by Tess Sweeney
This January, I went to El Salvador with my Anthropology of Human Rights class. I was ecstatic to visit. I couldn’t wait to meet new people, learn, and practice my Spanish. I was nervous, too. I was afraid of being seen as an entitled little gringa. However, I only encountered kindness. As Salvadorans were letting me, a stranger, stay in their homes, share meals with them, and recounting intimate, tragic stories to me, Donald Trump was ending TPS for Salvadorans and equating the country to a shithole.
Protecting TPS is not only the kind thing to do, the U.S. has a certain responsibility to do so. In the Salvadoran Civil War, we funded a government that killed many innocent Salvadorans. The U.S. was giving one million dollars a day in the heat of the war. In the massacre at El Mozote, more than 800 civilians were killed, with U.S. bullets. The U.S. trained the men ordering these massacres. The U.S. helped to create so much pain in El Salvador.
Then, when migrants came to the U.S because of the war we perpetuated, they settled in lower income, poorer neighborhoods, many of which were in LA. Some joined MS and 18th street gangs in LA. Then, when the U.S. deported many Salvadorans, they brought the gangs back to El Salvador. Post-war trauma, political uncertainty, and damages done by the war made for a perfect environment for gangs to thrive.
Now, the police are in a war with the gangs. However, the police aren’t innocent. They commit extrajudicial killings frequently, and being a male youth has all but become a crime. People have testified that police will kill a youth and then move the body to rival gang territory to make it look like it was the rival gang. Meanwhile, the gangs recruit kids so young, that experts equate this to child soldiery. The gang system usually leads to death or jail. The prison system is so backed up that people stay in there for months before even being arraigned. Prisoners rotate between sitting down and standing up so that everyone can have a chance to sleep. No one except the prisoners know exactly what the jails are like now, because the jails are closed to humanitarian and governmental agencies. The UN can’t go and investigate.
The current response to central-American immigration is “I don’t want gang members in my country!!!” First of all, not all Salvadorans are gang members. Second, the success of the gangs in El Salvador is largely dependent on the U.S. Third, no one deserves to be treated like those in the Salvadoran prison system, even gang members. And fourth, imagine yourself in the position of an eight year old living in a gang-torn area and tell me there is 0% chance you would get caught up in a gang.
This can make you feel a bit hopeless. Between the truth of what the U.S. did and El Salvador and the way U.S. rhetoric is moving, I’ve wanted to throw in the towel at times. However, the people I met in El Salvador propel me forward to work for justice. These people treated me with so much humanity. They didn’t equate me with the sins of my government, why do we do that with Salvadorans? These people told me their heartbreaking stories, holding back tears. Reliving the most painful moments in their lives, so that someone would hear it. So that those with power can hear their truth, the truth of their loved ones passed due to cruelty and greed. The least I can do is to defend their names and share their truths.
Title photo source: Photo by Giles Clark/Getty
Larsen, Neil (2010). “Thoughts on Violence and Modernity in Latin America”. In Grandin & Joseph, Greg & Gilbert. A Century of Revolution. Durham & London: Duke University Press. pp. 381–393.
Michael McClintock (1992), Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990