The Central American Death Cult
In December of 2015, beauty contestant Iroshka Lindaly Elvir shocked Miss Universe audiences as she strode on stage in a feathered skeletal headdress and sequined gown followed by a train of human-like skulls. Elvir, then Miss Honduras, indicated that her sartorial choices found inspiration in the Mayan goddess of death, perhaps Ixtab or Ixik, but later posted images of herself on social media wearing the outfit and holding a sign that read "CICIH YA". Elvir’s sign demanded that a United Nations appointed anti-corruption task force (like that appointed to Guatemala) confront the extensive political corruption of Honduras. This demand reflected popular discontent over revelations that, for his 2013 presidential-campaign, sitting-President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) bilked the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) of $200 million dollars. IHSS is a national health insurance provider for Honduran workers, which had reported massive shortages in medicine and equipment, along with significant understaffing. Meanwhile, Honduran twitter interpreted Elvir's outfit as black humor about Honduras’s 2012 title as the murder capital of the world. Glamour aside, the costume gestured to a long-running narrative which lodged the Northern Triangle's (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) drastic violence in an imagined primordial past. In other words, this episode evokes the region's "ineluctable" cycles of atrocity—a kind of Central American death cult.
Indeed, Central America would seem proof of the rule that violence begets further violence. National histories in the region are scarred with events titled la matanza and la violencia, abstract handles that simultaneously broadcast and obscure the scopes and scales of brutality that have afflicted Central America. Guatemalan sociologist Edelberto Torres-Rivas describes parallels between national misfortunes as a kind of "epidermal" interrelation, foremost amongst these is the neoliberal state's failure to claim a monopoly on violence and provide basic security to its citizenry.1 During the 1980s and ’90s, such atrocity assumed forms such as extrajudicial execution, the massacre of whole villages, torture under interrogation, systematized rape, forced complicity in acts of violence, and social terror. In stacking this assortment of barbarity experienced unevenly by the people of Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras we merely list acts and occasions. Less obvious are the ways which the violence and its periods of coerced silence, forgetting, or even resignation might have cut holes in the experience of a shared national history, let alone any sense of national belonging. Still in drawing such correspondences across nations we risk overreach; hence Torres-Rivas’s "skin" metaphor that suggests that abiding differences between countries sit beneath the membrane of historical resemblance.
At the same time, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries US policymakers amalgamated Central American nations through two constructs: as an uncharted opportunity or a latent threat. Speculators and militarists alike imagined the region as a medium of commerce—e.g. the site of what would become the Panama Canal—but also as another geographic trophy in the realization of Manifest Destiny—the quasi-metaphysical doctrine that motivated westward expansion.2 In his second attempt to act on this doctrine's call, William Walker and his band of filibusteros invaded Nicaragua and Walker declared himself the nation's president beginning in 1856. Although the Honduran government curtailed Walker's ambition to conquer further territory by executing him, for the United States the lure of conquest and occupation persisted throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In order to quash political developments that endangered American interests in the region, the US military invaded Nicaragua in 1894, 1896, and 1910, occupying the nation from 1912 to 1933; US troops entered Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, and 1924; and the CIA overthrew Guatemala's democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, laying the conditions for 30 years of civil war.
Arbenz's overthrow was a clarion call to future revolutionaries that the United States was a force to maintain the authoritarian status-quo.3 His presidency represented the potential to wrest national control away from fruit companies, and to end the institutional racism of national vagrancy laws which compelled any indigenous Guatemalan deemed "vagrant" to labor on nearby plantations.4 In tandem with US militarization, financial firms saddled governments with debt and fruit companies restructured the region's economies toward monoculture. These two developments instituted a near-permanent open door for corporate intervention in matters of national sovereignty, and periodic economic crises as commodity prices fluctuate or as drought and disease increasingly lay waste to annual harvests. Consequently, if our game of sketching congruencies between events in Central American countries is to have any footing, we must first look to the United States' abiding influence over the isthmus.
With the Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, the executive branch assumed a self-righteously imperialist posture towards Nicaragua's Sandinista government and uprisings in both El Salvador and Guatemala. Although his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, refused to deploy US forces to prevent the Sandinista National Liberation Front's (FSLN) triumph over a US ally, the dynastic and authoritarian Somoza regime, Reagan's stance toward these leftist guerrillas was both alarmist and pugnacious. Responding to alleged links between Central American rebels and the Soviet Union, Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, declared in 1981 that the region is "the most important place in the world for the United States."5 Indeed, Reagan's rise to power depended on a coalition of previously-apolitical Christian conservatives, right wing think-tank intellectuals, neoconservatives, and new right organizations, about which Sara Diamond argues, “Anticommunism became the American Right’s dominant motif not just because it justified the enforcement of US dominion internationally but also because it wove together disparate threads of right-wing ideology.”6 The Reagan foreign policy doctrine conveyed a project to “roll back revolution” and to undo gains made by struggles for decolonization, particularly those which flirted with socialist policies or rhetoric.7
Lacking public support for an outright military campaign against Central American insurgents, the Reagan administration sought a proxy war through overt and covert funding measures, counterinsurgency training, arms distribution, and collusion between CIA, US Special forces operatives, mercenaries, and Central American armed forces. Throughout the 1980s the federal government's financial support for the Salvadoran state was second only to its support of Israel. What American military intellectuals rebranded as "low-intensity conflict" in Central America elevated violence to such a degree that the US-allied Guatemalan government oversaw the only 20th century genocide in the Americas. “All told,” historian Greg Grandin explains, “US allies in Central America during Reagan's two terms killed over 300,000 people, tortured hundreds of thousands, and drove millions into exile.”8 Faced with extreme levels of brutality, the flow of refugees into the United States increased to unprecedented numbers, particularly between 1980 and 1985. This process began such a significant demographic shift that in 2009 the Pew Center announced that Salvadoran-Americans had displaced Cuban-Americans as the third largest Latinx nationality group in the United States.9 In the words of Juan Gonzalez, Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum-seekers then and today represent a “harvest of the US empire.”10
Let me hazard another analogy: the violence committed against Central Americans fleeing to the United States recalls the forms of atrocity that impel Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and now Hondurans northward. Take, for the example, the 2015 murder in Florida of Onesimo Marcelino Lopez-Ramos. Three teenagers engaged in a game of “Guate hunting” by stalking and robbing people of Guatemalan descent, ultimately, beating in Lopez-Ramos's head and killing him. Deemed a hate-crime by the local sheriff, this Guatemalan-American’s slaughter represents both a growing awareness of Central Americans’ presence in the US and the branding of that presence as worthy of extermination.11
In the 1980s and 90s, US defense intellectuals and army trainers in the region pinned atrocities in Guatemala, El Salvador, and (to a lesser degree) Nicaragua on a culture of violence rooted in a semi-dormant indigenous past. Of course, the practice of human sacrifice in pre-Columbian societies, notably the Maya and the Aztecs, served as an alibi for Spain's colonization of the Americas. The cruelty of low-intensity conflict, such as what RAND analyst Peter Schwarz described as the “lavish brutality” of Salvadoran armed forces, was attributed to Salvadorans' shared heritage in the fierce Pipiles who ritualistically flayed living humans.12 Although the United States bears responsibility for instilling right-wing forces with a virulent anticommunism through both mobile and School of the Americas training programs, defense intellectuals' glib reasoning about barbarity also displaces blame from the long history of US militarism in Central America onto Central Americans themselves.
It's not difficult to see a synonymous intent between counterinsurgency measures in Central America and recent massacres committed out of fear of migrants from the region. Charles R. Hale’s argument that Guatemala’s violent “repression provided a terrifying incentive to live within these constraints, while also advancing the perverse conclusion that dissenters were to blame for their own demise,” resonates with the motivation for Latinx slaughter in El Paso.13 The gunman's manifesto, titled “The Inconvenient Truth,” identified a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas as motivation for murdering 22 and injuring 24 others in an El Paso Walmart. Similarly, the Gilroy Garlic Festival gunman's Instagram account complained about the paving over of California green-spaces for "hordes of mestizos."14 Put another way, through massacre these racist perpetrators hoped that Latinas/os would understand their demise and that of their coethnics as the inescapable result of two civilizations—Anglo-American vs. mestizo—at war.
Anxieties about the Central American migrant caravan motivated the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter to kill 11 Jewish worshipers in 2018. As the shooter’s social media activity revealed, he considered Jews to be co-conspirators in a sweeping plot for "white genocide."15 The El Paso shooter's manifesto cites French author Renaud Camus's 2012 theory of "le grand remplacement" which posits that immigration threatens to radically reconstitute European society in the span of a generation. In a profile of Camus, The New York Times noted echoes of Camus's doctrine in the Charlottesville white-supremacist demonstrators who declared "you will not replace us."16 From its inception, Donald Trump's campaign and then administration sanctioned associations between Central Americans fleeing violence, desperate poverty, drought, and unemployment and a malevolent design to encroach upon US white-citizen sovereignty. Critics have noted the longstanding tradition of racist anti-immigrant rhetoric that interprets the arrival of nonwhite immigrants on US shores as an "unarmed invasion."17 It is in this exact idiom that the White House has addressed migrant caravans. While in absolute numbers undocumented immigration to the United States has declined from its height during the mid-2000s, the manufactured border crisis presents a potent, if deceptive, illustration of a nation gone astray.18
If recent massacres reveal anything, they illustrate the failure of the press corps and the public imagination to grasp a disaggregated and prolonged white-supremacist movement, one which sees its talking points reproduced in the White House. Historian Kathleen Belew, argues that in the 1980s the white-supremacist movement transitioned from the vigilantism of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan to a new set of strategies: “using early computer networks to mobilize and coordinate action, and ‘leaderless resistance,’ cell-style organizing in which activists could work in common purpose without direct communication from movement leaders.”19 These new strategies culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 and wounded 500. During his trial for the bombing, Timothy McVeigh insisted that he acted alone and his subsequent “execution cemented a perception of the bombing as unconnected to the events that came before, as an inexplicable act of violence carried out by one or a few actors.”20 Here Belew implies that federal authorities and the mass media's failure to connect the dots on White Power has left us with an immutable cultural narrative, the myth of the “lone wolf.”21 An animal that hunts without the “pack’s” social norms, the lone wolf stands in for all white genocidists. Lone wolves, the narrative goes, are motivated by psychological fracture or social pathology more than by racial animus. But if scholar Jean Franco is correct that "in massacres ... the aim is to banish the memory of the victims from the earth," then we must confront the recent spate of mass murders as part of a dispersed project of racial deracination.22
From the perspective of Central Americans in the US, the project to annihilate or displace their communities is, perhaps, an extension of the violence that drove and continues to drive families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and now Honduras. A 2015 photograph of a child detainee's—Catherine Checas’s—T shirt exemplifies the logic of state-mandated violence against civilians. In the picture published by The Guardian, Checas's shirt is festooned with multiple blood stains, residues of the Berks County Immigrant Detention Center's refusal to provide the three year old with medical care for bloody vomit for three days.23 Such images call to mind the exhumation photography, images of the buried remains of slaughtered villagers, central to the dour labors of Peace and Reconciliation Committee researchers in Guatemala and El Salvador.
In a less poetic vein, the rampant violence that afflicts the Northern Triangle, must be understood as a permutation of both preceding civil wars and US imperialism. With the conclusion of the Cold War, Central American governments and guerrillas signed peace and reconciliation treaties, elections were held, and truth commissions sought to expose webs of culpability. And yet the resulting uneasy peace did not hold. Rather, former counterinsurgency trainees formed criminal syndicates and drug cartels, Central American green-card holders with street-gang affiliations were deported back to their home countries, and military coups resumed, notably President Manuel Zelaya's 2009 unseating in Honduras. The coup and its attendant social turmoil reflected a history in which the United States, seeking a stable ally and a reliable source of raw materials, militarized Honduran society. During the 1980s, U.S. presence and influence in Honduras became so prevalent and taken-for-granted that one expert dubbed the nation "the USS Honduras, a [stationary] aircraft carrier of sorts."24 Zelaya's ouster provoked widespread discontent, which was met with vicious repression. Organizations and people who demonstrated against the coup d'état were subject to indiscriminate violence. State-sanctioned attacks and seemingly random assassinations rained down on labor organizers, teachers, indigenous activists, environmentalists, LGBTI mutual-aid groups, women, and Honduran' youth. In this context, insecurity is a weapon in the state's armory.
A president later, the movement has grown to an unprecedented degree in the nation's history as have the mechanisms of repression. Juan Orlando Hernández tampered significantly with election results in 2017, guaranteeing himself another term, and sparking more intense and months-long massive protests throughout urban and rural Honduras. When I travelled to Honduras as part of a queer-solidarity delegation in 2013 during JOH's first election, LGBTI organizers expressed both fear at the pervasive impunity of forces persecuting them and optimism about the nation's future direction in the hands of the movement and the LIBRE Party. JOH responded to recent protests by declaring martial law and doling out "furious repression."25 The US Department of State offered implicit sanction for the recursion to violence in Honduras, calling for a "national dialogue" between the president and the opposition.26 Concurrently, the president's brother has been indicted in a US court for drug trafficking, a charge that has already implicated JOH and those who helped him achieve power.27
Although these events are visibly entangled in national struggles for democratization and geopolitics, other platitudes hold more attention. In my second semester teaching as an assistant professor, after introducing students to statistics on the US Central American community, some students responded cynically to the cruelty and desperation behind the unaccompanied minors arriving on the US/ Mexico border in 2014. It was as if violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras was preordained; a predictable, if unfortunate, sequence of events; a replay of murderous hardwired impulses ingrained in both people and place. The presumption of a Central American death cult conflates victim and perpetrator. In our context of concentration camps for asylum seekers, it renders the US government a benevolent bystander. In reality, Central America is not chaos, irretrievable, another name for corruption and human slaughter. We might remember, instead, that the historical resemblances aren't symptoms of a congenital defect in the social fabric, but the conscious manufacture of governments and paramilitaries.
- Edelberto Torres-Rivas, "Las Democracias de Baja Intensidad.",La Piel de Centroamérica (Una Visión Epidérmica de Setenta y Cinco Años de Su Historia). (San José, Costa Rica: Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, 2007),156.
- Ileana Rodriguez, Transatlantic Topographies: Islands, Highlands, Jungles. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2004),138.
- Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who witnessed the demolition of Guatemala's democratic revolution, proclaimed "Cuba will not be Guatemala."
- Cited in Grandin, Greg. The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin American in the Cold War. (Chicago: U Chicago Press, 2004), 5.
- Ibid, 71.
- Diamond, Sara. Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. (New York: Guilford Press, 1995),9.
- Ivan Molloy, Rolling Back Revolution: The Emergence of Low-Intensity Conflict (New York: Pluto Press, 2001),. 4.
- Grandin, Empire's Workshop, 71.
- Luis Noe Bustamente, Antonio Flores, and Sono Shah, "Facts on Hispanics of Salvadoran origin in the United States, 2017," The Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends. https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/fact-sheet/u-s-hispanics-facts-on-salvadoran-origin-latinos/
- Juan Gonzalez. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America(New York: Penguin Books, 2000), xvii.
- Sasha Goldstein, "Trio of Florida Teens Stalked and Murdered Hispanic Immigrant During ‘Guat Hunting’ Game: Police," The New York Daily News, April 30, 2015, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/fla-teens-murdered-immigrant-guat-hunting-game-cops-article-1.2205020
- Benjamin Schwarz's American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador (1991), Todd Greentree's Crossroads of Intervention (2008), and Joan Didion's Salvador (1982) all note this repetition of this myth to explain the violence in El Salvador. To Didion's credit she is deeply suspicious of the myth, which she attributes to American operatives and embassy personnel.
- Charles R. Hale, Mas Que Un Indio: Racial Ambivalence and The Paradox Of Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2006), 67.
- Mestizo refers to a person of mixed ethnic backgrounds, most often a Latin American of indigenous and European heritage.
- Nicole Chavez, Emanuella Grinberg and Eliott C. McLaughlin, "Pittsburgh Synagogue Gunman Said He Wanted All Jews to Die, Criminal Complaint Says," CNN.com, October 31, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/28/us/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting/index.html.
- Lauretta Charlton, "What is the Great Replacement?: The Paris-based Author Thomas Chatterton Williams Discusses the French Origins of the Conspiracy Theory Mentioned in the El Paso Manifesto," The New York Times, August 6, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/us/politics/grand-replacement-explainer.html.
- Erika Lee, At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 2003), 23.
- Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel, & D'Vera Cohn, "5 Facts About Illegal Immigration in the U.S.," The Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends, June 12, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/12/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/
- Kathleen Belew, Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2018), 105.
- Ibid, 236.
- Ibid, 12.
- Franco, Jean, Cruel Modernity (Durham: Duke U Press, 2013), 20.
- The Guardian, "In response to three-year-old child detainee Catherine Checas vomiting blood, Berks County Residential staff told her mother to have her 'drink lots of water'," The Guardian, May 12, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/may/12/immigration-detention-centers-children#img-2
- Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. (New York: Norton, 2nd Ed.,1993), 131.
- Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 241.
- Ibid, 242.
- Associated Press in New York. "Prosecutors Allege El Chapo Gave $1m in Bribes to Honduran President’s Brother." The Guardian, October 3, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/03/el-chapo-bribe-honduran-presidents-brother.