By Roberto Lovato, Pacific News Service

Due to a long history of U.S.-led economic policies being linked with repressive security measures in Latin America, many Central Americans view the passage of a new free trade agreement with dread. Now young gang members, the writer says, are pegged as the new terrorists.


NEW YORK-July 29, 2005- For people like Silvia Beltran who live the tragedy that is Central American history, the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) inspires deepening dread.

Beltran, the head of Homies Unidos, a gang violence and prevention program with offices in Los Angeles and Central America, heard about the July 28 House vote while on a delegation to San Salvador the same day. As if she were a Central American Cassandra portending another catastrophe for the still-devastated region, the Salvadoran war survivor cried, “Oh my God!”

The bill is hailed by President Bush and other CAFTA supporters as critical for U.S. “national security.” But Beltran, Homies Unidos and others of us who have spent time in the region know all too well how the double helix of economic policy and national security in Central America gives life to the endemic violence, poverty and war there — and to spillover violence, poverty and migration here.

Cross-border Central American gangs like Mara Salvatrucha and others were born on the fertile soil of post-war devastation, natural disaster and failed U.S. economic and national security policies. The lack of jobs, educational and other opportunities left too many youth with too few alternatives to “la vida loca.”

The best explanations of the relationship between economic hardship, violence and gang life come from gang members themselves. In the words of Mara Salvatrucha leader Ernesto Miranda, better known as “Smoky,” “To be a marero (gang member) is to come from a family that is disintegrated; it is to be a victim of violence since childhood; it is to have to abandon school in order to work and to live without studying.”

Homies Unidos started in 1996 with a mission to help youth overcome the chronic poverty, trauma and isolation left by the wars in the region. Beltran points out how failed U.S. economic policies in the Central American isthmus like the Alliance for Progress, the Caribbean Basin Initiative and others have always been accompanied by a U.S. security policy that defined enemies and exterminated them with national militaries and paramilitary death squads. From the 1980s through the early 1990s, the communist threat provided justification for the more than $6 billion dollars in military aid to El Salvador and similar amounts to Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Money for education, employment training, recreation health and other basic needs represented only a tiny fraction of the aid.

More than 40 years of bad economic policy, impoverished millions and hundreds of thousands of (mostly civilian) dead later, the region is no closer to the promised prosperity of presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

Now the wartime promises of George W. Bush and CAFTA make many of us shiver.

Bush sold CAFTA by linking it to the need to protect the United States in dangerous times. Calling the tariff-reducing trade pact “a strong boost for young democracies in our own hemisphere, whose success is important for America’s national security and for reducing illegal immigration,” Bush gave Beltran and Homies Unidos an especially deep chill because of the urgent new national security threat defined by Bush administration officials and their homologues in Mexico and Central America: gangs, especially Salvadoran gangs.

Beltran warns of the danger inherent in the politically fashionable policy of making gangs the new “new thing” in post-Cold war enemy-making. El Salvador’s use of the militaristic “Mano Dura” (“Hard Hand”) anti-gang policy has resulted in increased violence and a resurgence of the notorious death squads, which pursue suspected gang members in the same way they targeted nuns, students and other alleged leftists during the years of the Caribbean Basin Initiative and Cold War national security.

“Targeting gangs as terrorists is just an excuse to continue militarizing society,” says Beltran, who also believes that budget-slashing austerity measures, free trade pacts and other “neo-liberal economic policies” only further destroy the economic and familial fabric. She also believes that such policies create conditions that lead to more gang-related and other forms of violence, terrorism, and state-sponsored terrorism that the region endured for decades.

As if preparing populations for new wars, elite institutions in the greater American region seem bent on a Salvadorization of economic and national security policy. Media throughout the hemisphere report as news unfounded allegations, such as those made by Honduras’ foreign minister, linking Mara Salvatrucha to Al Qaeda; prosecutors and politicians in the region and in the United States have begun crafting laws using language equating gang involvement with terrorism; and recent regional summits on security regularly include discussions on gangs as national security threats.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently announced the construction of a new International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in El Salvador, to be completed around the same time as CAFTA’s implementation. Linking economic policies to security measures has dangerous precedents in Central America. The deadly combination of destructive economic policies like those of the ’70s and ’80s and security training like that provided by the notorious U.S.-based School of the Americas (SOA) seem to be reborn in wartime, in much the same way that convicted (but pardoned) criminal Elliot Abrams, suspected war criminal John Negroponte and other Central American policymakers are reborn through redeployment in the Iraq war.

For most people in the United States, news of the House vote on CAFTA elicits little more than a sigh, a hiss or a brief free-trade victory clap. But for many of us, the news stirs up old traumas inspired by the trade and national security policies pushed by U.S. presidents for decades. The main target of these policies appears to be the still relatively small gang populations of the region. But those affected will be the poor majorities in countries still devastated by previous trade and national security initiatives. Maybe this time there will be more of us who, like Silvia Beltran, cry “Oh my God!” upon hearing about CAFTA.


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PNS contributor Roberto Lovato ( is a New York-based writer.

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