Foreign Intervention and its influence on Migration
By Daniela Roldan Cabrera
The stories told in this piece are real and belong to living people. The names have been changed in order to protect the identity and privacy of the owners.
Imagine you can travel the entirety of a country in less than 3 hours. It is a country that has blissful beaches, and warm waters that make you want to sink into them. The foam from the ocean is so thick that it looks like a painting and the waves are so high and revitalizing they make for some of the best surfing spots in the world. Now, imagine that you can turn around and go see deep and imposing volcanos, framed by the dim light of dusk that bleeds into the sky. When you walk the path, you are melting in the soft, buttery sand. The breeze is the kind of air you can only feel when you are very high up. The view is majestic. An imposing display of nature, with an infinite expanse of mountains laying below. It’s the garden of Eden and humanity is finally home. However, in the blink of an eye, the red light in the sky becomes rivers of blood when they touch the ground. The mountains are not peaceful, they are sinister in their vastness. Hordes of people are hiding, waiting to attack and fight for their lives. The fight is so brutal it reminds us why we had to leave the garden in the first place. Friends are indistinguishable from foes and children are treated as pawns and immersed in violence before they are old enough to understand what an ideology is. The lack of security and opportunities drive the people of this country to run away, full of fear and escape one of the highest murder rates in the world. This country is El Salvador.
“The lack of security and opportunities drive the people of this country to run away, full of fear and escaping one of the highest murder rates of the world. This country is El Salvador.”
The Civil War in El Salvador was a brutal period of time (1979 – 1992) that completely wrecked the country and produced thousands of dead bodies and displaced families. Before this, El Salvador had been under a military dictatorship for decades. El Salvador was the only country in Central America to never have U.S. intervention. When the civil war broke out, it was between the right-winged military forces, who were in power, and guerilla groups that represented a left-winged party coalition named The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN). The United States heavily funded, trained, and aided the military. Without this support, the war would not have been as long or caused as many deaths as it did. However, wars are never this simple. There is never only one villain and changes in human experiences can redefine who is seen as the person to blame. In this text, I will set out to demonstrate this. Even when evidence undoubtedly signals that a party, in this case, The United States, has more blame over a conflict, a clear perpetrator is not immediately identified by everyone. This is because perspectives are narrower. They are what makes people have different opinions and why these conflicts that stem from a bigger system are so complex. It is also what allows violence to continue in a society.
In the 1980’s Gonzalo Cortés was in his 20s. He had lived abroad for many years and was just coming back to his country with his family. He had three children and was full of excitement to start a new life back in the place he called home. He began working in the agricultural sector, producing coffee. The economy was ripe for this. The external demand for the bean was rising and it was going to create jobs all over the country. At the same time, left-wing movements were already starting. People were joining forces and heading into rural areas. The atmosphere was restless. Then one day, when Gonzalo was working in his team along with his crew he saw people approaching. When he recognized them a frown took over his face. He knew why they were here. They arrived and began talking to him about la causa. They had to stick together and support each other. The military was driving honest farmers like him out of the sector and they wanted to protect him. They demanded a contribution. Gonzalo wasn’t happy. This did not feel like help, it felt like extortion.
Revolutionary organizations that intend to overthrow the government stem from a long-held stance of oppression and violence sanctioned by the state. Before the war broke out, the military had power over the machinery of the state because they did the bidding of the agrarian elite. They repressed labor activism and forcibly removed small farmers, so elites could grow large plantations where they could produce and export their goods. Therefore, the military was especially hostile to any opposition that would pose a threat to the status quo. They also wanted to prove to the elites that they were needed for their hegemony to be preserved,1 and became more violent. This forced people from different left-winged groups to form a coalition, and later, to found the guerilla.
Eventually, Gonzalo was forced to sell his agricultural land. Things were getting too heated, and he had mouths to feed. They were very trying times. He never knew when they were going to show up. He was discouraged. He did not want to go back to the US because he had built his patrimony in his own country. But now, he was no longer eager to start from scratch again. Nevertheless, he had to get back up to protect his family. He started working in the bottling sector, particularly for Coca-Cola, a new (American) brand in the country. He would work in this sector for the next 23 years and did not go back to agriculture again.
The United States supported many coups d’état in Latin America during the 20th century. They also supported many governments in power. It all depended on the ideology they had. They wanted whoever was in power to serve and further the interests of the United States. Rarely were the interests of the Latin American country and its people considered, never mind the consequences of this support. They wanted the people in charge to align with their democratic capitalism ideology, particularly during this period of time: the Cold War. Any resemblance to socialism or communism had to be eliminated. In El Salvador, the party in power was right-winged and anti-communist, and this is all the United States needed to know in order to offer its support. They wanted to “avoid ‘losing’ El Salvador to a leftist insurgency”2 so their security concerns were above everything else and “the United States was supporting a war on terrorism, not protecting human rights.”3 In the chess game that was the Cold war, El Salvador was a U.S. pawn.
El Salvador’s government capitalized on this fact. They were well aware of the United States’ motivations and its standing during the Cold War. Therefore, they portrayed themselves as the protectors of El Salvador against a communist insurrection to benefit from the aid given by the U.S. government. The military was given U.S. funding, training, and equipment. They sent more than $4.5 billion in aid during the course of the war, to a country whose GDP per capita amounted to 750USD. They trained Salvadoran soldiers on U.S. territory in torture and counter-insurgency strategies. However, as this training lacked any kind of professional values, it amounted to “subsidizing terror”. 4 One of the squadrons that were trained in the School of the Americas, The Atlacatl Battalion, was responsible for one of the most atrocious events of the war, the Mozote Massacre.
Gonzalo tells me that one time, he had to move a large shipment. During the process, sixteen of his trucks carrying the produce were burned. This was done to halt country production and pressure the government. Gonzalo was angry, not only for himself or for the business, but because of the people whose jobs had been put on the line. Obtaining work was hard enough. Gonzalo didn’t want to see his own people unemployed. They all had families. Therefore, he made a brave decision. He was going to go talk to the guerilla and ask very nicely to please leave them out of their conflict. He did not want to be targeted, he just wanted to work, and wanted others to work too. What he found shocked him. The people there weren’t evil or different, many of them were really young. Why were they doing this? Risking their lives? For what? He told me that years later when he was at a bank he met a man who asked him if he recognized him. Gonzalo didn’t. It turned out to be one of the young men sitting at that meeting. ‘They are just civilians!’ Gonzalo thought.
In 1981, the military received information that a group of the FMLN would be gathering in the province of Morozan, east of the capital. Armed forces were deployed to the region, including the Atlacatl Battalion and a U.S. Army sergeant major. When they arrived, they did not differentiate between insurgents and civilians and “deliberately and systematically executed hundreds of men, women, and children.”5 More than half of the 978 brutally massacred civilians were children. This event is what is known as the Mozote Massacre, considered the bloodiest chapter of the civil war. Gonzalo didn’t know anything about it.
The United States, under the Reagan administration, and the Salvadoran government covered up this massacre for a long time. They were more concerned with international political backlash than with any wrongdoings that could have happened in a small, rural area in a country pillaged by war. It wasn’t until well into the 21st century that the Human Rights Court for the Americas found El Salvador guilty for its part in the massacre. The civil war destroyed entire villages and displaced thousands of people. Paramilitary forces targeted civilians and peasants. Anyone could be under suspicion of organizing a revolution against the government. The Mozote Massacre exemplified this. Moreover, the massacre did the opposite of what the military wanted to happen. It enhanced the support of the rural community for the guerilla. They could not remain neutral any longer and decided to support the side that “did not pose the threat of random violence.”6
Both the Salvadoran and United States governments claimed that the FMLN carried out human rights abuses and mass murders. It cannot be denied that during a war many people, on both sides, die and commit atrocious acts. Everyone is a perpetrator and a victim. The FMLN extorted businesses and kidnapped people to fund their operation and show their strength and reach to the military. Nevertheless, they did not “kill as indiscriminately or as excessively as did the Salvadoran State”7 Later on, during the peace signing process, the Truth Commission attributed 85% of the reported human rights violations committed to state agents.8 This disproportionate percentage of violence committed by the state was able to happen in great measure thanks to the resources offered by the United States government.
Gonzalo was living in the city at the time. He had learned all of the tricks to be as safe as you could be, but life had to go on. People would walk down the street, with a little flag stitched to their clothes in order to show their neutrality and longing for peace. It wasn’t as bad as in rural areas. But they still had to walk carefully. For example, bombs could go off at any place, any time. He and his second wife, Mariana, told me how the hot dog street vendors hid inside the carts when a bomb exploded, only to be seen an hour later, business as usual. Life had to go on.
In 1989, the murder of six prominent Jesuit priests, by the Atlacatl Battalion, shocked the world. This event set in motion an international process to end the conflict. That same year, the FMLN launched the final offensive. They entered the city and attempted to gain as much territory as possible. They wanted to prove to the military that it lacked the capacity to defeat them. They succeeded because it strengthened the president’s resolve to negotiate a settlement mediated by the UN. To top it all off, the Cold War ended a couple of years later in 1991. This changed U.S. policy and stopped supporting the military against the guerilla, instead advocating for peace agreements. This is a clear example of the U.S. only being loyal and consistent to itself and following the course of action that benefits itself first, not the country where their policy is actually going to have an effect. The guerilla group was demilitarized and later became a political party. The two parties signed the Chapultepec Peace Accords in Mexico City in 1992.
Gonzalo and his family suffered greatly from the final offense. While in their home, the guerilla busted in. It was a strategic tactic to gain and secure territory. It was very frightening for everyone. They felt helpless. What could they do? They just had to wait and hope nothing would happen to them. It felt like a violation. The military felt like a savior. When the peace was signed, everyone rejoiced. There were grand celebrations in the main square. Both sides of the population were relieved that the war had ended. After all the bombings and clashes between sides, there was a sense of tranquility, and maybe even hope. “The biggest thing we wanted was peace, political affiliation didn’t matter”.Gonzalo was happy. There was finally going to be an order in the country. When I asked him why he did not immigrate during this time, he told me he believes in his country and wants to help build a better future for it and for his family. “Salvadorans don’t want to leave. We love our country.”
However, many Salvadorans did immigrate. The complete insecurity, political and social uncertainty, and wrecked economy and infrastructure, drove many families to leave for the United States. They were looking for the stability and security they could not find in their own country. Parents wanted a better life and education for their children and opportunities for themselves. “The civil war in El Salvador is the root cause of migration to the United States.”9 This statement by Richard Jones is not far from the truth. This is because there is a correlation between migration to the US and violent political incidents in El Salvador. Furthermore, political violence is linked to economic deterioration, which increased migrations as well. This makes for an ironic situation. Migrants were escaping from violence in their country to the one that had implemented the interventionist policies that sanctioned and supported said violence.10 During the course of the war, close to a million people went to the United States.
“Migrants were escaping from violence in their country to the one that had implemented the interventionist policies that sanctioned and supported said violence. During the course of the war, Close to a million people went to the United States.”
By the end of the war, 75,000 civilians had died and over 900,000 people were displaced. A lot of these people migrated to the United States with the hope to be received as refugees. This would have been a correct action to take since there was evidence that they were fleeing political violence. However, under U.S. immigration policy, they were seen as economic migrants. It would have been controversial if they received them as refugees because they were supporting the government people were fleeing from. They could not declare that the government they were sanctioning as oppressive. They would have lost all credibility on the international stage. The asylum process was inherently biased against refugees that sought help from repressive governments supported by the United States. This once again proves how the United States placed their own interests over humanitarian aid, even when they could be traced back as the instigator for their suffering.
In 1998, Gonzalo married his second wife, Mariana. They continued to live in El Salvador. The economy and availability of opportunities improved when the currency changed to the U.S. dollar. Gonzalo was eventually able to found his own business. Mariana was pregnant with their first child, a girl. They were hopeful for the future. The worst was over.
The formation and strengthening of gangs, first in the United States and then in El Salvador led to the next cycle of migration. Early on, in Los Angeles, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) began as a group for Salvadoran youth to find community, a sense of belonging, and protection. Then maras began to get involved in criminal activities in order to stay safe from other gangs. At the same time, the U.S. had implemented policies that increased the crack-down of people of color and neighborhoods where they were disproportionately present. Many members of gangs from these communities were placed in prison, where gang identities were heightened and criminal skills further developed. When their sentences ended, they were immediately deported back to El Salvador, which still had not recovered politically from the effects of the war. This is how the U.S. exportation of gang members began.
In 2014, The U.S. increased their deportations to balance the increasing number of migrants from Central America. Salvadorans make up the largest group of immigrants from Central America in the United States. Simultaneously, they boosted aid to El Salvador to help the state combat gang violence and repatriate citizens. The issue is that the state is not strong enough to do this.
When maras arrived back in El Salvador, they saw an opportunity to expand their operation and recruit. Intuitively, youths were the most vulnerable. The crime and violence generated became much more serious than in the U.S. because of the lower economic development and fragility of the new democratic state and its institutions. Currently, there are more than 70,000 members in these gangs (almost the same amount of people that perished during the war). Moreover, opposition to the gangs is met with even more violence and it has allowed them to “take de facto control of the Salvadoran state.” 11 The state is so weak that it is unable to effectively combat them.
“Currently, there are more than 70,000 members in these gangs 9almost the same amount of people that perished during the war.”
For Gonzalo and his family, the maras have definitely increased insecurity. He and Mariana were sure to always hold their daughters’ hands and never have them out of sight unless they were home when they were little. They are all aware of which areas of the city and the country are safe to go to, which busses you can take, what clothes you can wear and show in public. This is the type of education given to children by their parents; education that can save their lives. Valentina, one of their daughters, doesn’t even like to stay alone in their house. Gonzalo tells me about this expression they have: “Estar con las antenas paradas”. It roughly translates to having their satellites on, meaning they always have to be very aware of their surroundings. When I asked Valentina, who studies in the United States, if she would ever live in El Salvador again she told me that she loved her country, but that her parents have given her a greater opportunity than her country ever has: to leave and seek a better education and life. This is also better for Mariana, who always has her heart in her hand when her children go outside. She is always scared of the dangers. “It is better that they are in the U.S.”
The unchecked power of the maras has generated greater political and economical instability and decreased the availability of opportunities. This created a new migration trend. Young people leave the country, as opposed to whole families back in the civil war days. 1 out of 4 children who migrate say that they are fleeing violence, either due to insecurity or because the gangs are targeting them to join. Another main cause for migration is the economic issues the country faces. Almost 40% of Salvadorans are poor based on the definition of the World Bank of living with less than 5.5 dollars per day. Many people in El Salvador depend on remittances from their families. The remittances amount to a large percentage of the GDP of the country.
Some of the migrants have tried to claim refugee status, just like when they were fleeing political violence during the war. However, U.S. immigration policy is against them again. The United States follows the definition of a refugee created after World War II; therefore, to be considered a refugee, you need to be facing reasonable fear of persecution by a state actor, which gangs are not. Once more the system is rigged against migrants. The fact that the United States still uses such an outdated definition of migration is in itself a way to deter migration and protect its interest. When that definition was created it was in the context of World War II. Millions had been displaced, escaping totalitarian, hostile governments and needed to be reallocated. Currently, this is not the only case. There are climate migrants, who cannot stay in their homes due to the devastating effects of climate change. There are also refugees who are escaping wars that have been going on for years and can’t be reallocated to their home country like during World War II when the war had been over. Finally, there are refugees from El Salvador and Central America, who are escaping tremendous violence and instability due to gangs virtually taking over their countries. The United States needs to acknowledge these realities and what causes them in order to create policies that are actually serious and relevant to the current political climate.
Currently, Gonzalo and Mariana are in a good place. They both deeply love their country. “I love the simple things of El Salvador, the folklore, the people, the mountains,” says Gonzalo. Nevertheless, for them the problems of the state are clear. It is inefficient, and there is not any work being done to create opportunities for its citizens. There are people that continue to work even though they are retired because their pension is not enough to make a living. Mariana says “I don’t understand how a country as small as El Salvador can have places where there is no access to water or electricity for everyone”. They are very aware that the real opportunities are outside. It is why they are both so happy that both of their daughters are in the United States, where they are confident a better life awaits them.
To conclude this piece, I would first like to say that it was a pleasure to interview Gonzalo and his family. It was a great opportunity to learn more about a specific perspective of the civil war years and the current state of the country. It is evident that Gonzalo’s experiences with the FMLN gave him a negative perspective about this group. In his eyes, they are the ones in the wrong, which is understandable. It is our innate human difference in experiences and perspectives that makes everyone involved unable to identify a clear perpetrator. This is what allows for violence and conflicts to prosper and develop. Nevertheless, it is very clear that the impact the United States had on El Salvador during the civil war and ever since has been detrimental to the country’s social, political, and cultural systems. They made an already unstable situation even worse by greatly financing and training hostile military forces, but only while the Cold War was occurring. They helped the Salvadoran government cover up the biggest massacre of the war, showing a complete disregard for the human rights of people in El Salvador. Finally, in both of the migration cycles, they implemented policies that worked against refugees who were seeking asylum from violence that the U.S. had a hand in instigating. Overall, it is not hard to see how key a role the United States has played in the increase of instability and insecurity of El Salvador. Gonzalo says it best: “to think of a stable country right now is simply impossible”.
1 T. David Mason, The Civil War in El Salvador: A Retrospective Analysis. (Latin American Research Review), pg 187.
2 Cara E. McKinney, Twelve Years a Terror: U.S. Impact in the 12-Year Civil War in El Salvador. (International ResearchScape Journal), pg 6.
3 McKinney, pg 10.
Mason, pg 192.
4 Blake Bergstrom, Unintended consequences: U.S. interference in El Salvador, the Salvadoran Diaspora, and the role of activist community organizations in establishing a Salvadoran-American community in Los Angeles. (Masters Theses), pg 46.
5 Mason, pg 192.
6 McKinney, pg 8.
7 Joaquín M. Chávez, “How Did the Civil War in El Salvador End?”, (The American Historical Review), pg 1792.
8 Richard C. Jones, Causes of Salvadoran Migration to the United States. (Geographical Review), pg 194.
9 De León, Jason and Michael Wells, The land of open graves living and dying on the migrant trail, 2017 (University of California Press), 33.
10 Bergstrom, pg 110.