You have likely come across the striking wide-shot, panoramic depictions of a blurred mass of bodies on the move. Blocking entire roads as far as the eye can see and traveling a distance of over two-thousand miles by foot, the migrant caravans are a mobilization of resilience to be reckoned with. They made news headlines beginning in the summer of 2017, and every year thereafter. While dominant media coverage alarmingly emphasizes their numeric volume and President Donald Trump denounces them as a frenzy of narco-traffickers and terrorists, the critical question concerning the underlying origins for such an exodus remains unaddressed.
In the answer lies a complex and contradictory history of U.S. intervention in Central America driven by its notorious War on Drugs. Building upon this legacy of a prioritization of national security and a shared commitment to stop illicit drug trade, the U.S. directly facilitated the expansion and militarization of Mexican and Central American border enforcement authorities as a means to impede immigration. In order to convey the effectiveness of this nationalistic ideology, vulnerable migrants had to be constructed as the real threat to be feared and controlled. Thus, the migrant caravan is the perfect case of this fear-mongering rhetorical tactic at work, for its sensationalist coverage conceals decades of corruption, failed policy, and neoliberal economic destruction in Latin America.
In Mexico, drug-related crime and violence rates continue their upward trend, with few signs of improvement under the current López Obrador presidency. In fact, recent homicide statistics reflect a grim scene, citing 2019 as the country’s most violent year on record. At the same time, refugees and asylum-seekers escaping gang extortion and state abuses in the Northern Triangle are seeking entry at its southern border with Guatemala, in hopes of successfully making the perilous journey northward to their ultimate destination of the United States. In this dangerous environment controlled by drug cartels and corrupt police, the caravan is a survival strategy. Migrants are less likely to be robbed, raped, abducted or killed in the visibility and safety in numbers that the caravan affords them.
However, the U.S. and its allies have continued to impose draconian measures to deter immigration. Pressured by the Trump Administration’s urgent demand to contain the caravan “invasion,” Mexico scaled up its immigration law enforcement apparatus, sending several thousand additional military officers to monitor its southern border, as well as instituted stricter policies of detention and deportation. In 2019, the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (commonly referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy) came into effect. The U.S., employing its diplomatic influence, consistently relies upon the coerced cooperation of its southern neighbors, Mexico and Guatemala, to operationalize its xenophobic border ideology — with MPP being but one example of this.
Notably, MPP was justified by its mission to “facilitate legal trade and travel, counter traffickers, smugglers and transnational criminal organizations, and interdict drugs and illegal contraband.” The policy was also positively framed as a solution to a perceived humanitarian crisis, which would ensure the safety and protection of vulnerable migrants preyed upon by nefarious smugglers and traffickers. Yet a recent study found little evidence that transnational drug-trafficking organizations engage directly in human smuggling. In actuality, these criminal organizations generate profit from a “piso tax,” which they charge migrants to gain passage into the U.S. through the smuggling corridors in their territories.
On October 1, just a few days ago, roughly three-thousand Honduran migrants set out to cross the Guatemalan border into Mexico, confronting travel restrictions implemented under the guise of COVID19 protectionary measures. Human rights groups anticipated a rebound in migratory flows, in greater numbers, once lockdown restrictions could be lifted; nevertheless, it appears that law primarily motivated by homeland security cannot adequately respond to the growing needs of human desperation. The pandemic has had a decimating impact on an already crumbling economy and unstable society in Honduras. The root causes forcing people to flee their homes — poverty and inequality, corruption, authoritarianism, and violence — persist and have only been exacerbated by COVID19.
In a subsequent public statement made by Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, he pledged his commitment to suppress and return the Honduran migrants. This is a marked shift toward a stricter immigration stance from a president who had resisted past U.S. pressures to act. Joining the multilateral operation, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez offered to send civil protection officers in support. The speedy and comprehensive response on the part of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to guarantee that the October 1 migrant caravan would not reach U.S. soil is a testament to the hegemon’s enduring role as global sheriff and the coerced exportation of its border regime further south.
Importantly, this diplomatic power is derived from its capacity to grant foreign assistance. In line with its proclaimed agenda of “deterring illegal immigration; strengthening democratic governance, including the promotion of human rights and the rule of law; enhancing economic prosperity; and improving the long-term security situation” in Honduras, and as a continuation of its War on Drugs interventionist legacy, in 2019, the U.S. allocated $42.5 billion toward the Central America Regional Security Initiative, spanning development assistance, international military education and training, and foreign military financing, with an additional $34 million to International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement. Thus, even in modern day, its solution to drug trafficking in the region is to promote securitization and provide weaponry, which ultimately ends up in the hands of gangs and corrupt police and military officials, who collude and often directly work for narco-traffickers.
Furthermore, despite mounting evidence of their corrupt ties to illicit drug trafficking operations, the U.S. persists in funneling aid to these government and security forces. In October 2019, as Trump praised Hernadez’s signing of the historic MPP, the Honduran President’s very own brother was found guilty by a New York district court of conspiring to import cocaine into the U.S. and of organizing the murder of his competitors. Although Hernandez himself was not formally charged, prosecutors expressed their suspicion of his complicity as a co-conspirator, an accusation he vehemently denied. The U.S. government took a passive stance on this revelatory event, refraining from even mentioning the possibility of economic sanctions — a reward for Hernandez’s servile and cooperative behavior.
By contrast, in March 2019, the Trump Administration suspended most of its economic assistance to Honduras, citing an undesirable spike in migrants and asylum-seekers attempting to gain entry into the U.S., and hence limited its aid to countering transnational crime and improving border security. Negotiations later resulted in Hernandez’s concession to share migrant biometric data, authorize a DHS deployment of security forces to Honduras, and allow the U.S. government to expel asylum-seekers from third countries to Honduras. Once again, the U.S. imposed its repressive sanctions regime to regulate Central American immigration.
The U.S. is therefore directly implicated in aiding and abetting the very same corrupt government that is engendering the flight of hundreds of thousands of migrants out of their ravaged home country. Its projected image and ideology of national stability and military strength is a deliberately crafted narrative that is founded upon the demonization of Mexican and Central American migrants, and serves to obfuscate the huge U.S. consumer demand for illicit drugs and its historic responsibility for the pervasiveness of cartel violence.