Northern Triangle Migration: They’ll just keep coming

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(3 minute read)

The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone. They do not represent the views of any entities I am affiliated with in the past, present, or future.

Immigration policies are on my news feeds, once again.

The ongoing migration story at the US-Mexico border is part of the legacy of Central America’s civil war era. Inadequate strategies and policies to reintegrate Central Americans into their countries gave gangs the arsenal to grow in membership. And, as I’ve written throughout this blog, these gangs have been allowed to grip onto communities and influence public policy (the failed gang truce in El Salvador, for example).

It’s hard to keep this post up-to-date with the current happenings (I’ve made vast changes to it twice since I started a running Word doc). The headline that sparked the current outrage—that kids were being locked into cage-like cells and separated from their families at the US-Mexican border—propelled this issue into the front page of every news organization in the hemisphere.

Its tragic to say the least. Never mind the psychological trauma associated with the separations. The policy was another short-sighted move that fails to curb illegal migration from the Northern Triangle (a group of countries that includes El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) into the US. The US decided to change its mind on the matter, but the week has shown that (yet again), if we want to make any real inroads into this infamous policy issue, we need to have a real, slogan-less conversation.

Why Journey?

Central America is one of the most unequal economic regions in the world. The search for better economic opportunities has always driven migration, but it isn’t the main driver behind the migrations appearing in recent news stories.

Central Americans are making the journey to escape violence. This isn’t something that is new to the region– throughout cold war/Latin America civil war era 1980s, Central Americans made their way in droves to more peaceful countries (USA, Australia, Italy, and in the case of my parents, Canada, par exemple) to pursue sunny ways. The difference in the 2010s is that rather than escaping conflicts between guerilla groups and the state, Central Americas are escaping gang violence.

I’ve heard first-hand anecdotes of Salvadorans threatened by gangs (notably, MS-13). However, these threats shouldn’t justify “build a wall” kinds of immigation policies at the Mexico-US border.

Yes, gangs are dangerous. They hold Central American communities hostage through extortions. But they’re not nearly as sophisticated as the US administration makes them out to be, and in my opinion, villainizing every migrant at the border in the name of keeping gang members out is a grossly misinformed policy.

While hierarchies exist within MS-13, the gang lacks the structural and economic sophistication of drug cartels or mafia crime families. The truth is that the majority of gang members are young men who are 1) victims of violence themselves, and 2) are looking for camaraderie in societies that have seemingly forgotten about them. Gangs provide shelter and family, albeit in a misinformed fashion.

So, sure: given the number of migrants leaving the northern triangle, there’s a chance gang members might make it to the border, but the fact is they’re more preoccupied with collecting extortions for day to day survival (in their own country. Not up north) than they are finding ways to migrate up north. The key to curbing the migration crisis, then, isn’t to detain every migrant that shows up to the border; a more reasonably approach would be for governments (you can decide which ones) to address the socio-economic issues plaguing streets through evidence-based policy-making.

Migration routes are infested with gang members and cartels. Women and girls are sexually assaulted and raped along the way. Migrants risk being robbed. Even friends turn into enemies, as smugglers (“coyotes”) demand large sums of money to bring migrants from Central America into the US with no guarantee of success– a migrant could be abandoned halfway with no cash. It becomes evident that the journey from the northern triangle into the US is made out of desperation, not out of a desire to spread terrorism.

What to do?

So what about borders? Should everyone be allowed in?

I’ve written before that borders should be respected for a number of reasons. However, this doesn’t mean inhumanely caging asylum seekers, especially now that so many have come knocking on the door. Separating kids from their parents doesn’t address the root cause of the migrations—in a crisis that is 20+ years in the making, we can’t expect it to be resolved overnight. If you’re an avid reader of my blog (thanks!), you’ll know that this isn’t anything I haven’t already expressed in the past.

All this said, if there’s a silver lining to this issue, it’s this: while it’s sad to see the developments of this story on my news feeds, seeing it so visible in the public consciousness brings me hope that it will (finally) be addressed. After all, the current headlines on migration from the northern triangle have existed since before the current US President was in office (in fact, it was during the Obama administration that the instances of child migrations saw incredible increases). I also hope this brings other Latin American migrations crises to light (specifically, the mass migrations occurring out of Venezuela and perhaps Nicaragua).

But the story has taken unpredictable twists and turns this week. Better stay locked into my Twitter feed.

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Saint Romero of El Salvador, but for who?

Monseñor Romero

The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone. They do not represent the views of any entities I am affiliated with in the past, present, or future.

Earlier this month, the Catholic Church announced it would elevate Monsenor Romero into Sainthood. Believers and non-believers can agree that the man is an important figure in Latin American politics, religion, and daily life.

He was a disciple of Christ, surely. But was he a Robin Hood, too? Or maybe a communist supporter? Perception depends on who you ask, but what is for sure is that he was a prominent enough figure in the Cold War to be turned into a Warner Bros. movie.

That’s not being tongue-in-cheek. When discussing Latin America, Central American countries are often overlooked in favour of their larger, South American relatives–Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, etc. (anyone who wrote a thesis on Central American telecom policy development will know this.)

(Okay, that one was tongue-in-cheek).

Romero is often referred to as a Patron Saint of Latin America. For him to make his way into water cooler chats in North America, and also inspire U2 to write music about the country (as I’ve previously written), is an accomplishment.

Who was Monsenor Romero

For those who are unfamiliar, here’s a very brief/quick summary of who this man was (there’s a lot more to his story. I encourage you to check it out):

Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador and was a respected figure within his flock.

What separated Romero from other priests was his willingness to publicly speak out against injustices in a time when Latin America was rife with military dictatorships. Economic divides had permeated through the social cracks that had spread through the country (and even now, after the fall of many dictatorships, continues to exist). Unfortunately, as is the case of many Human Rights defenders, this made him a target by those who didn’t like what he had to say.

In 1980, just one day after calling on soldiers to turn the other cheek and disobey orders (which implicated human rights violations), Romero was shot dead while celebrating mass. It’s unclear who shot him, but a UN truth commission found that his death was orders by the country’s prominent right-wing death squad leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson. El Faro, a Salvadoran online investigative journalist website, dug into the story in the late 2000s and claims they spoke with a person implicated in the plot. That person implicated d’Aubuisson.

His assassination was a catalyst in driving the war. Guerilla groups quickly claimed him a martyr. The war lasted fourteen years, and since then, Romero has been elevated to “hero” status by many Salvadorans, including those in the political realm.

Saint Romero, but for who?

Romero embodied humility. While I support the recognition he has garnered, the name that has taken the place of the hero troubles me.

National heroes emerge based on who people identify with. Canada has its own list of national heroes: Terry Fox, Margaret Atwood, Gord Downie. The list is as long as the 401.

Romero’s name, though, has been mixed with politics to the point where his message has been diluted as if it were used in a game of “telephone.” The game has been played by both the Left (FMLN, former guerilla group) and, ironically, the Right (ARENA).

For instance, ARENA mayoral candidates promised in 2016 that, if they had won their municipal elections, they would build monument honouring Romero and name prominent streets after him. The rationale is that it would be appropriate to honour the significant contributions of a man of Salvadoran heritage to global peace and harmony (the argument might have merit – after all, Kingston has their “Tragically Hip Way”).

But does that justify not investing resources to address complex issues, such as investing in social programs? The FMLN, on the other hand, continues to build on Romero’s legacy to fit within their political brand of the former good guy guerillas who want to make El Salvador prosperous and just.

In reality, since the end of the country’s civil war, both parties have 1) shown ineptitude and have not accomplished their goals, 2) have been caught up in corruption scandals, and 3) have failed to respect basic human rights. Even the most hard-core left-wing FMLN supporters would have to admit that since it came into power 10 years ago, the party have come up far short in growing the country (I’m trying to stay in the middle here, but FMLN has been in power for the last nine years).

So in spite of what’s going on in El Salvador, it’s important to not forget that a man died at the altar, shot through the heart, fighting for real, important causes: Human Rights. The ability to live free of oppression. Anti-corruption. The willingness to love his brothers and sisters.

Simply put, Romero has been elevated to hero status. The status is well-deserved and should be respected. But for us to truly embrace the messages he died promoting, we should bring his status back to earth.

Remember Your Fellow Activist

In November 1988, my parents left El Salvador and came to Canada, uncertain of what would become of their future. That didn’t matter: sure, Canada’s winter was tough, but the war in El Salvador was tougher.

They came searching for peace. They found it, and as a result, were able to start a family and have their kids graduate from college and university (yours truly went on to finish his graduate degree).

The cruelties of war were ones my parents and their generation experienced firsthand; ones which I have been fortunate enough to miss out. Even as someone who reads and writes about Latin American issues, I find it hard to imagine or understand them. Here in Canada, we’re fortunate to live in a country that has never gone through a civil war.

As you read this, thousands of kilometers away, real people—activists—are on the ground in Latin America doing real work in hopes of making their countries better: in El Salvador trying to keep kids out of gangs, in Venezuela fighting to restore democratic rights, or in Colombia trying to restore peace after half a century of fighting between the government and FARC. The list is endless.

And unfortunately, it’s a struggle. Activists often put their lives in danger. Living under the constant danger of death threats is part of the job. They’re aware of the risks. They accept them for the love of humanity.

So, to the children of my parents’ generation: we haven’t lived through violent struggles, but let’s not forget that these struggles exist. I’m lucky enough to share my thoughts behind the safety of a computer screen.

Others aren’t afforded that luxury.

The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone. They do not represent the views of any entities I am affiliated with in the past, present, or future.

Mexico Has Learned From Previous Tragedies

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As seen in the October 2017 edition of Eco Latino (Ottawa)

Mother Nature hasn’t been good to the Caribbean and Mexico these last few weeks. Hurricanes in the former and earthquakes in the latter have created worry.

The clean-ups will be long and costly. However, in these hard times, I find relief in Mexico.

To be clear: the Mexican earthquakes have been tragic. Anywhere where an earthquake destroys buildings and kills hundreds is a place that deserves a spot in any news cycle.

But at these times, it’s important to pause and see Mexico for the country it is. Mexico is better equipped to deal with these tragedies than other Latin American or Caribbean countries—by international measures, Mexico is better developed (Mexico is one of two Latin American countries in the OECD. The other is Chile.) and has made moves in recent decades which may have saved thousands of lives leading up to the 2017 earthquakes.

Earthquakes aren’t new to Mexico. For instance, the 8.0 Richter scale earthquake that shook Mexico City in 1985 killed thousands of Mexicans (estimates range from 5,000 to 45,000) and resulted in the collapse of over 400 buildings.

After that quake, new codes were implemented to strengthen buildings: buildings are now required to have reinforced concrete as well as better load distribution. One Mexican engineer told the Agence France-Press that these regulations likely saved thousands of lives during the most recent quake.

He may have a point. The damage in the 1985 quake is arguably much worse than that of the September 19, 2017 quake, which (at the time I write this) has so far claimed 308 lives and 44 buildings—far less than the thousands of lost lives and hundreds of lost buildings in the 1985 earthquake.

These codes are a sign that Mexico has learned from its past, and it’s a sign that Mexico can rebuild. Leave no doubt: the latest quake is a tragedy, but it’s one the country can overcome.

Colombia: Agree or Disagree, You’ll Probably Learn Something

In early April, I attended a discussion on Colombia’s post-civil war future hosted by the Canadian International Council. For those who don’t know, the Colombian government recently ended a five-decade-long war with one of the country’s prominent rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC, in Spanish).

Overall, it was a great discussion. I was impressed by the level of interaction between audience members and the moderators.

But even more importantly, I was impressed with the quality of ideas exchanged during the discussion. I was reminded that peaceful disagreements can exist in political arenas which are known for mud-slinging.

For instance, while there were disagreements on how to ensure the smooth transition from war-time to peace, there was common ground found between all camps in that 1) the peace treaty is important for Colombia to move forward (even if it contains clauses of contention), and 2) Colombia’s infrastructural needs cannot be ignored, particularly the need for roadways to connect Colombia’s rural areas with its urban ones–roads connect people, literally and figuratively. Roads help drive the economy. Roads are good for peace.

But those were only a few ideas exchanged at this discussion. For the most part, disagreements outnumbered the agreements, but I was reminded of how fruitful these civilized, educated discussions could be. I walked away with a better understanding of how Canada can play a role in the peace process. I also left with a sense that all could play a part in the discussion, whether it’s actually sharing ideas or just being informed of current events.

It seems as though we are constantly bombarded by sad news—countries being bombed, social injustices, violent crimes. In the midst of the negativity, it’s refreshing to hear the promotion of peace in a country that saw fifty years of war.

I heard one professor remark that she had stopped researching the armed conflict because she thought she would never see the end of it. I think all sides in attendance were pleased that she was wrong.

Spreading the Word: News Media and Bad Policies

Spreading the Word: News Media and Bad Policies

This piece will appear in the April 2017 edition of Ottawa’s Eco-Latino.

Calling all researchers: the world needs you.

Last month, I examined the legacy of El Salvador’s civil war, one which includes an ongoing gang problem that has no end in sight.

Why has the country’s gang problem gone on for so long?

Many researchers point to failed anti-gang strategies; specifically, right-wing ARENA’s “Mano Dura” (“Hard Hand”) strategies introduced in the 2000s, which focused too much on incarceration and not enough on rehabilitation or bridging social gaps—gaps which have existed since El Salvador became a country in 1841.

A few weeks ago, I picked up Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, a book written by Mexican-based researcher Sonja Wolf. Like many commentators, Wolf argues that at the heart of the gang problem are the socio-economic issues that plague the country. Simply put: El Salvador can hunt gangsters all it wants, but if it doesn’t address the conditions that give birth to gangs, the problem won’t go away. It’s putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

What struck me about her argument was how mainstream news media pushed for ARENA’s “Mano Dura” policies even though they were flawed from the very beginning. It’s alarming—for instance, she suggests that the two leading newspapers in the country, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Grafica, failed to question the effectiveness of these policies because the owners of each paper had entrenched interests with ARENA. As a result, the public saw “Mano Dura” and “Super Mano Dura” as legitimate anti-gang options.

It’s unfortunate that this is only crystal clear in retrospect, but in a country where inequality has historically been “the way it is,” it’s easy to see gangs as the source of evil that require the holy fist of the state.

But let’s be clear: gangs are bad, but the governments that have been unable to bridge the social gaps—the same governments, on the right and left, that have been caught literally stealing millions of dollars from public funds—are arguably worse.

This is where researchers can fill the gap that Salvadoran journalists can’t. El Salvador lacks independent journalists and media outlets, and because of so many aligned interests are held by its biggest news outlets, it’s difficult to find ones that critically examine anti-gang policies and hold presidents accountable. It’s easier said than done, but it’s necessary.

Media producers, for good or bad, select particular stories to follow. Imagine if mainstream news outlets were our only sources for information? There’s a reason why some of my friends identify Trump vs. Mexico as the most important story in Latin American affairs right now, while being unaware of the ongoing food crisis in Venezuela.

So I’ll tell you what I used to tell my students: read your books. Knowledge can go a long way.

Notes by Henry listed in list of Top Blogs of 2017

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Some exciting housekeeping news to take care of.

A highlight, indeed–Notes by Henry was listed in Focus Economics Top 101 Blogs of 2017. See it listed here!

Thank you, dear readers, for stopping by Notes by Henry. Discussing Latin American issues is something I’m personally passionate about, and it’s through discussion and engagement that we can hammer out the issues within the region.

-Henry