Why are they coming? The Central American trail of tears.

(MAP:news.nationalgeographic.com) Updated 1/10/19

WHY are Central Americans coming here?

No, don’t go “lalalalalala – TLDR!” It’s actually really interesting, and there’s lots of foreshadowing of our future under Putin’s influence and Trump’s tender mercies in what we did to Central America over the last 60 years. Election influencing, bribes, puppet leaders, money laundering, targeting “enemies”, repressive law-making. It’s all one big drama and we’re not the heroes. If we’re angry at what’s happening to us, we should be angry at what happened to them.

Since most Americans have never traveled to Central America, they haven’t seen firsthand the impact of those years of failed and rapacious US foreign and economic policies that have resulted in the destabilized, dangerous chaos that Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans face daily.

What Americans do see is the arrival of children at the border — a late-stage consequence of billions of U.S. tax dollars wasted over decades propping up generals and oligarchs to protect US business interests.

In 2014, their presence became too large to ignore. Tens of thousands of women and unaccompanied children from the Central America came seeking asylum. Obama and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented an “aggressive deterrence strategy.”, which, along with a media campaign, tried to warn potential travelers that the journey was not. worth. the. risk.

But it was.

“Salvadoran and Honduran children . . . come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the United States preferable to remaining at home.”

How it started – the big concepts.

(This is a condensation of a great article you can read in full here.)

  • “The Big Stick”: (Yes, you may have been tested on this in high school.) In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt declared the US had a right to meddle in Latin American affairs with an “international police power”. This “Roosevelt Corollary” inverted the original intent of the  Monroe Doctrine  and came to justify unilateral U.S. intervention in Latin America.
  • Empire building: We came, we saw, we took stuff. For decades, US military intervention and economic manipulation undermined democracy and stability in the region, ultimately creating opportunities for drug cartels and paramilitary alliances to rise to power. There is grim irony in that, that with our history of overrunning these countries for raw resources US business can now profit off of Central America without ever leaving home, simply by incarcerating their refugees from violence and economic devastation.
  • “Spreading Freedom”: In the past 15 years, U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has restructured the region’s economy and guaranteed economic dependence on the US through massive trade imbalances and the influx of American agricultural and industrial goods that weakened or destroyed domestic industries, especially rural agriculture. One of the most pernicious features of the agreement is a provision called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism (ISDS). This allows private corporations to sue governments over alleged violations of a long list of so-called “investor protections,” including claims that public interest laws and regulations, especially environmental protections, can reduce the value of their investments. These lawsuits are financially devastating to poor countries that already struggle to provide basic services to their people. Like food. The mining industry is proving particularly predatory. Here’s the US fact sheet on ISDS agreements. It’s interesting to note that “Because of the safeguards in U.S. agreements and because of the high standards of our legal system, foreign investors rarely pursue arbitration against the United States and have never been successful when they have done so.”     
  • The U.S. drug war: Launched in 1971 by President Nixon, it pushed cartels from Colombia into Central America. Latin American leaders implored the U.S. to take a different approach to drug consumption in this country. Instead, we dumped billions of dollars into Central American security forces in the name of a militarized war on drugs. Now widely regarded as a failure, it increased corruption, deteriorated human rights and exacerbated conditions that led to mass migration, with nothing to show in terms of the stated goals of curbing trafficking.

A country-by country-tour of the damages


1920: President Manuel Estrada Cabrera, an ally to U.S. corporate interests who had granted several concessions to the United Fruit Company, was overthrown in a coup. The United States sent an armed force to ensure the new president, Carlos Herrera  remained amenable to U.S. corporate interests.

1947: President Juan José Arévalo’s  “worker’s government” gave Guatemalan workers the right to unionize and demand pay raises for the first time. The United Fruit Company, as the largest employer and landowner in the country, lobbied the U.S. government for intervention.

1952: Newly-elected President Jacobo Árbenz issued the Agrarian Reform Law, which redistributed land to 500,000 landless  and largely indigenous   peasants.

1954:  President Eisenhower, under the sway of United Fruit, authorized the CIA to overthrow democratically-elected President Jacobo Árbenz, ending an unprecedented ten years of democratic rule in the country. The U.S. then installed Carlos Castillo Armas, whose authoritarian government rolled back land reforms and cracked down on peasant and workers’ movements.

1965: The CIA sent Green Berets and other counterinsurgency advisors to aid the authoritarian government’s repression of left-wing movements. The US’s “direct complicity” in Guatemalan war crimes would be compared to Himmler’s extermination squads.

1971: Amnesty International found that 7,000 civilian dissidents have been “disappeared” under the government of U.S.-backed Carlos Arana, nicknamed “the butcher of Zacapa” for his brutality.

1981: The Guatemalan Army launched “Operation Ceniza”against a growing Marxist guerrilla movement. Entire villages were bombed and looted, and their residents executed, using high-grade US military equipment. The Reagan administration approved a $2 billion covert CIA program in Guatemala along with $22.7 million worth of military equipment.

mid 1980’s: 150,000 civilians are killed in the war, with 250,000 refugees fleeing to Mexico. Military leaders and government officials would later be tried for the genocide of the Maya victims of military massacres.

1982: U.S.-backed military coup installed Efraín Ríos Montt in the presidency.

1990-2006: Ten years after a U.N.-brokered peace deal and the resumption of democratic elections, Guatemala entered the CAFTA-DR free trade deal with the United States. Ninety-five percent of U.S. agricultural exports now enter Guatemala duty-free. This deal has resulted in farmers being displaced, as a country once nearly self-sufficient in corn production became dependent on imports in the 1990s as a surplus of subsidized American corn flowed south. Guatemalan farmers could not compete, and corn production dropped roughly 30 percent per capita from 1995 to 2005.

2007-on: The expansion of the global biofuels industry to meet 1st world demand has contributed to spikes in food prices and a shortage of land for food-based agriculture in poor countries. The large companies that own most of the arable land are profiting, while the average families must spend about two thirds of their income on food. “The average Guatemalan is now hungrier because of biofuel development,” said Katja Winkler, a researcher at Idear, a Guatemalan nonprofit organization that studies rural issues. Roughly 50 percent of the nation’s children are chronically malnourished, the fourth-highest rate in the world, according to the United Nations.

2008: Meanwhile the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism allowed foreign companies were  to sue when they feel their interests are being interfered with. In 2009, Guatamala was successfully sued by a US corporation for almost $30 million for stopping them from charging users higher fees for electricity that deemed fair.

2011: The child migrant “surge” begins. According to the UN, 58 percent of the 400 youth the agency interviewed “had suffered, been threatened, or feared serious harm” that might merit international protection. “This is becoming less like an immigration issue and much more like a refugee issue,” says Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a DC-based nonprofit that helps unaccompanied immigrant kids find pro bono legal services. “Because this really is a forced migration. This is not kids choosing voluntarily to leave.”


2013: Montt is convicted of genocide in 2013 for trying to exterminate the indigenous Maya Ixil.

2016: 15,000 Indigenous people gathered in Guatemala City to demand protection of water resources from corporate exploitation and to protest the displacement of their communities by unwanted hydroelectric dams and the pollution caused by corporate farming and extractive projects in their territories. Central America continues to suffer harsh drought conditions that have affected millions of farmers across the region and exacerbated already fragile food security. El Salvador declared a water state of emergency for the first time ever last week in response.

2017: A United Nations-backed anti-corruption commision requested a formal investigation into President Morales over unexplained campaign funds. Days later, Morales moved to expel the head of the commission, but the act, was quickly blocked by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. Morales hinted that he would ignore the court’s veto, though he eventually backed down. “You have a president who twice in a week showed a willingness to put his own personal interests above the rule of law…” Camilleri says. “Any time you have a president trying to put himself above the rule of law, that is very serious.”

2018Violence and extortion by powerful criminal organizations remain serious problems in Guatemala. Gang-related violence is an important factor prompting people, including unaccompanied youth, to leave the country. Intimidation against judges and prosecutors and corruption within the justice system continue to be problems.


1911: American entrepreneur Samuel Zemurray, tired of paying taxes and limited as a foreigner on how much land he could buy, launched a coup against President Miguel Dávila with deposed Honduran President Manuel Bonilla and U.S. General Lee Christmas. After seizing several northern Honduran ports, Bonilla won the Honduran 1911 presidential election. Zemurry went on to control subsequent presidents.

1912: Bonilla rewarded his corporate U.S. backers with land and tax incentives to American companies, including Vaccaro Bros. and Co. (now Dole Food Company) and United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International).

1914, U.S. banana interests would come to own one million acres of the nation’s best land —backed up with U.S. military forces.

1975: United Fruit Co. (United Brands) paid a $1.25 million bribe to support a reduction in banana export taxes.

1980’s: Reagan stationed troops in Honduras to train Contra right-wing rebels to fight against Nicaragua’s Sandanistas along with military aid of over $77.5 million. Such moves greatly strengthened the militarization of Honduran society. In turn, political repression rose. There was a dramatic increase in the number of political assassinations, “disappearances” and illegal detentions.

1980’s: Trade policies during Reagan’s administration emphasized global capital and restructuring the Honduran economy. It did so by strongly pushing for internal economic reforms, with a focus on exporting manufactured goods. It also helped deregulate and destabilize the global coffee trade, upon which Honduras heavily depended. These changes made Honduras more amenable to the interests of global capital. They disrupted traditional forms of agriculture and undermined an already weak social safety net.

2005: Honduras entered CAFTA, despite protests by unions and farmers. Country becomes a net argricultural importer, and farmers leave the countryside, looking for work in the cities.

2009: Progressive and democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, proponent of higher minimum wages and subsidized public transportation, is exiled in a military coup, after declaring that a constituent assembly would be allowed to replace the 1982 constitution created during the time of a US-back military dictator. Although the Obama administration officially decried Zelaya’s ouster, it equivocated on whether or not it constituted a coup, which would have required the U.S. to stop sending most aid to the country.

2011- 2014: The child migrant “surge” begins.


2017: Thousands of protesters contested results of the recent presidential election, alleging rigging by the ruling party. By Dec. 2017, 31 people opponents of President Juan Orlando Hernández, had died in post-election violence at the hand of military police. The US-backed government has rejected a request by the Organization of American States (OAS) to send a special delegate to investigate abuses. “The United States has a strong incentive to pressure Hernández to cut it out,” said Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The optics of the US backing a candidate that goes out and massacres a lot the opposition are not great.”

Current: Strong military ties between the U.S. and Honduras persist: several hundred U.S. troops are stationed at Soto Cano Air Base (formerly Palmerola) in the name of fighting the drug war and providing humanitarian aid.

“Corrupt administrations have unleashed open criminal control of Honduras, from top to bottom of the government” and organized crime, drug traffickers and the country’s police heavily overlap. Frequent politically-motivated killings take place with impunity.. It is the world’s most dangerous country for environmental activists, according to Global Witness, an international nongovernmental organization. All this makes Honduras  the murder capital of the world with a peak in 2011 of 91.6 murders per year. After a truce breakdown between MS-13 and Barrio 18, homicide increased to to 104/100,000 in 2015. (DHS)

El Salvador

1932:  Our economic interests in coffee plantations and railways caused us to put down a rebellion against a genocidal President/military leader.

1960: The US withholds recognition of their elections and we’re accused of helping a right-wing coup take over the government.

1980-1992: Reagan interfered in their civil war, funding the military-led government and training their Atlacatl Battalion, who, according to the UN, were responsible for 85% of the deaths of unarmed civilians, including the El Mozote massacre that killed over a thousand men, women and children. Reagan denied the troops’ involvement, but the Clinton administration declassified the confirming documents.

1980: Four American nuns were killed by the Salvadoran military. Jeane Kirkpatrick, a foreign-policy adviser for Reagan, said that not only was that not true, but that “The nuns were not just nuns,” she told The Tampa Tribune. “The nuns were also political activists,” with a leftist political coalition

1984: While giving over a million dollars to sway their elections, we deny all but 3% of those fleeing the civil war, deny allegations of human rights violations  and designate the asylum seeks as “economic migrants.

1990: Congress passes legislation designating Salvadorans for Temporary Protected Status. In 2018, President Trump would end TPS status for the 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States.

(For actions to protect our Salvadoran TPS neighbors, go here.)

2006: El Salvador entered the Dominican RepublicCentral America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which gave global multinationals increased influence over domestic trade and regulatory protections over the protest of unionists, farmers, and  workers.

2006 on: The huge reserves of surplus labor and lack of employment opportunities  fueled the drug and gang violence plaguing the region and sparked international migration.

2012: Obama visited Argentina’s memorial to the victims of their war and exresses regret for US support of the “dirty war”. No US official has visited El Mozote.

2013: Two international mining firms,Pacific Rim and Commerce Group, have used the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism to sue El Salvador to grant permits for potentially environmentally devastating gold mining projects. On Pacific Rim, the ICSID tribunal ruled that it did not have jurisdiction under the Central American Free Trade Agreement but allowed the case to go forward under El Salvador’s investment law. Pacific Rim is demanding “compensation” of $315 million (the equivalent of approximately 1.8% of El Salvador’s GDP,or about half its entire education budget. Although ICSID dismissed the Commerce Group case, El Salvador still had to pay $800,000 in legal fees, and the company is seeking an annulment of the decision.

2014: The U.S. threatened to withhold almost $300 million in development aid unless El Salvador ended using their own locally sourced corn and bean seeds.

2011: The child migrant “surge” begins.

2015: Under the tariff reduction model of CAFTA-DR, all U.S. industrial and commercial goods enter El Salvador duty free, creating impossible conditions for domestic industry to compete. As of 2016, the country had a negative trade balance of $4.18 billion.

2018:  Gang violence, especially in El Salvador, has its roots in the United States. The maras, international criminal organizations that terrorize Central American communities, were exported back home from Los Angeles street gangs and metastasized in the chaotic wake of the civil wars the U.S. government stoked. Young girls are in particular danger now. Along with a high murder rate (1/1000) that challenges Honduras’ record, there’s been a huge rise in homicides committed by state security forces: from 11 in 2010 to 618 in 2016.

The US’ decision to end “temporary protected status” (TPS) for some 192,000 Salvadorans means that most of them — those unable to obtain another legal status in the US — will face deportation come mid-2019. This threatens to break up tens of thousands of families, separating 192,000 adults from 200,000 children who are US-born citizens, as well as fomenting social upheaval and economic stress in El Salvador.

State institutions are already scrambling to cope with the steady stream of returning citizens, but they will be stretched beyond breaking point if current TPS holders are deported on a large scale.

This is not a border crisis. This is a multi-country crisis. Which we helped start. Now we need to do the right thing.

It’s a waste of money to spend more tax dollars on fortifying the border, building more detention centers or sending these children and families back to the hellscapes they escaped from.

Instead, the administration should offer them all due process and legal representation, reunite them with their families where possible and grant asylum to those who qualify.

Treating child refugees humanely and fairly is only the first step. The conditions that send them northward will deteriorate further unless the U.S. government addresses the root causes of this crisis. This is our problem as well as theirs. We have enough history to know which of our policies were responsible for destabilizing regions.

  • The U.S. government must stop supporting brutal regimes in Central America and instead work with human-rights groups in these countries to restore the rule of law.
  • It’s time to end the failed, costly drug war and stop militarizing the region with weapons and training.
  • We need to rein in predatory corporations that are destroying  economies and the environment in the name of their own profits. We need to modify trade agreements so that home-grown agriculture and business can compete.