La Noche Triste: Central America's Age of Terror


"Where are you from?" asks the Border Patrol Agent. "I'm from El Salvador," says Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid. The Border Agent quickly moves on to the little boy. "And you?" The boy, cheeks tear-stained, replies in a quivering sob, "G..Guatemala." Another girl wails in the background, a despairing cry. "Don't cry!" snaps the agent. "I want to go with my aunt," says Alison who is desperately trying to call her aunt to escape incarceration on the U.S border, separated and alone. "I have her number. I have her number memorised. Can you at-least call my aunt so she can pick me up? And then so my mum can come as soon as possible? " The boy in the background, continues to whimper "Papa. Papa. Papa. Papa." throughout the clip. 

These children in detention on the U.S border were three of at-least 2300 children who have were separated from their parents, thousands of refugees and migrants desperate to reach the United States, the last, towering obstacle in their way which gives them a chance for a new life, an escape from desperate poverty, underdevelopment and stark inequality. Natural disasters, including a terrible earthquake in Mexico in September, 2017 and Volcano De Fuego's catastrophic eruption in June, 2018 have lent further weight to the woes of a Central America which has teeters between what writer Juan Villoro describes as "carnival and apocalypse." Frequently underplayed is the terrible violence driving these refugees and migrants, wave upon wave, against the militarised southern border of the United States. 

Alison is from El Salvador, a country wracked by cross-border gang violence and joint police and military operations. The little boy crying for his father is from Guatemala, where former paramilitaries and ex-Guatemalan military units such as the Kaibiles collaborate with the Mexican transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) such as  Los Zetas - who splintered from the Gulf Cartel.  Operating in the jungles, the emergence of Los Zetas has contributed to a permanent cycle of repeated government failures, massive corruption and criminal violence in Guatemala. Volcano De Fuego's eruption, which has killed over 100 men, women and children and left over 200 missing has put an enormous amount of pressure on government, with many accusing the government on social media of hoarding aid for themselves as the disaster unfolded. Hunger and malnutrition plagues the country. Guatemala has the highest chronic malnutrition rate in Latin America and one of the highest in the world (49%), which can reach 80% in some areas of the country such as Chiquimula. 

Other people are pouring through Mexico from countries such as Nicaragua, Honduras and Colombia in South America. On 31st May, 2018, a transgender Honduran woman died in freezing conditions fleeing persecution. She was fleeing Honduras, a capital which became had one of the highest murder rates in the world. "Tegucigalpa is the most dangerous capital city in the world without a declared war." said Alberto Arce to The Spectator, "In 2012 and 2013, more people were murdered in Honduras than in Iraq, even though the population in Honduras is three times smaller." 

However, violence against LGBTIQ migrants such as Roxana Hernández, including discrimination, police abuse, rape torture, and murder is not limited to this vulnerable minority. In El Salvador, 152 women were murdered between January and May, 2018 alone in a country described Jo Griffin as 'one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.' This has been catalysed by the ineptitude of local police and the ineffectiveness and inability to push through specific police and justice reforms. “When the authorities don’t react, that sends out a message that nothing will be done,” said Silvia Ivette Juárez Barrios on the murder of Graciela Eugenia Ramírez Chávez. “On repeated occasions neighbours called the [emergency number] to report the victim was being attacked but the police never turned up.”  Graciela was stabbed 53 times by her husband, an act not of passion, but of patriarchy. Women on the road to the United States and Mexico faced exploitation and were frequently kidnapped by cartels such as Los Zetas. 

Femicide, which led to the death of a woman every eighteen hours across the country in 2017, was not limited to El Salvador. Guatemala is the third most dangerous place to be a woman in Latin America and violent deaths among women in Mexico also increased during between 2000 and 2012 with brutal femicides occurring at Ciudad Juarez, a city bordering the United States. Violence against women was not limited to gangs, cartels and rogue police units in the borderlands of Mexico. As detailed by Amnesty International in a harrowing report, 100 women in federal prison interviewed by the human rights organisation spoke of being subjected to abuse, torture, and psychological abuse during their arrest and interrogation by police or armed forces. 

"100 said they suffered sexual harassment or psychological abuse during their arrest or in the hours that followed. 97 said they suffered physical violence during their arrest or in the hours that followed. 79 said they were hit to the head, 62 in the stomach or torax, 61 on the legs and 28 on the ears (the face was deliberately excluded to avoid obvious injuries). 33 reported being raped by municipal, state or federal police officers or members of the Army and Navy.

8,974, 25% of those registered as missing by the official National Register of Missing and Disappeared Persons, are women excluding pre-2014 cases and two-thirds of women in Mexico are estimated to have experienced gender-based violence in their lifetimes. Violence against women, LGBTIQ communities, poverty-stricken families and vulnerable groups is at an all-time high. 

In Colombia, peace and violence walk hand in hand. The historic peace accords signed in November, 2016 are once again under threat with the rise to power of Iván Duque, a conservative and divisive figure in Colombia who want to alter the most contentious components of the accords. The president-elect has troubled many within Colombia, with fears that the peace process with leftist rebels the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) could unravel.Taking to Twitter after the election, FARC’s wartime leader, Rodrigo Londoño said, “We have lived the quietest elections of the last decades, the peace process bears fruit. It is a moment of greatness and reconciliation, we respect the decision of the majorities and we congratulate the new president. Now to work, the roads of hope are open.” 

The reception to peace is mixed in the countryside. Violence has continued to affect the country outside Putayamo. On 20th June, IRIN's contributor Tomas Ayuso and freelance journalist Magnus Hansen spoke to communities in the south of Colombia where residents are more sceptical about the peace process. '“Whenever we hear talk of peace, we worry,” Anadelia Trochez, 43, president of the community council in El Ceral, a village in the Cauca Valley, the most productive coca-growing area in the country. “Out here, that usually means more trouble.”' According to IRIN, hundreds of Colombian farmers, activists, and community organisers have been killed over the past 18 months. Most of these murders went uninvestigated.  

Stretching over half a century, the Colombian conflict between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Government was the epicentre of violence in South America. 220,000 men, women and children were estimated to have perished and thousands more were displaced. Part of this conflict, including the conflict between Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel, CIA, the Search Bloc and Los Pepes, was popularised in Netflix's Narcos. 

Community leaders in cocoa growing areas of Colombia 'fear the stage is now set for a repeat of the 1980s and 1990s, as the state, smaller guerrilla groups, criminal gangs (“bandas criminales or BACRIM), and paramilitary successors jockey for control.' The effects are being felt already. Working at Action Against Hunger, I came across the story of Don Luis, a grandfather who, much like nearly every civilian in Putumayo, was not left untouched by the bloodshed in Colombia. His daughter and son-in-law were killed in front of their six small children by an armed group who burst into their family home. The family was forever changed by this traumatic incident. The two oldest children were taken into care. One year later, four of the six children now live and are looked after by Don Luis. Putumayo, like Cauca in the south-west, was and remains plagued by drug trafficking, paramilitary violence, land disputes and gang violence. The area lacks basic infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and roads, and struggles to access urban areas.

It is people like Don Luis and his grandchildren who are caught between the various factions fighting over the lucrative cocaine trade which is estimated to be worth $500 million and $1 billion in FARC controlled areas. The poor suffer,  and vulnerable communities are targeted and targeting the beginning of supply chain. As Tom Wainwright writes in Narconomics, "Colombia's armed conflict is such that in any given region, there is usually only one group of traffickers that hold sway. The group is the sole local buyer of coca leaf, so it dictates the prices, just as Walmart is sometimes able to set the price of the produce it buys. This means that if the cost of producing the leaf goes up-owing to eradication, disease, or anything else. It will be the farmers who bear the cost, not the cartels. Just as big retailers protect themselves and their customers from price rises by forcing suppliers to take the hit, cartels keep their own costs down at the expense of coca farmers." (Wainwright, Narconomics, 20). The impact of the "War on Drugs" is absorbed by farmers and their communities, not the drug cartels and paramilitaries tussling for control and where fields are burnt and destroyed by military and security forces, efficiency becomes the key to increase yields. According to the United Nations and the Colombian government fieldwork, one hectare of land in Colombia used for coca farming increased its ability to produce 4.7 kilos of cocaine to 7.7 kilos despite a 40% decrease in hectares being used to cultivate coca leaves between 2000-2014. 

It is little wonder that amidst poverty and conflict, and millions displaced by armed conflict, that Colombian immigrants who have gone to the United States 'numbered 699,000 in 2015. This represented the largest group of South Americans in the United States, accounting for roughly 25 percent of all South Americans.' Other countries accommodating the 340,000 refugees included Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. 

Colombia's legacy continues to live on, while the drug war's heart has shifted to Mexico. Extreme violence has normalised and has got worst under successive presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party and Peña Nieto of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). Fox's rule laid the foundations, Calderon's War on Drugs catalysed the violence, and Nieto's reign has seen the worst rates of violence and homicides in Mexico's modern history rise.

Mexican freelance journalist, Marcela Turati described Mexico as "a country of mass-graves" where transnational criminal organisations and security forces have slaughtered and tortured civilians with impunity in the quest to master Mexico's abundant resources as corruption and injustice have eaten away at Mexico's institutions like a virus. Many civilians regard the TCOs and the government as one and the same and massacres whether at Allende, Monterrey, Cardereyta Jimenez, San Fernando, Taxco, and Iguala have eroded the public trust in institutions and political elite. 

The blurring of crime and war defines Mexico and has infected Central America. Frontline estimated 164,000 were dead while Amnesty International and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity argued 136,100 were dead in 2013. In the build up to this year's election, 8000 have already been killed in murders and homicides and in 2017, 30,000 were killed. The question is who's counting? The violence has been marked by disappearances, decapitation, torture, car bombs, mass-graves and executions between paramilitaries, local gangs, police forces and the Mexican military. “I read the news that comes in and I say to myself: ‘This is not possible’,” said Cuéllar speaking to The Guardian, “it feels like the government doesn’t care … there’s a total abandonment of leadership … like we are lost at sea. We’re in a mess and everybody thinks changing the President of the Republic is going to bring about a solution … [But] whoever comes in is going to face the same problems only with less experience.”

Mexico is the epicentre of bloodshed in Central America and 2.5 million men, women, and children have been murdered across Latin America in the 21st century. The statistics are alarming and how the horrendous violence has escaped the international community's attention is baffling, particularly when the cartels have been every bit as ferocious (if not worse) then ISIS and Al-Qa'ida in the Middle East and Central Asia. Couple Mexico's alarming collapse with high-profile disasters such as Usumacinta platform disaster in 2007 and the fire at ABC Children's Nursery which led to the death of forty-nine infants in 2009, and the precipice the country stands on is all too clear. Both disasters were absent accountability and the conditions for these disasters were created by negligence and corruption in institutional authorities, not TCOs. The rule of law has become farcical if not non-existent, a charade where injustice exists alongside poverty and state-perpetrated violence (alongside criminal violence) has become commonplace, the conditions for further collapse are evident. Mexico is a powder keg waiting to explode. 

Central America's age of terror, from El Salvador to Guatemala to Mexico to Honduras has escaped the international community's attention. Only when the Trump administration detains children and separates them from their families do we react, yet the media needs to look further south to understand why these refugees and migrants are fleeing. Only then, through development, more viable solutions to narco-trafficking and human trafficking, curbing the violence of governments, paramilitaries and criminals  and regarding the crisis as a regional one can the crisis be resolved. If it isn't, refugees and migrants will continue to run and thousands will continue to die in Central America's Night of Sorrows, La Noche Triste.