By Ghazal Rahmanpanah
A century ago immigration in the United States was synonymous with the image of ships arriving at Ellis Island filled with Central, Eastern and Southern Europeans seeking refuge from war and poverty. Today the topic of immigration is highly politicized and filled with rhetoric, and is a far more complicated issue. In the past year, tens of thousands of young undocumented minors have fled their homes and trekked through dangerous land to the U.S. border only to be greeted by angry protestors and overcrowded detention centers.
On July 25th, President Barack Obama met with three Central American leaders to discuss what can be done to mitigate this influx of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. With Congress in deadlock over immigration reform, tensions are mounting and news reports and political analyses surrounding the influx of undocumented children seem to cover a spectrum of opinions and theories. They are missing one key factor however. They are lacking in humanity.
As part of a consultancy with the California-based non-profit EcoViva, I traveled to the Lower Lempa region of southeast El Salvador to gather research on the area’s small-scale agricultural communities.
Here, nestled within the state of Usulután, lies the heart of the recent immigration epidemic. Minors from all over this rural state are risking their lives to make the dangerous trek north for the U.S.-Mexico border. While much is being said in the U.S. about the reasons behind this “recent” influx, very little is coming directly from those making the decision to leave their lives and families behind. Moreover, the rhetoric portrays the Central American immigration crisis as a recent phenomenon, when in fact the crisis stems from American policies towards countries such as El Salvador since the 1980s.
El Salvador’s history is characterized by massive socioeconomic inequality, with a small powerful elite (the haves) ruling over an impoverished, agricultural majority (the have-nots). The tensions gave rise to a socialist party in the 1930s, led by Farabundo Martí, and ultimately an uprising of campesinos and indigenous people against the elitist government. The government responded brutally through military action; killing nearly 40,000 in what is now known as La Matanza (the Massacre). Martí was arrested and executed and for the next 50 years the military took power over the country. In the 1960s, on the heels of the Cuban Revolution, opposition groups gained momentum only to be met by further governmental repression and brutality. By the 1970s, the once peaceful anti-government demonstrators formed small guerilla groups, believing the change they sought would only come through an armed struggle. The Carter administration, fearing the socialist uprisings, supplied the Salvadoran government with millions of dollars in military aid. U.S. tax dollars helped the Salvadoran Armed Forces and death squads commit mass atrocities against tens of thousands of civilians and anyone deemed “an enemy of the state” was subject to torture, rape, and murder.
Though the January 1992 signing of the Peace Accords in El Salvador brought a formal end to the country’s brutal civil war, the vast majority of Salvadorans still live below the poverty line. In the early 1990s, thousands who had fled to neighboring Honduras, Panama, and Nicaragua returned to El Salvador. Many resettled on the country’s coastal lands, such as in the Lower Lempa, and laid claim to agricultural plots. Concurrently, the newly formed Salvadoran government chose to resettle thousands of former soldiers within the same areas as the once displaced and former guerillas. Former enemies were now forced to be neighbors.
Reflecting on the violence within Salvadoran society throughout the civil war, it is easy to see why over one million citizens fled the country and why the civil war resulted in a far more resounding and violent problem – the inception and proliferation of the major street gang known as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).
MS-13’s inception began in the Hispanic communities west of downtown Los Angeles in the 1980s. A small group of Salvadoran immigrants, who had escaped the civil war, faced victimization by local LA gangs. As part of the “get-tough” immigration policies of the Clinton administration, an enhanced deportation policy, known as the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, increased the number of gang-deportees being “exported” to Central America. The policy accelerated the influence and presence of the gang’s operations in El Salvador, bringing with it a ruthless gang culture that did not exist before. Many Salvadoran maras (gang members)were exported to a country they had not seen in years or ever before. According to a 2012 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), El Salvador currently has approximately 323 mareros for every 100,000 citizens.
Porfidio is a technical expert for the Mangrove Association, one of EcoViva’s on-the-ground partners in the Lower Lempa, and a native of the small town of Mono. Riding in the back of a pick-up truck on our way to meet with black bean producers, I ask him about the maras and the supposed truce negotiated in 2012 between MS-13 and the rival M18 or 18th Street Gang, which was also founded on the streets of Los Angeles during the war. “The truce never reached our communities, it was merely national rhetoric,” he says. “You watch the news and just see those maras; you forget the people who must live amongst them.” Many of Porfidio’s friends have tried to cross into the U.S. this past year alone. “Some of them made it, but most didn’t. Before they wanted the American dream, but now they just want to escape the violence.”
In the past few years, the influence of these maras has accelerated and spread beyond El Salvador’s urban cities and into the impoverished, rural communities. Here no one seems to be leaving in search of economic prosperity; they are leaving in search of refuge from the gang violence. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border from El Salvador has doubled in the past two years – from less than 4,000 in 2012 to nearly 10,000 this past fiscal year. The “immigration issue” is more than just an influx of undocumented minors clamoring for the American dream; it is a mass exodus of children into unknown and terrifying territory.
As you enter the Mangrove Association’s complex, Gilma greets you. A single mother of three, living in the town of Mono, she works hard for the NGO to provide for her daughters. “I live only for them” she says to me in the tone we hear everywhere in the world from working mothers. Gilma was a young girl during the civil war when she was forced to flee with her family into the Salvadoran highlands to escape the 1981 massacre of El Mozote.
Gilma’s hands remind me of those of my own mother – beautifully elegant, conveying years of hard work and strength. Her eyes are fiery, much like her sassy and strong-minded personality. Though she speaks frankly of the massacres and atrocities she witnessed during the civil war, my questions regarding the “exodus” ultimately break her down. “We take care of our children, and yet still there is this” she says solemnly as she starts to cry, referring to the gang violence that has overtaken her community. Gilma’s eldest daughter, Angela*, was recently a victim of extortion by the maras. A gang member came to her work asking for money. When Angela tried to tell him she did not have any, the man threatened that he would be back. “It wasn’t just, it wasn’t fair” Gilma exclaims through her tears, “but that is what happens when you live in a place like this.” This incident happened the week we arrived in Usulután. Her daughter returned home safe and now both mother and daughter are calmer, but this “threat” hovers around them still. I ask Gilma if she could say one thing to those of us on the other side of this issue, what would it be. She exhales deeply and replies, “It’s all politics. Look at the children suffering around you as the governments use them to push their rhetoric. The ‘threat’ impacts us all and the children are suffering regardless.”
I thank Gilma for sharing her story and promised that I would tell it. For me, Gilma is a symbol of the true resilience of the Salvadorans in the face of terror and adversity. While surrounded by the shadows of violence and hardship, Gilma is always smiling – a true example of her community’s formidable spirit.
*Name is withheld and changed here for her safety
The author would like to give a special thank you to her good friend, colleague and EcoViva International Field Coordinator, Amy Kessler for her help in the interpretation of the interviews. -Ed.
About the author: Ghazal Rahmanpanah is an Iranian-American, born in Tehran and raised in Maryland and Washington, DC. Currently in the final term of her MA in International Policy Studies and MBA in International Economics at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, she is passionate about gender equality and the role it plays in disarmament initiatives. When she’s not channelling the spirits of history’s greatest feminist and women leaders; she’s busy either going to concerts or enjoying the beautiful sights offered by California’s Central Coast.