I think that if women and children are appearing at the United States-Mexico border, we can pretty much surmise that there is no place left for them to go. The sounds you just heard have come to signify one of the darkest moments in recent American history. But it’s a story that has roots that go back almost 40 years. The Central American immigrant population in the United States has increased more than tenfold since 1980, in no small part because of US intervention in that region. Central American communities became the focus of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards people crossing the Mexico-U.S. border in the spring of 2018. The policy, introduced and enforced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, arrested any and all people caught crossing – prosecuting them immediately. The most controversial aspect of the policy was the forced separation of children of all ages, from their parents – and their subsequent detention in what some have called concentration camps. But what’s been missing from the conversation and coverage has been one simple question: why are these families even coming here? On the one hand you’re creating conditions that make this place unlivable and on the other hand, you’re not recognizing that the conditions are unlivable and you’re claiming that people don’t have a right to be here. We did not let them into this country even though we had a hand in fueling the civil unrest. Hey guys, I’m Sana, and this Sunday, I’m going to be exploring how decades of U.S. intervention in Central America has forced thousands of families to flee for the Mexico-U.S. border today. The history of U.S. intervention and involvement in Central America is a story of destabilization, bloodshed and a vicious cycle of the export of violence and control over resources. Leisy Abrego, an associate professor at UCLA who focuses on Central American immigration talks a bit more about that. The relationship between the U.S. and Central America is a long and rather complex one that started from the time that the U.S. became a nation, wanting to make sure that other major political powers were not stepping into what they consider to be part of their territory to some extent. Now, we’re going to talk about the Sandinistas, civil wars, CIA-backed death squads, MS-13 — but first, some context. The United States’ history of occupation and intervention in Latin America spans almost 200 years. From Cuba to Haiti to Venezuela to Chile to Panama to Nicaragua – the United States was there. President James Monroe in 1823 declared all of Latin America to be a U.S. sphere of influence. Under the Monroe Doctrine, Washington claimed the right to intervene militarily across the continent. That led to the ‘Banana Wars,’ in which the United States military fought to reassert American power and monopoly of plantations in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Land in Central America was pretty fertile. And there were a lot of U.S. corporations that had established businesses there and those interests were constantly protected. Those business folks had an ear at the U.S. government so that any time that there were attempts in the region to try and level some of the inequalities there, the U.S. government would step in. There were coups; there was military intervention throughout the 1900s. The U.S. invasion of Nicaragua in particular, as a part of those Banana Wars, would lead to a 21-year-long American occupation. The U.S. occupation of Nicaragua came to an end when the Great Depression and a rebellion led by Augusto Nicolás Calderón Sandino forced them to withdraw. Sandino was a revolutionary, who is still celebrated in Nicaragua today. He was assassinated in 1934 by the U.S.-trained National Guard, led by General Anastasio Somoza Garcia who led a U.S.-backed coup d’état two years later. It’s one of many coups across Latin America that’s characterized U.S. foreign policy in the region since the early 20th century. Somoza and his family would continue to rule Nicaragua, under a brutal dictatorship, for the next 40 years. Sandino’s revolutionary legacy, however, was adopted by a left-leaning Sandinista Front, who would become the greatest opposition to the dictatorship – but I’ll get back to them in just a minute. Throughout this period – the 1930s, the 40s, the 50s – there’s a lot of U.S. meddling in Latin America, in Central America in particular, that’s happening. And this history is about to get a little complicated, but it shows the intersection of U.S. foreign policy towards Central America at the height of the Cold War and the spread of Leftist movements and revolutions. The success of the Cuban revolution made the U.S. nervous to think that there could be political superpowers, like the USSR at the time, getting involved in what they perceive as their backyard. All of this set the stage for a sustained and violent U.S. intervention across Central America during the 1980s – backing vicious local allies in wars that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions, and set in motion the social breakdown that today forces many thousands to flee north. The way that the U.S. trained those soldiers and tactics like extreme torture and scorched earth tactics that were really meant to instill fear in a widespread way throughout those populations. That’s what caused, for the first time, people to flee in mass numbers. First, let’s start with Guatemala. From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala experienced the longest civil war in Central America. It was fought between a U.S.-installed military dictatorship and leftist groups. True to its commitment to fighting Communism at all costs, the CIA provided intelligence, training and arms support to the Guatemalan government throughout the war. I also want to mention here that Guatemala was ruled by a right-wing military government – one of many since a 1954 U.S.-backed coup that ousted a democratically elected Leftist president. The war claimed over 200,000 lives, with 83% of them being indigenous Mayan people – people who lived mainly in rural areas and were accused of being Communist supporters. Over half a million people were displaced and over 40,000 were “disappeared” — mostly as a result of government actions. Then there was Nicaragua and the Sandinistas. The early 80s saw a wave of Leftist, Cuban-Soviet aligned movements vying for power in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Sandinista National Liberation Front was founded in 1961 – they’re a far-left revolutionary group that was opposed to the Somoza government. In 1979, they overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, and two years later they consolidated power with other Leftist groups. Prior to the Somoza government’s fall, President Jimmy Carter actually started a covert policy of supporting a more, what the U.S. called, “moderate opposition” to the government, as an alternative to the far left opposition. It was a policy that both he and his successor, Ronald Reagan, also pursued in El Salvador when civil war broke out between the U.S.- backed military junta and the FMLN, a coalition of Leftist groups. “Central America’s problems do directly effect the security and the well-being of our own people. And Central America is much closer to the United States than many of the world’s troubled spots that concern us.” Reagan invested heavily in an effort to roll back this leftwing tide by arming, training and supporting government forces and Death Squads in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and the rebel “Contras” in Nicaragua. The purpose of the Contras, the Death Squads, was to fight against Marxist groups vying for power and to scare people away from supporting these groups. “Will we permit the Soviet Union to put a second Cuba, a second Libya – right at the doorstep of the United States?” This was a policy of making sure that communism would not spread throughout the world. We basically gave arms, munitions, war implements, money to one side of a civil unrest to try and stamp out communism, for the most part. At least that was our goal. At least that’s what was stated. There was a slaughter. People lost their lives, people lost their livelihoods. The Salvadoran Civil War, which lasted 12 years, claimed over 75,000 lives and more than a quarter of the population was displaced. According to a United Nations Truth Commission, 85% of the violence was attributed to the U.S.-backed government and death squads – and 5% to the FMLN. Back in Nicaragua, the United States spent over $1 billion on the Contras — with Reagan calling them the equivalent of the Founding Fathers of the United States. The U.S. also used Honduras as a base for attacks against the Sandinistas. In fact, the U.S. helped transport Honduran troops into Nicaragua and even deployed its own soldiers into Honduras to assist. So the U.S. escalated a series of local political conflicts throughout the 1980s into a series of connected wars that devastated Central America which had started before the eighties and intensified during that decade – creating massive social and economic breakdown, and human displacement. We’re still feeling the impact of those wars today. Almost 1 million Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans fled to the United States between 1980 and 1991 to escape political repression and economic hardship. People fled to the United States. Los Angeles was a hotbed that received 70,000 immigrants during the 80s seeking asylum. We did not let them into this country even though we had a hand in fueling the civil unrest. And that led to traumatized communities in the United States, with no mental health recourse and resources, fending for themselves. Not having refugee status, not being able to apply for asylum because the vast majority of asylum applications were denied at the time. They were here and they were undocumented and they had to work two, three jobs to survive. So gangs arose in this country, in L.A. in particular, as a way to find support to survive the communities they were living in. That led to all kinds of activity that put them in prison and then later in deportation. And the point Abrego makes about gangs is an important one in understanding the gang violence that Central Americans are fleeing and how that’s connected to the refugees and migrants at the Mexico-U.S. border. Bill Clinton’s 1996 immigration reform act expanded the criteria for who was deportable to include green card holders and immigrants who had committed a crime or anyone in a gang. So we deported 50,000 criminals from our jails to El Salvador; to a country that had no law enforcement or a new law enforcement structure. It had just come through a civil war and those gangs easily reconstituted in El Salvador. They became very powerful, and now they’re basically fighting with a local government to rule the country. So MS-13 was generated in the United States, sent back to a country that couldn’t handle the criminal element, and now they’ve actually grown stronger. So we have a large responsibility in playing a part in MS-13. It’s not just coming from Central America. And it’s not as though the United States stopped intervening in Central America once the civil wars came to an end. In 2009, a military coup – approved by the Honduran Supreme Court – ousted democratically elected, Leftist president Manuel Zelaya. While President Barack Obama condemned the coup – then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advised that the U.S. not brand it as such since doing so would force the U.S. to cease all aid to Honduras. The result? A legitimized coup, an ousted democratic leader and increased instability and violence. In fact, homicides in Honduras increased by 50% in just three years. The coup, notably, also led to crackdowns on activists – most famously the murder of Berta Cáceres, an award-winning indigenous environmental activist. And under the Trump administration, there have been efforts to significantly scale back aid to Latin America, with big cuts to aid to Central America. Instead, efforts have turned towards increasing securitization funding. So, with almost 200 years of American economic and military involvement in Central America – does the United States have a moral responsibility towards the people? The U.S. has a responsibility, a moral one, to provide the kinds of resources that would stabilize the region, that it has destabilized so many times throughout the region’s history. We’re dealing with it from a military perspective. Build a wall, put more boots on the ground, incarcerate people. We’re not dealing with the root causes of migration. We’re not touching the root causes of migration. Desperate people will continue to come. They will scale the wall, they will use organized crime to get across. They’re desperate. They have no other choice but to fight the system that we’re putting them up against.