What’s missing from the debate on the child refugee crisis unfolding on our southern border, is that it’s the United States’ fault these children have to flee.
They came by the thousands. Ejected by a country that did not want them and accused of carrying out the most vicious crimes imaginable, they flooded their new home and brought with them a host of social problems that completely overwhelmed the resources of the country they had been forced to enter. It was all but a matter of time before their presence, so destabilizing, prompted an increasingly violent response.
Given news coverage of late, you might think the above was referring to the 52,000 children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that have recently shown up on America’s southern border. After all, the right wing hysteria over these mostly unaccompanied minors sent to seek refuge on their own in the United States depicts them as disease-ridden invaders bent on destroying America.
But if that’s what you thought, then you’d be wrong. The unwanted, invading hordes ejected from a country that did not want them are actually the folks the kids now on our border are fleeing, and the country that ejected them is our own.
That’s because the refugee cum immigration crisis now playing out all the way from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, is one that in large part has been manufactured right here in America. Ironically — or perhaps appropriately — the vicious criminal gangs that have taken over large swathes of the countries where the kids currently being detained in our border control holding cells are coming from, have their origins here in the U.S.
No country for brown young men
To see why, one must first understand that the current crisis is one that has been years in the making, and one that has its roots in our collective unwillingness to provide a safe, easy, efficient and legal path to citizenship or permanent resident status for those seeking to live in our country. As we have dithered on this issue for the past 30 years, the principal result of our failure to allow in those who wish to live here has been to create a vast underclass of Hispanic non-citizens living in our midst who live precarious, extremely vulnerable lives beyond the writ of U.S. law and legal protections.
In being illegal — despite the pejorative connotations, the adjective nonetheless aptly describes the situation these poor souls find themselves in — they effectively have no real rights under U.S. law. They could find themselves face-to-face with a law enforcement officer who can have them and possibly their entire family deported at any moment. Since this would put all they have worked and struggled for at risk — and rest assured, for many the opportunity to work in the U.S. in unregulated sectors, under unsafe conditions and for terribly low wages is still a step up from conditions at home — this is a nightmare scenario for all undocumented immigrants to this country.
Such people will naturally be averse to working with the police, thus constituting an ideal population for criminal gangs to both prey upon and hide amongst. Indeed, all immigrants to the U.S. have faced this problem, and as a consequence the U.S. has seen the cyclical rise of various ethnic, organized criminal gangs as members of different ethnic communities build up their numbers here in America via mass immigration. From the Irish gangsters and Italian Mafiosi on our east coast, to the Asian triads and tongs on our west, immigration and ethnic gangs go together for a reason.
It is no surprise that when Latin Americans began immigrating in large numbers, they, too, would also see the rise of powerful organized criminal elements in the communities in which they settled. Indeed, the two gangs now causing so much mayhem in Central America that they have forced tens of thousands of children to flee their homes — the 18th Street gang, or M-18, and their main rival, the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 — both have their origins in just such immigrant communities here in the U.S., specifically, those in Southern California.
The M-18, for instance, was formed by young Mexicans residing in the Rampart section of 1960s Los Angeles, while the Mara Salvatrucha was formed by a later wave of immigrants from Central America who fled their countries in the 1980s due to unrelenting civil wars taking place there at the time — something the U.S. itself had a major hand in causing due to our backing of genocidal, anti-leftist regimes and movements there during the Reagan era. However, unlike most organized ethnic immigrant gangs in our history, the rise of these two organizations also coincided with a vast program of deportation that railroaded those caught up in their criminal networks straight back to their countries of origin.
Gangs of Los Angeles … in Guatemala and Honduras
While one cannot fault the U.S. for deporting criminals, the consequences of dumping huge numbers of organized, brutal criminals on desperately poor, incredibly weak countries that had just emerged from decades of dictatorship and civil war was predictably disastrous. In very short order these individuals took over existing criminal networks in Central America and began to hone in on the extremely lucrative drug smuggling routes that sent billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana and other illegal substances over the border for distribution in the U.S.
What’s more, these new kingpins in Central America became extremely powerful because they had ties with their gangster brethren still in America. Each new deportee from a U.S. prison became a new recruit for the M-18 or the Maras back in their country of origin, building up a huge coterie of organized, violence-prone young men tied into the international drug trade. That they would eventually easily sweep aside what constitutes civil authority in these countries and pose a major danger to regional peace and stability there was a foregone conclusion, and very swiftly U.S.-funded anti-drug and anti-gang efforts in these countries began to look like the old anti-guerrilla campaigns from the then-recently concluded anti-communist dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s.
Indeed, just like in the good old days, U.S. advisors, aid and paramilitary training missions are back — only this time, they’re disguised as fighting crime and drugs rather than communist subversion. Another ironic twist of the knife is that unlike in the past wars when Washington was just funding one side of the fight, America is funding both sides this time around and even providing a rear-base area for the criminal insurgent networks it is now battling in Central America.
For every dollar we give police in Central America to battle gangs, the gangs receive vastly more from the drug trade. They, in turn, use this vast wealth to pay and equip their armies of thugs far better than the local police or military and pay off public officials at every level of government. Further, because these gangs originated in the U.S., their leadership often resides not in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador but in America itself — very often in the very prisons from which people are deported. Indeed, in many ways these groups are much more like an organization like Hezbollah — in which local operatives may work in one country but take orders from leadership located in a second while receiving support and financing from members residing in a third — than they are like traditional ethnic organized crime outfits like the old Italian La Cosa Nostra.
Borders for me, but not for thee
Through our broken immigration, border and drug policies, over the decades we have created a transnational criminal monster that in wealth, organization and power looks very much like the terrorist groups we are even now trying to drone-bomb into submission in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Only instead of pushing religious extremism and anti-imperialist rhetoric, the criminal insurgents in Central America and even much of Mexico are hollowing out the state, taking over what the state can’t protect, and using the withered husk that remains as a legal platform and shield from which to organize and rule their vast criminal empires — something made much easier by globalization’s quadruple innovations of globalized trade, transport, communications and finance.
Thus, the full irony of what is going on now is that in having fought for so long to create a borderless world where globalized capitalism rules the roost and states and their organizations are increasingly weak and lack influence, we’ve created the perfect environment for the rise of transnational criminal networks such as those now preying on Central America. Like the massive confined feeding operations for pigs and cattle that give rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, 21st century Central America and its links to the U.S. via our vast population of undocumented residents has given rise to a new sort of criminal organization that, in being transnational in origin is very resistant, even immune, to the usual tactics used against it.
Faced with such monsters, it’s little wonder that utterly desperate parents draw false hope from greedy coyotes urging them to send their children to “El Norte.” It’s the Promised Land, after all, full of milk, honey and street corners not ruled over by vicious thugs tied to one brutal criminal organization or another. Who wouldn’t want their child to escape to there if given even the slightest opportunity? Too bad they don’t know we don’t want people like them to actually live here, which is sadly why they’ve had to flee their homes in the first place.