Mainstream media ignores history of U.S. interference in Latin America when discussing surge in migrants at the border

Courtesy of Martin Leveneur.

If you have been following the news, you have probably heard about the recent surge in asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. The United States has seen an influx in migrants since President Joe Biden’s inauguration: In February, border officials encountered 18,945 family members and 9,297 unaccompanied minors. That’s an increase of 168 percent and 63 percent, respectively, from January, according to the Pew Research Center. As of Thursday, March 18, about 4,500 unaccompanied children were being held in short-term Custom and Border Protection (CBP) facilities, and as of Wednesday, March 19, there were over 9,500 minors being housed by the U.S. Refugee Office.

These are the highest monthly levels of migrants the southern border has seen since 2019, and every major news outlet has been covering the surge. Many reporters have used the word “crisis” to describe the spike in asylum seekers or have quoted news organizations that have done so, including at CBS, NBC, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune. However, I have yet to read an article that attributes the “crisis” to the correct cause.

As the BBC reports, lawmakers in Washington are pointing fingers over who is to blame for the current spike in asylum seekers. The mainstream media seems fixated on this finger-pointing. CBS reports how chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Homeland Security, Democrat Chris Murphy, cited the “mess” Trump left for the current administration and the construction of the border wall as a failure in immigration policy. NBC News cites White House press secretary Jen Psaki placing the blame on the Trump administration. The New York Times reports on Republicans’ criticism of the Biden administration’s immigration policies. 

But no one seems to place blame on the right culprit: The United States’ long history of interfering in Latin American governments—sponsoring coups, overthrowing leaders and funding contra wars which has caused massive instability and led to the poverty and violence present in Latin American countries today. 

The only reporting I have seen that has at least attempted to explain the “root causes” of the surge in migration is from NPR’s Up First and Morning Edition. NPR’s correspondent in Mexico City, Carrie Kahn, says, “Remember, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, you’re already dealing with high levels of violence, gangs, grinding poverty. Then two hurricanes hit the region, and then now, this year of the pandemic.” Other news outlets have briefly mentioned the high levels of poverty and violence, hurricanes and the pandemic as reasons behind the spike in asylum seekers, but chose to focus mostly on the Biden administration’s handling of the situation at the border, possible upcoming immigration legislation and the finger-pointing in Washington. 

NPR notes how the Biden administration wants to spend money in the home countries of the migrants in order to attack the root causes of migration, but this aid will be conditional. When Steve Inskeep asked why these conditions are necessary, Kahn explained, “Basically because corruption is rampant and endemic in these countries. We’re talking about collusion with drug traffickers and organized crime gangs…There’s a lot of embezzlement too, personal enrichment of politicians, outright theft and misuse, and checks and balances on power there is very weak.”

But even NPR’s coverage of the “root causes” of migration is problematic. Words like “violence,” “gangs,” “corruption,” “collusion,” “drug traffickers,” “organized crime” and “embezzlement” leave the listener with an incredibly negative perception of the Latin American countries to which they are referring, including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Although these may be accurate descriptions for conditions in many of these countries, they perpetuate negative stigmas about Central America and contribute to racist perceptions of Latin American immigrants. They also insinuate that the blame for these conditions lies with the people and governments of Central America. This is incorrect.

In 1954, the CIA orchestrated the coup d’etat that deposed democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz. The United States then installed Carlos Castillo Armas as the head of a military dictatorship, and a series of U.S.-funded military and authoritarian governments followed. These governments were characterized by violent repression of guerilla opposition and indigenous peoples in Guatemala. The United States was directly involved in training the Guatemalan forces that killed thousands of civilians and massacred indigenous villages. As a result of the civil war in Guatemala that followed the U.S.-orchestrated coup, 200,000 civilians were dead, economic growth was squelched and political independence gave way to corruption.

In 1914, U.S. banana companies owned almost 1 million acres of the best land in Honduras. These holdings increased to the point where Hondurans themselves had almost no access to the country’s most prosperous land. Coupled with American control of the country’s banking and mining industries, this left little hope for independent economic growth. Then, during the Reagan era, the United States stationed thousands of soldiers in Honduras in order to train the Nicaraguan “contra” rebels. During this time the United States also pushed huge economic reforms, including deregulating the economy, which left the country vulnerable to exploitation. Then, on June 28, 2009, a United States-backed coup d’etat deposed Honduran president Manuel (Mel) Zelaya. This led to excessive violence, human rights abuses and economic servitude to the United States. 

During the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s, the United States contributed to the conflict by providing $1-2 million in aid per day to the El Salvadoran government and training death squads to target and terrorize civilians who opposed the 1979 coup d’etat. Over 75,000 Salvadorans were killed while the United States supported the right-wing military forces who tortured, raped and executed left-wing insurgents. Over 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings and torture during the Salvadoran civil war were acts of the government forces trained by the United States. An operation in December 1981 resulted in the El Mozote massacre, where 1,200 men, women and children were killed—one of the worst massacres in Latin American history. The Reagan administration dismissed it as “propaganda.” 

The story of United States interference in Latin America does not end here. Ronald Reagan funded (illegally) the Contra War in Nicaragua in the 1980s in order to oppose the Sandinista government which had overthrown the brutal Somoza dictatorship. This led to the Iran-Contra scandal, which saw tens of thousands of Nicaraguans killed and horrific human rights abuses. In 1973 in Chile, the United States backed the military coup d’etat that ousted democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende and instated General Augusto Pinochet. This led to 17 years of a brutal and violent military dictatorship; the torture, disappearance and murder of tens of thousands of Chileans; and an economic overhaul that has led to massive wealth inequality in the country today.

These are just a few of the instances of U.S. interference in Latin America that resulted in extreme violence, political instability and economic collapse. In many cases, without U.S. involvement and/or economic exploitation, these countries would not be facing the levels of violence and poverty present today. The migration patterns of people from Latin America—especially Central America—to the United States are a direct result of U.S. policies of imperialism and exploitation for capital gain. And yet, almost no mainstream news outlets mention this when reporting on the influx of asylum seekers at the border.

It’s time to stop villainizing Latin American countries and the people who are forced to flee their homes and attempt to cross our southern border. The mainstream media needs to acknowledge that the conditions in many of these countries are a direct result of U.S. interference, and that the United States is now simply witnessing the consequences of the upheaval, disruption and instability that it caused. It’s time to stop perpetuating harmful narratives about the conditions in these countries without acknowledging the true root of the problem. If you’re going to focus on finger-pointing, don’t be shy; place blame where blame is due: the United States of America.

2 Comments

  1. This excellent survey reads like the opening article in the NYTimes or the Washington Post to start a series of 11 articles. the sum of which leads to a Pulitzer. Clear, concise writing peppered with facts. Many thanks. Why not submit this to the NYTimes as an op-ed?

  2. Well written, insightful, and unfortunately (having lived and worked in multiple Central American countries), very true.

    While US media miss this story, Central American’s themselves are not so naive. As Jose David Ramirez Roldan of the Costa Rica News writes (https://thecostaricanews.com/failed-states-and-migratory-crisis-in-central-america/):

    “In summary, there have been certain political-military outcomes that make the central power unstable in the different Central American countries, the United States has always been impeding in one way or another the process of democratic conformation in these countries, where there ends up being an abortive process of state-building, becoming failed States.

    The growth of forced migrations from Central America to the United States is in some way part of the outcomes created by its own foreign policies of military intervention, which prevent the creation of successful states in the Central American region, being possibly the main culprit in much of the migratory caravans to its own territory.

    Evidence suggests that the countries most heavily intervened in a politico-military manner in Central America are those that most frequently migrate to U.S. territory.”

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