Stories of Struggle

Forced Migration in Central America: The dark side of neoliberalism in the Americas

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Migrants from Central America protest over discrimination and the continued disregard of their human rights. Photo: Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano

Last year, a humanitarian crisis gripped the United States. Millions of Americans watching their television were exposed to the harsh realities of immigration politics when tens of thousands of minors, most of the unaccompanied by adults, turned up in the US-Mexican border, hoping for a chance to enter the United States of America, the land of promise. Since the 1970s, migration from Central America to the United States has been prevalent. These are driven by different historical factors such as fleeing from civil wars, escaping economic poverty and more recently, escaping from domestic violence, the desire for family reunification and the demand of the US agricultural sector for low wage workers (Orozco & Yansura, 2014). Annually, more than 100,000 Central Americans enter the United States, many of them without legal status. More alarming is the number of minors making the perilous journey up north: in 2014, more than 50,000 Central American children were intercepted at the US-Meixco border, up from 10,146 children just two years earlier (Villegas, 2014). Migrants, including children are subjected to cruel physical conditions in order to make it to the border. In many instances, they are exposed to gang-perpetrated violence along these migration pathways rendering them vulnerable to execution, kidnapping, rape and extortion (Soler, 2015).

The invisible hand of forced migration: The complicity of United States imperialism in fostering forced migration in the Americas

In response to the migration crisis the Obama administration has promised a series of palliatives aimed at addressing poverty in the Central American region. The plan of the Obama administration was geared towards further opening up the Central American region to transnational investments as well as pumping US$500 million dollars in economic aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (Abbott, 2015). By creating an enabling environment for transnational investments, the Obama administration believes that this will be the solution for job creation and ending the cycle of poverty which has generated migration crises over the years.

However, what American policymakers and politicians refuse to address is how the United States has been complicit to the creation of conditions which have triggered forced migration in the region. A confluence of geopolitical and economic interventions have contributed to increasing poverty as well as creating street gangs that are wreaking havoc in the region.

Geopolitical interventions

The United States have had a series of political and military interventions in the region over the past century aimed at stemming the rise of leftwing governments. In 1912, Nicaragua was invaded by the United States and was occupied until 1933 when the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza came to power. The Somoza dictatorship lasted for several decades propped up by military and economic support from the United States. When the Somoza dictatorship was ousted by the Sandinistas, the United States provided financial and military support to the “Contras”, a group notorious for committing atrocities and drug smuggling into the United States. In El Salvador, the United States funded the military, which committed numerous human rights violations. From 1944-1951, Guatemala elected two presidents, Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arenz successively. These presidents pursued economic reforms aimed at economic redistribution. In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency backed the Guatemalan military which ousted Arbenz in a coup. Over the next decades where the military was in power 200,000 people were executed in a brutal repression of opposition to the regime (Soler, 2015).

The various forms of political and military interventions conducted by the United States have created enabling conditions for the rise of street gangs, groups that have contributed immensely to the spiraling forms of violence committed in the Central American region. Proxy wars initiated by the United States have produced countless mercenaries trained in local warfare. This is compounded with the pumping of military arms and ammunition into the region by both the United States and the Soviet Union, leading to easy access to weaponry. With the Cold-War rivalry now gone, disenfranchised fighters have increasingly turned to gang warfare and drug trade in order to make ends meet (Elkus, 2007).

Perhaps the cruelest irony is how the policies of the United States have engineered the rise of the most feared criminal gang in the Central American region, the Mara Salvatrucha (Mara). The Maras dominate the neighborhoods of Latin America, with estimated membership of up to 70,000 organized into an expansive transnational network. The Maras are armed with M16s, AK47s and military grade explosives, allowing them to profit from illicit activities such as extortion, kidnapping, prostitution and drug trafficking (Soler, 2015). The Maras are able to secure a sizeable following through a system of patronage in exchange for allegiance and tribute from the people (Elkus, 2007).

The Maras is a legacy of the decades-long conflict inflicted in the Central American region by the United States. Due to increasing violence and repression associated with Cold War interventions in the region, thousands of young people migrated into the United States’ inner cities. However, instead of being able to live peacefully, these migrants were subjected to violence perpetrated by street gangs in these ghettoes. As a form of protection, these migrants created gangs such as the Mara and Barrio 18, eventually controlling local neighborhoods through violence and criminal activities (Soler, 2015). In the 1990s, as a result of tightening US immigration policies, as many as 100,000 gang members were deported back to Central America (Soler, 2015). This policy however, displaced the violence away from the inner cities of the United States into the urban areas of Central America, where gangs such as the Mara destroyed the local gangs and eventually controlled the illicit trade activities of the region (Elkus, 2007). The Maras, and other street gangs in the region have plunged the region into instability, with reckless violence perpetrated against innocent civilians. This violence has forced thousands of migrants to flee from an increasingly desperate situation.

Neoliberalism and Forced Migration

Neoliberal economic policies that have been imposed in Central America by the United States have also exacerbated the migration crisis in the region. During the 1990s, the United States, Canada and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that aimed to spur economic growth in Mexico by attracting transnational investments. However, the agreement proposed the abolition of tariff protection and agricultural subsidies in the Mexican rural sector. The result was a catastrophe for Mexican peasants and indigenous food producers: the elimination of tariffs allowed for the dumping of US-produced corn which was heavily subsidized by the United States government. The lack of agricultural pricing support for Mexican corn producers incapacitated them from competing against the low prices of US agricultural products leading to losses incurred by small-scale farmers. The instability of the rural sector was also compounded by the dismantling of social protection schemes under the NAFTA (Bacon, Globalization and NAFTA caused migration from Mexico, 2014). Rural poverty brought about by free trade policies has induced massive migration from Mexico, making it the world’s largest population exporter (Chacón, 2007).

Despite the consequences brought about by NAFTA, the United States initiated under free trade agreement that aims to expand its economic influence in the Central American region. In 2003, negotiations for the crafting of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) were initiated under the term of former United States president George W. Bush. The CAFTA was patterned after the NAFTA, with emphasis on free trade principles such as elimination of tariffs and trade barriers for agricultural and manufactured products (Aguado, 2012). The approval of the CAFTA in 2006 has contributed to the exacerbation of migration as the entry of subsidized food imports forced small-farmers out of the market, leading them to leave their farms and find employment in the city (Abbott, 2015). In addition, the trade agreement also contributed to increasing concentration of lands into the hands of the elite. In turn, these lands are converted into plantations geared towards the production of export crops (Abbott, 2015).

Evictions from rural lands have led to massive migrations into the inner cities of Central America. However, the lacks of skills and training have made it difficult for these migrants to find employment in the dwindling manufacturing sector or the new industries that are slowly replacing manufacturing. Slowly, the massive waves of migrants find themselves into the circles of street gangs such as the Maras, depending on these gangs for their survival (Chan, 2013). Unfortunately, the elimination of state subsidies in social services as well as the privatization of industries has undermined the ability of Central American states to impose social cohesion. These neoliberal policies have only enriched the elite, and the withdrawal of the state has created numerous opportunities for street gangs to expand their political and economic clout among the poor (Elkus, 2007).

Migrants in Limbo: Migration policies and their strategic importance for neoliberalism

Migrants fleeing the violence and poverty in Central America face intense surveillance and restriction in transit to their destination – the United States. Migrations of Central Americans have been a persistent domestic issue in the United States over the years. The 9/11 terrorist attack in New York marked a profound shift in how the United States framed the question of undocumented migrants. The increasing emphasis on homeland security marked undocumented migrants as potential security threats, together with terrorists, drug traffickers and social movements (Soler, 2015 p. 4). The manpower of the Border Patrol was doubled over the past decade and the budget of the Customs and Border Protection has doubled, from US$5.9 billion in 2004 to over US$12 billion in 2015 (Ibid).

The heightened surveillance on undocumented workers have also marked a shift in US-Mexico partnership in patrolling the US-Mexico border. In 2005, the United States, Canada and Meixco signed the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) aimed at stemming drug trafficking and tranantional crime. Finalization of the SPP commenced with the Merida Initiative, a three-year program centered on providing technical assistance and military traininng to Mexico in order to effectively counter drug trafficking. However under the Merida Initiatve, measures were instituted to stem the flow of migrants coming from Central America into the United States.

The Merida Initiatve brought with it the modernization of the Mexican border surveillance technology and oeprational practices. One of the products of this initiative is an internal control checkpoint in Huixtla, Chiapas worth US$5.5 million (Villegas, 2014). Another is the draconian policy known as “Plan Frontera Sur” which allows security forces from across Mexico to be deployed in areas known as migration hotspots. Plan Frontera Sur, which is funded through the Merida Initiative, has led to the arrests of unaccompanied minors. In 2015, Mexico has detained 9,483 underage migrants and 9,526 women (Soler, 2015). These developments show that Mexico is increasingly becoming an immigration enforcer, responding to increasing US pressure to secure its borders from undocumented migrants (Soler, 2015; Villegas, 2014).

Repressive migrant policies are important for the perpetuation of neoliberal capitalism. The dispossession of small peasants and indigenous peoples from their lands has created a rapidly expanding reserve army of labor for global capital. By subjecting these migrants to repressive migration regulations and laws, special categories of workers are created that are denied access to basic democratic rights, rendering them cheap and malleable to the demands of capital (Chacón, 2007). Human rights violations such as extortion, lack of worker’s protections, low wages and harassment in workplaces are commonplace among migrant workers.

People’s Resistance and Demands

The people of Central America has not been silenced, despite the organized strength of neoliberal capital and US military policy in the area. A broad array of social movements and civil society organizations across different countries in the region have mobilized to defend human rights in Central America including migrant rights. These local movement have formed international coalitions to amplify their demands in a global stage.

Perhaps the strongest initiative for social action in the region regarding migrant rights has been the movement organized by mothers across Central America who are searching for their missing family members in Mexico while they are on transit to the north. The movement was founded in 1999 by two mothers united by their common plight of searching for their lost migrant children. The two decided to form the Committee of Relatives of Migrants from El Progreso (COFAMIPRO) in 1999 and organized the first search tour in December 2000. The search tour got as dar as northwest Guatemala along its borders with Mexico and the state of Chiapas in Mexico (Soler, 2015). In 2008, the Movimento Migrante Mesoamericano (MMM) became the organizing arm of various search tours that were conducted in Mexico. The organization has provided institutional support to mothers all across the region and has given them voice in denouncing the repressive migration policies of the Mexican state.

The organization has proposed concrete measures in addressing the migration crisis gripping central america such as the creation of special prosecutor agency tasked with dealing with crimes committted against migrants; creation of national and regional mechanisms for the immediate searhc of all missing migrants; building a national and regional data bank of unidentified remains to aid forensic investigation; and implementation of Mexican and regional government programs tasked with comprehensive migrant care.

The strength of the mothers of Central American migrants is admirable and their resolve to attain justice is encouraging. As part of the international solidarity network, we must contribute to the strengthening of their movement so that they will no longer be ignored. Some of the concrete contributions that we can engage in include:

  • Protesting the United States and the Mexican embassy to end the dentetion and deportation of immigrants and refugees. This can incorporate direct action protests and diplomatic pressure through letters sent to embassy officials
  • Joining campaigns to end sweatshop labor and helping workers attain decent work in Central America.
  • Making direct financial contributions to movements supporting the cause of Central American migrants
  • Pressuring the United States and Mexican governments to end their policy of border militarization through protest actions and publicity campaigns
  • Supporting the struggle of Central American activists to regain control of land and resources through material contributions, amplification of local issues through social media and capacity building for these organizations
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