Destroying El Salvador

Written by Jessica Hernandez

Destroying El Salvador El Salvador is a country located in Central America with a population of about 6.5 million people. In 1821, El Salvador obtained its independence from Spain but was forced into empires and unions until becoming a completely independent country in 1840. To sustain itself financially, El Salvador focused on becoming a notable coffee exporter. In order to produce more coffee, the upper class which was mainly composed of wealthy Spanish colonists began to privatize the land, leaving the indigenous people with no property. By 1900, 93% of export income came from coffee and only 2% of the population controlled these finances. Since the country depended entirely on this industry, it faced a financial crisis when the coffee industry fell. The common people who had already been left with no land were also left with no job or source of income, causing them to migrate to other countries and fight for their human rights. Agustine Farabundo Marti led La Matanza in 1932, an indigenous rebellion against the government due to social unrest where there were 30,000 killed and the Salvadoran government established its military authority. As the social structure continued benefiting the high class and impoverishing the common people, the United States amplified the situation by providing funds for education, health care, and land accommodations which further benefited those in power. The United States also provided military training which evolved around using violence as a means of executing government power. With this, the United States caused El Salvador’s deterioration by empowering violent government authority, denying asylum to Salvadorans facing political and economic turmoil, and establishing immigration policies that further damaged refugees from El Salvador.

The Salvadoran civil war officially began on January 19, 1980, when the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) guerrillas attacked the military in various cities across El Salvador. In defense, the fascist military directed attacks toward the FMLN guerrillas and anyone who supported them in their rebellion using military tactics taught by American soldiers. The goal of these tactics was to destroy everything so the guerrillas could not survive, including murdering men, women, kids, and animals, and destroying complete towns. To help the government maintain power, United State soldiers implemented cruel tactics and also invested more than $8 billion, approximating $1 million per day (Dilley). Due to financial and military support from the U.S., El Salvador trusted their relationship with this country. But the true objective of the United States was to suppress change and silence voices demanding justice for keeping Salvadoran farmers in poverty and illiterate by convincing the public they were preventing the propaganda of communism. To top it off, the U.S. provided Salvadoran military troops with almost 37.500 guns, 270.000 grenades, and more than 50 helicopters, jets, and gunships, making the country into the top receiver of American military supply during the decade of 1980. With all this military support, El Salvador became a violent and abusive country, which pushed its inhabitants to look for asylum in other countries, including the United States.

Because of the ongoing civil war in El Salvador, 25% of the population was displaced to other countries, including the U.S. where more than one million people left to. The refugees from El Salvador applied for asylum, but 97% of their applications were denied (Mejívar). Since the United States was helping the Salvadoran military with equipment and finances, it was inappropriate for them to recognize Salvadorans as victims of abuse against their human rights and deserving of political asylum. In response, the refugees from El Salvador began to cross the border illegally. Once they were “on the other side,” they reunited with other minority communities to continue fighting for their liberty. Religious congregations in the U.S. began to declare themselves as sanctuaries specifically for refugees from Central America, which ultimately led to the trial of the American Baptist Church v. Thornburgh. The church demanded the prohibition of future trials against sanctuaries, an end to discrimination against asylum applicants due to politics, and the establishment of safe shelters for Salvadorans. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act which promised 18 months of temporary protected status. In the same year, the government offered to solve the lawsuit, giving Salvadorans an opportunity to apply, or reapply, for asylum.

Nevertheless, the United States did everything in its power to restrict the number of refugees and established strict criteria for asylum applications. During the fight for these government solutions, which lasted ten years, the people of El Salvador continued crossing illegally. Arriving at large cities that were mainly populated by Mexicans and African Americans–groups also marginalized by those in power–, the Salvadoran immigrants quickly assimilated into gang culture and formed rival gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) (Menjívar). Gang activities and involvement resulted in imprisonment, where the MS formed alliances with other gangs such as the Mafia Mexicana (eMe) and gained more notoriety. Since many of those jailed were undocumented, they were deported back to El Salvador. As the United States passed laws and programs to help Salvadoran refugees, the victims of the civil war who were socially forced into gang activity no longer qualified due to their criminal records. Refugees with a criminal history were deported in large quantities to a country whose economy was destroyed, making them incapable of handling an overwhelming afflux of criminals. The country that had once helped the Salvadoran government with its self-destruction was now worsening the situation by sending mass amounts of convicts who, at this point, had spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. Having little connection to their homeland made it difficult for deportees to integrate into a society that needed reconstruction, leading them to a path of more criminal activity.

After establishing itself as an independent country in 1840, El Salvador began to construct its economy around the export of coffee. To expand, the high class—formed by wealthy descendants of Spanish colonists—began to take control of the land, expelling the indigenous without just compensation. The indigenous peoples lost their land and later lost their source of income when the coffee industry fell. They went on to fight against national power due to human rights abuse, resulting in a civil war that officially commenced in 1980. When the political turmoil began, the United States assisted financially but only the high class received these benefits. By initiating this financial relationship, the United States went on to help fund the civil war and train military coups to commit abusive and violent acts with the objective to destroy. During the civil war, the U.S. was behind 75,000 deaths in a period of 12 years from government forces. With all this aid and support, El Salvador turned into a dangerous country to live in, and many began migrating to the U.S. in search of work and a better life. Refugees applied for asylum, but the United States denied 97% of the applications and refused to recognize Salvadorans as victims of human rights abuse in need of political asylum. After years of no progression, Salvadoran refugees gave up on asylum applications and migrated to the U.S. illegally. Arriving in areas with high crime rates due to their economic hardships, Salvadorans integrated into gangs and formed the Mara Salvatrucha. As social groups continued to fight for governmental solutions, refugees accumulated criminal records. The U.S. eventually passed programs to help refugees, but they were unfortunately implemented too late. Moreover, strict requirements were imposed so those with a criminal record no longer qualified and were deported back to a country they no longer knew.

The violence and crime in Central America were brought on by the violent civil war and later amplified by mass deportations, producing an unstable Salvadoran society partially due to the involvement of the U.S. Since 2017, almost 2.5 million of the American population comes of Salvadoran origin. The Temporary Protection Status program continues to bring asylum, although the Trump administration tried to end it in 2019. The fate of TPS beneficiaries, the majority of whom are Salvadorans and victims of the civil war, continues to be a social fight. Between 2014 and 2018, the U.S. deported 111,000 Salvadorans to a country infiltrated with crime, violating its promise to protect Salvadorans from returning to the risk of suffering. Once in El Salvador, American gangs integrated into governmental systems. Although 2022 was registered as the safest year since the civil war, El Salvador’s governmental statistics do not include the murders of gang members committed by national police in order to hide the alliance between both groups. Until the United States provides just reparations for the Salvadoran community, Salvadorans will continue to migrate illegally in search of jobs and a better life, and they will fall into the same cycle of deportation due to immigration policies failing to consider the gravity of the effects of the civil war.

Works Cited

Coutin, Susan. “The Odyssey of Salvadoran Asylum Seekers.” NACLA Report on the Americas 37.6 (2004): 38-43.

Dilley, Brenna and Kristina-Aiad Toss. Aiding and Abetting Terror in El Salvador: Holding the United States Responsible for War Crimes Committed During the Salvadoran Civil War. n.d. 25 February 2023.

Galdamez, Eddie. Despite better security, Salvadorans still migrating in 2023. 1 February 2023. 25 February 2023.

Hoeppner, Katie and Emi MacLean. The US Government Gave Them Protection. Now It May Take It Away. 13 October 2022. 25 February 2023.

Ibe, Peniel and Eli Johnson. Trump has ended Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Here’s what you need to know. 30 June 2020. 25 February 2023.

Menjívar, Cecilia and Andrea Gómez Cervantes. El Salvador: Civil War, Natural Disasters, and Gang Violence Drive Migration. 29 August 2018. 25 February 2023.

MS13. 22 September 2021. 25 February 2023.

Noe-Bustamante, Luis, Antonio Flores and Sono Shah. Facts on Hispanics of Salvadoran origin in the United States, 2017. 16 September 2019. 25 February 2023.

Sviatschi, Maria Micaela. The impact of US deportation policy on gang activity in El Salvador. 09 May 2022. 25 February 2023.

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