Landless Mayans, coups and death squads; Policies that created the border crisis

Dora Rodriguez was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador, but granted asylum in the U.S. after fleeing the civil war in her native country. She now lives in Tucson, where she is a social worker and volunteers for migrant aid group Salvavision Rescue. Nov. 8, 2019. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

Cronkite News

Dos Erres, a village of more than 200 people, was massacred by Guatemala's special forces in 1974. The U.S. kept quiet until documents were declassified in 1998 and the massacres continued

Madeline Ackley
Cronkite News

It’s impossible to understand the current Central American migrant crisis without first knowing the history of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – collectively known as the Northern Triangle – and the role the United States has played in that history.

President Donald Trump frequently invokes the violent street gang MS-13 when referring to Central Americans. His policies have stymied the asylum process in ways that specifically affect people fleeing Central America, and he repeatedly has threatened to revoke protected status of thousands of Central Americans, many of whom have lived legally in the U.S. for decades.

But why is gang violence so prevalent in the Northern Triangle? Why are poverty rates so disproportionately high? And why do so many continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border despite Trump’s hardline immigration policies?

1900s-1950s

The majority of Central Americans live in extreme poverty, but the region itself is rich in natural resources. At the dawn of the 20th century, North American corporations began to take notice. The United Fruit Co., which was headquartered in Boston, played an outsize role in the economic and political spheres of Guatemala and Honduras during this time.

United Fruit made a proposition to the governments in Central America: the company would create vital infrastructure, such as railroads and sea ports, in exchange for valuable farming land. The company would gain a foothold in desirable territory and position itself to corner the banana market by controlling the supply chain from start to finish.

United Fruit, which later was rebranded as Chiquita Brands International, was widely successful in its aims in Central America. By the 1930s, the company was the primary employer in Guatemala. It even ran the Guatemalan postal service.

In 1951, a progressive named Jacobo Árbenz was elected president. As Guatemala’s second democratically elected president, he began to enforce the policies set by his predecessor, Juan José Arévalo.

The majority of United Fruit’s lands were uncultivated. Árbenz forced wealthy foreign companies to sell a percentage of their unfarmed land to the government so it could be put to use by landless Guatemalans, mainly impoverished Maya.

United Fruit, outraged, lobbied the U.S. State Department to intercede.

And intercede it did. Under the pretext of a communist takeover within the U.S. sphere of influence in the Caribbean, the Central Intelligence Agency organized a coup against Árbenz in 1954.

As U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy made clear in a letter to the State Department in 1953, the specter of communism was an excuse to intercede on behalf of United Fruit.

“I came away definitely convinced that if President (Árbenz ) is not a Communist he will certainly do until one comes along,” Peurifoy wrote.

Árbenz was replaced by a U.S. lackey, Carlos Enrique Diaz, who was in office for just two days before he, too, was ousted.

The coup touched off a period of instability and political turmoil in Guatemala and around the region. Brutal dictator after brutal dictator presided over the country, which eventually descended into an almost 40-year civil war that claimed at least 200,000 lives.

1950s-1980s

The 1980s perhaps were one of the most violent decades in Central American history. In Guatemala, it marked the beginning of a three-year genocide of indigenous Maya in the countryside known as “draining the sea.” It was believed that Maya living in the Guatemalan highlands were supporting Marxist guerrillas fighting the government.

To cut off support to the rebels, the military began a scorched-earth campaign against rural communities, razing at least 626 villages, mainly in the highlands.

The massacres were systematic. Military forces would enter a town, sometimes in disguise, and separate the men from the women and children. Soldiers would slaughter livestock, destroy crops and plunder homes. Anything of value would be stolen or destroyed.

Soldiers would often rape the women and girls before massacring everyone. Men, women, children, infants – no one was spared. The bodies usually were hidden in shallow, clandestine graves before the village would be burned as if it never existed.

Declassified documents reveal that the State Department had first-hand knowledge of these state-sponsored massacres. After reports that entire villages were being exterminated, the U.S. sent investigators to Guatemala.

They witnessed the aftermath of the massacre at Dos Erres, a small village in the north.

Over the course of three days beginning Dec. 6, 1982, the entire village, more than 200 people, was massacred by Kaibilies, a group of elite special forces formed by the military government in 1974.

The massacre at Dos Erres was atrocious, but routine, in the Guatemalan highlands in the early ‘80s.

Kaibilies were told by their commanders that the villagers had been harboring stolen weapons for rebels. After separating the men and women, they proceeded to murder the children and infants.

Villagers were marched to a nearby well, where they were interrogated about the supposed weapons, beaten and tossed into the 40-foot well – some while they were still alive.

None of the villagers provided any information, and no weapons were ever found at Dos Erres.

The State Department representatives arrived Dec. 30, just weeks after the massacre. They flew low over the site but were unable to touch down, so a full investigation could not be completed. They concluded, however, that the Guatemalan military was responsible for the massacre.

The U.S. kept the information quiet until documents were declassified in 1998. Meanwhile, the massacres continued.

Violence also ramped up in El Salvador, which began a 12-year civil war in 1979. During the conflict, the administration of Ronald Reagan paid $1 million to $2 million per day to the government of El Salvador, according to The New York Times in 1987.

The war was so brutal and disruptive that 25% of the total population of 4.5 million fled or were otherwise displaced, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Dora Rodriguez remembers when the civil war began. She was 19, at a house party in Santa Ana celebrating her high school graduation. Suddenly, the lights went out, and guests heard gunshots in the darkness. Frantic partygoers ducked under tables and hid in the bathroom.

“I knew that the war that everybody was talking about … it was the beginning,” Rodriguez said.

Today, Rodriguez is a social worker living in Tucson. She dedicates the rest of her time to an organization called Salvavision Rescue, which provides resources to migrants and works to improve conditions within El Salvador.

Rodriguez said she always has been engaged in her community, and as a teen belonged to a Catholic youth group. During the civil war, the military government targeted anyone suspected of being affiliated with Marxist rebels, including those active in the Roman Catholic Church.

After a youth group meeting at church one night, Rodriguez recalled, members were walking each other home. They saw René, the leader of the group, to his door and continued on. Then came gunfire from the direction of his house.

“I heard gunshots again, and screaming … we were just so terrified,” Rodriguez said, but when the gunfire died down, the group rushed back to investigate.

“Sure enough … it was René,” she said. “We found him in the lap of his grandmother, murdered.”

It was that night she made the decision to leave her family in El Salvador for the U.S. Rodriguez had relatives in Los Angeles, and her father lived in Phoenix. She talked it over with her mother and siblings and left for Mexico with a group of friends.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, they climbed the barrier to enter the U.S. but were detained by border agents. Rodriguez was sent back to El Salvador, where she was terrified that her community work had branded her a rebel.

“I was a target. I was young,” she said. “I (had) always been very vocal of my ideas and injustice and what is not right. … It was hard to be silent.”

She continued with her plan to escape to the U.S., this time with the help of a smuggler and accompanied by her uncle and a cousin.

TV and radio advertisements for human smuggling services were everywhere in El Salvador, Rodriguez said. The advertisements promised a flight directly to the U.S.-Mexico border, and from there a plane would be waiting to take them to Los Angeles. Rodriguez called it “the biggest lie.”

She and her uncle borrowed money to pay the smugglers $2,000 each – nearly $7,000 today and a fortune in El Salvador. They made it to the border but were caught.

On the bus back to El Salvador, Rodriguez saw bodies in the streets. She and the rest of the group that had paid the smugglers pressured them to make another journey. Eventually, they capitulated.

“They were not very happy with us because it was a second time they were losing money,” she said.

The same smugglers as before – three Salvadoran men – loaded the group of 45 onto a bus and headed north. Rodriguez bonded with three sisters, ages 12, 14 and 16, who were traveling without their parents.

Their journey through Mexico was arduous. To avoid checkpoints, the smugglers made them wait in remote areas, and often would leave them alone for long periods. After a week, they reached Sonyota, Mexico, across the border from Lukeville and Organ Pipe National Monument, on a sweltering, pitch-black summer night.

The smugglers separated the group. Women with children were sent to Yuma, a supposedly easier path. The rest were to make the journey through the forbidding terrain of Organ Pipe. The group was handed over to a new set of smugglers, a father and his adult son.

The smugglers told the group to form a line and one by one climb the small fence separating Mexico and the U.S. They were carrying backpacks and luggage; some of the women were wearing high heels, Rodriguez recalled. The group was told it would be a short walk. None was aware they would have to cross a desert.

“Within minutes, you can start to hear the screaming and the yelling … from the front of the line,” she said. In the dark, they had brushed against cholla cactuses and were covered in sharp needles.

“The heat was so intense, even at midnight it was at least 115 in the desert,” Rodriguez said.

On a normal summer day, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona routinely reaches temperatures of 118 degrees and higher. But in the summer of 1980, a historic heat wave gripped the entire country, inflaming the already extreme temperatures at Organ Pipe.

The group was exhausted and was quickly running out of water.

“The sad thing is that we were a mile away from the road,” Rodriguez said. “But the desert is so deceiving, that everything looks just the same.”

On the second day, a woman died of a heart attack. The group could do nothing but say a prayer and cover her body with clothing.

Then the smugglers abandoned the migrants, who became frantic. Everyone began digging through their luggage looking for anything they could find. Some people were drinking cologne and dabbing it on their lips.

An 18-year-old girl was the second person to die.

Things really began to deteriorate on the fourth day. The group had nothing to drink but their own urine. In a desperate attempt to find help, the men decided to separate, with one staying with the women.

“We knew we were in trouble. We knew this was the end and they wouldn’t find us,” Rodriguez said, adding that everyone lay on the ground, exhausted and delirious from the heat.

The man was losing touch with reality. Rodriguez heard him tell one of the stronger women that they should kill everyone else and drink their blood. He raped and killed some of the women, Rodriguez said.

“I remember so vivid(ly) that he would get on top of the girls and suffocate them until they stopped breathing,” she said. “Then I would be screaming and screaming, but I was just on the ground, I couldn’t get up anymore.”

Rodriguez escaped by crawling under a tree, where she lost consciousness.

“I remember having this vision … or maybe it was a dream, of the sky, you know, being so blue,” she said. “But it’s such a beautiful blue that I had never ever seen in my life, and millions of stars.”

On the verge of death, Rodriguez regained consciousness to the sound of helicopters, motorcycles and horses. A border agent was lifting her into his arms.

“He was just telling me, ‘Stay with me, stay with me. Don’t go to sleep.’”

She remembers waking up in the hospital, surrounded by nurses removing the cactus needles covering her body. They were crying.

Of those who tried to cross Organ Pipe, Rodriguez was among about a dozen survivors. She still grieves for the three young sisters who lost their lives.

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Dora Rodriguez in her home in Tucson where she lives after fleeing El Salvador in 1980 with the outbreak of the civil war that lasted 12 years. After nearly dying in the Arizona desert, she was granted asylum in the U.S. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

The story of the Salvadoran migrants who were left to die in the desert made national news. At the time, the superintendent at Organ Pipe told The Washington Post, “We’ve found a few bodies in the past, but nothing of this magnitude.” For 20 years, those 13 Salvadorans were the largest group of migrants to perish in the Arizona desert.

Community members rallied around Rodriguez and the surviving migrants. Residents of Ajo, a nearby mining town, insisted that the survivors be granted asylum, and in a letter sent to their congressional representatives, some offered to house the migrants.

The carnage at Organ Pipe also was a catalyst for the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, a loose coalition of religious denominations and secular human rights groups that assisted and housed migrants fleeing violence, primarily from Central America.

The movement was formed by religious leaders in Tucson, including the Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church. Movement members organized a network of places of worship where migrants fleeing violence could find reprieve. Members compared their movement to the Underground Railroad, a far-flung network of abolitionists that smuggled fugitive slaves out of the South before the Civil War.

Sanctuary Movement members criticized Reagan’s response to Central Americans fleeing for their lives. At the time, nearly all asylum claims from Central Americans were denied. Reagan himself called the asylum-seekers “economic migrants” and denied the atrocities taking place in Central America – atrocities his administration knew about by 1981 or earlier.

U.S. training of dictators and death squad leaders

Every November, a group of protesters gathers outside a military training school in Fort Benning, Georgia, to commemorate the victims of human rights abuses committed by some of its most infamous alumni.

The Escuela de las Américas — School of the Americas — now is called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but it has retained a lasting legacy of producing dictators and human rights abusers. The school, which was started in 1946 in Panama and has since produced more than 60,000 graduates, is one of the lesser-known ways the U.S. has involved itself in Central American affairs.

The school’s mission was to “promote military professionalism, foster cooperation among the multinational military forces in Latin America, and expand Latin American armed forces’ knowledge of United States customs and traditions,” according to a 2001 congressional report.

But training manuals made public in 1996 reveal that the School of the Americas trained students in fear tactics, methods of torture, false imprisonment and execution.

Following the civil war in El Salvador, the United Nations released a report on human rights abuses committed during the conflict. Names were named, and 48 out of the 69 military members implicated in human rights abuses had graduated from the School of the Americas.

But it wasn’t just foot soldiers and low-level enforcers who trained at the school. Graduates also include leaders in the highest offices, including Efraín Ríos Montt, a Guatemalan dictator who was in power from 1982 to 1983. Under Ríos Montt’s brief leadership, disappearances and killings escalated to their worst point in the nearly 40-year conflict. In 2012, he was indicted on charges of genocide.

Graduates of the school also included those implicated in murder and torture of United States citizens.

Guatemalan army Col. Julio Roberto Alpírez, who was also a paid CIA asset, was implicated in covering up the murder of Michael DeVine, a U.S. citizen from Iowa who operated an inn in rural Guatemala. In June 1990, DeVine was seen driving from the inn. He was found dead inside his car the next morning, arms bound and nearly decapitated.

Five years later, news of a CIA connection became public and the agency reportedly ended its dealings with Alpírez.

Graduates of the school also included core members of Battalion 3-16, a notorious Honduran death squad responsible for the killings of at least 184 and the torture of countless others throughout the 1980s. The death squad also received training and equipment from the CIA, according to Human Rights Watch.

Multiple bills introduced to Congress in the 1990s to defund the school were rejected. The school, which moved to Fort Benning in 1984 and changed its name in 2001, remains open under the motto “Libertad, Paz y Fraternidad.”

MS-13 and Barrio 18–Made in the USA

Despite low U.S. asylum rates in the 1980s, Central Americans continued to stream into the U.S. fleeing violence and war in their home countries. Some were detained, but many thousands managed to settle in cities around the country.

Forced into hiding, a small number of unauthorized Salvadorans in Los Angeles formed a gang to protect themselves against established gangs in the area. That small group of Salvadorans, initially metalheads and pot smokers, would mature into the notoriously violent street gang MS-13.

Although often portrayed by the Trump administration as an invading force, MS-13 is all-American. It formed on the streets and ramped up its brutality in the jails and prisons in greater Los Angeles.

A lesser known gang, also formed in LA, is Barrio 18, a bitter rival of MS-13. Barrio 18 also has a large number of Central American members, although it’s a multiethnic gang.

From 1998 to 2014, the U.S. deported hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, some of whom had ties to MS-13 or Barrio 18. They returned to weakened countries recovering from civil wars, which made domination and control easier. Gang numbers quickly grew.

Before these deportations from the U.S., gang activity was relatively minimal in Central America. A 2018 study by the Free University of Berlin and the National Autonomous University of Mexico said the deportations played a key role in their spread. Today, gangs have contributed enormously to violence, corruption and the deaths of thousands throughout Central America. Boys as young as 8 sometimes are targeted for recruitment, and women and girls are targets of sexual battery and femicide throughout Central America.

Present day

Much like the 1970s and ’80s, Central Americans today are fleeing to the U.S. en masse at a time when U.S. asylum policies are similarly restrictive.

In 2014, when nearly 70,000 unaccompanied minors – mostly from Central America – made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border, the administration of President Barack Obama adopted a variety of deterrence policies.

The U.S. paid the government of Mexico millions of dollars to employ Programa Frontera Sur, or the Southern Border Program, which caught and deported migrants as they made their way through Mexico, before they ever had the chance to claim asylum in the U.S.

Mexico’s human rights commission reported that in the year after the rollout of Programa Frontera Sur, abuse of migrants by Mexican immigration agents rose by 53 percent.

Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has further tightened asylum restrictions, cut aid to Northern Triangle countries and ramped up rhetoric against Central American migrants.

In response to the high volume of Central American families seeking asylum at the southern border, Trump enacted the Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as the “remain in Mexico” policy. As a result, an estimated 50,000 migrants now are in limbo, waiting in Mexican border towns for their asylum claims to be processed in the U.S., which can take up to four months and are successful only 20% to 30% of the time.

The Trump administration has also leveraged payments of foreign aid to cultivate policies more favorable to the U.S. regarding migration. In April, Trump froze the payment of $450 million in aid to Guatemala.

Aid to the Northern Triangle helps address a variety of issues plaguing the region, such as poverty, hunger, gang recruitment and domestic violence – some of the biggest factors that lead people in Central America to leave their countries for the U.S.

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Enrique Melendez, Arizona’s honorary consul emeritus to El Salvador, lives in Fountain Hills, Arizona. He thinks the U.S. needs to help make the situation better in Central American countries or “the immigration issues, regardless of how much the two presidents and the foreign ministers meet, is going to continue.” (Photo by Madeline Ackley/Cronkite News)

Enrique Melendez, Arizona’s honorary consul emeritus to El Salvador, said such policies are counterproductive. He acts as a spokesman for President Nayib Bukele’s government and a channel of communication between El Salvador and Arizona.

As a consul, his home in Fountain Hills technically is on Salvadoran soil, and he jokes that if the police are trying to stop your car, just pull into his driveway. In his office is a photo of him and Ronald Reagan.

Born to a wealthy, politically connected family in El Salvador, Melendez has what he describes as a “centrist” view on U.S. policy toward Central America. He believes that cooperation between the Trump administration and the governments in Central America is key, but disagrees with cutting foreign aid and is against building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border – which puts him at odds with some of his neighbors in Fountain Hills.

“I have been very much against the border wall from the beginning, with all due respect to President Trump,” said Melendez, who thinks the money would be better spent fixing the root causes of displacement, such as deep-seated joblessness and woefully inadequate infrastructure.

Over the course of civil war, regime changes and economic ups and downs, Melendez said the deep social stratification and intense poverty in El Salvador has remained fairly constant.

“The difference that I’ve seen since (leaving the country in) 1948 to this last April when I was back home is very little,” he said. “I still see the poor being poor, and once again the wealthy become more wealthy. I see a lack of hope in the faces of my countrymen. I see a lack of pride. That has to be corrected more than anything else. We need to have hope, we need to have pride, we need to have respect.”

The issue of foreign aid has been complicated by the high level of corruption within previous administrations in El Salvador and across Central America. Several recent presidents have been accused or indicted on charges of corruption.

Melendez personally witnessed such corruption when he was asked to purposefully misappropriate funds on behalf of the Salvadoran government. He refused and resigned from his official positions, while still carrying the honorary title.

He does feel, however, that the U.S. has a duty to assist Latin America countries and help mend the mistakes of the past.

The U.S. shouldn’t be responsible for every country in the world, he said, adding, “We have to take care of our own.” But “to forget about Latin America is something that really needs to be corrected. Otherwise, the immigration issues, regardless of how much the two presidents and the foreign ministers meet, is going to continue.”

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