Notes on the Immigrants’ Rights Movement and the Social Revolution


El grito de Hidalgo, mural by Juan O’Gorman

By Duncan Riley



Traditional socialist analyses, particularly in Europe and North America, categorize immigrants as just another kind of worker. Of course, it is widely accepted on the left that immigrants suffer a greater degree of marginalization and discrimination, and face distinct problems, such as deportation. However, ultimately, the left has traditionally seen immigrants as just one more sector of the working class, the same as native-born workers. While it is absolutely true that workers of all nations are fundamentally members of the same class, the distinct obstacles and challenges that immigrants face cause their communities to develop differently, and forge unique forms of social struggle. The radical developments in the immigrants’ rights movement, more than just another response to the ever-deepening crisis of capitalism, carry within them the beginnings of the social revolution. Immigrants of all nations are already leading the way in constructing the new society, and it is vital that the left learn from these vibrant movements.

Immigrants, upon arrival in the United States, face significant challenges. The new cultural environment is overwhelming, particularly if they do not speak English. The citizenship process is drawn-out and extremely difficult, immigrants are left with limited political and civil rights and the threat of deportation and state repression hovering over their heads. Further, due to their vulnerable position within society, immigrants face severe economic exploitation by capital, as they fear contesting labor rights violations could lead to deportation.[1] Under these hostile conditions, immigrant communities are naturally drawn closer together and organize themselves. These communal organizations are generally based on kinship or national ties, as immigrants from the same national, regional, and local backgrounds naturally gravitate towards one another. These communal ties become the basis for mutual aid, and a collectivist spirit takes root in the community.

Often times, communal ties are related to social structures in immigrants’ home countries. The case of Mexican immigrants demonstrates this most clearly. The first working-class organizations that arose in Mexico were the mutualistas, mutual-aid societies and proto-unions that formed among artisans and proletarians during the mid-19th century. The societies provided protection and support to workers amidst the instability of industrialization throughout the Porfiriato and provided an organizing base for strikes.[2] As Mexican workers migrated for work to the Southwest, they brought mutualista organization with them. They also took root among the pre-1848 Mexican populations suffering dispossession of their lands and livelihoods by the North American state and capital.[3] Equally, as capitalist logic was applied to the countryside after the enforcement of the Ley Lerdo, indigenous communal agricultural structures, the ejidos, were dismantled, their members forced off their lands. Many migrated to the north or joined the ranks of the growing working classes in the cities, infusing it with the collectivist spirit of the ejidatarios.[4] Thus, a communal ethos and ideal of mutual-aid lies at the foundation of the Mexican working class on both sides of the border.

Just as mutualistas began as mutual-aid societies but transformed into vehicles of class struggle, immigrant communal structures have transformed into platforms for social struggle. In the Twin Cities alone, campaigns bring together various immigrants’ rights groups to fight for the rights to municipal IDs and drivers’ licenses, while opposing deportations and other forms of state repression. In these actions, immigrants exercise the rights so often denied to them, and fight for inclusion as citizens. In short, the communal organization of immigrants prepared the basis for collective action against the state to conquer new rights from the hands of the powerful. The movement thus relies on democratic ambitions which refuse to accept government limits on citizenship, and the repression which enforces them, asserting the primacy of popular participation.[5] The immigrants’ rights movement thus constitutes a significant challenge to the nominally democratic bourgeois state, opposing its authoritarianism and at times forcing it to concede new rights, democratizing the national community.

What is unique about the immigrants’ rights movement, is that this democratizing struggle is not directed by any one political party but is rather the organic development of communal structures. The movement thus becomes a space for direct democracy, where members express their opinions freely, and vote on their leadership, platforms, and objectives. This free and open process contrasts sharply with bourgeois democracy, which relies on the authoritarian power of the state, and is driven by the influence of the wealthy and powerful, rather than the voice of the people. Thus, within the immigrants’ rights movement the masses can gather to participate in true democracy, exercising control over their own destinies and making their own decisions, in what Guérin calls “their apprenticeship in direct democracy from the bottom up.”[6] Within the immigrants’ rights movement the process of social revolution is already developing, as a communal and socialist alternative to authoritarianism is put into practice.

At the same time, immigrant organizations alone cannot make the social revolution. Alliances between different communities of immigrants, and between immigrants and native-born workers will be vital to any revolutionary action. It was an alliance of Mexican and Japanese workers that challenged both white supremacy and economic exploitation in Southern California during the early 20th century.[7] In the same period, it was the union of Italian and Mexican mine workers in Arizona that caused both state and capital to tremble in fear.[8] Today, immigrants’ rights movements cooperate with a wide variety of anti-imperialist and radical groups dedicated to the democratization of society. This alignment of social forces thus provides the embryo of a communal and direct democracy, which is capable of mobilizing the masses both in defense of their rights and for the conquest of power through social revolution.[9]

This social revolution, at its core, is the struggle for autonomy. It is the struggle for the right of the plebeian classes to live without being imposed upon by oligarchs and authoritarians. Immigrants, who have often seen the worst of capitalism and imperialism, and who face deep injustices in their new homes, understand the value of autonomy perhaps more than any other segment of the working classes. As such, immigrants play a leading role in constructing this autonomy in their own communities and spreading the ideal of social revolution throughout the masses. As this ideal, fiery in its cry for justice, grows ever in strength, it becomes clear that true liberty can only be realized once the arbitrary divisions that empires create among the workers are erased, and all join together in the struggle for emancipation from tyranny.



[1] Levin, Sam. “Immigration Crackdown Enables Worker Exploitation, Labor Department Staff Say.” The Guardian. March 30, 2017. Accessed January 15, 2019.

[2] Chacón, Justin Akers. Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican American Working Class, 36-8. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2018.

[3] Ibid., 104-5.

[4] Ibid., 30-31.

[5] Linera, Álvaro García. Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-class and Popular Identities in Bolivia, 95.  Leiden: Brill, 2014.

[6] Guérin, Daniel. For a Libertarian Communism, 75. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2017.

[7] Justin Akers Chacón. Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican American Working Class, 76.

[8] Ibid., 93-5.

[9] Álvaro García Linera. Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-class and Popular Identities in Bolivia, 255-6.

Versos Fraternos

De Duncan Riley



Me dicen que la patria es

Un muro y un río

Con alambre de púas

Y guardias armadas


Mi patria es mis amigas

La encontré en sus sonrisas

Pueden tomar nuestra alegría

Pero el recuerdo siempre sigue


Mi patria es una flor

Pisoteada en el oscuro

Pero hay una semilla

Que espera la primavera


La patria no es una frontera

Ni bandera ni estado

La patria es el pueblo

Porque el pueblo la ganó


Libertad no es una cosa

Lograda por mano fuerte

Libertad es del pueblo

Y el pueblo la exige


Mi patria es un sueño

Que los ausentes vuelvan

Que los traidores caigan

Que vivamos en libertad

A Brief History of Imperialism in Central America – Una breve historia del imperialismo en Centroamérica


Mural by Diego Rivera – Un mural de Diego Rivera

By – De Duncan Riley



English – Versión inglesa

The recent exodus of many Central Americans from their countries towards the United States has brought the regions problems with poverty, violence, and social injustice into sharp focus in the media. Unfortunately, the roots these conditions have in North American imperialism has thus far received far less attention in political and social discourse on the present crisis. Indeed, it is vital to recognize that the crisis which presently afflicts our sister republics in Central America is not foreign to us, but rather fundamentally intertwined with the long-standing policies of our government which treat the peoples of Central America not as equals, but as pawns.

The first North American intervention in Central America came not long after the regions independence from the Spanish empire. After the invasion of Mexico, North American industrialists had looked on Nicaragua as the perfect place to construct a trans-oceanic canal in order to facilitate faster transportation between the nations two coasts. Hoping to make this dream a reality, in 1856 Tennessean William Walker mounted a military expedition to Nicaragua at the behest of the Nicaraguan Liberal Party. Not long after arriving with an army of North Americans, Walker seized the presidency of Nicaragua. Over the protests of all the nations of Central America, the United States recognized Walker as the legitimate president. Despite this, within less than a year the combined armies of the other republics of Central America drove Walker from the country, though not before his followers burned to the ground one of the oldest cities in the hemisphere, Granada. While this first imperialist endeavor into Central America may seem too far removed from our times to possibly be relevant, it illustrates the early emergence of the factors that, to this day, drive US policy towards Central America. The economic interests of North American capital and the political desire of the US government to secure a highly strategic position combined to wage an unjust war on Nicaragua.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, with the rise of new and powerful multinational corporations, US intervention in Central America became more regular. Companies like United Fruit used their wealth and power to influence governments in Central America in order to win economic concessions weighted in the multinationals favor. When political conditions or instability threatened the companies’ economic fortunes, they often called on the US Government to intervene. The most famous of these interventions was that which occurred in Nicaragua from 1912-1933. The US and its multinationals at times also used their influence to menace Central American governments into repressing their own people. Though not in Central America, the events surrounding the Banana Strike of 1928 in Colombia provides a clear example of this sort of coercion. When United Fruit employees in northern Colombia went on strike for better working conditions in 1928, the United States, at the behest of United Fruit, threatened the Conservative Party government in Colombia with invasion unless they cracked down on the strike. Thousands of workers were killed in the repressions that followed. US intervention in Central America has, through its protection of unfair concessions and unjust treatment of Central American workers, contributed to the poverty of the peoples of Central America.

With the onset of the Cold War, North American interventions in Central America became less overt but no less frequent. In 1954, the democratically elected socialist and nationalist president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, who had initiated a land reform project and challenged United Fruit’s economic domination of the country, was overthrown by a military coup logistically and materially supported by the United States. This coup inaugurated perhaps among the bloodiest periods in Central American history, as the US supported right wing death squads and dictatorships against leftist guerrillas in every country in the region except Costa Rica. During this period, the Guatemalan military government prosecuted a genocide against the indigenous Maya people, and governments across the region used torture and murder to repress resistance, often with the direct support and aid of the CIA.

Though in the 1990s democracy at long last returned to Central America, it has not prevented the US from continuing to intervene in the region. Indeed, the United States still maintains a garrison of troops at the Soto Cano air base in Honduras, despite the Honduran constitution’s strict prohibition on any permanent presence of foreign troops on Honduran soil. To get around this restriction, the US government classifies the Soto Cano mission as a “temporary deployment for an indefinite amount of time.” The base continues to be used for operations related to the “War on Drugs” throughout the region.

In recent years Honduras has suffered perhaps the most significant North American intervention into the politics of Central American country since the end of the Cold War, after the 2006 accession of Manuel Zelaya to the presidency. Though elected as a liberal, Zelaya quickly took a left ward turn, raising the minimum wage, expanding public services for the poor, promising to mediate long running land disputes between peasants and international corporations, and even leading the country into the left-wing regional organization “The Bolivarian Alliance for the peoples of our America.” As a culmination to his efforts to transform the country, Zelaya proposed a popular consultation on whether or not a referendum to call a constituent assembly, “the fourth ballot box,” should be held consecutively with the 2009 presidential election. While Zelaya argued the referendum was necessary to further democratize the country, the conservative National Party and some members of the liberal party claimed Zelaya only wanted to remove term limits from the constitution to allow himself to run again, despite the fact that the proposed referendum would be held alongside the election of Zelaya’s successor. The political dispute over the fourth box ultimately led, on the 28th of June 2009, to the Honduran military storming the presidential residence and forcing Zelaya from the country.

While publicly the Obama administration condemned the coup, it avoided officially classifying the military’s actions as a military coup, which allowed it to legally continue sending military and police aid to the new government. This aid proved invaluable, as the coup quickly met significant popular resistance. Ultimately, after questionable elections in 2009 and 2013, the pro-coup National Party managed to maintain power. Throughout this period, the Obama administration continued to send military aid to the Honduran government, despite its role in repressions of protesters, and assassinations of activists like Berta Cáceres in 2016. The year after, when Juan Orlando Hernández of the national party was fraudulently and unconstitutionally reelected as president, the Trump administration immediately validated his victory, even as the military and police killed and repressed protestors in the streets.

It is clear, then, that the government of the United States bears responsibility for the poverty and violence that today drives Hondurans and other Central Americans forth from their homes in exodus. For almost ten years now, brave and patriotic Hondurans have been arrested and murdered by US trained military and police, their only crime having been the defense of their nation and its democracy from the violent impositions of an illegitimate government. This being the case, the acceptance of the caravan with open arms is more than an act of charity or humanitarian grace, it is a necessary step towards the reconciliation of the nations of the Americas. However, it is only the first step, and what is further required of us is to oppose without exception every intervention, imposition, or interference, that the government of the United States may make upon our sister republics.



El éxodo reciente de muchos centroamericanos desde sus países a los Estados Unidos ha causado acá mucha discusión sobre los problemas de la región, como la pobreza, la violencia, y la injusticia social. Desafortunadamente, las raíces que estos problemáticos tienen en el imperialismo norteamericano no han recibido tanta atención en nuestro discurso político y social en esta crisis. Ciertamente, es esencial reconocer que la crisis que presentemente aflige nuestras repúblicas hermanas en Centroamérica no nos es ajena, sino está entrelazada con las políticas históricas y presentes de nuestro gobierno que han tratado los pueblos de Centroamérica no como iguales, sino como peones.

La primera intervención norteamericana en Centroamérica vino pronto después de la independencia de la región del impero español. Después de la invasión de México, industrialistas norteamericanos querían construir un canal interoceánico en Nicaragua para facilitar transportación más rápida entre las costas de la nación. Esperando hacer realidad este sueño, en el año 1856, William Walker, de Tennessee, empezó una expedición militar en Nicaragua, al pedido del partido liberal nicaragüense. Rápidamente, después de su llegada con un ejército de norteamericanos, Walker tomó la presidencia de Nicaragua. A pesar de las protestas de las naciones de Centroamérica, los Estados Unidos le reconocieron a Walker como el presidente verdadero de Nicaragua. En repuesta, todas las otras naciones de Centroamérica invadieron Nicaragua y lo forzaron a Walker a retirar se del país, aunque no antes que los norteamericanos destruyeran Granada, una de las ciudades mas viejas en el hemisferio. Mientras esta empresa imperialista primera en Centroamérica parece demasiada lejana de nuestros tiempos para ser relevante, ilustra el comienzo temprano de los factores que, todavía hoy, guían la política estadounidense hacia Centroamérica. Los intereses económicos del capital norteamericano y el deseo político del gobierno estadounidense de controlar una posición estratégica se combinaban para hacer la guerra injusta contra Nicaragua.

Más tarde en el siglo XIX, y en el siglo XX, con el auge de corporaciones nuevas y poderosas, la intervención norteamericana en Centroamérica se hizo regular. Las compañías, como United Fruit (fruta unida), utilizaban su riqueza y poder para influenciar a los gobiernos de Centroamérica para ganar concesiones económicas en favor de las compañías. Cuando las condiciones políticas o la inestabilidad las amenazaban, a menudo ellas llamaban al gobierno estadounidense para intervenir. La más famosa de estas intervenciones fue la intervención en Nicaragua desde 1912 hasta 1933. Los EE. UU. y sus empresas también a veces utilizaban su influencia para amenazar a los gobiernos de Centroamérica a reprimir sus propios pueblos. Aunque no en Centroamérica, los acontecimientos que rodearon la huelga de las bananas en Colombia en 1928 proveen un ejemplo claro de esta manera de coerción. Cuando los trabajadores de United Fruit en el norte de Colombia se pusieron en la huelga para mejores condiciones, los Estados Unidos, al pedido de Fruta Unida, amenazó al gobierno conservador de Colombia con invadido a menos que reprimiera a los trabajadores. Miles de trabajadores fueron matados en las represiones que siguieron. La intervención norteamericana en Centroamérica, a través de su protección de concesiones injustas y tratamiento injusto a los trabajadores, ha contribuido a la pobreza de los pueblos de Centroamérica.

Con el comienzo de la guerra fría, las intervenciones norteamericanas en Centroamérica se hicieron menos obvias, pero no menos frecuentes. En 1954, el presidente socialista y nacionalista de Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, electo por el voto popular, fue derrocado por un golpe militar. Árbenz habría empezado un programa de reforma agraria, que amenazaba la dominación económica de United Fruit, y así la compañía y el gobierno estadounidense apoyaron al golpe con dinero e inteligencia. Este golpe inauguró tal vez el periodo más sangriento en la historia de Centroamérica, durante el cual el gobierno estadounidense apoyó dictaduras militares y escuadrones de la muerte contra guerrilleros izquierdistas en casi toda de Centroamérica. Durante este periodo, el gobierno de Guatemala intentó un genocidio contra el pueblo Maya, y los gobiernos de toda la región utilizaban la tortura y el asesinato para reprimir a la oposición, a menudo con el apoyo directo de la CIA.

Mientras que en los años noventas del siglo XX la democracia volvió a Centroamérica, no ha parado la interferencia de los EE. UU. en la región. Ciertamente, el gobierno estadounidense mantiene una base militar, “Soto Cano,” en Honduras, a pesar de la prohibición de la constitución hondureña contra la presencia de ejércitos extranjeros en la tierra nacional. Para evadir esta restricción, el gobierno estadounidense clasifica la misión en Honduras como “un despliegue temporario por un tiempo indefinido.” La base sigue siendo utilizada para operaciones en “la guerra contra las drogas” en toda la región.

En años recientes Honduras ha sufrido quizás la más significante intervención norteamericana en las políticas de una nación centroamericana después de la guerra fría, después de la elección de Manuel “Mel” Zelaya a la presidencia en 2006. Aunque elegido como un liberal, rápidamente Zelaya hizo un giro a la izquierda, aumentado el salario básico, expandiendo los servicios públicos para los pobres, prometiendo mediar en el conflicto entre campesinos y corporaciones internacionales en el Bajo Aguán y llevando el país a la Alianza Bolivariana para los pueblos de Nuestra América. Como una culminación de sus esfuerzos, Zelaya propuso una consulta popular sobre la pregunta de un referendo para reformar la constitución al mismo tiempo de las elecciones presidenciales de dos mil nueve, “la cuarta urna.” Mientras Zelaya discutía que la reforma era necesaria para hacer más profunda la democracia del país, el partido naciónal, un partido conservador, y algunos miembros del partido liberal reclamaban que Zelaya solo quería remover las restricciones de mandatos así él podía ser presidente otra vez, a pesar de que el referendo propuesto ocurriera al mismo tiempo que la elección del sucesor de Zelaya. La disputa política sobre la cuarta urna en último lugar causó, el 28 de junio de 2009, la toma de poder por parte del ejército hondureño que asaltó la residencia presidencial y forzó Zelaya a salir del país.

Mientras públicamente la administración de Obama condenó el golpe, al mismo tiempo no lo llamaba oficialmente un golpe militar, así la administración podía continuar enviando ayuda militar y policial al nuevo gobierno en Honduras. Esta ayuda era inestimable, porque el golpe encontraba una poderosa resistencia popular. En última instancia, después de las elecciones cuestionables en 2009 y 2013, el partido nacional, que apoyaba al golpe militar, mantenía su poder. Por todo este periodo, la administración de Obama seguía enviando ayuda militar al gobierno hondureño, a pesar de la represión de manifestantes y los asesinatos de activistas como Berta Cáceres en 2016. El año siguiente, cuando Juan Orlando Hernández del partido nacional fue reelecto fraudulenta e inconstitucionalmente como presidente, la administración de Trump validó inmediatamente su victoria, aun cuando la armada y la policía mataban y reprimían manifestantes en las calles.

Es claro que el gobierno estadounidense tiene una responsabilidad grande por la pobreza y violencia que hoy han forzado a muchos hondureños y centroamericanos a salir de sus países en éxodo. Por casi diez años, hondureños valientes y patrióticos han sido arrestados y asesinados por militares y policías entrenados por el gobierno estadounidense, y su único crimen fue la defensa de su patria y su democracia contra las imposiciones violentas de un gobierno sin legitimidad. Porque esta es la situación, aceptar a la caravana con brazos abiertos es más que una acción de caridad o de ayuda humanitaria, es un paso necesario hacia la reconciliación de las naciones de América. Sin embargo, solo es el primero paso, lo que debemos hacer es oponernos sin excepciones contra todas las intervenciones, imposiciones, e interferencias, que el gobierno estadounidense haga a nuestras repúblicas hermanas.


Institutional Repression


Photo from the Department of Homeland Security

By Duncan Riley



Yesterday, January 3rd, the much-anticipated 116th congress, product of the “blue wave” took office. It began this first day by passing measures to end the government shutdown, and initiating rule changes to facilitate a future austerity program. While Democrats retook the house by promising a more humane immigration policy, one of their first actions was to pass a spending bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security.[1] The Border Patrol, ICE, and the detention facilities in whose custody two Guatemalan children died in December all fall within said department. Amidst the broader crisis of liberal institutionalism constituted by the shutdown, the Democratic Party proves itself once again to be a force of reaction. While much has been made of the emergence of a “progressive” wing in the party, it has clearly not prevented the party from championing repressive institutions and economic policies that will harm the working classes.

Indeed, all that has occurred since the Trump Administration achieved office has demonstrated clearly the bankruptcy of the present order. While many commentators have turned to decrying ignorant populism as the source of the present crisis, the problem lies far deeper, within the nature of the state itself. Ignorance and racism among the population is undeniably a significant problem which contributes to injustice in society. Yet, said ignorance and racism are most dangerous now as they are weaponized by the state. Repressive state institutions, from ICE and the Border Patrol down to local police, have enthusiastically enforced the Trump Administration’s various oppressive measures towards immigrants. These developments are by no means novel, but rather rely on the deportation apparatus the Obama Administration constructed.[2]

The same trend is found in foreign policy. In 2017, after a disputed election widely condemned as fraudulent, Juan Orlando Hernández of the conservative national party was reelected in Honduras. Government forces repressed protesters, killing over 30 people. Despite this, the Trump Administration recognized the new government as legitimate. This built on the Obama Administration’s efforts to legitimize the conservative governments brought to power by the 2009 military coup. As part of its efforts to stabilize the succeeding conservative governments, the Obama administration sent millions of dollars of military aid to the Honduran military and police, even as they were implicated in human rights abuses and the murder of activists like Berta Cáceres. The violence this has spawned has contributed significantly to the present migration northwards, which the current congress continues to respond to with military measures.

US policy in regards to Honduras, and Central America generally, is based around “Plan Colombia,” a program initiated in the late 1990s and early 2000s to strengthen the Colombian state and military apparatus. By strengthening the Colombian state, successive US administrations hoped to combat cartels and cocaine production as part of the War on Drugs. For the same reason, a similar plan was applied to Mexico with the Mérida Initiative in 2008. After a migrant caravan of unaccompanied minors caused a major stir in US politics in 2014, the Obama Administration championed a new “Plan for Central America.” Outlining the policy in a 2015 editorial, Vice President Joe Biden connected the new plan to Plan Colombia, which he had championed during his time in the Senate.[3] Seldom, if ever, referenced in these schemes to expand Plan Colombia, has been its human costs. While the Colombian state and military were certainly strengthened, there were also wide reports of human rights abuses. In 2008, the “falsos positivos,” scandal broke, revealing that the Colombian army had lured civilians to remote locations with promises of work, then executed them and claimed they were guerrillas. These executions were driven by the policies of the Álvaro Uribe government, and the need to show progress in the war to justify continued US military aid. A recent study shows that possibly as many as 10,000 people were killed as “falsos positivos.”[4]

It has thus repeatedly been demonstrated that the very institutions that supposedly exist to protect our freedom and to promote justice are in reality pernicious to these aims. The unending slew of injustices committed by successive administrations in Washington is itself related to the fundamental corruption of bourgeois democracy. As Álvaro Garcia Linera argues, in modern democracy “the exercise of public rights is simply a ceremony of relinquishing political will, the will to govern, in order to deposit it in the hands of a new cast of private owners of politics…”[5]  Modern democracy thus rejects the right of the working class, of the poor, to seize the reigns of government themselves, and determine their own destiny. In the absence of true popular democracy, oligarchy reigns over the levers of power, using them to defend its narrow interests, at the expense of the rights of the oppressed masses. Within this context, the exploitation and tyrannical impositions that immigrants and other social groups face become a normalized function of state institutions and makes repression or the threat of repression a daily experience. Faced with this situation, to reform the state or to populate it with “progressives”, will not bring justice, as was shown by the actions of congress yesterday. State repression must rather be swept away through social revolution, and in its place must be constructed popular democracy, on the basis of equality and liberty for all.



[1] The New York Times. “New Congress Live Updates: The 116th House Votes on New Speaker.” The New York Times. January 03, 2019. Accessed January 03, 2019.

[2] Franco, Marisa, and Carlos Garcia. “The Deportation Machine Obama Built for President Trump.” The Nation. June 28, 2016. Accessed January 04, 2019.

[3] Biden, Joseph R. “A Plan for Central America.” The New York Times. January 29, 2015. Accessed January 04, 2019.

[4] Daniels, Joe Parkin. “Colombian Army Killed Thousands More Civilians than Reported, Study Claims.” The Guardian. May 08, 2018. Accessed January 04, 2019.

[5] Linera, Álvaro García. Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-class and Popular Identities in Bolivia, 101.  Leiden: Brill, 2014.

A Policy of Brutality

A picture for policy of brutality Patrolling a fortified border, photo from the Associated Press

By Duncan Riley



The recent death of 7-year old Guatemalan migrant Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquin in Border Patrol custody has ignited further public outcry over the conduct of the Border Patrol and the Trump administration’s immigration policies. After eight hours in custody, Caal and her father were not provided with water, and provided only with cookies for food. Further, after the death of his daughter, Jakelin’s father, who does not speak English, was asked to sign English-language only voluntary departure forms.[1] All of this has brought to the public’s attention what former Border Patrol agent Francisco Cantú calls an “institutional culture of the Border Patrol” that “regularly dismisses even the most basic needs of detained migrants.” Detained migrants, after walking through the desert heat for days, are often denied water, as agents are taught to see migrants as “aliens” and “illegals,” rather than as humans. As Cantú says, what happened to Caal “is not an aberration.”[2]

However, what has received less attention is how the culture of cruelty that pervades the Border Patrol is only one aspect of a larger culture of cruelty that pervades US immigration and border policy, and the institutions that enforce it. It is no accident, nor a freely made choice, that causes thousands of migrants each year to make the dangerous crossing of the Sonoran, Arizonan, and New Mexican deserts. During the 1990s, the Clinton administration initiated a new “Prevention through Deterrence” policy on the southern border, modeled on the Pentagon’s doctrines for suppressing guerilla war. Urban and natural crossing points were heavily fortified and guarded, while desert regions were left more sparsely protected, under the assumption that the environment would provide a natural deterrent. In reality, this policy has not served to deter migration, but has made it far more dangerous, by forcing migrants to make desert crossings.[3]

Making the long journey across the desert, under threat of detention by the Border Patrol, forces migrants to make difficult choices. Migrants are generally unable to carry enough water to sustain them over the long journey. After they run out of water, they are faced with the prospect of dehydration, or drinking bacteria-contaminated water that ranchers keep for livestock.[4] Migrants also generally wear dark clothing, and paint their possessions black, in the hope it will camouflage them from the Border Patrol. However, since black clothing absorbs more heat, it exponentially raises the risk of hyperthermia and dehydration.[5] All of these dangerous health impacts are ultimately the result of the sustained policy of militarization at the US-Mexico border, that successive presidential administrations have maintained.

It is no surprise then, that over the preceding years, the death toll has continued to rise. After the first ten years of the “Prevention through Deterrence” policy, border-crossing deaths doubled.[6] To this day, the situation has not improved significantly. In the first seven months of the last year, 232 people died while crossing the desert, a 17% increase from 2016. The situation has been aggravated by border officials increasing refusal to even hear asylum claims from migrants, forcing them to make desert crossings. The UN agency that produced the findings said it was likely an underestimate.[7]

Faced with a mounting death toll and the failure of their policies, the responses of the Department of Homeland Security and the border patrol have often smacked of the tragically absurd. For some years now, the Department of Homeland Security has funded the creation and distribution of corridos, Mexican folk ballads, that tell the story of the dangers and violence of the journey to the United States. Originally, these corridos were distributed in Mexico, but the recent increase in immigration from Central America has caused the government to expand the program.[8] Only four years ago, the Border Patrol, in a creative collaboration with a US advertising agency, created and distributed “La Bestia,” a hit song across Central America, describing the deadly journey north. Those listening to the song, of course, were not informed that it was produced by the US government.[9] This program, collectively referred to as “migras corridos,” does nothing to alleviate the plight of migrants, but serves to make plain the violence inherent in US policy.

Yet, in the face of the danger, migrants continue to risk everything to travel to the United States. Many migrants making desert crossings are deported long-time residents of the US, determined to return to their families and homes north of the Río Bravo.[10] Others are Guatemalans and Salvadorans, fleeing the violence and economic instability that have plagued the region as a result of the civil wars between leftist rebels and US-backed dictatorships in the 20th century. Hondurans in particular have been fleeing in large numbers to the United States. Since the US backed coups in 2009 and 2017, political opponents of the right-wing government have faced persecution and violence, and the economic and social situations have deteriorated rapidly. US border policy thus layers cruelty upon cruelty, as migrants and refugees fleeing violence and persecution that US foreign policy helped create are subjected to further violence and persecution at the border.

Despite the manifest humanitarian and practical failure of its border policy, the present US government, and the leadership of both major political parties, seems committed to continuing it. Minnesota Democratic Party Senator and presidential hopeful, Amy Klobuchar, recently expressed she would be willing to fund Trump’s wall in exchange for a promise of immigration reform.[11] As of today, a bill passed by the House yesterday that would provide funding for the wall in order to prevent a government shutdown seems slated to pass or fail by a slim margin in the Senate.[12] Such a compromise, whether pushed by Democrats or Republicans, continues to endanger the lives of the thousands of migrants that cross each year, in return for a vague promise of a moderate reform that will not balance the scales of justice. It equally, by supporting the construction of a physical barrier between the United States and its Latin American sister republics, serves to further weaken the bonds of sorority wherein lie the best hope for a better, and more equal hemisphere. Whether North American, Mexican, Honduran, or Argentinian, we are all Americans – the physical or political obstructions constructed between us are not organic, but artificial and imperial in nature. The only reform that will bring true justice is the reversal of the United States government’s sanguinary policies at the border, and the end of the present political situation in the United States. For, if the present forces that dominate the US government persist in power, we can be assured that there will be more Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquins.



[1] Moore, Robert, and Nick Miroff. “Attorneys for Father of Deceased Migrant Girl Say Border Agents Did Not Provide Water.” Washington Post, December 19, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2018.

[2] Cantú, Francisco. “7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin Died at the Border. What Happened to Her Is Not an Aberration.” Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2018.

[3] León, Jason De. ““Better to Be Hot than Caught”: Excavating the Conflicting Roles of Migrant Material Culture.” American Anthropologist114, no. 3 (2012): 479-480. Accessed December 21, 2018. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2012.01447.x.

[4] Ibid., 486.

[5] Ibid., 489.

[6] USA. Government Accountability Office. Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995; Border Patrol’s Efforts to Prevent Deaths Have Not Been Fully Evaluated. Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2006. Accessed December 21, 2018.

[7] Holpuch, Amanda. “Migrant Deaths at US-Mexico Border Increase 17% This Year, UN Figures Show.” The Guardian, August 5, 2017. Accessed December 21, 2018.

[8] Herrera-Sobek, María. “The Border Patrol and Their Migra Corridos: Propaganda, Genre Adaptation, and Mexican Immigration.” American Studies Journal, May 11, 2012. Accessed December 21, 2018.

[9] Barkham, Patrick. “La Bestia: The Hit Song the US Border Agency Made to Scare off Immigrants.” The Guardian, July 16, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2018.

[10] Jason De León. ““Better to Be Hot than Caught”: Excavating the Conflicting Roles of Migrant Material Culture,” 482.

[11] Scanlan, Quinn. “Dem Senator Expresses Willingness to Negotiate Funding for Border Wall.” ABC News. November 25, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2018.

[12] Shabad, Rebecca. “Bill to Fund Border Wall Teeters on Edge in Senate.” December 21, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2018.

The Unpast by R.S. Rose

Cover of The Unpast

By Duncan Riley



Generally, it is assumed that terror can only be practiced on a mass scale by states. R. S. Rose, in his book The Unpast: Elite Violence and Social Control in Brazil, argues that it is not only governments that commit acts of mass terror, but also elites seeking to maintain their social positions and to exercise control over the lower classes. This focus on elite violence moves the discussion away from how states abuse their authority through torture and terror, to how any group with a hierarchal relationship to a lower group can abuse that authority, and indeed, that that abuse is an inevitable aspect of hierarchy in the first place. In doing so, Rose offers compelling explanations of the seeming persistence of terroristic practices in Brazil despite changes in governmental form, and of why the burden of terror seems to always fall hardest upon the poor.

S. Rose’s primary thesis is that the domination of one class by another is a violent act, and while that domination is generally maintained through law, ultimately it requires violence in the form of terror and torture to uphold – acts that are viewed as criminal in the very laws developed by elites to control the lower classes (Rose 10). Three primary conclusions can be drawn from this idea. First, that terror and torture are caused by elite attempts to maintain their social status, and thus are not only the tools of dictatorial governments, but also the tools of democratic governments that remain dominated by traditional elites. Second, that terror and torture are not only carried out by government officials, but also by organizations controlled or led by elites that act independently of governmental authority. Finally, the acts carried out by governments and elites are in conflict with the very laws they have developed. Considering the extreme urban-rural divide in Brazilian society, analysis of these themes must include both the urban and rural contexts independently.

As to the first point, in urban areas, the period after Goulart’s overthrow witnessed only an increase in extralegal police and military torture, not its onset. Soon after the coup, General and now President Castelo Branco began the process of consolidating the regimes hold on power, and by November 1966, every police station within the state of Guanabara (which contained Rio de Janeiro), had its own torture room (Rose 104). The following example illustrates how police torture operation typically operated – “In… a working-class municipality, north of Rio, a policeman had a relative whose store was losing several cans…of goods a night due to theft… the lawman turned [to informants] … within 30 minutes a suspect was produced. The individual was vigorously questioned, but refused to confess. So the constable in charge… broke his legs and a number of his ribs. But still the man would not confess… beaten into a coma, he was thrown into a humid cell.” Later, the informants returned and informed the police that they had had the wrong man (Rose 104).  Note that the police are operating in a working-class neighborhood, and further, how the police are acting at the request of a local business owner, establishing the class-based nature of the violence – it was aimed at controlling the lower classes, and protecting the propertied classes. It is furthermore important to note that these practices, despite their illegality, are not solely the product of the military dictatorship, but rather had their roots in the police practices of the authoritarian, but elected, President Getúlio Vargas in the 1930s. Furthermore, the practice of maintaining torture rooms in police stations has persisted even after the restoration of democracy (Rose 101; 107). While the form of government had changed, the class system had not, and the elites still needed to exercise social control, and torture was simply another tool to maintain that control. Thus, we see that across the dictatorship and after the democratic restoration, torture was used by Brazilian elites to maintain their social status, and therefore, the domination of one class by another was maintained by crime.

However, terror in Brazil was not only carried out by the government. Indeed, Rose points out that the state terror associated with the military dictatorship was increasingly unpopular as it impacted the middle classes to a far greater degree than it had previously (Rose 199). As a result, government ministers and elites in both the military and restored democratic governments increasingly had to find more covert ways of dealing with opposition. This led to the formation of the first death squads in the Americas during the middle and late 1960s, at times with the support of the military government, and at times without its knowledge, to target the enemies of the government (Rose 246-9). These groups were not official, but they often had some form of a connection with the police (Rose 296). Torture and terror in Brazil were thus not only carried out by the state directly, but also through private organizations that shared similar goals and prejudices with the military government. The violence has always taken on a class tenor. During both the dictatorship, and continuing after the democratic restoration, victims of the death squads in the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have been overwhelmingly from working class backgrounds (Rose 280). Furthermore, the victims’ bodies were generally found in working class regions of the cities (Rose 290-1). Death squads were primarily targeting the lower classes, attempting to sow fear and demoralization amongst them. Therefore, the violence of these illegal death squads was ultimately just another component of elite efforts to assert their control over the lower classes.

In rural Brazil, the government continued its policies of terror. When a small number of Maoists entered the region of Araguaia, the government responded by flooding the region with twenty-six thousand troops. The Maoists, at their peak, numbered no more than sixty, but had gained the support of some of the camponê communities, and this spectre of rural revolt was the rationale behind the Brazilian government’s attacks (Rose 179). This completely disproportionate show of force by the government implies that the military intended to do more than just put down a few rebels. It was a move designed to demonstrate to the Brazilian camponês that resistance against the dictatorship was futile. The nature of the military operations in Araguaia reinforce this point. As the Brazilian army entered an area, it would take prisoner any camponês that they could find. Then they would demand free relatives of the prisoner to assist them as scouts or auxiliaries in exchange for the release of their loved ones. They could further prove their loyalty by cutting off the heads of opposition members and returning them to officers (Rose 180). By forcing the camponês to participate in the campaign, and by keeping hostages, the military was demonstrating that they had the upper hand, and any resistance by the camponês would only result in their or their family’s deaths. Further, the brutal methods and the turning of neighbor against neighbor ultimately were designed to destroy any sense of solidarity within camponê communities. And once again, the violence is primarily directed at the poorer classes. Finally, the military also carried out a brutal torture regime with the aim of gathering intelligence on the sixty guerrilla’s activities, much the same as they did in urban Brazil (Rose 180). Thus the military government used overwhelming force and torture as a means to crush any potential lower-class resistance and ensure the continued dominance of the state and the elites over rural Brazil.

Just as in urban Brazil, the restoration of democracy did not end the terror that so many camponês experienced. Long before the military dictatorship, landowners relied on jagunços and capangas, hired thugs and bodyguards, to ensure their workers stayed in line (Rose 204). However, as the military government began to collapse, the terror required a more respectable front, leading to the founding of the União Democrática Ruralista (UDR) in 1984, a conglomeration of rural elites opposed to land reform (Rose 204). The UDR, despite its theoretical repudiation of violence, often hired assassins to deal with anyone who agitated against the dominance of rural elites. Indeed, the practice was so common that specific prices were established for the killing of certain individuals, ranging from several hundred dollars for a union official, to nearly twenty-thousand dollars for a local mayor. There is no price for individual agricultural workers, as landowners could usually deal with them through their jagunços easily enough (Rose 206-208). Clearly, rural elites had developed an organized system for violently removing anyone who opposed them – a system which most certainly qualifies as terroristic. Further, the violence is directed at those who are likely to advocate on behalf of the lower classes – union leaders, clergy, local political figures.

Another form of terror in rural Brazil has been illegal since 1888 – slavery. The practice begins in the cities. A gato (recruiter), offers an unemployed Brazilian a wonderful plantation job, with great pay and benefits, and free transportation. Upon actually arriving, the new worker discovers that conditions are horrible, and he is now indebted to his employer for his transportation, and thus his wages must go to paying that debt. Further, he must rack up more debt as he can only buy goods at an overpriced company store. This new debt to his employer makes it impossible for him to leave the fazenda. If any try to escape or resist, the jagunços are always nearby (Rose 219). There may be as many as thirty-five thousand individuals in this situation in the state of São Paulo alone (Rose 222). This practice of slavery is both illegal and, while it may not traditionally be seen as such, terror. Representatives of the rural elites trick poor urban people to come to work for them, and then concocted debt and armed men hold those individuals on the plantations. The constant threat of force and pain slavery makes it terroristic in nature – and keeps tens of thousands of people living in fear and bondage. Thus, in rural Brazil just as in urban Brazil, elites do not solely rely on the government to mete out terror to keep the lower classes in line, but are significant practitioners themselves, especially after the restoration of democracy.

In the decades before and after the overthrow of João Goulart, torture and terror in Brazilian society has varied in intensity but never ended. During the dictatorship, and persisting even after the restoration of democracy. Brazilian police used torture on a mass scale, primarily targeting the poor and other enemies of the government, while death squads targeted working-class communities. Meanwhile, in rural Brazil, the military government carried out massive military operations to deal with handfuls of enemies, and land owners maintained the slave system and hired assassins and thugs to deal with any who opposed their excesses. Rose’s analysis of Brazil’s long history of terror and torture ultimately makes an important universal conclusion about the practices – that they are ultimately the products of elites attempts to maintain their social dominance against increasingly aware and rebellious lower classes. This leads to a final conclusion about the nature of democracy in western society – as long as government, whether democratic or not, exists only to serve the privileged in society, then that society will always have its basis in terror.


Works Cited

Rose, R. S. The Unpast : Elite Violence and Social Control in Brazil, 1954/2000 / R.S. Rose. Athens, Ohio, Ohio University Press, 2005.

Honduras, Immigration, and Intervention


A Honduran protester waves a banner depicting the face of Francisco Morazán (Photo Credit to Getty Images)

August 1st, 2018

By Duncan Riley


With the recent spike in deportations, the Trump administration’s increasingly hostile rhetoric towards immigrants, particularly those from Central America, and the recent crisis over separations of families, the Democratic Party and its adherents have generally adopted a uniform line: “refugees welcome.” While this is, of course, a far more humane policy than that advocated by the Trump administration, it has a fundamental flaw. It fails to address in any meaningful way how the policies of preceding US administrations (both Republican and Democratic) have forced people to flee their homes to the United States. The most obvious case of this is in Honduras.

Honduras is, in the words of Father Ismael Moreno, an “etcetera country,” one of those Central American countries considered so unimportant by US media and politics that it is often lumped with its neighbors as just another country sending immigrants northwards.[1] Indeed, Hondurans made up the majority of the recent migrant train that caused a serious controversy in our politics. Most media coverage and public debate on this issue has focused on how gang violence, crime, and poverty have forced Hondurans to flee their country. Occasionally the role the Trump administration has played in deepening the nation’s present political crisis is mentioned.[2] Unfortunately, political discourse in the US has largely ignored that Honduras has been the victim of the most significant US intervention into the politics of a Central American nation since the Cold War.

In the early hours of June 28th, 2009, members of the Honduran military broke into the home of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya and forced him on a plane to Costa Rica. This military coup, ostensibly about a dispute over potential constitutional reform, had deeper roots in Honduran society. Honduras suffers from some of the highest poverty and inequality levels in Latin America. Further, its northern Bajo Aguán region has seen a long running and often violent conflict between large agribusinesses and farmers who argue that the companies have defrauded them of their land. During his presidency, Zelaya had sought to increase the minimum wage, and to mediate the land disputes in the Bajo Aguán, among other efforts to improve the status of the nation’s working class. He also led the country into the left-wing regional integrationist organization, The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America.[3] Despite the moderate nature of these reforms, Zelaya’s leftward turn awoke the significant ire of Honduras’s traditional elite, ultimately resulting in the 2009 coup d’état.

While the Obama administration condemned the coup verbally, it maintained policies that benefited the coup’s leaders. Obama was careful to avoid using the word military coup, allowing his administration to legally continue military and police aid to Honduras – aid that was promptly used to repress protesters and Zelaya’s supporters.[4] Military aid to Honduras continued throughout the rest of the Obama administration, even as the Honduran government and military were accused of conspiring to kill indigenous and land rights activists such as Berta Caceres.[5] Hillary Clinton’s state department’s response to the coup was even more questionable, as it equivocated over whether or not a coup had actually occurred, and seemingly prioritized ensuring order and continued US military presence in the country above all else.[6] It should be noted that the latter is entirely illegal, as the Honduran constitution prohibits permanent foreign military presence within the country, and thus the mission has only been allowed to remain due to the agreement of the coup government, and US classification of the mission as a “temporary deployment for an indefinite period.”[7] Ultimately, Zelaya, just like Jacobo Árbenz a half-century before, was just another Central American leftist getting in the way of the US’s larger strategic plan for the Americas.

Though the coup initially met strong resistance, in the end the government was able to retain power through repression and brute force. Yet, a cloud of illegitimacy has hung over the government, amid continuing violence against activists and the opposition, and concerns over the legitimacy of the three elections held since the coup. The November 2017 election was so controversial that it caused the Honduran people’s indignation to boil over, precipitating the present crisis.

The 2017 Honduran presidential election pitted the incumbent Juan Hernández of the right-wing National Party, against opposition challenger Salvador Nasralla, candidate of the Alliance Against the Dictatorship, a coalition of several parties including Zelaya’s socialist Libre party. From the start the election was questionable. The Honduran constitution explicitly prohibits reelection, however the Supreme Court unilaterally declared it legal in 2015. However, as initial reports of the election results came in, it looked like the opposition was poised to triumph. Suddenly, the computer system for results tabulation purportedly crashed, and when it came back online two days later, Hernández was in the lead. Hondurans flooded the streets and built barricades, and some segments of the police even attempted a revolt. However, Hernández was declared the winner, and the Trump administration recognized him, registering no complaints about the process, and keeping the military aid money flowing.[8] More than thirty Hondurans were killed, and government repression, often carried out by US trained forces, continues to this day.[9]

It is entirely understandable then that so many Hondurans have had to flee their nation to the United States. These refugees should be welcomed. At the same time, it is also important to combat the policies our government has maintained that have helped turn Honduras into a violent dictatorship. At present, the “Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act,” which would end military and police aid to Honduras, is being considered by Congress. As a show of solidarity to our sister republic, we, as the American people, must support this bill.

Honduras is more than an “etcetera country.” It’s national hero, Francisco Morazán tirelessly fought to preserve the 1830s union of Central American States, and to build a more democratic and egalitarian society. He also was a staunch opponent of foreign intervention in the fledgling Central American republics’ affairs. Today, his face is a common sight among the protest signs of Hondurans, and his name is often invoked in the continued struggle for a new Honduras. The people of the United States could do well to learn from the democratic examples of Morazán and the Honduran people, and fight against the policies of our government that have helped bring so much misery to Honduras.



[1] Silber, Judy. “Bay Area Coalition Rallies for Priest Facing Danger in Honduras.” KALW Local Public Radio, May 24, 2018,

[2] Semple, Kirk. “Inside an Immigrant Caravan: Women and Children, Fleeing Violence.” The New York Times, April 4, 2018,

[3] Lakhani, Nina. “Two More Honduran Land Rights Activists Killed in Ongoing Violence.” The Guardian, October 19, 2016,

[4] Valle, Alvaro. “Dancing with Monsters: The U.S. Response to the 2009 Honduran Coup.” Harvard Political Review, April 13, 2015,

[5] Blitzer, Jonathan. “Should the U.S. Still Be Sending Military Aid to Honduras?” The New Yorker, August 17, 2016,

[6] ibid

[7] Baer, Jim. “U.S. Military Presence in Latin America Increasing.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. July 1, 2015,

[8] Malkin, Elizabeth. “U.S. Backs Honduran President’s Victory in Disputed Election.” The New York Times, December 22, 2017,