Harvest of Children


Make no mistake about it: the children detained on the US-Mexico border and those winding their way north from Central America are the legacy of US intervention in the region in the 1980s and beyond. Guatemala was left in shambles in the wake of the genocidal war successive military regimes waged against its indigenous population with Washington’s blessing since the US government overthrew the Guatemalan president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954.

El Salvador’s attempted revolution stalemated the military regimes after the United States poured a million dollars per day into counter-insurgency for a decade. The result was not only the death of tens of thousands and a shattered economy, but also a country awash in weapons of war. That armament became readily available to young men deported from Los Angeles who took home a new modality of social organization: the “maras,” the gangs they formed in exile to negotiate the mean streets of Southern California and that now terrorize El Salvador.

Honduras was likewise affected. The Reagan administration used the country as a massive military base throughout the 1980s to battle the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador. In the process, the United States government weakened Honduras’ institutions even further, the coup de grace finally arriving in 2009 with the ousting of President Manuel Zelaya. Honduras became ripe for the double plague its people can endure no longer: a transfer point for drug shipments going from Colombia to Mexico and a breeding ground for youth gangs engaged in the trade, in addition to other criminal activity.

In both El Salvador and Honduras, the gangs have created mayhem of all sorts, inflicting violence upon the population with no apparent end in sight, always hungry for new, young recruits. It is that violence, with its roots in US foreign policy toward the region, that has pushed parents to do the unthinkable: to send their children to the United States unaccompanied by family members. The fear of having their children snatched by the gangs and inducted into them (under threat of death) is greater than the fear of human traffickers.

As a consequence, the US government now faces a compounded immigration problem and the human tragedy of the massive incarceration of children. And given the Republicans’ determination to oppose, deny, and derail every single policy proposal coming from the White House, it is hard not to be pessimistic about the future of those children. President Obama is asking Congress for more funding to do more of the same: to use his executive powers to deport immigrants by the millions. That might be the only proposal he will find bipartisan support for in Congress. After all, can anyone really expect that those who created the problem in the first place would be willing to fix it in a humane, just way?

About the author

Myrna Santiago

Myrna Santiago is professor of history at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her book, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938, won two prizes. She is working on a history of the 1972 Managua earthquake and is looking for witnesses willing to tell their stories: msantiag@stmarys-ca.edu. View all posts by Myrna Santiago →

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