Violence in Latin America

Posted on January 19, 2019


The latest immigrant crisis at the border between the U.S. and Mexico to keep us occupied over the past few months raised a serious question, not to say that the immigrant crisis is not serious enough.

And the question begs some good answers in the U. S. media and among those who run this country, both the politicians of all stripes and ranks from the President on down to those declaring themselves sanctuary cities and even states, and those who drive the economy and have such a large stake in cheap labor in the marketplace.

An article recently in the WSJ was pretty good, pointing to the gangs and corruption as the principle sources of violence in particular in three countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. It was a good piece of journalism, but doesn’t ask the key question: why so much gang warfare, drug trafficking, corruption, and one might add anti-feminism, another aspect of life in some of these countries.

I don’t think people ask themselves these questions for two different reasons: one, they don’t know the answers; and, two, those who suspect the right answers know the problems and/or issues are endemic, part of the culture of Central America, and even across a significant portion of Latin America. It’s much like asking: “why so much violence in America” today? Or, how about: “who so little civility and forbearance and tolerance in political discourse today?”

It’s not good enough to list, let’s say, opiods, gangs, guns, greed, feminism, social media, and even, well, “what can you expect? They’re Republicans, or Democrats.” The answers are deeper but we want quick answers, fixes available on our apps and tablets.

With respect to Latin America, it’s far too large, complex and different to render simple answers. In Brazil alone, they manufacture jets (you’ve probably flown on one of their Embraer jets in an American regional airline) for the world market and still preserve some simple, almost Stone-aged people in the Amazon, only lightly touched by the modern world. Santiago, Chile, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Mexico City are all huge, cosmopolitan metropolises. Mexico City is the largest city in the world. Forget China or India.

On the other hand, I’ve traveled in parts of Peru, Ecuador, Honduras and Bolivia for example where Spanish is the second language to many indigenous people who speak dialects like Quiche or Quechua and live in different cultures and march to different rhythms.

If we had a few semesters, and read a lot of books, and traveled and interviewed a lot of Salvadorans, or Chileans, or Ecuadorians for example, the complexity would become apparent. A cosmopolitan porteña of Buenos Aires, dressed in the latest fashions from Paris or New York and the absentee owner of an immense hacienda in the pampas, is as different from an indigenous subsistence farmer in Oaxaca, Mexico as a Connecticut Yankee stock broker living in the lovely upscale neighborhood of Cos Cob is from a Black Belt farmer in Alabama.

So, after a long preamble, why so much violence in Central America? Why the almost desperate longing to escape their world and go to America, where work will start to lift them out of poverty and despair and give them a new start, what virtually all immigrants want?

For centuries, since Spanish and Portuguese explorers, conquistadors and settlers arrived in the New World in the sixteenth century, a divided society evolved, divided between those who owned and governed the land–the terratenientes, latifundistas (different names in different regions), etc,– and the rest of the people such as mestizos, indios, negros, and dozens of other racial and ethnic categories to distinguish those of Spanish descent who ruled, divided into peninsulares (those born in Spain) and criollos, or creoles (those of Spanish descent born in the Americas), and those who were ruled.

After the Spanish American Wars of Independence in the early nineteenth century, the new countries, from Mexico to Chile, emerged free of Spanish dominion but not of the old cultural patterns inherited from the three centuries of Spanish rule. While republican constitutions were enacted and there was a genuine attempt to establish some form of equality and parity among all social classes, the old divisions of rich and poor survived well into the 20th century and some say still do today.

An old Mexican proverb summed it up. “New rider, same old horse.”

The challenge to live freely in democracies has occupied Latin America since the Wars of Independence. Wealth has been skewered in its distribution, and revolutions, espousing socialism and Marxism, have come to power in countries like Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela for example to make things right. What’s “right”spans a huge spectrum of politics and society.

The tensions and imbalances and injustices created in this long struggle are manifested in many ways, such as the gang warfare, corruption and violence today leading to powerful desire to migrate to the U. S.

If you want specifics, try A New History of Modern Latin America published last year by the University of California Press. I can’t promise you a page turner, but it will inform you more deeply, with historical analysis, of these neighbors of ours to the South. They are important and with over 50 million Spanish speakers in the U. S., we are now the second largest Spanish-speaking population in the world after Mexico.

We owe it to ourselves, and to Latin Americans, to dig into the historical and contemporary dynamics of what makes us all tick as a people united by bonds of geography, politics, religion, and the shared ideals of liberty and democracy in the Western Hemisphere.

Published as “Why all the violence south of the Border” in The Tuscaloosa News, Dec. 30 2018