More than 7,000 refugees from Central America are currently travelling towards the southern border of the United States, and President Trump isn’t happy about it. He has been talking about a lot over the past few days, claiming everything from it being infiltrated by terrorists (untrue), to it being encouraged by the Democrats (also untrue).
But his real ire has been towards the home countries of these refugees, the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – for not stopping their citizens from leaving. “They have not done their job. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador – they’re paid a lot of money, every year we give them foreign aid and they did nothing for us, nothing,” Trump said yesterday.
The president dances near the truth with this statement. The countries of the Northern Triangle routinely rank among the most corrupt in the world. But government corruption alone doesn’t explain the ongoing crisis, nor does it account for the human toll. The United States has some responsibility for what is happening, and we are long overdue a reckoning.
To understand the current crisis in the Northern Triangle, one must go back to the 1960s. Guatemala and El Salvador both experienced civil wars which spanned decades and killed hundreds of thousands of people collectively. In Guatemala, the US helped stage a coup against the democratically-elected government in favour of a military junta, which it then spent decades supporting despite well-documented human rights abuses. It’s a similar story in El Salvador. Honduras did not have a civil war, but it was used as a staging ground for the Contras, a far-right guerrilla group backed by the Reagan administration in neighbouring Nicaragua’s civil war. These wars – backed by the American intelligence agencies – destabilised the region and subjected generations to a cycle of extreme poverty and violence.
This power vacuum has allowed organised crime to thrive in the Northern Triangle, but even here, the United States is partly responsible. The president’s favourite bogeyman is an American export. MS-13 got its start in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Through American deportations, it was repatriated to the region, where the carnage and corruption made it rife for an organised crime syndicate to thrive and terrorise the local population.
And terrorise they have. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have the highest female homicide rates in the world. Of the four most dangerous countries for women, three are in the Northern Triangle. (The other is South Africa, which narrowly edges out Guatemala for third place.) Rape is used as a weapon of war and punishment. Children are ripped from their parents’ arms and trafficked to profit the gangs. Innocent people routinely face extortion and threats of death if they don’t acquiesce to the demands of some of the most brutal groups found anywhere on earth.
But if America has helped cause this tragedy, it can also help solve it. Following the 2014 arrival of 68,000 unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle on the Texas border, the Obama administration worked with the governments of these countries to tie aid to concrete, measurable improvements on human rights in the region. The US Congress provided $750m in aid to the Northern Triangle countries to specifically address this crisis. By the end of the Obama Administration, as former vice president Joe Biden wrote earlier this year, the murder rate in Honduras had dropped by a third, and massive improvements were being made in Guatemala and El Salvador.
This was only a start, and not nearly enough, considering how grave the circumstances were. But Trump’s threat to cut aid would only make the situation worse, and as history shows, it is incumbent on America to make the situation better. We must be the solution to a problem we helped cause.
Long term, though, America must acknowledge the role we played in creating this crisis over the past half-century and find a way to solve it. It isn’t only our raison d'être, it’s our moral responsibility. There is a humanitarian crisis in our own backyard, one we helped cause, and we must be willing to do our bit and help these desperate people any way we can.
But more urgently, we must be willing to take Central American refugees. The current migrant caravan making its way towards the Rio Grande isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. America should receive these 7,000 or more refugees with open arms, in keeping with our national creed of taking the world’s tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to be free.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in North Carolina
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