“Que triste es el olvido antes que el hueco de una tumba se abra... No me dejes morir, que no he vivido.”
(How tragic is to be forgotten before one’s tomb is opened… Don’t let me die, for I have not lived.)
—Manuel Álvarez Magaña, renowned Salvadorian poet
Every so often, someone tries to kill my uncle. From the idiot who tried robbing his bus with a hand grenade to the young man who shot up his car, my uncle’s had his share of rough days in El Salvador. By this point, attempts on his life have become part of a greater Magaña family tradition of continuous close calls with death, a tradition I hope doesn’t foreshadow my future with the Army. The death squads hunted my mother, the nationalists tried to forcibly conscript my uncle, and the guerrillas killed their friends. It seems that El Salvador and suffering tend to come hand in hand.
In the early 2000s, El Salvador’s future didn’t look like its abysmal past. In March 2012, the government brokered a controversial truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18, El Salvador’s two largest gangs. To the surprise of many, the gangs’ respective leaders honored the truce, leading to the country’s largest reduction in homicides. Unfortunately, the peace was short-lived. In February 2013, El Salvador’s government transferred leaders from Barrio 18 and MS-13 to a maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca, hoping to cripple the gangs’ ability to organize. Ironically, the move worked, but with devastating consequences.
With their chain of command compromised, the gangs’ leaders were unable to enforce the truce. To make matters worse, in the absence of communication between leaders, neither gang knew if the other intended to preserve the peace. Left to their own devices, members of each gang deferred to their natural instructions: Eliminate the opposition.
By mid-2013, the truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 was non-existent, along with any hope of an El Salvador worth living in. By the end of 2013, El Salvador found itself drowning in blood once more. The government’s reaction? Initiate a wave of extra-judicial killings. El Salvador’s police and military forces once more formed death squads to hunt suspects. In a twist of irony fitting for El Salvador’s tragic history, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front government now uses the very same tactics the nationalists and CIA employed to hunt FMLN party members in the 80s to now promote “security.”
Through the gangs, the poor kill the poor, but with the aid of repressive government operations, an incompetent government now kills its impoverished people so that they may protect the poor from themselves.
Understandably, El Salvador is seeing its greatest exodus since the height of its civil war. In 2014, thousands of unaccompanied migrant children found themselves in legal limbo as Congress played politics with their lives.
In December 2014, the U.S. State Department opened a program intended to allow minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to apply from their homes for refugee status in the U.S., thereby circumventing the hellish trek through Mexico. Since November 2015, more than 5,100 Salvadorians applied, of which only 16 were approved.
This past January, I had the pleasure of working at the border with a friend. Unsurprisingly, we encountered numerous migrants fleeing Central America’s violence. In the bathroom of an empty church, we met a worker who had already been deported twice. When asked why he kept returning despite the deportations, he answered that, as long as he’s on the run, the gangs can’t kill him.
When conservatives speak of a wall or tougher migration policies, I’m shocked by their ignorance. El Salvador is now the world’s murder capital; do they think tougher immigration measures will frighten away migrants who’ve seen some of the world’s worst violence? Then again, when my liberal friends speak of reforming migration policy and amnesty, I’m also dumbfounded. Neither approach addresses the root cause behind El Salvador’s exodus: violence.
Deport more people, and you’ll strengthen the gangs; after all, deportations are what transferred MS-13 from the streets of LA to the slums of El Salvador. Liberalize immigration policy, and you’ll only condemn El Salvador to another decade of labor shortages and brain drain as hundreds of thousands of Salvadorians understandably seek better lives elsewhere. The solution? Help make El Salvador a country worth living in.
Unfortunately, the solutions that eradicate violence effectively tend to make for poor campaign slogans. Thus, as long as politicians oversimplify the immigration debate into a battle between amnesty and mass deportations, the root cause of the Central American exodus will remain unresolved.
My mom always fears for her family in El Salvador. Every phone call with her mother, every Skype session with her sister, every visit from her brother could be their last. People she loves—people I love—are in constant danger of getting killed. But then again, there’s nothing special about that. Death’s the Salvadorian way, right?
El Salvador bled yesterday, El Salvador bleeds today, and El Salvador will bleed tomorrow. Likewise, few cared yesterday, few care today, and even fewer will care tomorrow unless we substitute change for rhetoric.
Until then, the world will continue to ignore Salvadorian screams.
Nathan L. Williams '18, a current Army ROTC cadet, is a government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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