In the five hundred years of Central American history since the arrival of the Spanish and their subsequent conquest of the Americas, simply existing in the region has not advantageous for the majority of people. Unfortunately, this fact has remained true into the modern day and since the late 1970s, people living in Central America have faced significant suffering following several wars. The worst of their suffering can be attributed to widespread poverty, extreme violence from the government as well as the gangs, and political corruption.
In the United States, it is estimated that thirty-seven million Americans fall below the federal poverty line or 11.4% of the population. The numbers in Central America are significantly more distressing. In Nicaragua and El Salvador, more than half of the population falls below the poverty line (Seg. 2); an estimated 83% of rural Guatemalans live below the poverty line (Seg. 5). After hearing this, it is easy for one to tacitly accept the notion that thirty-seven million Americans are living in the same kind of poverty that so many Central Americans experience throughout their lives, but to really understand, one must understand what is considered the federal poverty line in the United States. A single American is considered at the federal poverty line if they make $12,760 annually. For 45% of Nicaraguans who are surviving on less than a dollar per day, this is more than thirty-five times more money than they will see in a per year (Seg. 2). Since a single Nicaraguan is considered at the poverty line if they make around twelve hundred dollars annually, a hypothetical country would have to define their poverty line in excess of $136,000 annually to mimic this income gap (at the poverty line) with the United States. Only exacerbating the problem are the governments. During the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, rates of illiteracy and infant mortality were decreased by more than a third and a half respectively (Seg. 2); today, the government has done little more than strip Nicaraguans of their political representation. In Guatemala, the economic system propagated by government entities relegated Mayans to a life of destitute peasantry on the Guatemalan highlands. They were faced with an unthinkable choice: continue their penurious lives as expendable labour for the plantations or leave and start anew. Significantly more than a hop, skip, and a jump later, the village of Santa Maria Tzeja was created. The families there have spent years piecing together what little they have to support their new community. The children in the village’s middle school have dreams of professional careers like teacher, doctor, and lawyer, but in a country where more than 60% of students do not complete schooling past the first grade, it will be extremely difficult. “I hope to get a scholarship to study past middle school,” says a young girl in the village. The narrator later expands, saying, “Education is their ticket out of poverty.” (Seg. 5) For these communities, the children are the only hope that the older generation, which sacrificed its best years to build new homes, has of ever escaping poverty and violence. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have economies that are propped up entirely by foreign money. This money sometimes comes in the form of foreign aid packages sent by international governments, but more often it is the money sent back by family members who have risked their lives to emigrate from Guatemala that staves off complete economic collapse. For those living in Santa Maria Tzeja and every remote village in Central America, nothing would be better than their children receiving the educations that they could never have dreamt of. With degrees and careers, they could potentially bring business back to the underdeveloped region. Many of the Central American nations have, with their necks firmly under the American boot, rushed into the privatization of their economies. Privatization in developed countries is a fantastic step forward and has the potential to add jobs and infrastructure to a growing nation, however the region in question is severely undeveloped. El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and even parts of Mexico are simply too weak to support the kind of robust, private economies that exist in more developed countries like the United States and Canada. Premature privatization creates a vacuum because the government is eager to offload its business interests for quick cash. Unfortunately, this means that individuals like Alejandro Morales, a fifteen-year employee of the state owned and operated electrical company, ultimately lose their jobs. New companies, often foreign entities looking to enter developing economies at the ground level, make the same mistake that the United States makes every decade or so: they enter a new country and culture that they do not understand and try to administer it as if it is the same as back home. It is never the same as “back home”. As almost a foreshadowing of the pathetic Western failure to “democratize” the Middle East, private companies in Central America found themselves unable to effectively communicate and serve the communities they now found themselves in. This led to further contraction of the economy, compounding the already extreme poverty facing those barely scraping by. Many flee to “El Norte” rather than starve.
There is no guarantee of safety nor success. The journey across the southern border of Mexico is said to be anywhere from ten to one hundred times worse than the crossing of the southern border of the United States (Seg. 4). For simplicity, there four basic outcomes: (1) the luckiest make it north to Mexico or better, the “land of the free” and “home of the brave”, (2) the unlucky die, either from exposure, malnutrition, or violence, and (3) the unluckiest who are injured and/or detained to eventually be deported back to their home countries. “The Luckiest” arrive in the United States to discover that their battle is only starting. Nativism, racism, colorism, and any other “-isms” pertaining to foreign nationality are known problems of the larger, white populace that dominates the United States’ demographic, however, what many people do not know is that the very same problems exist within colored communities throughout the United States and when economic refugees arrive from the south, they often find themselves disconnected from society. “I searched for another family, and I found it here with my homeboys, because we are a family, we help each other out. It’s a brotherhood, we love each other,” says Alfredo ‘Smokey’ Serrano, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha (Seg. 9). The negative connotation of the word “gang” is not without reason; gangs are ruthlessly violent, engaging in crimes as far as murdering the son of former Honduran president Ricardo Maduro (Seg. 9). This prompted Maduro to take a hardline stance against the gangs and gang members, something that other Central American countries have done with zeal. Police and vigilante groups, some of which are believed to be direct offshoots of the right-wing death squads that terrorized various nations during an armful of civil wars, will grab anyone they believe have gang affiliations. Most often, victims are young men with tattoos. Sometimes these men are innocent, locked away without trial, never having seen a lawyer or a judge. The same circumstances that drove these people to join the gangs in the United States now replicate themselves in Central America leading to the importation of gangs from the north, often Los Angeles (Seg. 9). The importation of more violence only continues to destabilize already ravaged communities.
The authorities and elected officials responsible for the protection of the nation shirk their duties without a second thought. Political corruption is another major issue that the people of Central America have had to confront since the wars ended. It has led to untold suffering. During the war against guerilla fighters in Guatemala, the army a genocide of the indigenous Mayan population that makes up nearly half of the Guatemalan populace. One boy from Santa Maria Tzeja recounts Guatemalan soldiers dismembering his younger sister in front of him and murdering his family while they burned much of his village (Seg. 1). In El Salvador, a fifteen-year-old boy recounts how he “always getting stopped and beat up by the police,” because of his tattoos. (Seg. 9) Unfortunately, overt and unprovoked violence are not the only pitfalls of Central American “law enforcement”. The same gangs that they hunt with a religious fervor pay them handsomely in bribes to allow the gangs to continue their illegal activities which include but are not limited to drug trafficking, extortion, fraud, and murder. “La ley está corrupta,” says a man in one of the Guatemalan border towns. (Seg. 4, 9) The police and governments are gangs in and of themselves that will never be brought to justice because they are expected distributors of justice.
It is not possible to fully encapsulate the pain that has been faced by Central Americans for the last several decades in this or any other medium. When faced with the question “What challenges have Central Americans had to confront after the wars,” this paper can only barely begin to illustrate the resilience that these people have had in the face of Hell.