The Sunday Magazine

Why so many Central Americans risk detention, child separation and even death for a chance to enter the U.S.

From “the caravan” to “build the wall”, the steady flow of human misery heading towards the Mexico-U.S. border has provided Donald Trump with some of his most potent slogans. We explore why so many from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are fleeing their homes. Michael talks to Elizabeth Oglesby of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona.
A boy stands between posts in the US-Mexico border fence as people on the American side ride horses in the distance in Tijuana's beach district on March 9, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico. A number of shelters in the border town of Tijuana aid deportees whom have been deported from the United States. President Trump will pay a visit to the California border to inspect the border wall prototypes on March 13. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In an interview with Elizabeth Oglesby, of the Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, host Michael Enright explores what caused the conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that continue to drive so many Central Americans to flee their homes, risking detention, separation from their children and even death for a chance to enter the U.S. 

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while participating in a tour of U.S.-Mexico border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego, California. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Thousands of Central American asylum seekers languish on the Mexican side of the United States border, where they still await processing by American officials, months after making their epic journey through Mexico as part of last fall's so-called migrant caravan.

That has not deterred thousands of people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador from travelling together in the longest caravan yet, now wending its way north toward the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. President Donald Trump has fulminated against the caravans, claiming they're rife with criminal gang members, opportunists who want to exploit Americans' generosity, and even terrorists. The president has used the alleged threat posed by the migrants as an argument for building the border wall on which he's staked so much of his political career.

But according to Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor in the School of Geography and Development and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, migration to the US from Central America is not new. In an interview with Sunday Edition host Michael Enright, she pointed out that vast numbers of people fled the civil wars and dictatorships that plagued El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are riven by gang violence, political instability, corruption and desperate poverty -- conditions that are in large part the legacy of American foreign policy that fomented civil wars and installed and supported repressive dictatorships in Central America during the Cold War.

Oglesby noted a dire lack of economic opportunity for the Honduran people, largely due to foreign-owned companies extracting wealth out of the country through mining or sugar and palm plantations, displacing communities and small landowners and leaving very little in the way of social or economic development.

Political protesters have been persecuted, and people live under the threat of extortion and violence by gangs that operate largely with impunity from, and often with the complicity of, the police and other authorities. Women and children are particularly at risk from violence.

The most notorious of the gangs is the vicious MS-13 -- a big reason why El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world, just ahead of Honduras.

President Trump has warned that MS-13 members are trying to get into the US through the caravans. But Oglesby said not only that the Central American asylum seekers are actually fleeing the gangs, but that MS-13 is at least partly an American creation.

"The origins (of MS-13) are really transnational. There are Salvadorans who immigrated in the 1980s, fleeing the (civil) war, ending up in places like Los Angeles. (They) formed gangs in Los Angeles as a way to survive. And then in the 1990s, there were waves of deportation of Central Americans back to the region, and so they bring some of that gang organization back to the region.

"And in El Salvador, they face a post-war situation where the peace accords have not really brought about economic opportunity for the country. And there are a lot of people in El Salvador in the 1990s with military experience, with arms, and so the gangs in El Salvador, which perhaps were not as violent in the origins, became more violent."

Political and security institutions in all three countries have been compromised by being infiltrated by, or being in cahoots with, gangs and organized crime networks.

Oglesby finds the situation in Guatemala particularly worrying. A United Nations-sponsored and U.S.-supported anti-corruption commission has been working for a decade to prosecute war criminals and expose and excise organized crime in the Guatemalan government. But now that President Jimmy Morales is under investigation along with members of his family, he's expelled the commission members, while the U.S. has remained silent.

"There can be no solution to the migration dilemma if the Central American states remain captured by organized crime," said Oglesby. "That is the fundamental precondition for being able to do anything else. For being able to have clean elections. For being able to pass tax reform and being able to collect taxes and invest in social development. First you have to get those networks of organized crime out of the state."


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