Can Donald Trump name a Central American country, much less find one on a map? I asked myself this as he announced this week that his executive order to build a wall on the US-Mexico border “will also help Mexico by deterring illegal immigration from Central America.” This had to be one of the first times he’s name-dropped our region. After my ears perked up from being acknowledged, the uneasiness crept in. This moment confirmed the fears Central Americans have felt ever since Donald Trump, then candidate, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto met up in September of 2016. We dread becoming the scapegoat for the region’s security problems, a situation that could result in more deportations, detentions, and deaths for Central Americans at the hands of governments on both sides of the border.
Peña Nieto seemed not to take the bait as he fired back in a video on Wednesday, saying “Mexico doesn’t believe in walls.”
My eyes rolled so far back I could see El Salvador 15 years ago – before we adopted the US dollar. It’s obvious that for a president with an abysmally low approval rating, this is a golden opportunity to stand up to Trump, win back popular support and be lionized by world leaders. However, one haughty sound bite is not going to undo the fact that last year Mexico deported more than 140,000 Central Americans from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). That’s almost twice as many people as the United States deported from this same demographic. Those numbers don’t take into the account the multiple stories of extortion, sexual assault, and disappearances of Central Americans crossing through Mexico, for which there are no official government statistics. I can also think of at least 43 reasons the Mexican people shouldn’t trust Peña Nieto.
Many think Central Americans come in two flavors: face-tatted Mara gangsters and the masked police death squads who fight them.
Surely if two of the major players in North America are trying to deter migration from the Central American Isthmus, we must be a menace, the logic goes. If you’ve only seen documentaries like National Geographic: World’s Most Dangerous Gang (2016) or Vice’s Gangs of El Salvador (2015), you would think people from the Northern Triangle come in two flavors: face-tatted Mara gangsters and the masked police death squads who fight them. In reality, most migrants from those countries are fleeing the conditions of gang warfare, a violent phenomenon that has its roots in US-intervention and draconian immigration policy. Unless conditions in the region improve, actions to deter Central Americans will not mean less immigrants, they’ll just mean a more perilous journey with more human rights violations.
Whether Trump and Peña Nieto kiss and make up or not, I doubt either will take a break from the total desmadre that is them running their countries into the ground. I can’t hold my breath because Central American lives are already being discussed as a bargaining chip for bilateral agreements between our two larger neighbors. When we’re building our transnational resistance movements to the current power structures, the Northern Triangle cannot be left out. When we show up to stop the border wall, we need to show up and hold Mexico accountable to its claim not to believe in walls, especially one with Central America.
No matter what happens, Central Americans will need be vigilant; aside from our own side-show governments, we have to remain attuned to two other foreign governments in order to navigate the survival of our communities. In some ways, these countries are much like their national birds. The United States and Mexico are represented by the bald eagle and the golden eagle respectively, both large, predatory birds. The national birds of the Central American Northern triangle are brightly colored, smaller and easier targets.
While the two birds of prey tussle with each other, Central America doesn’t want to be anybody’s lunch.