Institutionalizing terror : militarization and migration in Central America’s forever wars




Avineri, Ilan Palacios

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On November 25th, 2018, Reuters published a harrowing image of a Honduran refugee named Maria Meza rushing her two daughters away from tear gas fired by the United States Border Patrol. The photograph depicted the mother intensely clutching her children’s arms as they desperately fled from the metal fence demarcating the US-Mexico border. Upon reaching shelter, a journalist asked Meza what she would do if the border remained closed. She replied that she would pray to “God that here in Tijuana, or in another country [that] they open doors to us, to allow me to survive with my children.” Over the following days, US media situated Meza’s story within a broader political discussion about whether the nation has a moral obligation to assist refugees from Central America. Few commentators, however, asked if the US played any role in engendering their displacement; even less considered if historical knowledge could lend insight in the face of such human suffering and help to shape policy responses.

By contrast, this report examines the Central American refugee crisis as a historically contingent phenomenon. The paper begins with the region’s Cold War past, spotlighting the US-backed militarization of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras during the 1970s and 80s. It details how, amidst escalating civil conflict, right-wing regimes across the region incorporated their armed forces into everyday life while engaging in extreme acts of terror and violence. It then spotlights how, during the purported “democratic opening” of the 1990s, the presence of militarized institutions persisted. The paper showcases how these organizations consistently failed to address social problems, spurring emigration from the region. It concludes by analyzing US policy proposals aimed at addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. Ultimately, the report argues that, given the US’ record of disrupting Central American communities, the country should consider a migration policy that extends legal status to refugees as a form of reparations (in addition to defunding the region’s security forces).



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