Root Causes of Human Rights Abuses in the Northern Triangle


In order to properly assess the reasons why there is such an influx of unaccompanied minors attempting to seek asylum in the United States, it is important to understand the historical, political, social, and economic push factors. The histories of these conflicts in these three countries are explicitly influenced by the United States’ involvement in the overthrow of the existing leftist governments as well as U.S. military training and aid.
The first instance of United States’ interference in overthrowing the existing leftist government occurred in Guatemala in 1954. Taking place during the Cold War, the United States’ opposition began because it was convinced that the Guatemalan government, headed by President Jacobo Arbenz, was communist. A U.S. based corporation; The United Fruit Co., also played a role in assisting with the overthrow of President Arbenz. The United Fruit Co. was the biggest land-owner in Guatemala and rejected the idea of nationalizing all land under the Arbenz administration (Hendricks). According to a study located on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) website titled Congress, the CIA and Guatemala, 1954, “Washington (the U.S. government) used the CIA and US Ambassador John Peurifoy to support and direct certain Guatemalan military leaders in overthrowing Arbenz’s government.” The study goes on to explain that while the coup was occurring, the U.S. government pretended to have nothing to do with it. Now the U.S. justifies this as part of their “global war on communism” (Barrett). Following the coup, several right-leaning military dictatorships came into power in Guatemala. The dictatorships initiated the human rights abuses of kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killings of people who spoke out against the government with the justification that they were communists. A 36-year civil war followed, ending in 1996, claiming an estimated 200,000 Guatemalan lives, mostly civilians (Hendricks).
The second CIA intervention in Central America occurred in El Salvador starting with the U.S. backed coup in 1979, which put a right-leaning government in place and spurred a civil war which took place from 1980-1992 (Allison). The U.S. largely backed the right-leaning government in its fight to maintain control over the umbrella guerrilla-rebel leftist group; the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The U.S. equipped and trained the military which resulted in the kidnapping of 30,000 people, the extrajudicial killings of 75,000 civilians and the creation of nearly 1 million refugees (Chávez). The Salvadorian government was also given names of FMLN army officers that the U.S. wanted removed. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, President Bush’s aide, personally handed over the list, and was “later discredited for selling weapons to Iran to pay for the CIA’s secret wars in Central America” (Gibb). A difference between U.S. involvement in El Salvador and Guatemala is that the U.S. did not make as much of an attempt to keep their involvement in the war classified as they did in Guatemala. Even after one of the biggest massacres of the war which the state carried out at El Mozote, killing hundreds of mostly women and children in 1981, the U.S. continued to support the state for 11 more years after that (Chávez). After the war ended, the FMLN “called for the formation of a Truth Commission to assess the human rights violations committed during the civil war…The Truth Commission attributed 85 percent of the reported human rights violations committed during the conflict to state agents and 5 percent to FMLN insurgents” (Chávez).
While Honduras did not experience a civil war in the 1980’s like El Salvador and Guatemala, the military did support anti-communist policies and was largely backed by the United States. The U.S. used Honduras as a military base to assist in the civil war in Nicaragua, and perhaps in El Salvador and Guatemala as well. According to the National Commission for Human Rights in Honduras, during this time period the military engaged in torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances (Meyer). In 2009, the Honduran military arrested the democratically elected President, Manuel Zelaya and forced him into exile in Costa Rica. Zeyaya was not given a fair trial and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission deemed it unconstitutional (Meyer). There is much speculation about the U.S.’s involvement in this coup. In Hilary Clinton’s book she published about her time as Secretary of State, Hard Choices, she describes that after meeting with some of her international colleagues, “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot” (Weisbrot). However, shortly after the coup the Obama administration condemned the coup and demanded Zelaya be returned back to power (Meyer). This hypocrisy made many people wonder what the United States’ role really was in this conflict. Until the CIA and government files are unclassified like they were for the case of the 1954 Guatemalan coup, there is no way to know. Ever since the 2009 coup, human rights abuses have increased. Homicide rates have risen and 25% of Hondurans report being a victim of a crime. An estimated 17,500 business have closed due to threats from the gangs and the drug cartels that the government is unable to control. This is purposed as one of the main reasons for the mass immigration of unaccompanied minors from Honduras to the United States.
The end of these military dictatorships did not directly result in democracy as hoped. In her dissertation for a Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology for the University of California Santa Barbra, Anna Belinda Sandoval Girón discusses how:
The rise of Latin American democracies did not mean the end of violence; on the contrary it seems as if violence is being democratized in Latin America. Violence seems to be more of an option for a larger number of actors and is no longer restricted to the military, guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and the elites” (Sandoval Girón).
This new form of violence is manifesting itself daily in the form of gangs, often times associated with the illicit drug trade. The governments are unable to maintain social order and control over the groups they used to have control over. This contributes to the “general climate” (Sandoval Girón) that violence is an acceptable way to solve conflicts. The government then loses its legitimacy, and “governmental voids” occur, “which are inevitably occupied by actors who obey the law of the jungle” (Sandoval Girón).
The emergence of these gangs that are currently filling these “governmental voids” and causing the influx of unaccompanied minors to flee to the U.S. can be traced back to the civil wars that took place in the Northern Triangle countries in the 1980’s, backed by the U.S. Many civilians fled to the United States during their respective country’s civil wars hoping to be granted asylum. Asylum was not granted to many seekers, despite the U.S. involvement in forcibly removing these people from their home countries. Many of the asylum seekers settled in southern California, where they lived illegally. Because they were noncitizens under U.S. law, it was difficult for them to obtain legitimate jobs, and many turned to illegitimate means of making a living (Kane).
One gang in particular that is highly prevalent in the Northern Triangle countries as well as the U.S. is Mara Salvatrucha (MS or MS-13). This gang was founded in the 1980’s by El Salvadorian young immigrants. According to Sonja Wolf, author of Mara Salvatrucha: The Most Dangerous Street Gang in the Americas? “The FBI estimates that the group has spread across 42 states and comprises of some 50,000 members world-wide, including nearly 10,000 in the United States” (Wolf). Law enforcement tends to describe MS as a “transnational organized crime enterprise engaged in drug trafficking and migrant smuggling” (Wolf). The reason this gang became transnational was because of the harsh targeting of “offending noncitizens” for deportation back to their countries after the civil wars in the 1980’s (Kane). Instead of getting rid of the gang problem in the U.S., these deportations merely fueled the expansion of the U.S. gang culture into the Northern Triangle countries and stimulated the transnational trade of MS and similar gangs. Once back in their home countries, because of low economic growth, these deportees were unable to find employment once again, and turned back to the gang (Kane). This stagnant economic growth has continued into today, and is one of the main reasons why there is such a prevalent gang problem in all three of these countries. One other reason for the growth and continuation of gangs in the Northern Triangle countries is the United States’ strict border control policies. While the U.S. is intending to control illegal immigration by making stricter immigration policies, the unintended consequence is the strengthening of the gangs in these countries. Because immigrants attempting to enter the U.S. know that it is harder to cross the border, they are more likely to connect with gangs in order to help them smuggle themselves across the border, thus giving the gangs more money and potentially more members (Kane).
These are just some of the root causes for the mass influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern United States border. In order to properly combat this issue with things such as social activism and public anthropology, we must understand the root causes and the human rights abuses that have been occurring all along and have resulted in the current situation.

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