Issue #3

Well Founded Fears

The New York Times and the War on Central America

By Joe Parziale

Children look at a memorial for the victims of atrocities carried out by the Guatemalan Army in and around the village of Rio Negro. Photo courtesy of Renata Avila, Flickr.

“When there’s terror in a place like Guatemala, people flee. They come to the U.S. That’s where a lot of the undocumented immigrants originated from. And then Americans complain. Well, you know, if you go and burn down your neighbor’s house, don’t complain when, as they run from the flames, they come onto your lawn.”
-Allan Nairn1

As historic numbers of unaccompanied minors from the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – surrendered to the United States Border Patrol in mid-2014, the New York Times ran a typical editorial lauding the Obama administration for “recognizing that this is not a border-security crisis but a humanitarian one, fueled by growing violence and instability in the countries feeding the influx.” To Times editors, that involved not only “properly assess[ing] the chances of seeking refugee status or asylum,” but “working with the governments abroad to solve the root causes of violence and instability.”2 Some two years later, after the administration predictably failed to achieve either end, the Times again called on the NTCA’s “rich and stable neighbor” up north to rein in its draconian deportation apparatus and to help “stabilize the region.”3

The entreaties to “stabilize the region” have subsided since the 2016 election in favor of those rightly denouncing the dramatic escalation of abuses by immigration agents and officials, but the suggestion nonetheless pervades the Times’ immigration editorials from the past decade. Ostensibly this would mean “freeing up resources to fight human traffickers, drug smugglers, violent gangs and other serious criminals,”4 although to imagine what that would look like, one would have to ignore the extensive, ongoing security assistance the United States provides all three NTCA countries, apparently much to the detriment of people who need relief from unremitting violence.5 Even more curiously, one rarely reads in the New York Times’ news columns or editorials about the United States’ singular role in making the Northern Triangle the most violent place on earth, notably in its sponsorship of highly lethal counterinsurgency efforts during the 1980s.6 Like the violence itself, the omission has precedent – the Times consistently obscured or downplayed U.S. participation in the mass slaughter in Guatemala and El Salvador (with Honduras serving as a staging area and its security forces as mercenaries) throughout that decade, and largely evaded our responsibility for the mass exodus the violence was producing. It is no wonder that, even at the height of the violence, only a quarter of Americans knew which side the U.S. supported in the Salvadoran civil war.7 The consequences should be obvious; to extend journalist Allan Nairn’s above metaphor, perhaps Americans would feel more responsibility for evacuees running north if they knew their government’s penchant for arson.

A Note on Scope This essay exclusively analyzes New York Times coverage, primarily because it was, and arguably remains, the most important newspaper in the United States. It has proved widely influential in informing both elite and middle-class opinion, and it is generally considered to be liberal and adversarial relative to other large news organizations. Analysis of its reportage and commentary is therefore likely to be more revealing than, say, the Wall Street Journal editorial page – the house organ of the Reagan administration – where there would be few surprises regarding the positions taken. Additionally, I am concerned primarily with coverage of events from 1980-1989 since: 1) violence in the Northern Triangle countries peaked during this period, after which classic Cold War concerns no longer dominated U.S. strategic thinking; and 2) the decade started with a major reform of U.S. refugee policy. Prior to passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, the central, explicit determinant of eligibility for acceptance into the United States as a refugee was whether or not one was fleeing Communist persecution. The law loosened that definition to accord with broader human rights principles, nearly tripled the annual limitation on the number of allowable refugees, and created a process for foreign nationals inside the U.S. to apply for asylum based on the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention standard of “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”8

Background It must be pointed out that U.S.-backed violence in the Northern Triangle hardly started in 1980. The massive counterinsurgency operation in Guatemala, which formally ended in 1996, had its roots in a 1954 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-orchestrated overthrow of democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz, whose administration had two years earlier secured passage of a sweeping reform law that posed a major threat to U.S. business interests in the region, including some 40 percent of the landholdings of the behemoth United Fruit Company.9 By the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration, determined not to let Cuba’s revolution and successful resistance of U.S. terrorist campaigns set an example for the region, had begun financing paramilitary operations in Guatemala, and Greg Grandin notes that “the first sustained campaign of death-squad-executed ‘disappearances’ of political dissidents occurred…in 1966, carried out by a unit created and directly supervised by American security advisors.”10 Direct military assistance was officially suspended from 1977 until 1984, although U.S. arms managed to find their way into Guatemala in the interim through Israeli and Argentine mercenaries and through unofficial channels.11

El Salvador, meanwhile, did not develop an organized resistance movement until the early 1970s, as the rapid expansion of commercial agriculture increasingly forced subsistence farmers off their land. As part of the same Kennedy administration program, the U.S. had pre-empted resistance with the creation of the secret police and rural paramilitary, the Organización Democrática Nacionalista (ORDEN), as well as the larger intelligence apparatus whose auspices ORDEN fell, Agencia Nacional de Seguridad Salvadoreña (ANSESAL).12 Both played key roles in the period of outright warfare (1979-1992), including in some of the war’s most egregious massacres.

El Salvador On March 24, 1980, one week after President Jimmy Carter burnished his liberal humanist credentials with the U.S. press by signing into law the Refugee Act of 1980, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, was assassinated while officiating evening Mass. The day before, Romero had concluded his final sermon with an appeal to “the National Guard and the police – those in the barracks:”

Brothers: you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law.13

Nevertheless, the New York Times maintained in a front-page article the following week that Romero “had criticized both the extreme right and the extreme left for widespread killing and torture” notwithstanding that only one side had committed, or was even capable of, “widespread killing and torture.”14 The same article also parroted the Salvadoran government’s (and the Carter administration’s) claim that bomb and gun attacks at Romero’s funeral were the responsibility of extremist opposition forces, denying that uniformed forces were even present – contradicting a signed statement of 22 church leaders, who said the violence began when a bomb was thrown from the National Palace that overlooked the plaza where the funeral was being held.15

Atrocities quickly intensified in scale and frequency following Archbishop Romero’s death, but the narrative underpinning the Times’ coverage throughout 1980 and much of 1981 was that a reformist junta led by José Napoleón Duarte was attempting to hold the center against coequal threats from both extremes. The problem with Duarte, the Times insisted, was that his government was unable to rein in its armed forces, which were held to be the exclusive domain of the fanatical right. Accordingly, the editors called in April 1980 for Washington’s “even-handedness in dealing with repression of either left or right,” noting that “aid or even rhetorical support for one regime or another will always be a factor” in “containing the fire next door [to the United States] and preventing a conflagration.”16 The Salvadoran government, which has to date received some form of military assistance unceasingly since the early 1960s apart from a very brief suspension in late 1980-early 1981, was in fact completely dependent on Washington, which had just two months prior approved a dramatic increase in military aid. (Aid reached even higher levels – still unequaled – during the Reagan years as atrocities escalated further, a point to which we will return).17

On May 14, the first large-scale massacre of the war occurred near Río Sumpul, which formed the border with Honduras. After ground forces, including ORDEN, pushed hundreds of campesinos to the river, helicopter gunships began attacking campesinos from above, while National Guardsmen prevented their escape. When refugees attempted to flee across the border, U.S.-trained and -armed Honduran security forces, apparently coordinating with the Salvadorans, turned the refugees back, deterring others from attempting to join them by throwing children in the river. Casualty figures varied, but even the most conservative estimates counted at least 300 people killed; the actual figure is likely closer to 600.18 The story was first reported by U.S. and Salvadoran church groups and was covered widely in the international press. The presbytery of Diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán (Honduras), cited local press reports only days before the massacre that high military officials from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala held a secret meeting in western Honduras near its borders with both countries.19 The presbytery’s report was hardly exotic information inside the U.S.; Senator Edward Kennedy read it into the Congressional Record on September 24, along with witness testimonies found in accounts by human rights groups. And yet, remarkably, the massacre was not mentioned at all by the New York Times until June 1981, and even then almost in passing as part of another story.20 In July 1980, as these horror stories were in full view of the world, the Times did see fit to run an editorial that praised the Carter administration for “responding with some imagination” to the situation in El Salvador and trying “to find ways to promote democratic values,” while it lamented Congress’ reluctance to support the “forces of reform.”21

On December 14, less than two weeks after the gruesome murders of four American Catholic missionaries by the National Guard, Duarte accepted an appointment as president. The murders greatly embarrassed the U.S., which was unable to conceal the involvement of government forces and had to briefly suspend military aid (see above), but even on that occasion reports and commentary in the Times stuck to the increasingly untenable line that “the junta is unable to control the violence.”22 It did caution against more military aid, predicting that “what remains of the center may well collapse,” pressuring the incoming Reagan administration to “inject American firepower on the right-wing side of a chaotic civil war,” prompting “an escalation of Cuban aid to the revolutionaries.” Such an escalation would presumably occur from the levels the government insisted, without evidence, that the leftists were currently receiving, not just from Havana but from the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.23 A few months into 1981, there was again reason for optimism: “Duarte, Three Months in Power, Bringing Change to El Salvador,” a March 30 front-page headline announced, a triumph for the Reagan administration, which “has made Mr. Duarte the symbol and hope of the American policy of creating a centrist, non-Communist government in El Salvador.”24 By that time, Duarte had made known his approval for the security forces’ brutal tactics, including at Río Sumpul – necessary to defend against “Communist guerillas,” as he labeled the victims, babies and children among them.25

Suddenly, Times treatment of the Salvador counterinsurgency and its willingness to report critically on the government there, had changed again, this time drastically. Chief Central American correspondent Alan Riding found himself unable to return to the country, whereupon he was replaced by Raymond Bonner, who had been working as a stringer for the Times for less than a year, before which he had been a public interest lawyer under Ralph Nader.26 Despite his lack of journalistic experience, Bonner proved both prolific and independent, increasingly revealing Washington’s heavy hand in Salvadoran affairs, the fraudulence of the 1982 presidential election, and the failure of the government’s land reforms, which the Times had long been touting. His most significant achievement came in January 1982, when he broke the story of a massacre of more than 800 civilians, including hundreds of children, that had taken place the month before. Over several days, the army’s Atlacatl Battalion, fresh from training at the Panama-based U.S. Army School of the Americas (in a “Program Stressing Human Rights,” according to a 1980 Times headline)27 tortured, raped and executed campesinos and villagers in and around El Mozote before burning virtually the entire village to the ground.28

Bonner’s story elicited bitter denials from the Salvadoran government, the U.S. embassy, and across the Reagan administration. Reagan’s cheerleaders in the press launched personal attacks on Bonner, and Ambassador Deane Hinton began openly badmouthing him to other reporters. Sources at the Times and in the embassy later told Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Massing that the administration firmly pressured the newspaper to force Bonner out. Executive editor A.M. Rosenthal denied that the administration’s displeasure had any effect, but by August Bonner had been recalled to New York.29 He left the Times shortly afterward, and the paper resumed its largely sanitized coverage of the conflict, depicting a well-meaning but hapless government unwilling to control the excesses of its worst elements in the army or the renegade figures running the death squads.

By January 1984, the Times revisited its position once more on military aid, reasoning that lavishing more arms on El Salvador than the U.S. had ever sold it (as a commission led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was recommending) was problematic, if only because “half the weapons will end up in the hands of guerillas,” although it might be permissible if “conditioned…on human rights and social progress.”30

It was not until El Salvador held popular elections for president that the Times conspicuously intensified its commitment to state imperatives. The Reagan administration had a crucial stake in ensuring that the 1984 elections were meaningfully free and fair precisely because it wanted Congress to go along with lavishing even more military aid on the terror state, as well as a stake in making Duarte – its favored candidate – appear as moderate as possible. The latter requisite was easy to satisfy – the Times’ love affair with Duarte went back to his stint as de facto head of state when he led the junta from 1980 to 1982. On the eve of first round of voting on March 26, an election rundown in the news section advertised that Duarte favored “pursuing land redistribution programs” – a bizarre claim to report uncritically given the junta’s complete lack of commitment to the earlier land reforms – and that he vowed “to end right-wing terror [and] open a ‘national dialogue’ with all parts of Salvadoran society,” again failing to mention his apathy toward prosecuting mass murderers and hostility toward negotiations the first time around. An editorial in the same edition praised Duarte as a “tested and decent Christian Democrat,” approvingly suggesting that he would further the administration’s goal of securing aid and international legitimacy by “portraying El Salvador’s civil war as a struggle between leftist darkness and democratic light.”31 After Duarte advanced to a May runoff, the paper’s enthusiasm reached new heights. Two days before the runoff it had even taken to calling him a “moderate leftist” in front-page article that depicted Reagan as eminently reasonable for not favoring Duarte’s runoff rival, Roberto D’Aubuisson of the neo-fascist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), as the segregationist and rabidly anticommunist Senator Jesse Helms had done.32

In fact, on the spectrum of candidates on the first-round ballot the Times could have quite plausibly placed Duarte on the far left, given that no leftists, moderate or otherwise, could have run without a virtual guarantee of assassination attempts – just one of many pieces of information Times readers may have been missing about the election. In Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s classic study of U.S. mass media, the authors analyzed the paper’s more than two dozen news articles about the March election through the end of that month. None mentioned the severe restrictions on candidate eligibility, the total lack of press freedoms, or the “legal right of the security forces to an armed presence at voting stations.” Fully a quarter of the stories noted the strong turnout, but less than 15 percent mentioned that voting was legally mandated, and none mentioned the “legal requirement that authorities check within 10 days” that citizens had voted.33

After Duarte was sworn in as president, the Times endorsed the aid proposals and then settled into a more favorable iteration of coverage during the junta days. “Duarte Winning Support Abroad Using His Democratic Credentials,” a front-page story in July proclaimed; Duarte was a leader whose power rested “on a yearning to end the civil slaughter and open a closed political system,” an editorial in August declared.34 And so, the ground was laid for a substantial military escalation. Thanks in part to Duarte’s unwillingness to grant any meaningful concessions to the rebels, the war would continue for another eight years.35

Guatemala Guatemala received less consideration during the 1980s than did El Salvador, perhaps because Washington appeared to have less direct involvement. Still, some patterns of emphasis and omission are illustrative.

U.S. arms sales to Guatemala, nominally suspended from 1977 to 1984, proceeded through proxies, particularly Israel, which became Guatemala’s principal supplier during the period. Israel, of course, has long been the recipient of extraordinary amounts of weapons and other military assistance, in many cases funded grants paid for by the public, and has in turn been heavily dependent on the U.S.36 Predictably, Israeli arms sales to Guatemala rose sharply in 1978 and began to wane in the mid-eighties, around the time the embargo was lifted.37 The Gray Lady was not prepared to make any connections, and in fact went out of its way to absolve Israel of providing arms in furtherance of U.S. policy goals. “From every indication,” Leslie Gelb wrote in a December 1982 news article “the Israelis are not there, as are most of the others as participants in a form of East-West confrontation or to engage in revolutionary or counterrevolutionary intrigue.” Gelb’s evidence was that “[n]o Israeli or American official said that Israel was in Central America to do Washington’s bidding.”38

The paper also excluded close examination of reports of backdoor deals, some of them illegal, designed to circumvent the weapons ban. An A1 story appeared in November 1982 about weapons transactions that had been agreed to before the ban took effect but had never been delivered; another, the following month, detailed documents obtained by the rebels that suggested U.S. companies had unlawfully supplied cargo and parts for fighter jets. But there was very little follow-up through the second half of the decade, as reports surfaced that transactions during the period of the ban were far more extensive than previously indicated. One striking story by Allan Nairn in The Progressive in May 1986 uncovered many of these transactions, among them sales of: twenty helicopters; ten M-41 tanks worth $36 million; two transport jets and eight T-37 trainers, valued at $40 million; and $7.7 million worth of laser-guided rifle sights. Administration officials and arms dealers deployed a number of complex tactics to complete the sales without having to notify Congress. Twenty-two tanks, for instance, were sold to a Belgian weapons dealer, which turned around and sold them to the Dominican Republic, where only 12 reached shore; the rest were diverted to Guatemala under the supervision of U.S. intelligence officials. The helicopter sale, meanwhile, was reported as a civilian transaction by the Commerce Department, but according to Nairn, twenty pilots from the Guatemalan Air Force received training at the contractor’s headquarters demonstrating how to mount .30-caliber machine guns on the choppers.39

In other ways, too, Washington’s influence was obscured. Fernando Romeo Lucas García, Efraín Ríos Montt, and Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores ruled Guatemala from July 1978 until January 1986, overseeing the zenith of unspeakable massacres in the countryside, most egregiously the murder of some 200,000 Maya, for which a Guatemalan court has since convicted Ríos Montt, an extraordinary development.40 All three received training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), along with many of the generals implicated in the atrocities. New York Times readers in the eighties would have had to look elsewhere to reach that conclusion. Reportage associated Lucas García with the school in one article from 1978, shortly after he gained power.41 In hundreds of articles, editorials and opinion columns that mention any of these men in the 1980s, not one single story ran identifying them as graduates or former students. At the time, there was not much public information tying Ríos Montt to the SOA, but information about the attendance of the other two was hardly exotic.42

To its credit, Times coverage and commentary was generally quite critical of those regimes, as was much of Washington, at least publicly. Neither the Carter administration, the Reagan administration, nor Congress, however, was sufficiently outraged by human rights violations to cut off economic aid, which was overwhelmingly enriching the wealthiest sectors of society and exacerbating the urban and rural poverty at the heart of the popular uprising. Few benefited from the aid more than U.S. corporations, a long list that included all of the top 10 U.S. chemical companies and 90 of the top 500 corporations overall, with hundreds of millions of dollars in direct investment. Transnational investment had its roots in the period immediately following the coup, James Painter notes, when “Guatemala became a U.S.-directed ‘showcase for development’ in which the chosen method of proving the merits of a ‘free’ country over the ‘communist’ Árbenz regime was a rapid influx of economic aid.” Other beneficiaries included Guatemalan agribusiness firms whose primary export market was the United States. All of these Guatemalan and U.S. companies shared an interest in ensuring that no formidable labor movement or challenge to landholding patterns emerged, and some, including the Guatemalan arm of Coca-Cola, were known to rely on military and paramilitary violence to terrorize union activists.43 Times editors and columnists consistently endorsed economic aid, even advocating for an escalation of aid after the coup that brought Ríos Montt to power. “Experience argues against getting too enthusiastic about coups,” editors reasoned, but “[w]ith determined outside encouragement, Guatemala could yet be nudged back toward a democratic path.”44

In a pattern that closely mirrored El Salvador, the intensity and number of critical stories and editorials declined dramatically with the November 1985 election of Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo. Cerezo was essentially Guatemala’s Duarte. A Christian Democrat, he paid lip service to reining in abuses and to equitable economic reform, but, like Duarte, was committed to neither and was chiefly interested in retaining power. Cerezo also successfully served the same purpose as Duarte had for the Reagan administration, namely to legitimize its support for a ruthless counterinsurgency and win over select congressional and international critics.45 The Times quickly lined up behind Washington’s man, celebrating the victory of this “attractive center-leftist” as potentially “a tremendous advance for democracy.” While he has shown “deference to the military” this is simply “part of a grand strategy yielding to realities. That judgment, backed by the voters, should not be second-guessed from afar.”46 Coverage proceeded similarly from there, as reports touted his window-dressing measures as meaningful reforms and blamed the military, as well as the pesky common people, for his failures.47

Of Refugees and “Economic Migrants” Reports of refugees fleeing the brutality in Central America found their way onto the front page of the New York Times as early as March 1981. That article described Immigration and Naturalization Services’ (INS) summary deportations of Salvadorans who maintained they were fleeing for their lives (“illegal immigrants” in the headline, alternatively “refugees” and “illegal aliens” elsewhere), featuring discussion among advocates and officials about the wisdom and legality of letting the fleeing Salvadorans stay. The reporter, John Crewdson, acknowledged recent reports of Salvadorans who were executed by the government – that same “centrist” government “Bringing Change to El Salvador,” readers would learn later that month – but that the reports remained “unconfirmed.” Crewdson maintained, based on interviews with “many of those knowledgeable about conditions in El Salvador” that “there is little doubt that some number of those sent home by the immigration services have been killed, as victims of random violence if not as specific targets of the left or right.”48 In fact, the story neglects to mention it, but an acknowledgment that there was a possibility that deportees faced death made INS’ actions a violation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which commits signatories to the principle of non-refoulement, i.e., no forced return. Unsurprisingly, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees publicly charged the United States with failing to uphold its commitment shortly afterward, and recommended that any Salvadoran who had fled from 1980 onward automatically be considered a refugee,49 developments which never made it into the news columns of the New York Times.

Crewdson’s story presaged ensuing Times reports of Central Americans seeking asylum, which emphasized repeatedly the regrettable reality that many asylum-seekers were unable to prove their “well-founded fear of persecution.” Yet, as María Cristina García points out, “To refugee advocates, the uncertainty of the deportees’ fate in their war-torn homelands was enough evidence that refoulement was inhumane.”50 Notice also, in Crewdson’s article, that Salvadorans are fleeing “the fighting” and “random violence” engulfing their country – not the systematic campaign of terror against the rural population by government and irregular forces, financed and guided by the United States government.

Tens of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans would apply for asylum or refugee status over the next nine years; only a tiny fraction were admitted. Some 8,900 had applied for asylum by the start of 1982, seven of whose applications had been accepted.51 From 1983 to 1990, García reports, “only 2.6 percent of Salvadoran asylum applicants were successful, and only 1.8 percent of Guatemalan applications for the same period were granted.”52 Conversely, more than 11,000 Nicaraguans had been granted asylum, despite the fact that conditions in the other two countries were far more desperate, by all accounts. That imbalance was consistent with the so-called “Kirkpatrick Doctrine,” first expounded in a 1979 essay by the future Ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, in which she drew a distinction between “traditional versus revolutionary autocracies.” “Revolutionary autocracies” – i.e., those the United States does not favor – invariably generate mass exodus, Kirkpatrick explains:

They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will “fit” better in a foreign country than in their native land.53

On the other hand, autocratic societies of the “traditional” variety – despite Kirkpatrick’s tortured logic, these end up being all of the ones the U.S. supports, regardless of their nature – “create no refugees.” Hence, Reagan administration propaganda consistently held that the only authentic refugees were fleeing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua (never mind that the U.S. was also waging a massive terrorist war there, for which it was later found criminally liable).54 Those fleeing the Northern Triangle country were “economic migrants” risking their lives and leaving their families to come ride the gravy train in the United States.55

Times reportage during the period was less callous than Reagan administration officials about the plight of refugees, but much of it essentially embraced the underlying assumptions. Robert Lindsey explained the Reagan administration’s view in a very typical 1983 news story, noting that “Recent interviews with Salvadorans in Los Angeles and New York, two of the more popular destinations for the refugees, tended to support the Administration’s belief that economic considerations were a major force in propelling them to this country.”56 Even if Lindsey had gathered an overwhelming consensus among a very large amount of subjects – the only possible way to attach any meaning to the statement – he would have defined quite narrowly, say, the “economic migrant” whose prospects for a decent life were destroyed by a devastating war. An editorial from 1983 similarly explained the government’s “hard choice” – on the one hand, we would not want to be responsible for “forcibly subjecting [the refugees] to peril.” But on the other, “what if they are not legitimate refugees?” In that case, the answer is simple: “Then they are just another form of gate-crasher, ready to confuse refuge and subterfuge. To send them home would be only fair, signaling to other would-be illegal entrants that Americans are compassionate but not suckers.”57

In 1986, Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The law had two fundamental features: 1) sanctions against employers who hired undocumented people; and 2) an offer of general amnesty to people who had entered the U.S. illegally, provided they did so prior to January 1, 1982, which was a way of gaining support for a bill drafted by restrictionists, as Carl Bon Tempo points out.58 Crucially, Congress chose a cutoff date well before most of the refugees had entered, although this point was lost on the Times, which kept to the party line. James LeMoyne, in a 1987 front-page story about Salvadorans who had come after 1982, reported that “diplomats and Salvadoran officials persuasively contend that the vast majority of Salvadorans going to the United States have done so for economic rather than political reasons.”59 As years of brutal insurgency began to strain the Salvadoran economy, Duarte asked Reagan to allow the refugees to stay, at least temporarily. To the Times editorial board, this was an outrageous proposal, one that “would twist the idea of refugee into subsidy.” “Giving refugee status to those who face persecution is compassionate,” the Times explained. However, “it is necessary to reserve it for only them,” noting that the IRCA struck a “decent compromise.” “Not even a generous nation can afford to become a haven for millions who would like to come here to seek a better standard of living,” the editors continued. “Instantly, the international grapevine would spread the word: ‘See, the yankees [sic] aren’t really serious. Forget all the talk about a tough new law. They’re already winking at it.’”60 To their credit, the editors had, by 1989, come around to advocating “temporary save haven” to all “aliens” generally, as a way to “weed out the gate crashers.”61 They even entertained the idea that “U.S. policies have contributed to destabilization” in Central America, a consideration that “strengthens the case for generosity” when deciding on asylum applicants’ worthiness.62 Only two months later, the editors had retreated from its magnanimity and were complaining that other rich societies “clearly do not accept their fair share of refugees,” not bothering to notice the enormous imbalance in the levels of violence the United States exported compared to those countries.63

Sanctuary Also telling was the Times’ hostility toward the network of church and community groups that sought to ensure safe passage for people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and to offer their own safe havens – “sanctuaries” – inside churches to protect refugees from deportation. García has called the sanctuary movement “one of the most important acts of civil disobedience of the late twentieth century…a grassroots resistance movement that protested US foreign policy through the harboring and transporting of refugees, in violation of immigration law.”64 The Times was less impressed. A 1985 A1 article by Ari Goldman examined an ostensible “debate” among religious leaders about “whether American churches and synagogues are justified in harboring aliens from Central America.” The opponents of this position, according to Goldman, “say the idea of sanctuary is being subverted for political purposes by opponents of the Reagan Administration’s immigration and Central American policies. In a democracy, these critics say, religious people should work to change laws rather than break them.”65

Omitted, as usual, is what those “policies” were – again, arming and training an unimaginably sadistic counterinsurgency force to kill, rape, and torture thousands of civilians a year. The omission of these specifics is crucial since many national religious organizations, including those who opposed sanctuary, had been emphasizing them for years and pleading with the United States to terminate weapons shipments. Leaders of the sanctuary movement felt especially strongly about ending the U.S. role in hostilities, even if their arguments fell outside the range of acceptable discussion for the Times. The Times reached out to Elie Wiesel – not at all a “religious leader,” but long a saintly figure among liberal-humanist elites, with opinions beyond reproach – who said he “did not favor breaking United States law.” His explanation was puzzling. “In fascist countries it is legal and adequate to break the law,” Wiesel explained, adding with characteristic authority his judgment that “we have not reached that point.” In another front-page story later that year, headlined, “Aid to Aliens Said to Spur Illegal Immigration,” Robert Lindsey reminds us of the Reagan administration’s view – which he corroborated personally (see above) – that “the vast majority” of Central American immigrants “are not fleeing oppression or war” but are simply “seeking a better life in the United States.” After again stating sanctuary leaders’ position without mentioning their central objection, Lindsey reports that, “Whatever the respective merits of their arguments, people on both sides in the dispute agree that the spreading sanctuary movement was having the effect of stimulating more migration.” Only government officials are quoted as taking that position.66

Infuriated that leaders from a traditionally conservative sector of society were leading the opposition to the U.S.-sanctioned wars, the Reagan administration fired back in 1984-1985 by sending informants to infiltrate sanctuary churches and tape their activities over ten months. The Justice Department indicted sixteen people on 71 criminal counts based on the recordings, arresting 80 other people as co-conspirators.67 Times editors did not entirely approve of the tactics, which they called “probably unnecessary.” But “the United States has a right and duty to protect its borders,” they pointed out. “Sanctuary leaders…have no right to confer refugee status on anyone. When they violate the written law, they are subject to investigation, prosecution and punishment.”68

Epilogue In recent years Honduras, long a recipient of American weapons, has joined El Salvador and Guatemala as a point of origin for U.S.-bound refugees, including the recent migrant caravans.69 Poverty and repression have been an issue for years, but the country has become increasingly dangerous since 2009, when reformist President Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped by members of the security forces in the middle of the night and put on a plane to Costa Rica. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that this was, perhaps, an unusual way to unseat a president, but refused to ever use the term “military coup,” which would have legally obligated the U.S. to suspend aid.70 Military aid was reduced after the grotesque, eminently preventable murder of Lenca environmental activist Berta Cáceres in 2016, but it was never eliminated, and more recently the Trump administration blessed a highly fraudulent election, over the objection of the Organization of American States (OAS). Protests were met with even greater levels of violence.71 Weapons also continue to flow freely to Guatemala, whose last president was an SOA graduate and an active participant in the Maya genocide. A key ally of the current president also shares both achievements.72

All of this is widely known, but is nonetheless left out of U.S. press treatment of the NTCA refugee crisis. Those who argue that the press suppresses such information are often held to employ conspiratorial logic. But as the Raymond Bonner incident demonstrated, this is an institutional problem. Journalists have often found space to push through critical stories, even in establishments like the New York Times. But the agency of competent, honest, and well-meaning reporters is just as often overwhelmed by the categorical need not to embarrass the state. If an institutional lens is required to elucidate these phenomena, it follows that only institutional analysis can address the problems they illustrate.

1“18 Guatemalan Ex-Military Leaders Arrested for Crimes Against Humanity During U.S.-Backed Dirty War,” Democracy Now!, accessed Dec. 15, 2018,

2The Editorial Board, “Children on the Run,” New York Times, June 5, 2014, 1942806824, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

3The Editorial Board, “The Dark Side of Immigration Discretion,” The New York Times, A22, April 20, 2016.

4The Editorial Board, “Mr. Obama, Go Big on Immigration,” New York Times, A18, July 4, 2014.

5U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants: Obligations and Loan Authorizations, July 1, 1945-September 30, 2016 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs, U.S. Agency for International Development, 2018), On the effects of U.S. funding for NTCA security operations, particularly drug interdiction, see for example, Óscar Martínez, A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America (London ; New York: Verso, 2016), or Nina Lakhani, “‘We Fear Soldiers More than Gangsters’: El Salvador’s ‘iron Fist’ Policy Turns Deadly,” The Guardian, February 6, 2017, sec. World news,

6Michael Shifter, Countering Criminal Violence in Central America, Council Special Report, No. 64 (New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations, 2012); United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime author and issuing body, “Intentional Homicide Victims, Counts and Rates per100,000 Population, 2000-2016,” accessed Dec 5, 2018,

7María Cristina García, Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2006), 92.

8Carl J. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 167-196.

9Samuel Totten, ed., Dirty Hands and Vicious Deeds: The U.S. Government’s Complicity in Crimes against Humanity and Genocide (North York, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 345-7.

10Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, 1st Owl Books ed, The American Empire Project (New York: Owl Books, 2007), 96.

11Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide: US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2015), 47-50.

12Ibid., 88-99; Americas Watch Committee (U.S.), ed., El Salvador’s Decade of Terror: Human Rights since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero, Human Rights Watch Books (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 3-5.

13Oscar Romero, “The Church in the Service of Personal, Community and Transcendent Liberation,” Text, The Archbishop Romero Trust, March 23, 1980,

14Joseph B. Treaster, “26 Salvadorans Die at Bishop’s Funeral.” New York Times, A1, March 31, 1980.

15Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002), 47-52.

16“The Fire Next Door.” New York Times, April 28, 1980.

17USAID, U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants.

18Brendan Butler, “El Salvador’s Nightmare,” The Irish Times (1921-Current File), July 5, 1980, 528936371, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Irish Times and The Weekly Irish Times; Hugh McCullum, “‘Our Lives Are Worth Nothing’ The Globe and Mail; Toronto, Ont., July 16, 1980; “Clergy Tell of Massacre in El Salvador,” The Times (London), June 25, 1980, The Times Digital Archive.

19A Presbytery of Honduras, “The Sumpul River Massacre Marvin E. Gettleman et al., eds., El Salvador: Central America in the New Cold War, 1st ed., rev. and updated (New York: Grove Press, 1987), 266.

20Warren Hoge, “Slaughter in Salvador: 200 Lost in Border Massacre.” New York Times, Jun 08, 1981. In addition to the international coverage above, the events were covered in detail by the Washington Post, as well as by the Associated Press with a very heavy dose of skepticism. See Christopher Dickey, “Salvadoran Refugees Caught Between ‘Hammer and Anvil'”. The Washington Post. July 6, 1980, Sunday, Final Edition. “Death Toll Disputed in El Salvador Border Shooting”. The Associated Press. June 29, 1980, Sunday, AM cycle.

21“Central America, Central Indeed.” New York Times, Jul 18, 1980.

22Special to The New York Times. “Salvador Junta Member is Named First Civilian President in 49 Years.” New York Times, Dec 14, 1980.

23“The Metaphor of Salvador.” New York Times, Dec 24, 1980.

24Edward Schumacher, “Duarte, Three Months in Power, Bringing Change to El Salvador.” New York Times, Mar 30, 1981.

25Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 149-162.

26Michael Massing, “About-Face on El Salvador,” Columbia Journalism Review 22, no. 4 (Dec 11, 1983): 42–49.

27Janet Battaille, “U.S. Training Salvadoran Officers in a Program Stressing Human Rights.” New York Times, Oct 09, 1980.

28Raymond Bonner, “Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvador Village.” New York Times, January 27, 1982.

29Massing, “About-Face on El Salvador.”

30“A Military Solution.” New York Times, Jan 15, 1984.

31“El Salvador’s Candidates,” New York Times, March 25, 1984, A11; “The Resistible Rise of Major Bob,” New York Times, E20, March 25, 1984.

32Steven V. Roberts, “Reagan Defends Aide in Salvador Assailed by Helms,” New York Times, A1, May 4, 1984.

33Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 131-137.

34James LeMoyne, “Duarte Winning Support Abroad, Using His Democratic Credentials: Duarte Wins Support in Trips Abroad,” New York Times, July 25, 1984, A1; “The Duarte Difference,” New York Times, August 2, 1984, A22.

35Edward S. Herman “La Palma: A Public Relations Stratagem by Duarte?” in Gettleman et al., El Salvador, 428-430.

36“U.S. Arms Transfers and Security Assistance to Israel,” Institute for Policy Studies, May 1, 2002,

37Allan Nairn, “The Guatemala Connection,” The Progressive, (May 1986): 20-22.

38“Israel Said to Aid Latin Aims of U.S.,” Leslie H. Gelb, New York Times, A11, Dec 17, 1982.

39Nairn, “The Guatemala Connection.”

40Jeff Abbott and Sandra Cuffe, “Guatemala’s Military Carried Out Genocide, Court Rules,” Al Jazeera, Sept 27, 2018; “Genocides, Politicides, and Other Mass Murder Since 1945,” Genocide Watch, 2008,

41Alan Riding, “Latin America Turning Away from U.S. Military Guidance,” New York Times, July 1, 1978.

42See, for example: Rod Nordland, “Critics of Guatemala’s New Leader Are Confounded by His Moderation,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 14, 1983 Global Newsstream; “Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores: New Strongman of Guatemala.” UPI Archive: International, Aug. 8 1983. Infotrac Newsstand,

43James Painter, Guatemala: False Hope, False Freedom (London: Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1987).; United States Congress, House. Letter, Non-Classified. “Massive Human Rights Violations throughout Guatemala.” September 20, 1979: 3 pp. Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) Collection: Death squads, guerrilla war, covert operations, and genocide: Guatemala and the United States, 1954-1999.; Skeen, Lisa. “Coca-Cola Sued for ‘Campaign of Violence’ in Guatemala.” North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), April 7, 2010.

44“Guatemala’s Second ‘Vote,’” New York Times, Mar 24, 1982.

45Painter, False Hope, False Freedom, 58-78, 102-106.

46“New Chance in Guatemala,” New York Times, Dec 12, 1985.

47Stephen Kinzer, “Guatemala Panel to Look into Rights Abuses,” New York Times, May 6, 1986; Kinzer, “Army’s Hold in Guatemala Stirs Fear for Democracy,” New York Times, September 4, 1988.

48John M. Crewdson, “U.S. Returns Illegal Immigrants Who Are Fleeing Salvador War,” New York Times, March 2, 1981.

49García, Seeking Refuge, 88-9.

50Ibid., 93.

51Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate, 189-190.

52García, Seeking Refuge, 90.

53Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships & Double Standards,” Commentary (blog), Nov 1, 1979,

54International Court of Justice., Case Concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America) Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (The Hague: The Court, 1984).

55Elliott Abrams, “Diluting Compassion.” New York Times, Aug 05, 1983.

56Robert Lindsey, “A Flood of Refugees from Salvador Tries to Get Legal Status.” New York Times, Jul 04, 1983.

57“Refugees and Refoulement”. The New York Times. May 12, 1983.

58Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate, 184-5.

59James LeMoyne, “Salvadorans Stream into U.S., Fleeing Poverty and Civil War”. The New York Times. April 13, 1987.

60“Refugees Are Not Subsidies”. The New York Times. April 30, 1987.

61“Refugees, or Gate-Crashers?”. The New York Times. February 18, 1989.

62“The Shout From Central America; Here: Migrants and the Need for Safe Haven”. The New York Times. February 26, 1989.

63“A Refugee Burden, Unequally Shared”. The New York Times. April 16, 1989.

64García, Seeking Refuge, 98.

65Ari L. Goldman, “U.S. Clerics Debating Ethics of Giving Sanctuary to Aliens.” The New York Times. August 23, 1985.

66Lindsey, “Aid to Aliens Said to Spur Illegal Immigration.” The New York Times. Dec 23, 1985.

67García, Seeking Refuge, 106.

68“On Giving Sanctuary”. The New York Times. Dec 14, 1985.

69 Sandra Cuffe “Crackdown on Honduran Migrant Caravan ‘against International Law,’” accessed Dec 18, 2018,

70Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 10-93.

71Ibid., 235-6.

72“Exclusive: Allan Nairn Exposes Role of U.S. and New Guatemalan President in Indigenous Massacres,” Democracy Now!, accessed Dec 16, 2018,; “18 Guatemalan Ex-Military Leaders Arrested for Crimes Against Humanity During U.S.-Backed Dirty War,” Democracy Now!, accessed Dec 15, 2018; USAID, U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants.

Joe Parziale is a Cofounding Editor at The Flood.