For months, the U.S. government has been debating how to best respond to the wave of migration of unaccompanied minors.
The problem, which is driven by high levels of poverty and violence in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, has prompted some commentators and citizens to assert that anyone breaking the law should be sent home, regardless of age. However, they do so with insufficient awareness about the direct role that the United States has played in creating this crisis.
Two major factors - both directly related to the U.S. government, its businesses, and its people - have fueled the border crisis.
First, the United States played a decisive role in a series of events that led to military rule, civil war, and genocide in Guatemala. Although the war has ended, the legacy of violence remains.
Second, Americans' consumption of drugs fuels a drug war that is taking over Mexico and Central America. The United States needs to respond to the migration of minors in a way that recognizes our direct culpability in the violence and instability in these countries.
To better understand this role, we can go back to the 1950s in Guatemala, when its first democratically elected government came to power. Juan José Arévalo, a leftist (but not a communist), stepped into the presidency with hopes of democratizing a country that had been ruled by the military or elites since its independence.
As Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer carefully document using declassified government documents in their book Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, the United Fruit Company, a U.S.-based corporation, implored the U.S. government to get involved to stop the labor, education, and land reforms that Arévalo and his successor, Jacobo Árbenz, initiated. The CIA did get involved and cut short these efforts. "Operation Success" led to the eventual overthrow of the democratically elected regime, and decades of military rule and civil war ensued.
All this may seem ancient history to some, but the legacy of these events is alive and well in Central America. Even after formal peace accords were signed in 1996, Guatemala remains one of the most violent countries in the world.
Just as the civil war in Guatemala (and other countries in Central America) died down, drug trafficking, fueled by American consumption, heated up. As the Colombian drug cartels began to fall in the 1980s, Mexico became the hub of drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere. By the end of the 1990s, tons of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana traveled through our southern neighbor. Where do the drugs end up? In the United States, where drug use remains high.
Later, when Mexico's government cracked down on drugs, the United States watched as the "balloon effect" - a term used by some to describe the effect of cracking down on drugs in one place that makes it pop up in another - took place. Slowly, Guatemala and Honduras became home to more gangs and drug traffickers, leading Honduras to become the most dangerous country in the world.
When I traveled to Guatemala for my research in 2012, I met people who were afraid to get involved in local politics because they had experienced so much repression during the war. Guatemalan citizens stay in their homes after the sun goes down. My family and I witnessed a shootout on a major highway at 7 in the morning. Guns and gangs are everywhere in Guatemala; no city or town was immune.
When living in Honduras in 2005, I saw the ravages of the drug trade on their society. Drug lords built huge houses in my neighborhood while young kids died in gang fights a few miles away. Shootouts took place in broad daylight on a regular basis. I saw many people carrying weapons openly, as arms flowed fluidly around the country. We tried to stay at home to avoid violence whenever possible. Of course, we were extremely fortunate - more so than the average Guatemalan or Honduran - as we never became victims of the drug violence and gangs that plague the region.
Educating ourselves about the United States' role in the violence in Central America and Mexico should remind us how interconnected we are with our neighbors to the south, politically, economically, and historically. As the United States struggles to determine how to deal with this influx of minors, we need to recall how our country and citizens have helped create the exact situation from which they flee.
Remember, the children are victims of patterns of violence that are beyond their control. They need to be treated with dignity and respect, and not as criminals. We owe them that much.