Si hoy por hoy te desvisto
No plagies angustias,
Desnuda tu corazon
Y por tus venas
If I undress you
Do not anguish,
Bare your heart
And pump freedom
Through your veins”
— Leyla Patricia Quintana, nicknamed “Amada Libertad,” was a guerrillera and poet with the Revolutionary People’s Army of El Salvador and died in combat at age 21. This is an excerpt from poem VII in her book “Pueblo.”
My timeline has been flooded with sympathy, love and calls for action for the families being separated on the border. I see images of children in cages, crying children, masses of people standing in the desert. I also see “El Salvador” flashed in every article shared.
As an activist and organizer, I empathize deeply with the struggles of working people but seeing my fellow Salvis corralled like animals stews a rage within me. There is so much misunderstanding about El Salvador. Growing up, people assumed I was Mexican, and once they heard my family was from El Salvador they either had no idea it was a country or associated me with the MS-13.
Here’s what they didn’t know.
Salvadorans are the fifth largest immigrant group in the U.S. and the second-largest Latinx group, preceded by Mexicans. The Salvadoran civil war and its long-lasting effects have caused this astronomical displacement. Between 1979 and 1992, the span of El Salvador’s civil war, about 25 percent of the Salvadoran population fled or migrated.
My mom was one of those people, along with my uncles, aunts and cousins who have been displaced all over the Americas. My mom was pregnant when she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border as an undocumented person. Even though this was twenty-nine years ago, she will rarely discuss her travels crossing multiple borders, or what her experience was being detained. All she says is that she cleaned the detention center fervently because she wanted to prove her worth.
The right-wing paints immigrants as criminals, rapists and gang members meant to terrorize Americans. My mom isn’t a criminal. My uncle isn’t a rapist. My cousins aren’t gang members. Lili, a young Honduran woman I grew up with, crossed the Guatemala, Mexico, and the U.S. borders to meet her mom in New Jersey when she was twelve. She’s not a terrorist. So, who are the real terrorists? What countries have deliberately underdeveloped other countries in order to increase profits, extract resources, source cheap labor and maintain control of markets?
To know and understand El Salvador is to confront a history of U.S. military intervention as a way to maintain imperialist domination in Latin America.
U.S. intervention in civil war
U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s reflected violent attempts to detain the spread of socialism to the recently decolonized countries in Africa and Asia. The Cold War reflected a class struggle on a global scale where the world was divided into two camps — the socialists, led by the Soviet Union, and the imperialists, led by the United States. In Latin America, many people’s movements emerged that received military and political aid from the Soviet Union. These movements were met with the brutality and violence of the U.S. imperialist military machine that supported right-wing dictatorships.
In El Salvador, the people’s movement for socialism took the form of a civil war. On one side was the Marxist-Leninist group called Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and on the other was the Salvadoran right-wing military government. The FMLN was supported by the Nicaraguan, Cuban, and Soviet governments while the U.S. government sent the Salvadoran government more than $4.5 billion over the course of the twelve-year war.
More than 75,000 Salvadorans were murdered during the war at a time when the total population of the country was only 5.4 million. As a point of comparison, security forces murdered 30,000 civilians in Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing reign. As part of the peace accord that ended the civil war in 1992, the United Nations Truth Commission found that the government forces, including paramilitaries, death squads and U.S- trained army units, were responsible for over 85 percent of killings, kidnappings and tortures. As in Chile, the murdered civilians included leftists, indigenous people, educators, students, clergy, and anyone outspoken against the military dictatorship.
Pentagon trained Salvadoran death squads
I grew up hearing stories about the esquadrones de la muerte (death squads). The death squads were trained by the U.S. military at The School of the Americas, Ft. Benning, GA, where the sole goal was anti-communist counterinsurgency training. They were trained to squash revolutionary movements through murder, torture, rape, and permanent “disappearances.”
My mom was in her late teens and early 20s during this time, and she describes how her friends disappeared from one day to the other. One day she saw a dead girl alongside the road with rocks stuffed in her vagina. My father describes underground meetings of leftists called “consciousness meetings.” They were underground because outing yourself as a leftist equated death. My aunt was a student volunteer who was tasked with find the birth records in a town whose inhabitants had been all been massacred. For this she was forced to flee.
Thousands of people had to flee El Salvador due to the civil war and forced poverty. This was not inevitable, but it was because socialism had been defeated as an alternative to overcome colonialism, landlordism and reclaim the country’s natural resources.
MS-13 began in Los Angeles, a consequence of U.S. policies
The Reagan administration refused to recognize those fleeing as refugees, and deported thousands without ever giving them the possibility of applying for refugee status. Instead, they were herded into detention centers and pressured to agree to “voluntarily return.” This did not stop the mass exodus.
Among those fleeing were young people with no families or extended networks. They were orphans who united to form MS-13 in the streets of Los Angeles to create community and protection. This laid the basis for the transnational gang we know today. We cannot understate the violence that the gang commits against civilians on a daily basis. Its roots, however, are in the U.S., and what it MS-13 has become is a product of U.S. intervention in Central America and U.S. immigration policy.
In 2012, there were truce negotiations between the Salvadoran government, currently run by the FMLN (it should be noted that the FMLN became a united front of various left-wing political tendencies at the end of the civil war), and the MS-13. This briefly brought the number of homicides in El Salvador to record lows, but then the numbers steadily increased in 2014.
In 2016, the FMLN government took a different approach of “shoot first, ask questions later” to handle the gang presence in El Salvador. That year, the number of murdered swelled to 540 Salvadoran minors, about 1.5 young people a day. This drove a new generation of Salvadorans to flee the United States. In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended a record 17,512 unaccompanied Salvadoran minors escaping the violent conflicts between gangs and the government.
Democrats and Republicans both built deportation apparatus
Since the Reagan administration, the Republican and Democratic parties have built up the cruel immigration apparatus we see today. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act making it easier for the government to deport people convicted of certain crimes including minor ones and crimes committed by permanent residents. The INS Violent Gang Task Force, created in 1992, worked with local police to target immigrant gang members for deportation. In 2005, ICE launched Operation Community Shield to target the MS-13. Anti-crime rhetoric, scapegoating, and criminalization justify these crackdowns that were really meant to target all immigrants.
In the last few days cries of outrage from people of all backgrounds and nationalities have pressured the Trump administration to defuse its manufactured border crisis. I say manufactured because the government has been prosecuting as criminals asylum seekers who try to enter at the designated points. Now, instead of separating families, families will be detained together. This is but the tiniest victory. At the core is ending all deportations and demanding full rights for all immigrants.
Need for an independent movement
Of course, families should be reunited, but what else do these families need? They want opportunities — opportunities that have been stolen from them by Wall Street’s neoliberal exploitation and the Pentagon’s counterrevolutionary intervention. It is our duty to tell their history so that all might understand who the enemy really is.
We cannot allow the Democratic and Republican parties to keep the initiative on immigration. At best, they will claim they are for “humane” detention centers, “just” deportations or “gentle” military interventions, when there is no such thing. Working and poor people must define our own needs and demands independently. It is up to us to continue the struggle for full rights for all immigrants and an end to deportations.
I take with me the stories of my family members. The lessons of their struggles are not those of textbook revolutionaries, but of everyday people taking action to fight injustices. This is what changes the course of history.