Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 24, 2018

El Salvador, MS-13, and the war on immigrants

Filed under: immigration — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

MS-13 members

Bashing the MS-13 is the calling card of the Trump administration in its nativist bid to defeat the Democrats in the midterm elections. Here’s some background. In his State of the Union Address on January 30, 2018, Trump mentioned the youth gang even more times than ISIS. This was typical: “Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country.  We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again.” That set the tone for everything that has been going on in Texas.

As should be obvious, Trump makes no attempts to distinguish between people fleeing the violence that MS-13 carries out and MS-13 itself. On May 16th, Trump stated during a roundtable discussion on immigration: “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.” When taken to task for calling immigrants “animals”, Trump answered that he was only referring to MS-13 members. Among those speaking out against Trump were Diane Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi who were then charged with being pro-MS-13.

In a May 23rd speech in Bethpage, NY, a town in Suffolk County that abuts Long Island and that has a large immigrant population, he beat the drums once again: “In Maryland, MS-13 gang members are accused of stabbing a man 100 times, decapitating him and ripping out his heart.”

On May 29th, he attacked the Democrat running for Senate in Tennessee by linking him to Nancy Pelosi and MS-13: “I’ve never heard of this guy — who is he? He’s an absolute tool of Chuck Schumer, and of course the MS-13 lover Nancy Pelosi.” You got the same thing from Mike Huckabee, Sarah Sanders’s dad:

Screen Shot 2018-06-24 at 2.34.58 PM

That’s how people like Trump and Huckabee operate. If Trump is called out for using the word “animal”, that automatically turns the Democrats calling him out into supporters of MS-13. And not only are they animals, they are like rats “infesting” the USA. On June 19th, Trump tweeted: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”

And only two days ago, Trump met with “angel families” who had lost children to undocumented immigrants as a way of equating them with those whose children had been taken away by ICE on the border. He was as demagogic as ever: “Where is the condemnation of the Democrats’ sanctuary cities that release violent criminals into our communities and then protect them? … Where is the outcry over the savage gang MS-13 and its bloodthirsty creed: kill, rape and control?”

In years past, the Republicans used this kind of scare tactic mostly against African-Americans rather than immigrants. For example, when George Bush ’41 ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988, the Republicans ran ads incessantly about a prisoner named Willie Horton who raped and killed on a weekend furlough program that Dukakis had supported in Massachusetts but not initiated when he was governor. Some analysts believe that this was key to Bush’s victory.

To give you an idea of how key MS-13 is to Trump’s nativist crusade, a Nexis search revealed 64 articles in the NY Times and Washington Post dating back to Trump’s inauguration that contain a reference to Trump and MS-13. You might say that MS-13 has replaced al-Qaeda as the favorite scare word now that immigration has replaced Islamophobia as America’s latest obsession.

Not that there weren’t attempts to make an amalgam between MS-13 and al-Qaeda. In 2005, the ultraright Washington Times reported that “A top al Qaeda lieutenant has met with leaders of a violent Salvadoran criminal gang with roots in Mexico and the United States — including a stronghold in the Washington area — in an effort by the terrorist network to seek help infiltrating the U.S.-Mexico border, law enforcement authorities said.” Of course, there was no basis for this.

After seeing so many references to MS-13 recently, I decided to do a little research starting with what MS-13 stands for. That happens to be Mara Salvatrucha, which is a combination of gang (the slang word for mara) and supposedly the guerrillas who fought in El Salvador in the 1980s. I found this unlikely since there is nothing that would indicate any identification with the FMLN. Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post claims that the gang supports the FMLN ruling party in El Salvador but as you might expect from this lurid tabloid, no evidence is offered except the allegation that there was correspondence between President Funes and MS-13 that “promised cash payments and special privileges for imprisoned gang members, even slots for their children in the nation’s police academy.” The article was written by Roger Noriega, who was head of AID in El Salvador when Reagan was President so you are getting the same kind of fake news you got in the Washington Times about a link to al-Qaeda.

There is a connection between the FMLN and MS-13 but not in the way that Noriega puts it. In the 1980s about 20 percent of El Salvador’s population left the country to avoid the brutal counter-insurgency funded by the Reagan administration. The struggle between the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) and the Salvador government was something I was deeply involved with for most of the early 80s as a member of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.)

I’ll never forget reading an article by Leslie Gelb in the NY Times on November 29, 1981 titled “Superpower Tactics Change but Policies Remain In Conflict” that warned: “The two countries are on conflicting courses, directly and indirectly, all over the globe – in Central America, Africa, the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia. And they are locked in a titanic embrace over the greatest prize of all, Europe. Underlining the seriousness of the situation, both sides are proceeding with plans for more guns and less butter.” I cared more about Central America than the other zones of conflict for the simple reason that identified with the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and Nicaragua (who had taken power two years earlier.)

When I discovered that the SWP, from which I had resigned two years earlier, had abstained from any solidarity activity on behalf of the FMLN that was in the countryside fending off the American-backed military, I got in touch with Peter Camejo to ask why the party had paid so little attention to El Salvador except for articles paying lip-service. He urged me to join CISPES and help out building the North Star Network, something that got me on the road I am still on today.

In “Lenin in Context”, an article I wrote about 25 years ago, I tried to theorize what the FMLN represented:

On July 30, 1975 the Salvadoran army fired on a peaceful demonstration of students. Government troops killed dozens of people. The event had as much of a galvanizing effect on Salvadoran society as the Kent State murders had in the United States. A number of distinct student groups coalesced together at this time and formed the “People’s Revolutionary Bloc” (BPR). Most people called it “el Bloque”. This was a new type of organization that began to typify the Salvadoran popular movement. These organizations of students, workers, women or peasants participated in political discussions for the first time in their lives. They worked in these organizations as an alternative to vanguardist or electoralist formations. They participated in civil disobedience, mass demonstrations and rallies.

Eventually a coalition of left and centrist politicians came together in the “Democratic Revolutionary Front.” The most famous member of this formation was Guillermo Ungo, a member of the government in 1972 along with Jose Duarte. When the army launched a coup, Duarte remained in office while Ungo went into opposition.

Another important step forward occurred when the Communist Party of El Salvador decided to participate in the armed struggle. Their leader Shafiq Handal became an important and well-known guerrilla leader. The evolution of the CP in El Salvador indicated that years of sectarianism were dissolving at last. The movement included both Shafiq Handal and Guillermo Ungo.

All of these groups and individuals came to the realization that they had to unite to become effective. Once again, Guevara’s observation that, “Every revolution always incorporates elements of very different tendencies which, nevertheless, coincide in action and in the revolution’s most immediate objectives” was vindicated. They achieved such unity when they formed the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN). The FMLN was the umbrella group that coordinated the armed struggle, while the FDR under Ungo’s leadership conducted the legal struggle.

The FMLN was confronting one of the most class-divided societies in the world. When I joined CISPES, I read a number of books about Salvadoran history including Robert Armstrong and Janet Schenk’s “El Salvador: The Face of Revolution”. I also began to subscribe to NACLA, at which the authors served as editors. A 1981 article titled “Entering the Quagmire” should help you understand why a Vietnam era activist like me would consider El Salvador as a key anti-imperialist battleground:

Comparisons between El Salvador and Vietnam are heard frequently these days-in Congress, at protest rallies, in editorials and at State Department briefings. Some see dangerous parallels between the two wars, while others dismiss the Vietnam analogy as “an exercise in emotion, not analysis.”

After careful examination, we think the analogy to Vietnam is appropriate and even compelling. It has been injected into the policy debate on El Salvador not by “nervous Nellies,” as Senator Jesse Helms would have it, nor by loose leftist rhetoric. The Administration itself, by replaying the rationales and formulas of the 1960s, has evoked the memory of Vietnam and made the analogy stick.

The official rationale for more arms and advisers to El Salvador plugs new variables into an old equation. Substitute Soviet expansionism for “the red tide of communism in Asia.” Plug in Cuba as the surrogate where North Vietnam once fit. Add the FMLN guerrillas as the new puppets of a foreign master. Stretch the equation across the Central American isthmus to imperil Mexico, the super-domino that succeeds Japan as the ultimate target of this creeping menace. You now have the all-purpose formula for explaining to the American people why U.S. prestige is at stake in a country so intrinsically unimportant to U.S. interests and security.

There was another way in which analogies with South Vietnam made sense. The were both countries that called out for radical land reform. During the civil war, the military and the landlords were in a tight alliance. Writing for the NY Times Magazine in February 22, 1981, Raymond Bonner described the suffering of the rural poor:

A company president educated in the United States offered the same explanation in fewer words: ”It is a class war.” Until recently, the top 5 percent of the population received 38 percent of the income. Fewer than 2 percent owned more than half of the viable farmland, which they planted with coffee, sugar cane and cotton for export. Malnutrition is endemic in El Salvador, and the infant mortality rate is twice that of Cuba, four times that of the United States. Functional illiteracy among the peasants approaches 95 percent.

And some 60 percent of El Salvador’s population is rural, living in isolated valleys or mountain hamlets. Wooden-yoked oxen draw carts that ride on solid wooden wheels. Hundreds of thousands of peasants live in hovels made of packed mud; naked children with swollen bellies and open sores wander among the grunting pigs, garbage and flies. Their mothers and sisters trudge for an hour or more to the nearest well for water, carried in gourd-shaped plastic containers balanced on their heads.

Meanwhile, in San Salvador, at the foot of a forested volcano, brick walls hide $500,000 houses. Many of them are now abandoned, their owners off to what were once their second homes in Miami and Guatemala City.

It was this kind of writing that finally cost Raymond Bonner his job. Abe Rosenthal considered Bonner far too radical a reporter even though he was telling the truth. He reassigned him to the business section where his radicalism would be safely contained. Fed up with this kind of interference, he relocated to the New Yorker.

After the war ended in 1992 and the FMLN began functioning as a legal party, some of these inequalities were remedied. As was the case in Nicaragua, small plots were awarded to combatants on either side of the civil war.

Despite the land reform, El Salvador remained a poverty-stricken country and, as such, a breeding ground for gangs. Joining the first wave of immigrants to the USA, a new wave took shape after the government cracked down on young criminals under the Mano Dura (hard hand) program. Despite the accusations of Roger Noriega, the FMLN has been just as tough on the criminal young as previous regimes. In 2010, Mauricio Funes criminalized gang affiliations and deployed 2,800 soldiers to assist the cops after gang began robbing buses.

It turns out that MS-13 was formed in Los Angeles rather than El Salvador. Modeling themselves on the Crips and the Bloods, the gangsters soon became a powerful presence in the city. Police crackdowns on MS-13 led to members being deported to El Salvador where they began recruiting local youth to the gang.

Despite the lurid coverage they get in the press and warnings that they are as big a threat as al-Qaeda, there are no indications that the purpose of MS-13 is to commit crimes. It functions as a support network for marginalized youth as has always been the case for immigrant youth living in poverty and facing discrimination.

Although Trump is a habitual liar, he was telling the truth when he alluded to an attack in Maryland that left an unidentified youth beheaded by MS-13. Out in Suffolk County, where Trump targets as a place open to his nativism, there were attacks in late 2016 that left local residents in shock. On September 13th, the battered bodies of Nisa Mickens, 15, and her best friend, Kayla Cuevas, 16, were found near an elementary school here. A week later and just two miles away, the skeletal remains of Oscar Acosta, 19, and Miguel Garcia-Moran, 15, were found in the woods near a psychiatric hospital. You’ll note that three of the four dead youths are Latinos. This is just what you’d expect in a town that is over 54 percent Latino.

Trump invited Evelyn Rodriguez, who is the mother of Kayla Cuevas, to be a guest of the White House when he gave his State of the Union address that kept referring to MS-13. In an interview with the NY Times, she explained her views on the family tragedy within the context of the immigration crisis: “I want him to ensure that we’re going to get the proper funding for the resources for our kids. I’m not here for anybody’s political gain. I just want what’s right to be done. Everybody should put their political agenda aside and think about what’s going on in our country.” She probably spoke for 90 percent of the Latino population in the USA on this.

My guess is that a lot of the hatred directed toward immigrants is rooted in the Great White Fear of losing control of the country. Ruled by whites ever since the time of George Washington, demographic changes threaten the nativist core that has been rotting away in the country’s body for nearly 250 years. The Applied Population Lab of the University of Wisconsin in Madison published a study by Rogelio Sáenz and Kenneth M. Johnson titled “White Deaths Exceed Births in a Majority of U.S. States”  that had a prediction that probably keeps people like Donald Trump, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter up at night:

The growing natural decline among whites in U.S. states contributes to the larger racial/ethnic shifts occurring in the U.S. population. As white natural increase has diminished, the share of the U.S. population that is white has declined from 79.6 percent in 1980 to 61.3 percent in 2016. Census Bureau projections suggest that the white population will begin to decline in absolute numbers between 2030 and 2040, and that by 2050 whites will constitute less than half (47 percent) of the U.S. population.

  1. I only wish I could live so long. Maybe I should look into cryogenics.


  1. Demographic decline of the white population in the U.S. may indeed be the source of fear that leads Trump to use the word “breeders” when referring to immigrants from Latin America (as well as to his wish for more white Europeans to immigrate to the U.S.).

    The problem is, the U.S. is well on the trajectory to becoming a “shit hole” country; what with the lack of any meaningful healthcare system, a disappearing and increasingly de-funded public education system, a crumbling infrastructure, increasing class divide, increasing racism and increasingly OPEN racism and xenophobia, not to forget increasing environmental degradation … and the list continues to grow.

    Exactly which European country would have white populations wishing to emigrate to the U.S.? Of course, not counting those rich Russians who want to have their children born in the U.S. so as to have a U.S. passport (see for example: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/birth-tourism-brings-russian-baby-boom-miami-n836121); but those Russian mothers don’t want to emigrate to the U.S., they just want the American passport and the options it provides; they can live in luxury anywhere they wish.

    The main source of future immigration to the U.S. will be the desperation and misery that exists around the world in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and similar countries torn by civil war or beset by extreme poverty (which leads to gang formations) and from countries with extreme state violence against their populations like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, et al. And such desperate people would emigrate to ANY country with half decent standards of living (compared to their own countries).

    Comment by Reza — June 24, 2018 @ 11:32 pm

  2. The Kent State murders of May 4, 1970 did NOT “galvanize” the increasingly militant student movement on US campuses. It had the directly opposite result: nearly complete disappearance of the movement from the campuses when classes began in the Fall. I was at the University of Kansas, one of the many middle-of-the- road campuses where protest against the Vietnam War was spreading like wildfire, and, once classes were finished for the summer break (or vacation), it was expected by all activists that the campuses would explode even more widely in the Fall. It didn’t happen except at the already politicized places like Berkeley, Wisconsin, Michigan, Columbia, etc. where it occurred in much smaller numbers than we all hoped for. Kent State was decisive in this fallback and that’s why I still think it was a deliberate tactic at some level of government to put an END to the student movement. After that the protest took the form of living in communes trying to be more in touch with oneself, the earth and that lovely blonde you saw at the demo! Movements don’t die – they are killed. I saw this all happen with my own eyes.

    Comment by uh...clem — June 25, 2018 @ 12:45 am

  3. The mention of Vietnam and El Salvador recalls an interesting moment.
    Journalist, commentator, and cold war proponent Walter Lippmann, whose career reached back to othe times of the Wilson Administration, was a participant in a 1966 TV panel discussion of Vietnam policy.

    He opposed the U.S. policy of attempting to control S. Vietnam, saying that Vietnam was too far from U.S. basic interests, and that if the conflict was in C. America, that would be different, and the U.S. would need to be involved there. When I heard that, recognizing that the arc of empire is rise and decline, I thought “It’s a date,” thinking that, know it or not, he was predicting the future. And less than twenty years later, there it was.

    Comment by jmaizlish — June 25, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

  4. Sorry for my comment which was really far off-topic. Your post was, as usual, informative, although I was partially aware since I was a big supporter of Tecnica in Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution.

    Comment by uh...clem — June 25, 2018 @ 4:33 pm

  5. Excellent post. Thanks for this.

    Comment by Jon Flanders — June 26, 2018 @ 1:24 am

  6. Clem’s point is valid. Occupy and Arab Spring were basically killed.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 1, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

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