosity.

Drugs trade violence is a
question of the correlation of forces

Organized crime uses violence as a selective tool to regulate the market in an industry the State classifies as illegal. In simple terms: when one group exercises a market monopoly or there is equilibrium between several players, the level of violence is considerably lower. Drug-related violence is neither inevitable nor unpredictable. It obeys a fairly easily observable pattern: the struggle to control the market leads to the decapitation of cartels and the groups arranged around them and consequently to a recurring shift in the correlation of forces.

This is a powerful explanation for the relative lack of violence in postwar Nicaragua as compared to neighboring countries, as one group has monopolized the market and levies “tolls” on the various cartels. High levels of drug-related violence tend to be found in places where the market is actively disputed.

Eduardo Buscaglia says it
and Chepe Melgar knows it

Drugs trade expert Eduardo Buscaglia holds that the Mexican “narcocracy” has extended its tentacles and its fights beyond its borders. As he described in 2010, “When Mexican criminal groups such as Los Zetas enter Guatemalan territory and go to places such as Zacapa, the first thing they do is buy off the local authorities. Not only that but, given that it is a country with very weak governance, they also go to the office of Alvaro Colom [President of Guatemala at the time of his writing] and buy his advisers and close officials; they even bug his office. This causes political instability. There have been attempts to carry out a coup against Colom by political groups bought by Los Zetas or, alternatively, by the Sinaloa cartel, two groups that have been vying for power in Guatemala for a long time.”

In this deadly quicksand, many Central Americans struggle to earn their daily bread with their lives hanging by a thread. Chepe Melgar now lives in Virginia but was the terrified witness of the drug dealers’ ingenuity in his home town: “Drugs were transported to Mexico by train. There’s another drug trafficker who owns the whole area, he’s untouchable. He has a fleet of taxis to distribute drugs. People think they’re carrying passengers but it’s only drugs. It’s in La Unión. He’s created a tuna processing plant but drugs are delivered there. They put the drugs in the tuna cans and transport them that way. It’s still going on.” This is the same trick used by Chapo Guzmán: he shipped cocaine to the US by train concealed in tins of jalapeño peppers. Melgar also witnessed massacres during the civil war and knows that the two experiences are related.

Drug traffickers: a legacy of the 1980s

In contrast to Buscaglia, Melgar knows that the narcocracy isn’t a new phenomenon in the region. What are new are the bloody disputes and the Mexican dominance, with Mexicans apparently replacing another more prominent actor. The drug-related violence from which the Central Americans are fleeing today has its historical base in the tripod formed in the eighties by the Central Intelligence Agency, the region’s military and drug traffickers.

In her 2010 book Los señores del narco, Anabel Hernández, one of the most thorough researchers of the issue, shows how collaboration with the counterrevolutionaries insured impunity for the drug traffickers. “On July 6, 1990, on the stand of the Los Angeles, California, Federal Court, Lawrence Victor Harrison made the following statement before an empty chamber: ‘Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (boss of the bosses in the 1980s) told me he believed his drug operations were safe because he provided arms to the Nicaraguan contras.’” Harrison, who supplied radios to the now extinct, or recycled, Guadalajara cartel, also declared that there had been a contra training camp on the ranch of Rafael Caro Quintero, who was released in 2013 after 28 years in prison for the murder of undercover DEA agent Enrique Kiki Camarena. “My impression,” he testified, “is that the operation was there by order of the American government.”

DEA agent Héctor Berrelles, who led Operation Leyenda, also witnessed the links between the CIA and drug trafficking. When he informed his superiors about the bases where CIA planes transferred drugs, they told him in no uncertain terms: “Keep away from those bases. They are training camps, special operations.” A little further south, Carlos Lehder Rivas, co-founder of the Medellín cartel, confessed that his “company” had been given access to Mena airport in Arkansas by the CIA in exchange for providing the contras with US$10 million.

We should remember that, in 1989, when current Secretary of State John Kerry was a senator, he led a commission that revealed the sharp white tip of the iceberg. Under oath, Colombian drug trafficker Jorge Morales told Senator Kerry that in 1984, when he was being tried for drug trafficking, two CIA agents offered him freedom in exchange for a monthly payment of US$250,000 to the contras. By the time the war ended, Morales said he had given them US$3 million. Kerry confirmed the truth of this statement. Morales’ pilots made repeated flights carrying weapons to Central America and drugs to the US, giving the contras profits of at least US$ 40 million.

In El Salvador, the Tom Thumb of America, Hangar 4 of Ilopango military airport was the point of departure for snow-white cargo on its way to Grand Cayman and southern Florida. The CIA asked the DEA to stop its investigations into Hangar 4, vouching for the legitimacy of the activities conducted there.

The conclusions of Kerry’s report were categorical: “There was substantial evidence of drug-smuggling through the war zones on the part of individual Contras, Contra suppliers, Contra pilots, mercenaries who worked with the Contras, and Contra supporters throughout the region. … Indeed, senior US policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contra’s funding problems.”

A decade later, the CIA’s Hitz report established that the agency knew that three companies involved in drug trafficking were hired to support the contras between 1984 and 1988. The report contains numerous details of how Edén Pastora, currently FSLN representative on the strategic Río San Juan, bordering Costa Rica, acted as intermediary between the CIA and the drug traffickers.

Companies made in the USA:
Kaibiles & co., Atlacatl Inc., Escuadroneros Ltd.

The nexus between US anti-insurgent policy, militarism and drug traffickers is the missing link between the past and present of the Central American drugs trade. The death squads and the elite military forces (Guatemala’s Kaibiles and El Salvador’s Atlacatl Battalion) trained by the US Army to conduct operations against rebel forces are nowadays key pieces of the regional drugs jigsaw.

Given that the growth of militarism went hand in hand with the growth of US military presence, Robert Holden prefers to talk about US-Central American military power. In this he makes clear the true extent and reach of US military power in the region, with which the empire supported and fomented the Central American oligarchs’ counter-offensive.

The US provided US$1.2 billion in military aid to El Salvador during the 1980s and half that amount to Honduras. From the 1960s, Guatemala received almost all its pistols and rifles from the US before Israel became its principal supplier. In total, the US provided US$2.3 billion in direct military aid.

This support led to a fusion between the State and militarism. “From a long-term perspective, the Guatemalan State has been a military power” and during “thirty years of systematic anti-popular repression (1954-1985) and fewer years of armed conflict … the military’s role was redefined as the Praetorian guard of the bourgeois order.”

We are militarized States

Both the armed conflict and the peace process were possible not only because of internal factors but also because they suited US interests. In the first place, Latin America was a bastion against communism but with the fall of the Berlin Wall it stopped being a Cold War battlefield. Consequently, Torres-Rivas concludes that “democratization wasn’t a transition but rather the result of pacts between factions of the military, business and political elite guided by ‘the Embassy’s’ initiatives.”

But it wasn’t possible to stop the war dynamic with a decree. Central America’s armies had grown. Guatemala’s, which had 27,000 members at the end of the 1970s, had reached 55,000 by the mid-1980s, not counting members of the militarized police or the paramilitaries. Its reduction to 15,500 soldiers in 2004 was a time bomb. What should be done with the demobilized men?

While there were 55,000 soldiers, the number of paramilitaries reached 1.2 million, most of them, according to Dutch social scientist Dirk Kruijt, “indigenous auxiliary troops licensed to kill, rape, burn and destroy.” What could be done with those even more uncontrollable paramilitary forces and with the wake of resentment and potential vendettas? Kruijt estimates that around a third of the combatants from both sides—soldiers, paramilitaries and guerrillas—went to the United States as either legal or undocumented immigrants to escape their desperate situation.

Soldiers who want no rest

Other ex-combatants remained, forming part of an unwanted legacy. Viewed from the second decade of the 21st century, this legacy doesn’t seem clear, unlike in the mid-1990s when Edelberto Torres-Rivas wrote: “One of the most expressive forms of disorder in several of the region’s societies can be seen in the violent acts of warriors who don’t want to rest because they consider themselves, at the limits of subjectivity, the victims of unrewarded heroism. Dozens of young men went to war expecting some kind of recompense. The demobilized Nicaraguan contras, both the Sandinista and Salvadoran soldiers discharged following the Peace Accords and the retired FMLN guerillas make up a negatively defined homogenous group: they are formerly young, largely ex-peasants who had no chance to gain any kind of professional qualification. They are the human results of negation by a system they defended or threatened that now can’t incorporate them. Contrary to their rights, they constitute a factor of repeated disorder.”

Drug trafficking gave many of those who laid down their weapons a financial lifeline. Guatemalan officials recognize that “when Chapo Guzmán began to collaborate with the Guatemalan drug lords he recruited deserters from the Kaibiles, the Guatemalan army special forces” once promoted by then-active General Otto Pérez Molina, currently Guatemala’s President. Several prestigious journalists have confirmed the nexus between Kaibiles and Mexican drug traffickers, including Anabel Hernández, Ricardo Ravelo (“Although the Gulf cartel’s armed wing emerged from the belly of the Mexican government… in recent years it has been reinforced with Guatemalan army deserters, the so-called ‘Kaibiles’”), Malcom Beith (“former Guatemalan soldiers converted into Zetas”), Diego Enrique Osorno (“Kaibil instructors came from Guatemala to give two annual courses to the band’s new soldiers”), Ana Lidia Pérez (“With help from the Kaibiles, Otto Roberto Herrera converted the Petén into the Sinaloa cartel’s larder”) and Francisco Goldman (“the FBI reported that 30 former Guatemalan army Kaibiles had been recruited by Los Zetas as hired assassins and instructors. According to the reports, decapitations were perpetrated in a particular manner associated with the Kaibiles, who used extremely sharp bayonets”).

Military – CIA – Drug traffickers

What makes the legacy even more ominous is that the collaboration between drug traffickers and the military isn’t limited to retired soldiers. Francisco Goldman points to the cross-fertilization of the military and organized crime: “Members of Guatemala’s Army grew rich through criminal activities such as drug trafficking, kidnapping, car theft, smuggling, extortion and others.”

According to reporters for the Mexican magazine Proceso, “Out of reach of the Mexican government, Joaquín el Chapo Guzmán moved freely in Guatemala and Honduras with “military” protection, personally directing the movement of drugs from Central America to Mexico and the US. Protected by this comfortable sponsorship, el Chapo was able to spend time in Guatemala City.” They cited one anonymous source saying “he spent February and March 2010 in the Majadas residential complex where he had two or three houses” and claiming that “he is looked after by Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran military personnel as well as being protected by the local police wherever he goes. Listening teams that work for him have also been found on the border with El Salvador in southeast Guatemala.”

El Chapo traveled in helicopters, one of his favorite companies being Transportes Aéreos de Guatemala (TAG), owned by retired General Francisco Ortega Menaldo. Menaldo’s resume is without equal: trained in 1976 at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia; veteran of the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s; married to the daughter of retired General Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio who was President from 1970 to 1974; key player in ex-President Alvaro Portillo’s money laundering; linked to the CIA when he directed military intelligence in the 1980s; and member of “La Cofradía,” a group of high-ranking military officers dedicated to drug trafficking and arms smuggling since the 1980s. In other words, he’s a magnificent example of solid and fertile collusion between drug traffickers, military and US agencies.

Regional re-militarization:
Putting out fires with gasoline

The numerical reduction of the Central American militaries didn’t imply an associated dismantlement of their political influence or culture. Their bayonets throw a long shadow. Wolseth holds that the presence of American military advisers in Honduras created an environment in which authoritarian and armed tactics were the norm among Honduran military and police (bodies that were separate until the 1990s).

Recently declassified CIA information reveals that, while US ambassador in Honduras during the 1980s, John Negroponte had encouraged the military to use dirty military tactics against the Honduran population and arranged for Argentine military to train the Honduran forces. According to Wolseth, this training and dirty war are commonplace in today’s Honduras in the form of extrajudicial executions of poor, homeless children and youths. The zero tolerance policies and use of the special ops police “Los Cobras” give formal backing to this legacy of authoritarianism and exercise of power through violence. From this point of view, violence is a legacy and extension of the war. The perpetrators of violence reproduce a culture based on the know-how they absorbed in the 1970s and 1980s. The de facto powers can accept being out of the limelight but not the abandonment of their methods or the loss of the levers of control that enable their primitive accumulation of resources.

A curious, paradoxical effect of the increasing violence and drug-related activities is the buttressing of the power of a military that still, as in the past, enjoys Uncle Sam’s blessing and patronage. Everything happens under the ideological umbrella of public security, which feeds on mixophobia, liquid fears and uncontrollable surveillance, leading to the loss of autonomy of penal justice, now subordinated to punitive populism. The 2010 edition of the Comparative Atlas of Defence in Latin America and the Caribbean reports that the Salvadoran defense budget increased by almost 20% between 2006 and 2010. In the same period Guatemala’s defense budget increased by almost 16% and Honduras’ by 64%. During 2011, the Pentagon increased its military spending in Honduras by 71% over the year before, spending US$53.8 million. According to the US State Department, Washington’s annual aid to Central America to fight drug trafficking increased by 75% from 2008 to 2012, reaching a total of US$496 million, with another US$107 million in 2013 bring it up to more than US$600 million. This funding provides the foundations for the region’s remilitari¬zation. Given that it reinforces the base of the disease the US says it wants to cure, it’s a strategy of putting out fires with gasoline.

Guatemala’s symptoms

Guatemala has many symptoms that presage a return to the past of rifles, cartridge belts and bayonets, or at least show it’s resisting its demise. The Peace Accords’ key actors failed to internalize the norms of transitional justice.

The murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in April 1998 made clear the Guatemalan military leadership’s resistance to these agreements and to the clarification of crimes and responsibilities. Exhaustive investigation by public prosecutors and by journalist Francisco Goldman established that both the orders and the executioners came from the Presidential General Staff and that “the assassination of Bishop Gerardi and its repercussions coincided with a ferocious government campaign against human rights organizations and, particularly, the Catholic Church. In September of that year, in a speech to cadets graduating from officer training, President Arzú called human rights activists ‘nearly traitors.’”

That label gave carte blanche to repressive forces whose abuses were quick to appear: the intimidating search of the Association for the Advance of Social Sciences in Guatemala (AVANCSO) in March 2002; death threats against San Marcos’ Bishop Ramazzini, forensic anthropologists exhuming clandestine cemeteries and Catholic monks and nuns working in Quiché and San Marcos; the murder of key witnesses in corruption cases; the fire at the parish house in Nebaj that destroyed original documents from the Recovery of Historical Memory project (REMHI) that revealed the terrible butchery of the scorched earth operations; and the 2012 massacre by soldiers of eight indigenous Kichés who were demonstrating in Totonicapán to demand improvements in electricity supply and against constitutional and educational reforms.

Other examples include the murder of businessman Edgar Ordóñez Porta, who was competing with the military in oil refining; the extrajudicial execution and disappearance, respectively, of Quekchí peasants Rosa Pec Chub and Carlos Coc Rox by land-grabbling property owners; the disappearance of Mayra Gutiérrez for revealing illegal adoption networks; and the numerous victims of social cleansing and other epidemic manifestations of the corporate mafia State, that nefarious alliance between traditional oligarchs, some ‘new businessmen,” elements of the police and the army and common criminals.
All this was denounced by Amnesty International in its significantly titled report “Guatemala’s Lethal Legacy: Past Impunity and Renewed Human Rights Violations.” It provides a homeopathic sample in the 21st century of the anti-insurgent cures of the 1970s and 1980s.

Symptoms throughout the region

In Honduras, the murder of Carlos Mejía Orellana, Radio Progreso’s marketing director, is fresh in the memory as the climax of a generalized wave of threats, searches and other types of harassment that got much worse following the coup against Zelaya, a bloody ritual with which the military has confirmed its continuing dominance through a series of extrajudicial murders.

The renewed militarism following a larval period could disrupt what Torres-Rivas calls the “militarized State.” This militarization, which might well end up swallowing the State, is sanctified and strengthened through US financial support. It was confirmed in Alfonso Portillo’s government in Guatemala when three former military officers were appointed to head up ministries and filled them with more retired officers. It has also been confirmed by General Otto Pérez Molina’s election to the Guatemalan presidency, the coup in Honduras, and the FSLN’s now seamless control of Nicaragua’s police and army, with their corresponding loss of political neutrality. Further confirmation can be seen in El Salvador in the naming of General David Munguía Payés first as minister of justice and public security then as national defense minister. In 1993, he was honored with the Order of Santa Bárbara by the Venezuelan Army for being part of the “Legion of Honor of the venerable Universal Brotherhood of Men descended from indomitable archers, cross¬bowmen, catapult operators and gunners.”

The anti-mara policies, whose hooks destroy gang members and non-members alike, are another dimension of Central America’s remilitarization. In El Salvador, they are a sign that the National Civilian Police—which emerged from the Peace Accords but from the outset included many ex-soldiers who had fought the guerillas with torture and massacres—follows a tradition marked by authoritarianism, disdain for human rights, lack of investigative capacity and abuse. The draconian laws and military patrols are guided by the logic of punitive populism and form part of the process that’s transmuting electoral democracy into what Sonja Wolf calls “electoral authoritarianism.”

Three outcomes sum up
the results of this process

First outcome: militarism has gained ground. It hasn’t regained the ability to call all the shots but its logic and methods, superficially renewed with the conceptual varnish of public security, have imposed themselves as the most expeditious means of bringing order to Central America’s unstable and tumultuous postwar environment.

Second outcome: in the grip of multiple fears, many Central Americans have turned to private security, a permanently buoyant business administered, advised and/or owned by current and former members of the military. In Guatemala in 2008, there were 120,000 private security guards compared to only 19,974 police officers. In Honduras the respective figures were 60,000 and 12,301 and in El Salvador, 21,146 and 16,737. With 611 private guards per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, Central America was one of the areas of the continent with the greatest hiring of private security, well ahead of Mexico with 435, Colombia with 427 and Venezuela with 240.

Third outcome: the gains in these two areas place the military in a better position to strengthen their drug business. Violence continues, and so does asylum seeking.

The US is stained by this crisis

The object of this catalogue of dramas, which may seem like a drawn-out digression, is to explain that the cruelest manifestations of violence in Central America are associated with the US relationship to the region and the events that have marked it: deportation of gang members; the drug market (the consumers are in the US and the CIA acted as godmother); the empowering of the military; the creation and training of repressive organizations, first engaged in “legitimate” crimes then dedicated to illegal crime; and an arms trade that supplies organized crime.

If the right to asylum could be claimed on the basis of moral responsibility and the historical record, the leading role of the US as a drug market, arms supplier and “narco-military” trainer would make it an almost exclusive and obligatory refuge. Neither before nor now can the great powers cause a problem somewhere in the world then pretend that the problem and its consequences are bottled-up in that place without affecting them. Humanitarian organizations have failed to name or explain these precedents. They have de-historicized asylum requests and concentrated attention on the children, the population sector that they can most easily use to appeal to the general public’s compassion.

José Luis Rocha is a member of envío’s editorial council and is associated with the Institute of Sociology of Philipps University, Marburg, Germany.

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