Central America's Long Crisis


Events and issues pop up in the news overnight, but there is usually a long, complex story behind what we see and hear. So it is with the inhumanity at our southern borders. The unknown or forgotten context of immigration from Central America includes climate change, civil wars, and the gun trade.

For a long time, climatologists and others have predicted increasing numbers of environmental refugees across the world because of droughts, rising seas, and unusually violent storms. Now this hemisphere may be seeing its first large-scale migration affected by climate change.

Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala cross a region known as the Dry Corridor, which is getting drier. Droughts and consequent hunger—as well as gang violence, poverty, and unemployment—are driving the current flight north. These are all interrelated conditions. The Executive Director of the World Food Program says: “If you want to solve the migration problem, solve the food security problem.”  https://www.miamiherald.com/latest-news/article168957177.html

But judging by recent political responses to refugees in Europe and the United States, both compassion and proactive planning for the long term are likely to be in short supply as climate change creates more and more environmental refugees. Instead, migrants are a handy scapegoat for demagoguery and power seeking.

The second overlooked context for immigration from these ‘Northern Triangle’ countries is the civil wars of the 1980s, which in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala pitted peasants and poor working people against authoritarian governments that were supported by the United States. For decades of the Cold War, and especially under Reagan, the U.S. government invariably chose to give active support to oligarchs, dictators, and military juntas over the general population. Fear of communism was always the excuse.

In El Salvador, the United States gave the military government $4 billion, weapons, and counter-insurgency training in the United States for their military elite. Some returned from their training to carry out a massacre in El Mozote that killed about 1,200 men, women, and children. It was an especially brutal war. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/trump-and-el-salvador/550955/

In Guatemala’s conflicts, over 200,000 people died, mostly indigenous people (Mayans). The long civil war began after the CIA deposed the elected president in a 1954 coup. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/march99/guatemala11.htm?noredirect=on  The United States continued to support a succession of repressive governments, including that of President Efrain Rios Montt, who called himself a born-again Christian. In 2013, Montt was convicted of genocide and imprisoned. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jose-Efrain-Rios-Montt The United States also supported a counter-insurgency in Nicaragua (the Contras) that did not succeed.

All these wars certainly destabilized the region. They also left Central America awash in military weaponry. Which brings us to a third factor—guns for gangs. In the Northern Triangle gangs aren’t so much interested in military weapons. They prefer semi-automatic pistols such as Glocks. According to Alec MacGillis in The New Republic, many of these guns are legally purchased from retail dealers in the U.S. and smuggled into Central America. https://newrepublic.com/article/119026/guns-fueling-immigration-central-america-come-us 

What with CIA coups, pet dictators, involvement in civil wars, and supplying guns through our lax laws, the United States is not exactly innocent. As hungry and frightened asylum-seekers from Central America come to our borders, we cannot claim that we are the only injured party. 

Recognizing our responsibility and long-term interests, Congress allocated $750 million in the 2016 budget to the Alliance for Prosperity, an organization formed by the Northern Triangle countries to help them overcome their shared problems. However, Trump’s 2018 budget reduced that to $460 million.

Instead of a wall costing $25 billion, just a portion of that amount could resolve enough problems in the Northern Triangle so that the people there wouldn’t feel driven to leave their land, homes and kinfolks in order to survive.


Northern Triangle, Dry Corridor, Rios Montt, Alliance for Prosperity