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The Central American Child Refugee Crisis: Made in U.S.A.

By supporting repressive governments, the U.S. has fueled the violence that has caused tens of thousands of kids to flee north.
Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

On July 25, the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador met with President Obama at the White House to discuss what to do about the child migrant crisis. Obama asked his counterparts for their help in keeping refugees at home, in part through further militarization and enforcement of their own borders. In remarks made before and after the meeting, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández and Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina both placed blame where it belonged—on the U.S.-led “War on Drugs.” But Hernández also asked the United States for a “Plan Colombia for Central America” to mitigate the push factors driving migration. Plan Colombia, often touted by the State Department as a great success, involved a no-holds-barred military and police offensive against drug traffickers and insurgents that resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Colombian civilians and thousands of extrajudicial killings and other abuses by security forces. The initiative appears in fact to be a model for the United States’ 2011 regional security plan—the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI)—which has provided the Northern Triangle with hundreds of millions of dollars of security assistance in addition to millions in bilateral assistance.

Why criticize the drug war and then ask for more of precisely the sort of assistance that has exacerbated violence and insecurity? Both Hernández and Pérez Molina, an ex-military chief implicated in war crimes, have helped reestablish the military as key political actors in their countries, with the unflagging support of the United States. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, military control was seen as essential—by national right-wing elites and the U.S. government—for guaranteeing the elimination of potentially subversive leftwing movements. In 2009, the same priority reemerged in Honduras when Zelaya was ousted and a broad-based grassroots movement took to the streets to try to return him to power.

But an additional factor can be seen at play both in Honduras and Guatemala: the militarized defense of a neoliberal agenda that is being met with stubborn resistance by community groups. Increasingly, public and private security forces act in tandem to attack and intimidate small farmers or indigenous and Afro-indigenous communities that refuse to be displaced by agribusiness corporations or resource-hungry multinationals.

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