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Waking Up to the U.S. Role in Central America’s Crisis | Commentary

What does a military training school in Georgia have to do with our immigration crisis — in particular the flood of young people, mothers and infants who crossed our southwest border into the United States from Central America over the summer? And why does Congress continue to fund such an institution?

About 100 miles outside of Atlanta sits the School of the Americas (since 2001 called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), a Pentagon-run training ground for Latin American military and law enforcement personnel. Despite the name change, it is essentially the same School of the Americas that trained the uniformed Salvadoran military officials who killed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in their shared residence on a university campus in San Salvador 25 years ago this month. Although that event opened the eyes of many around the hemisphere to the dangers created by U.S. support for undemocratic military governments, this dark legacy continues.

Americans were shocked over the summer by the arrival of thousands of mothers with infants, and even unaccompanied children, traveling hundreds of dangerous miles from their home countries to the U.S. border. Many began asking why this was happening, completely unaware of the violence in Mexico and Central America led by corrupt military officers and law enforcement officials who graduated from the School of the Americas. Most of the immigrants came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala by way of Mexico. Each country has a long history of violence, exploitation by businesses that provide us with goods and contribute to poverty, corruption and military dominance. U.S. consumers have benefited from this status quo for far too long.

In 2009, the Honduran army led by Gen. Romeo Orlando Vasquez Velasquez, twice-trained at the School of the Americas, overthrew the elected government of Honduras in a coup that has had disastrous consequences. While the coup leaders created a militarized state that was condemned by most other nations, the U.S. government turned a blind eye and contributed to the devastation, continuing to provide training and aid to the Honduran dictatorship and the rigged elections that followed.

In the five years of repression and corruption within law enforcement and the judicial system since, this new militarized state for Honduras has become a killing field fueled by gangs and government corruption, with the highest murder rate outside of a war zone. In 2012, there were 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in Honduras, almost double the murder rate in Baghdad. These numbers are appalling.

The violence reaches every neighborhood except those walled communities of the rich and powerful. It threatens journalists seeking to expose the danger that today’s Honduran leadership presents. Radio Progreso employees regularly receive death threats, and one was murdered in April. However, their work continues; it’s too important to abandon.

Near Radio Progreso’s studio, the Sisters of Mercy run an orphanage and women’s center in a community struck with fear and criminality. These sisters and their associates share the anguish of the Hondurans organizing to reclaim their country — groups of campesinos, health care workers, lawyers and other professionals, working to restore justice and curtail the bloodshed.

While partisanship rages in Washington over what to do with the unaccompanied children and undocumented adults fleeing violence and reaching our southern border, we must acknowledge that this crisis is largely the product of state violence and broken government institutions that the U.S. has helped create and support. Nearly a third of the 47,000 children apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents from October 2013 to June 2014 have come from Honduras alone, a 1,272 percent increase since the 2009 coup. Discussions in Washington that ignore connections between poverty, violence and oppression ignore the root causes in which our own way of life plays a part.

On Nov. 22 and 23, we both attended a vigil at Fort Benning, near the town of Columbus, Ga. It’s an event that has occurred annually since 1995 around the anniversary of the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador in 1989. We were there to protest the harm the United States government has done to Central Americans and others by encouraging the militarization of fragile governments. For nearly two decades, we have called on Congress to discontinue funding for the School of the Americas, and when they consider the upcoming budget and Defense Authorization Act we hope they remember the people of Central America.

Only when support for official violence, corruption and oppression stops — and US policy instead vigorously defends human rights and the common good — will the people of Honduras and their neighbors have a chance to restore their countries in a way that makes it possible to live without migration.

Rev. Ismael Moreno, S.J., also known as Padre Melo, is a Jesuit priest and human rights activist in his native Honduras. He directs Radio Progreso and E.R.I.C, The Team for Reflection, Research and Communication. Sister Kathleen Erickson of Omaha is a Sisters of Mercy nun who served as an international observer to the 2013 elections in Honduras and has spent extensive time working there.

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