In what is considered one of the deadliest journeys in Central America, over 7000 migrants traveled to the US-Mexico border last week. Tattered with heat and hunger, aboard a shabby kochi, these migrants made a 4,350 km journey to Tijuana (a border city in Mexico) to cross over and seek asylum in U.S.
But much to their disappointment, U.S. President Donald Trump had deployed over 15000 troops at the border to prevent the migrants from entering. His plan was to send them back to their own country and have them apply for asylum legally. But pushing back a rally of thousands of people, desperate and dejected, from the border, certainly couldn’t happen without some amount of force.
Which brings us to the current situation – a long-impending massive border crisis – that has been going on for weeks. And this is not just a matter of one caravan or a one-time friction. The roots of the current crisis lie in a 50-year-old flawed U.S. policy – one that drastically changed the political landscape of Central America.
Central American Wars
The story starts with the Central American crisis in the 1960s when major communist revolutions were propping up in El Salvador and Guatemala. This was the time when the ideological battle between Democracy and Communism (aka the Cold War) between the United States and the Soviet Union was at its peak. And the U.S. was afraid that if Central America fell to communism, it wouldn’t be long before the influence reached North America as well.
So U.S. policymakers decided to mobilize the youth in El Salvador and Guatemala, by forming rebel battalions, giving them military grade weapons and training them to fight against the communist leaders. This led to the outbreak of civil wars in both nations (Guatemala 1960-1996 and El Salvador 1980-1992) spanning decades and killing thousands of people. During the war, U.S. helped the rebels overthrow their governments and establish military rule. Once the war had ended, it started pumping in billions of dollars in aid to these nations to help them bounce back from the ruins of war.
Of course, if we learnt anything from the Afghanistan and Libya revolutions, we know that arming civilians and overthrowing regimes does no good to the country in the long run.
The Honduran Crisis
Even though Honduras itself wasn’t facing a civil war, its close proximity to El Salvador and Guatemala made it a staging ground for the latter’s wars. The U.S. set up its army base and trained rebels in the country. Then in 2009, Honduras fell to the same fate as the other two nations. The Honduran military, with support from the US, staged a coup to overthrow the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.
In all three countries, together known as the Northern Triangle, the new military governments were inexperienced in handling the politics of the country. Even with the billions flowing in from the U.S., their economies kept tumbling. Honduras especially hit the hardest slump of the three. It was framed by stagnating production, de-industrialization, deteriorating trade, declining salaries, and severe poverty. Reports by the IMF and World Bank (graphs below) show that the GDP in these countries almost halved between 2010 and 2017. And in Honduras, 60-70% of the households have been living at poverty line.
The massive unemployment also allowed organized crime to thrive in the region. Rape was used as a weapon of war and punishment. Children were ripped from their parents’ arms and trafficked to violent gangs. Innocent people routinely faced extortion and threats of death if they didn’t acquiesce to the demands of some of the most brutal groups found anywhere on earth.
In fact, a 2015 investigation by Honduran newspaper La Prensa found that Salvadorans and Hondurans pay an estimated $390 million and $200 million, respectively, in annual extortion fees to organized crime groups. And the homicide rates in these countries are just outrageous.
With 103 deaths per 1,00,000, El Salvador is considered the deadliest country in the world. And Honduras is the worst hit with human rights violence by both criminal groups and government agents. Not just this, but the corruption level in these countries is also shocking. On speaking to citizens living in San Pedro Sula, the second most populous city in Honduras, they revealed that even though, on paper, the country is a “democracy” its President Juan Orlando Hernandez is a dictator in every possible sense, from trying to change the constitution to assassinating those who went against him. Hernandez was even accused of rigging the 2017 elections to bring himself to power again.
All in all, since the 1960s the Northern Triangle has been colossally destabilized with no remaining hope for recovery in the near future. The U.S. purposely supported military dictatorships in order to prevent the rise of communism in Central America. It fully financed the civil wars and pumped more money into a crime-ridden economy. The elite class in these countries were aligned with the military and strongly supported the US, and in return, the latter turned a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis in the Northern Triangle. As a result, thousands of people have tried to flee the country in the past years in caravans (journey in groups is safer than traveling alone because of fears of kidnapping and rape by criminal groups in the outskirts of Honduras).
In 2014, 68,000 unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle landed up on the Texas border. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of migrants almost doubled. In fact, according to World Bank indicators, in 2017 alone, over 2.89 million migrants travelled to U.S. from the Northern Triangle.
The U.S. Asylum Policy
Unfortunately, at this point, the U.S. has little sympathy to part with the Honduran migrants. Because even though the migrants have full right to apply for asylum in the US, the road to achieving that is riddled with hardships.
You see, citing resource constraints, the U.S. allows only 60 to 100 asylum seekers — or fewer — into San Ysidro each day. There is an unofficial wait list for the remaining migrants who are to wait in temporary shelters at the border. But every day, hundreds of people are added to this list, making the wait for asylum unbearably long.
Before the current caravan arrived on 15th November, wait times stretched to two months, and the migrant shelters at the Tijuana border were already near capacity. These are flimsy shelters that give no protection against heavy winds or rains, have inhumane living conditions, and lack of adequate water and food.
The Migrant March
On Sunday, 25th November, thousands of frustrated members of the migrant caravan planned to hold a march to be let into the U.S. and to protest conditions in the shelters where they were staying. Caravan members sought to speak to representatives of the Trump administration to negotiate.
In preparation for the march, the U.S. government deployed additional agents to the border for crowd control. The march splintered as groups of people attempted to cross the border en masse. And when the guards put up barricades to stop them, they threw rocks at the guards in anger. Shortly after, U.S. officials fired tear gas bombs and a flash-bang grenade at the migrants to stop their rally.
Now, tear gas is considered a chemical weapon under international law and has been banned from war zones. So using it on civilians has brought the U.S. under massive global ire and has raised the debate of humanitarian cruelty within the American Parliament. After the incident, some migrants told this reporter that they were fed up of their living situations and were planning to return to their country.
“A return journey without the caravan is deadly because criminal groups are on the lookout to kidnap people and extort money,” said Magali Flores, a mother of two and Salvadoran refugee at the Tijuana shelter. “We have lost hope in the U.S.,” said a few other migrants who had nearly escaped the gas bombs that morning.
Some caravan migrants have gone on hunger strike to protest against the gas bombs. “What the police are doing is unfair. The truth is we are fighting for our rights,” Gerson Madrid, a 22-year-old Honduran migrant told Reuters.
What can America do?
The real thing to debate here is that if America has helped cause this tragedy, can it not also help solve it?
Following the 2014 incident, the Obama administration had worked out a deal with governments of the Northern Triangle to provide $750m in aid to specifically address this crisis. Even Trump has been trying to strike a deal with Mexico that allows migrants to stay there and legally apply for asylum. But all to what avail? It’s not that easy to clean up a 50-year long mess. And now with one more caravan on its way to the border, the situation can only get worse. Tijuana has already declared a “humanitarian crisis” in the city. And Trump, despite his “stone-cold criminal” barb at the migrants is trying desperately to pull America out of this mess.