President Donald Trump couldn’t stop lying during his first State of the Union address last night. The tireless truth seekers at the nonpartisan fact-checking site PolitiFact, as well as at national and local media outlets like NPR, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, published lengthy lists of Trump’s false or questionable statements from the speech. But they all missed one great big “pants-on-fire” lie — that the brutal street gang MS-13 “broke into” the United States from El Salvador.
In what was the most xenophobic SOTU in living memory, President Trump stoked the flames of nativist hatred and bigotry by conflating immigrants with crime, terrorism and economic privation:
“For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”
Trump then introduced invited SOTU guests whose children were killed by members of MS-13, claiming that “many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.” And then he slipped in this largely unnoticed whopper:
“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.”
It’s not that MS-13 members haven’t illegally entered the United States and committed crimes. No one doubts that. But those who would go on to form the gang did not have to “break in” anywhere because they were already here, many of them on the mean streets of central Los Angeles, as a direct result of US policies and actions.
From the earliest days of its existence, the United States has sought and fought to gain and maintain strategic and economic control over the nations of the Western Hemisphere. As US power and influence expanded following victory in the Spanish-American war, American corporations, backed by American battleships, boots and bayonets, conspired with regimes throughout Central America in running the original “banana republics.” These typically featured a brutal but US-servile dictator backed by a tiny upper class who ruthlessly exploited their nation’s human and economic resources past the breaking point for their own — and Wall Street’s — enrichment. Revolt was inevitable, and inevitably the United States always sided with the oppressor over the oppressed.
During the Cold War, Cuba’s successful revolution and socialism’s promise of more equitable societies shined as a beacon of hope for millions of oppressed Central Americans. Successive US administrations worked mightily to snuff that light, with the world’s self-professed champion of freedom and democracy actively working against every people’s liberation movement in the region and even overthrowing democratically elected leaders who pursued or even promised progressive reforms. Anti-communist hysteria and fear of losing control over a vital sphere of influence and exploitation guaranteed that Washington would back any right-wing regime, no matter how brutal, so long as it proved sufficiently subservient and anti-red.
In the 1980s, the Ronald Reagan administration dramatically increased US support for military dictatorships in Panama (the notorious narcotrafficker Manuel Noriega), Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where more than 200,000 mostly Mayan people were slaughtered in a genocide committed on the orders of a dictator Reagan called “a man of great personal integrity.” In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration illegally funded, armed and trained terrorist Contra rebels, who it called “freedom fighters,” in a bid to defeat the leftist Sandinista regime, which was greatly improving the lives of its country’s poorest people.
It is true that the first MS-13 members did come to the United States from El Salvador, although when they fled their homeland for el norte the last thing they envisioned was forming what would become a vicious street gang. Conditions were dire in El Salvador in the early 1980s. The US was funding, arming and training — sometimes using US-authored torture and assassination manuals — military units that killed tens of thousands of civilians, often in horrific massacres of entire villages. Academics, students, intellectuals, clergy (including the nation’s archbishop and soon-to-be saint Óscar Romero), clerics (including four American nuns and church volunteers), peasants, indigenous people, labor unionists and leftists both real and suspected were kidnapped, tortured and disappeared. More than 75,000 Salvadorans perished during the course of the 12-year civil war, which also thoroughly crippled the nation’s already moribund economy.
Naturally, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled such intolerable conditions. Many of them ended up in the United States, where the Salvadoran-born population quadrupled from 94,000 in 1980 to 465,000 by 1990. Many Salvadorans settled in crowded central Los Angeles, where alienated Salvadoran teens, who were often attacked and harassed by the Chicano and black youth who surrounded and greatly outnumbered them, banded together for protection and camaraderie. Originally called the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners, MS-13 were at first mainly about hanging out, listening to music and smoking weed. But as Salvadoran immigration surged throughout the 1980s and newcomers found themselves in need of protection from black and Chicano gangs, it was inevitable that the long-haired, heavy metal-loving kids would get drawn into LA’s pervasive gang culture. MS-13 gradually evolved into a murderous gang involved in a litany of criminal activity across the United States and around the world.
Gang violence raged throughout much of Los Angeles in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched its Violent Gang Task Force in 1992, working with local police departments to arrest and deport immigrant gang members. Four years later, the Bill Clinton administration signed a law making it much easier for authorities to deport immigrants who committed even relatively minor offenses. And deport they did, sending tens of thousands of street- and prison-hardened gang members back to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where they found fertile ground for continuing and expanding their criminal operations in war-ravaged, economically impoverished and corruptly-managed homelands. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are now three of the most dangerous countries in the world that are not at war, a situation that has once again spurred hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek safety in el norte.
Deportations soared during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, with the latter president earning the dubious moniker “deporter-in-chief” despite a pledge to target “felons, not families.” Trump, who peddled racist, xenphobic and baseless “birther” conspiracy even before launching his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists,” is now trying to out-deport his predecessor. He recently announced the termination of the Temporary Protected Status that has allowed some 200,000 Salvadorans to enjoy provisional US residency since 2001, likely forcing them out of the country by next year.
To Trump, El Salvador is one of those “shithole countries” whose desperate migrants are personae non gratae in the United States, despite this country’s prominent role in their predicament. The president is either unable or unwilling to understand how US policies and actions are a direct cause of both the initial Central American refugee wave and the current wave of violence and economic privation in countries like El Salvador that pushes so many desperate men, women and children to risk everything, including their very lives, in order to reach the relative safety of the United States.