Friday, October 19, 2007

Exporting Violence

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that over the course of the summer, the government had arrested "about 1,300 violent gang members who are in this country illegally." These migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and other Central American countries are members of transnational gangs that menace their home countries as well as several U.S. cities. As our government seeks to protect Americans from these gangs by deporting their members back to Central America, it's worth reflecting on the origins of these violent groups. Scroll back to the 1980s: President Reagan treated the civil wars in Central America as an opportunity to further America's Cold War ideology, intervening against left-leaning regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Between 1981 and 1990, an estimated one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled political violence at home to seek asylum in the United States. (The battle to protect these refugees is explained further here.) Scarred from their experience of war and often unable to adapt to American society, the children of these refugees often turned to gangs as a source of social support. These gangs, including the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara 18 were founded on American soil, the latter named after 18th Street in Los Angeles. Responding to the increasing problem of gang violence, Congress promulgated the 1996 immigration law, which made many criminal offenses deportable. "As a result, between 2000 and 2004, an estimated 20,000 [of these gang members] . . . were deported to countries they barely knew." With few other options in an unfamiliar society, the deportees set up outposts of their American gangs, introducing crack cocaine to El Salvador. Now boasting membership estimated at 10,000 in El Salvador and 40,000 in Honduras, the maras battle police for control of working-class neighborhoods in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. (The impact of these gangs on these Central American nations is explained further here.) Central Americans who refuse to join these gangs or to become gang members' "girlfriends" are targeted for death. Yet when they flee to the United States to seek refuge, their asylum claims are rarely granted. While the explosion of gang violence in Central America cannot be traced solely to U.S. policies in the region, we should be taking more responsibility for the results of our actions by protecting those facing death at the hands of the gangs and by helping these nations to mount antigang campaigns -- by ending the cycle of violence rather than exporting violence. (Photo courtesy of Viva Rio.)

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