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No Safe Haven

Two books expose how U.S. policy has ravaged the Northern Triangle

Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet by Nina Lakhani. Verso. 336 pages.

The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond by John Washington. Verso. 352 pages.

Last fall, I sat through a day of master calendar hearings at an immigration court in Manhattan. These are arraignments, where the judge reads out the charges to the defendant and schedules a final court date, which can be weeks, months, or even years in the future. The first defendant that day was a Garifuna woman from Honduras who didn’t speak English; the judge didn’t speak Spanish. I watched as they struggled to establish the basic facts of her case through a translator. From what I could make out, she had faced pervasive racism back in Honduras, as well as domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. In 2018, she fled to the United States with her son. They were caught at the border and immediately sent to a hielera—a detention facility known in Spanish as an “icebox” for the constant air conditioning—where they were separated.

It seemed to me a distressing story. But for the judge it was routine, and he proceeded with the usual questions: How had she made her way into the United States? Did she know she was there illegally and thus facing deportation? Did she want her son’s case to be consolidated with hers?

It was like they were having two separate conversations, though they were seated feet apart. They were fortunate to even have a translator present: translators are often unavailable, especially when it comes to indigenous languages. When they are available, it is often through a video feed. Detained defendants are frequently beamed in as well, and judges are increasingly being video-conferenced in from New York to more remote states. An immigration attorney told me about a recent hearing in New Jersey where her client was video-conferenced in from a detention facility ten minutes down the road, while the judge and government attorney called in from Puerto Rico, leaving her in a room with no one but the translator. So it goes in a system that asks migrants to recount complex, traumatic stories in the vacuum of courtrooms or detention cells. All too often, immigration hearings resemble a game of telephone.

To qualify for asylum, defendants need to establish a “well-founded fear” of persecution on the basis of one of five reasons: race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political group. Judges look for an ironclad narrative with a familiar antagonist: ideally, the state. The seemingly trivial reasons why people flee—a death threat from a neighbor; land lost to a dam project—might not seem like sufficient motives to a disinterested judge. Yet behind these events lie systemic factors that pervade daily life with the threat of violence.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Northern Triangle was a site of plunder for U.S.-based corporations.

This is especially true for countries comprising Central America’s Northern Triangle: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Decades of imperialist U.S. policy in the region, in conjunction with the oligarchical rule of local elites, has given rise to some of the highest murder rates in the world, as well as mounting environmental crises. When asylum seekers fleeing these terrors arrive at the border, the United States treats them as a crisis of someone else’s creation, thereby furthering  regional instability. Indeed, migration from the Northern Triangle is a direct consequence of U.S.-Central American relations over the past half-century.

Two new books cast a light on the situation from different perspectives. Who Killed Berta Cáceres?, by Guardian journalist Nina Lakhani, is the culmination of four years of dogged reporting on the 2016 murder of Honduran land defender Berta Cáceres. In some ways resembles an extended version of one of Lakhani’s articles: a gripping narrative account, dense with forensic investigation. Yet it is more than a straightforward chronicle. When I interviewed Lakhani in 2019, she said that she wanted to use Berta’s life and death “as an arc to tell the modern-day story of Honduras.” To this end, she dissects the political and financial structures underlying the corruption and impunity of the Northern Triangle, offering a portrait of the system that killed Berta. 

John Washington’s The Dispossessed is a more meditative work. He traces the tribulations of one “everyman” migrant named Arnovis, who, threatened by gangsters in El Salvador, makes three attempts to reach the United States only to be deported each time. Berta and Arnovis are victims of the same corrupt system, even if they occupy very different positions in society. And the stakes for both are the same: a death sentence.

War Resisters League Poster: “Paz, Justicia y Libertad.” | National Museum of American History

U.S. imperialism looms large over both books. Throughout the twentieth century, the Northern Triangle was a site of plunder for U.S.-based corporations. Perhaps the most powerful of these was the United Fruit Company, which by the 1920s owned almost a quarter of the arable lands in Honduras, where it came to be known as “El Pulpo” (“the octopus”) for its hegemonic control of everything from the ports and railways to politicians. United Fruit also had vast holdings in Guatemala to the west, where it found a willing partner in the dictator Jorge Ubico, who was overthrown in the 1944 revolution. When the country’s second democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, came to power, he pushed for moderate land reform in 1952, proposing to buy unfarmed United Fruit land at market rates to distribute to campesinos. This didn’t go down well with the company, which had been deliberately undervaluing the land to skirt taxes. Allegedly at United Fruit’s urging, the Eisenhower administration orchestrated a coup two years later, successfully deposing Árbenz.

U.S. intervention in the region increased with the escalation of the Cold War, as one by one the Northern Triangle countries became mired in U.S. anti-communist policy. In 1960, as the United States plotted the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba, it trained the invading Cuban forces in Guatemala, now ruled by a U.S.-friendly president. This angered junior officers, already frustrated with the regime’s corruption. They staged a revolt, which failed, kicking off a thirty-six-year civil war that pitted leftist rebels against the U.S.-backed rightwing government. El Salvador’s civil war began in 1980, with the leftist guerrilla coalition Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) battling the U.S.-backed right-wing state, which received more aid in the early 1980s than any other country except for Israel and Egypt. Honduras was spared a civil war; instead, it was turned into a U.S. training ground for anti-leftist guerrilla forces. These “dirty wars” resulted in levels of bloodshed that still violate the imagination. According to the historian John Coatsworth, the number killed in U.S.-backed violence in Latin America vastly exceeded those killed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc from 1960 to 1990, with hundreds of thousands dying in the Northern Triangle itself.

The United States was hardly acting alone. As Lakhani points out, “Anti-communist fervor was not a Cold War invention” in the Northern Triangle. It was stoked by the region’s landowning elites—a small group of families known as las élites or las familias—who worked in tandem with U.S. policymakers to support their shared political and economic goals. Above all, they were concerned about popular uprisings of the landless campesinos, branding any rebellion as communist. Over the course of the twentieth century, they opposed everything from land reform and indigenous sovereignty struggles to union organizing, liberation theology clergy, and student movements. This nefarious partnership between elites on either side of the border remains in place to this day.

Berta was raised during a period in Honduran history when “most people were either ignorant or ashamed of any indigenous heritage.

The Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s. Yet the security structures put in place to fight communism were not dismantled. Instead, as Lakhani astutely observes, this apparatus—counter-insurgency programs; arms channels—was repurposed to protect the neoliberal “development” order that emerged during peace time. In one sense, this was nothing new: anti-communism had always been at least partly about protecting the material interests of international capital. In 1982, for example, U.S.-trained troops killed over four hundred indigenous activists opposing a hydroelectric dam in Guatemala—a project supported by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Yet “development” took on a new aura in the 1990s. In the absence of the communist specter, free-market policies, deregulation, and privatization became the primary project for the United States. To make it more palatable to multinational banks, environmental labels were slapped on to extractivist energy projects; Lakhani refers to this as the “big fat lie of clean energy.” Combined with the escalating effects of climate change, so-called green energy projects now divert resources such as water from mostly indigenous communities, further exacerbating droughts and scarcity. 

Berta Cáceres’s life and career shadowed the shifting nature of the relationship between the United States and Central America. Born in La Esperanza, Honduras, she came of age in the 1980s as civil war raged in neighboring Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—and military aid from the United States skyrocketed in her country. Her mother, Doña Austra, organized against U.S.-backed death squads working across Central America through a women’s collective; later, she became the first female mayor of La Esperanza. At eighteen, Berta had a child with a young radical student activist, Salvador Zúñiga. They entrusted their newborn daughter to Salvador’s sister before going underground with a guerrilla group under the FMLN umbrella in El Salvador. Berta was part of the FMLN’s last offensive on the capital of San Salvador in 1989, serving in the health brigade; she also taught literacy to children and adults. As one combatant who fought alongside her put it, “It’s clear that these experiences marked the rest of her life.”

Berta was raised during a period in Honduran history when “most people were either ignorant or ashamed of any indigenous heritage,” writes Lakhani. Yet she and Salvador both proudly identified as members of the Lencas, the country’s largest indigenous group. Returning to Honduras in 1990, Berta recognized that indigenous communities would suffer harshly under the new post-war regime, their land and resources auctioned off to the highest bidder. Soon enough, government policy proved her right. Rafael Callejas, the president of Honduras from 1990 to 1994, broke up collective land rights for indigenous and campesino communities with the goal of attracting multinational corporations; market-based land reforms allowed the selling of collectively owned lands (ejido) for the first time as well. In response, Berta and Salvador founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993. Over the next two decades, she organized with local communities against illegal loggers and plantation owners, but her crowning fight was in opposition to the planned Agua Zarca dam project on the Gualcarque River. In 2015, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism. Despite this international recognition, the Honduran government met COPINH protests with espionage, psyops sabotage, and violence, in an eerie replay of Cold War counterinsurgency. “Modern enemies for modern times,” as Lakhani puts it.

Much of Lakhani’s book works to examine how power is dispersed and reinforced in modern Honduras. She focuses on the elite class known as los turcos, composed of Christian Palestinians and Eastern European Jews who had come to the country in the late 1800s on Turkish passports. During the 1980s and 1990s, the turcos took advantage of structural adjustment policies, which transferred state wealth to the private sector. They diversified across banking, newspapers, manufacturing, and energy, as well as the fledgling drug trade, gaining political and financial control over Honduras. Soon enough, they were wielding corruption to advance the careers of their hand-picked politicians, elevating them to the highest levels of government. One of these families was the Atala Zablah clan—the main backers of the dam project that Berta died opposing.

In every sense, the maras were incubated in the U.S. carceral system.

Lakhani hits her stride when she begins investigating the circumstances around Berta’s assassination. This part of the book reads like a John le Carré novel: the assailants were an assortment of military personnel and sicarios connected with DESA, the company behind the dam project her organization was opposing. The corporation, in turn, was financed by the Atala Zablah clan, as well as the World Bank Group. David Castillo, the company’s then-president, was a U.S.-trained former military intelligence officer (he currently awaits trial in Honduras). One of the planners, Mariano Díaz, attended courses at the School of the Americas in Georgia and fought with U.S. special forces in Iraq.

The case illustrates the contemporary nature of U.S. involvement in the Northern Triangle. It’s not direct intervention like the early days of the Cold War; instead U.S. corporations and security experts remain a constant presence in the background. The nature of Berta’s death also demonstrates why so many people in the Northern Triangle are compelled to flee. The region’s government serves the wealthy elite, protecting their interests through the violent security state while enriching itself, often through the drug trade. The United States funds and buttresses the system, fueling a vicious cycle of migration and expulsion.

A members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador. | markarinafotos

The widespread corruption and criminality at the highest administrative echelons in the Northern Triangle creates a vacuum of governance, which the maras—MS-13 and Barrio 18—fill at the local level. As John Washington notes in The Dispossessed, these street gangs came to prominence in the late 1980s, in Los Angeles, California, where thousands of young refugees fled to from the region’s civil wars. Arriving with next to nothing in a new country, they were met not with mental health services nor robust welfare, but the tough-on-crime policies of Reagan. This pressure cooker situation turned them toward violence out of self-preservation; in every sense, the maras were incubated in the U.S. carceral system.

Instead of dealing with a problem of its own creation, the United States chose to export it across the border, deporting thousands of alleged gang members back to Central America in the 1990s even as it was still reeling. They returned alienated, often facing Mano Dura—Iron Fist—policies, and the gangs continued to offer a sense of belonging and protection. With the region gutted by civil war and poverty, the gangs became the de facto state at the local level, creating a exploitative ruling system that mirrored the government’s, albeit without the cash flow. As Washington writes, “The gangs in Central America are more about identity, status, community, and culture than they are about trafficking and profit.” Any young man who decides not to join a gang is either invisible, or if unlucky enough to be noticed, a target. Arnovis is one of thousands whose life has been upended by the maras. All he did was collide with the brother of a Barrio 18 gang member in his small, rural Salvadoran community during a soccer game. But this interaction was enough to endanger his life, prompting his frustrated attempts to escape to the United States.

Like Lakhani, Washington is intimately familiar with his subject matter. He is an editor of the English-language version of El Faro, one of Central America’s premier investigative publications; the translator of notable contemporary books on the region; and an accomplished reporter in his own right. His strength as a writer grows out of his empathy. Not content to simply parachute into his subject, Washington formed a lasting relationship with Arnovis, who he regularly visited in Corral de Mulas over two years. Drawing on extensive interviews, Washington recreates Arnovis’s three failed attempts to cross the border—including his separation from his five-year-old daughter on the last attempt. Washington also physically retraces Arnovis’s path through Guatemala and Mexico, riding the infamous freight train known as “The Beast,” albeit with a U.S. passport. Arnovis was “running for his life,” he reflects, “not engaged in a privileged gallivant borne out of journalistic solidarity, or whatever it was I had been doing.”

As a counterpoint to Arnovis’s narrative, Washington traces the history of the concept of asylum, drawing on thinkers from Aeschylus and Sophocles to Hobbes, Arendt, and Žižek. Originally formulated as what Washington calls a “detente against retributive or political violence,” asylum as we understand it today came into existence with the international treaties that followed the horrors of WWII, when the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights announced that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Three years later, this right was codified into law in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which includes the language on “well-founded fear” and the aforementioned criteria for persecution. While most countries signed on the document, the United States initially declined, likely due to resistance from conservatives who viewed all international agreements with suspicion.

Our complicity lies in ignoring these stories, something we have done for decades.

They eventually signed on in 1968. But the country had already begun granting asylum years before that—though not uniformly, and certainly not out of altruism. Rather, asylum became yet another front of soft power during the Cold War: “Accepting refugees and asylum seekers was a way for the United States to leak the communist bloc of its citizens and undermine their governments,” Washington writes. Before 1980, refugees from non-communist countries outside of the Middle East weren’t even eligible for asylum. That year, according to Washington, the United States accepted almost two hundred fifty thousand refugees, mostly from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the Soviet Union. This year, without the convenient enemy of communist nations to erode, the United States is poised to accept only 18,000 refugees—its lowest total ever.

The United States has been least charitable to countries within its sphere of influence. The reason for this is simple: accepting refugees from Mexico and the Northern Triangle would amount to an admission of American complicity in creating the conditions that compel people to flee. (Washington cites statistics showing that the United States denies almost 90 percent of claims from Mexico while granting almost 80 percent of claims from Eritrea, though it’s not clear what the time frame for this is.) Moreover, a recent study has shown that when a country receives increased military aid and trade from the United States, asylum outcomes are actually negatively affected. It is as if migrants from the south of the border represent a direct refutation of American infallibility.

At its root, asylum is a gesture of empathy. Yet the U.S. government has primarily viewed it as a threat. Instead of treating asylum as mutual protection—“a collective roof extending over our heads,” as Washington puts it—the United States has muffled it with dehumanizing institutions. Family separation and concentration camps at the border are intended to deter migrants from leaving home. These practices also serve to create fear in the American public. “Quantity and empathy have an inverse relationship” Washington observes. And “the sheer numbers of people crossing a border in search of safety so often provoke not empathy but its opposite—a hardening of the heart.” From the immigration courts, which face a backlog of over a million cases due to lack of funding, to the practice of metering, which creates a bottleneck by limiting the number of people who can apply for asylum at border checkpoints, we are primed to view migration as a crisis. In reality, the United States is not even in the top five countries receiving refugees. In 2017, Uganda took in more refugees than us.

By placing Arnovis’s story against the backdrop of regional disorder, Washington gives him the treatment he will never receive in U.S. immigration court. And by distilling the story of Central American migration into a single man’s account, he is also making a plea for empathy from American readers. As both Washington and Lakhani make clear, our complicity lies in ignoring these stories, something we have done for decades. “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country,” Susan Sontag once observed, “is a quintessential modern experience.” Washington is less sanguine: “We are not just spectators. We—our way of life—are enactors of calamity. If we are not actively working to curb the calamity, we are its participants, its instigators, its hellions.”