Monday, August 05, 2019

Northern Triangulation

Bernie Sanders observed at a recent Democratic debate that “We’ve got to ask ourselves...why are people walking 2,000 miles to a strange country where they don’t know the language?” Given that many of the indigenous people in parts of Guatemala struggle a bit with Spanish, they may not actually have to travel all that far before they start to experience communications difficulties. Yet the question is valid. Why indeed? I can imagine the sort of answer that Bernie has formulated in his own head. And the kind that he will expect his voters to come up with. These will, I suspect, be overly-informed by first world biases that beset both Left and Right in the US. Just hearing the question asked this way sets off my own shithole country dog whistle alarm. Google ‘Northern Triangle’ and see what you get. When I did it this morning the top item was titled ‘Central America’s violent Northern Triangle’. The term’s Wikipedia entry does at least explain that it is was originally formulated to frame discussion of economic interactions between these three nations, before finally moving on to the rate of intentional homicides in these parts. Intriguingly, this is also a way of looking at the northern part of the isthmus without considering Belize. Aside from the economic ties there are other ways in which this omission is instructive. Belize is a lot smaller, yet relatively more violent these days than the other three. Despite this, it is almost never mentioned in the context of factors driving Central American migration to the US. Now Google the top 100 news items on Guatemala and then do the same for Belize, before scoring them as positive, negative and neutral. I am sure you will surely start to perceive the signs of media bias even within this rather limited sample. President Trump did a safe third party deal with Guatemala supposedly in order to reduce the number of asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras yet Guatemala itself, (rather slightly) the least violent of the three countries, regularly sends more migrants north than its neighbours. Many of the Guatemalan migrants being detained right now at the Mexico-US border appear to hail from rural areas with a pronounced indigenous majority. The assumption in the external media is that these less-developed areas of the country must by definition be the ones with the greatest prevalence of the traditional litany of problems, the highest concentration of ‘appalling conditions’, as AOC puts it. They must also be the ones where discrimination is felt most severely. These assumptions are rarely if ever examined properly. 
In Guatemala the intentional homicide problem has tended to be highly localised — concentrated in specific micro-geographies — which have been used in effect to tar the entire the country with the same brush. (As if one could only ever talk about Italy in terms of the conditions prevalent just south of Naples.) Many of Guatemala’s rural departments with significant indigenous majorities have murder rates more comparable with Guildford, Surrey than New Orleans, Louisiana. Gang-related crime is also largely absent there. So to provide an answer to Bernie’s question that takes more than a moment’s reflection, one may have to look at both environmental and demographic factors more closely. One is also going to have to set aside first world conditioning which would otherwise project certain prejudices back onto this problem. For many of the underlying causes may not quite suit the standard progressive discourse.

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