We speak with Salvadoran American journalist Roberto Lovato about how decades of U.S. military intervention in Central America have contributed to the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the border. Some 18,000 unaccompanied migrant children are now in U.S. custody, according to the latest figures, and more than 5,700 are in Customs and Border Protection facilities, which are not equipped to care for children. This comes as a record number of asylum seekers are arriving at the southern border, fleeing extreme poverty, violence and climate change in their home countries. “You have the ongoing epidemic of U.S. policy and the crisis that is not of migration as much as it’s the crisis of capitalism, backed by the kind of militarism and militarized policing that you see not just in the United States, but in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, on and on,” Lovato says. “The border is the ultimate machete of memory. It cuts up our memory so that we forget 30 years of genocide, mass murder, U.S.-sponsored militarism and policing, failed economic policies.”
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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
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In California, over 60 unaccompanied migrant children being held in the San Diego Convention Center have tested positive for COVID-19. The convention center is currently holding over 700 children, according to local media.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal is reporting Border Patrol facilities across the Texas-Mexico border are so overcrowded that border agents recently started holding hundreds of refugees under a bridge near McAllen, where they’re forced to sleep on the dirt. Border agents have also been dropping off hundreds of them at bus stations and even hotels.
This comes as a record number of asylum seekers are arriving at the southern border, fleeing extreme poverty, violence and climate change in their home countries. Almost 18,000 unaccompanied migrant children are now in U.S. custody. Some 5,800 are in Customs and Border Protection facilities, which are more like jails, not equipped to care for children.
Tomorrow, the White House will be hosting a bipartisan congressional briefing on the border, with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in attendance. During President Biden’s first news conference last week, he faced a number of questions about how his administration is handling the growing number of unaccompanied kids arriving at the southern border. He said the majority of asylum seekers are still, though, being turned away.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing, are being sent back — are being sent back.
AMY GOODMAN: And a warning to our audience: This includes a graphic depiction of police violence. This coming as protests have erupted in Mexico over the police killing of Victoria Salazar, a 36-year-old Salvadoran woman and mother of two who had been living in Mexico with a humanitarian visa. Four police officers from the coastal city of Tulúm have been charged with femicide, after an autopsy concluded that her neck had been broken while in custody. Videos published by Mexican media show one of the four officers who arrested Salazar kneeling on her back, pinning her against the pavement as she cries out. She lays on the pavement face down, handcuffed, unconscious, while three other cops looked on, before they eventually pick her up motionless, her body, and put her in the back of a police car before driving away. This is Salazar’s mother, Rosibel Arriaza, speaking from El Salvador.
ROSIBEL ARRIAZA: [translated] I feel indignation. I feel so powerless and angry. … Justice for my daughter.
AMY GOODMAN: Victoria Salazar had reportedly lived in Mexico since at least 2018, when she was granted refugee status.
Well, to look at how decades of U.S. intervention in Central America has contributed to this humanitarian crisis, we’re joined in San Antonio, Texas, by the award-winning Salvadoran American journalist Roberto Lovato, author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas, in which he recounts his own family’s migration from El Salvador to the United States.
We welcome you, Roberto, to Democracy Now!
ROBERTO LOVATO: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what we are seeing on the border — that’s what you’re investigating down on the border between Texas and Mexico — the horrendous story of Victoria Salazar, and what this is emblematic of.
ROBERTO LOVATO: What Victoria — first of all, I’m happy to be with you again, Amy. It’s been so many decades I’ve been on your show talking about some form of crisis in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and in the Central American region. We’ve been here before. It’s just there’s different actors, different conditions — for example, like climate change.
And so, when you’re looking at the murder of Victoria Salazar at the hands of Mexican police, who asphyxiated her, not unlike the way George Floyd was asphyxiated, when you hear the mother say ”indignación,” the indignity of the killing of this mother of two, you have a symbol, along with the cages that — you know, just in Donna, Texas, here in Texas, you have Biden making a major change in migration policy, which is going from iron cages to plexiglass cages, that were discovered. And so, between the plexiglass cages, which are expecting you to just not see them as cages, and the murder of Victoria Salazar, you have the ongoing epidemic of U.S. policy and the crisis, that is not of migration as much as it’s the crisis of capitalism, backed by the kind of militarism and militarized policing that you see not just in the United States, but in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, on and on.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Roberto, I wanted to ask you — with this latest incident of the death of Victoria Salazar, there was — it must be said, to the credit of Mexico, that the officers were immediately arrested, obviously because the video went viral, unlike what happened with George Floyd, that it took weeks and weeks before there were even indictments of the officers. And President López Obrador did immediately condemn as brutality what he saw of this video. But can you talk about this contradiction of a leftist leader in Mexico, supposedly, his government and his police participating in this constant crackdown on migrants coming from Central America, basically at the behest of either the Trump administration or now the Biden administration?
ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, I would credit López Obrador very little for his announcements, because there’s been plenty of other Central Americans murdered, many other mothers, children murdered, by Mexican police and military forces, and persecuted and hunted down like dogs. So, as a former participant in the war in El Salvador, as a leftist, I’m not sure I would even apply that to López Obrador at this point.
That said, you also have to look at the geopolitics behind Victoria Salazar’s death that are happening right now. Just yesterday, in The Washington Post, you can read about a negotiation that the Biden administration and the López Obrador administration had, which was Biden giving the Mexican government something like 1.5 million doses of coronavirus vaccine in exchange, basically, for harder enforcement than what we’re already seeing, as if the murder of Victoria Salazar doesn’t tell us that things are going wrong in Mexico, as well. So, there’s a big geopolitical game being played here.
And the way the debate is being shaped, we’re kind of put the position, as an audience, to see just, you know: Are we going to be like Trump or not like Trump? Are we good Democrat, bad Republican? When, in fact, it’s a deeper history of U.S. policy that’s founded on a foundation of cruelty, devalued life and amnesia. As I say in my book Unforgetting, the border is the ultimate machete of memory. It cuts up our memory so that we forget 30 years of genocide, mass murder, U.S.-sponsored militarism and policing, failed economic policies, neoliberal policies backed by the IMF, the World Bank. I mean, we’ve been here before, Juan and Amy. I mean, these are all familiar terms. The new animal and the new beast in the room is climate change. That is intensifying things. And we’re not even talking about people as climate refugees, which is what we should be doing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of this issue of climate refugees, could you remind folks, who tend to forget even what happened five or 10 years ago or this past summer, the impact of climate change on Central America?
ROBERTO LOVATO: I mean, you’re talking, when you — climate and other scientists talk about Central America as a “Dry Corridor.” There’s the corridor from Mexico all the way to Panama, being the driest, rapidly drying region in the Americas, a region that’s been characterized by massive flooding, drying up of lakes, so that the people that are migrating, some are fishermen or fisherwomen who can no longer fish, or crop cycles that are destroyed by drought, so you have people that lived off the land now having to leave their land to go to the cities in their countries, not finding work and then coming north.
Or, you know, look at the fact that something like 54 to 67% of the populations in these countries, depending on the country, are living in the Dry Corridor. You know, you have in Guatemala half of the whole country is in the Dry Corridor. El Salvador surface water, 90% of it is undrinkable, of the surface water. And Honduras just survived Hurricanes Eta and Iota. So, among the people you see on your television screens, in these rather absurd news reports that are without context, are people that are migrant refugees and refugees of failed U.S. economic policies of decades, and the militarism and militarized policing that backs it up, as we saw in the case of Victoria Salazar.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is your take so far on the appointments of the Biden administration for people to handle Central America or Latin America policy?
ROBERTO LOVATO: For me, they’re actually predictable. OK? I mean, you can look on my Twitter feed, @robvato, and you’ll see that I predicted in January that the Biden administration would introduce plexiglass cages. Their logic really becomes predictable after the 30 years I’ve been at this and that I talk about in Unforgetting.
And, you know, so, when — I was expecting precisely that they would have this kind of intersectional empire approach, where now, hey, let’s celebrate that a Cuban American is heading up the most militarized bureaucracy of the federal government, that surveils, persecutes, hunts down and kills migrants and others, or celebrate that Kamala Harris is now going to go into Central America to push policies, the same failed policies that we saw with the Bush administration’s Plan Puebla to Panama — you know, neoliberal economics, privatization, International Monetary Fund and other policies backed up by militarism, that’s now disguised as “policing” and “security.”
But it’s still the same formula, when what’s really needed is, I mean, some form of reparations, actually. These countries need to be — first of all, they need an apology, because the U.S. needs to acknowledge the failure of its model. Central America is nothing if not a mirror to the decline of the United States and the decadence of its foreign and domestic policy structures.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Roberto, you have Victoria Salazar’s killing coming two months after 19 people, mostly migrants from Guatemala, who were shot to death, their remains burnt inside a truck in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. At least a dozen Mexican police were arrested for possible involvement in that massacre. So, if you can talk about — and it’s something you do so beautifully in your memoir —
ROBERTO LOVATO: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: — the policies? Because now the questions are being asked of all the officials. Tomorrow, the Biden administration is going to brief members of Congress. They are trying to say, in Spanish, in English, repeatedly, the border is closed. But does that mean the U.S. policy toward Central America is closed, is changing, is ending? I mean, when you look at what you call those decades of the U.S.-backed military repression in places like Guatemala, where over 150,000 mainly Indigenous people were killed; in El Salvador, your country, tens of thousands of Salvadorans killed, U.S.-backed military death squads and government; and in Honduras, the staging ground for the U.S. for the war against the Contras in Nicaragua. How does the U.S. government change this, turn this around?
ROBERTO LOVATO: How does it turn it around is a Nobel Prize-winning question, Amy. I’m not even going to begin to try to answer this enormously complex problem. I think you do have to, firstly, acknowledge the failure of immigration policy that’s increasingly informed by the Pentagon, believe it or not, as my friend Todd Miller and others have written about, in the way that the border is being militarized, the way immigration policy is being militarized. I mean, you know, if you look at the Quadrennial Defense Reviews of the Pentagon, the quarterly reviews that they give, they’ve been talking about migration and climate change as national security threats since the ’90s.
And so, when I see the Biden administration introducing a gentleman named Ricardo Zúñiga, who — you know, on the plus side, he was involved in normalizing relations with Cuba, but on, I would say, the minus, from the perspective of the continent, he was involved in the destabilization of all these governments in Latin America as a member of the National Security Council under Obama.
And so, you know, it’s plexiglass cages. It’s, “Hey, we have people of color now heading up imperial policy.” Hey, you know, I’ve been going across 30 years of mass gravesites, as you know, Amy, and watching as forensics experts reconstitute the bones of memory. And I think, really, we need a recognition of the absolute and unadulterated failure of U.S. policy, which is actually not even a failure. It’s designed to do this. And so, the U.S. needs to just kind of — to start solving this, needs to stop interventionist policies and economics that bring about privatization of water. Like, something like —
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
ROBERTO LOVATO: — something like 85% of the crises in Central America are based in water.
AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Lovato, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we will continue this discussion, award-winning Salvadoran American journalist. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.