Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- In the 1960s and '70s, when you would land at the international airport in El Salvador in Central America, more than likely you'd soon be sickened.

The airport is in the lowlands by the sea; San Salvador, the capital, is up in the mountains. It was such a time that, as you drove up to the capital, you would see dozens of mutilated bodies by the sides of the road. At first, people protested; then they just took it for granted and hardly noticed the massacres.

That was the era of Washington's brave new world anti-communist crusade in these small and impossibly poor countries of Central America, which had so little to build on from the beginning. Cuba was sending trainers and inspiration into El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and those countries were, in turn, sending their best youth to Cuba for advanced training. It was a moment of little hope for the region, except for those who wanted to walk the Castro path.

But that period is over. One can say that the Americanos won. At least there are no Marxist guerrillas in the mountains in El Salvador anymore, and, at least the last time I was there, there were no bodies along the road. The presidency, which in the old days was largely won by the Arena, the far-right party responsible for many of those early massacres, is now usually won by the Christian Democrats or the descendants of those old leftist guerrillas.

But something strange has happened along the road from disaster to the hope of something better. Despite those changes, there are more violent deaths in El Salvador today than there were back then. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, but El Salvador is fifth. This is quite an "honor," considering their contenders in the world are Somalia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Burma, Ukraine and ... well, let's stop there.

Why this should be is a story worth telling, although it is far from a noble tale. Take that story of 40 to 50 years ago and move to the present day. Now we find children, especially from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, coming in mobs across the U.S. border in the Southwest every day. But they are not communists or leftists, and they are not Cuban-trained guerrillas. They are poor children fleeing the new violent people of Central America: the criminals, the drug smugglers and the people smugglers.

This is what we face today. These new killers are even more violent than the old "commies," and they are murdering more people than ever. Dare one pause to wonder whether one kind of violent character in Central America is now simply being transformed into another kind as the times change?

The communist era of the '60s and '70s was a dramatic one, with money pouring in from Russia and Cuban trainers on the horizon, but as noted earlier, the struggle was won by the U.S., at great cost to the Central Americans. But once the communists and guerrillas were defeated, that did not mean the violent quality of those young men and women was defeated -- to the contrary!

Boys and some girls from El Salvador had already been traveling back and forth to Los Angeles in the illegal networks of "undocumented workers" -- but now the journey had become a regular one for many youngsters. Moreover, in L.A. and its environs, they met and bonded with American gangs, another potential organizer of the passions of the destructively violent, like the Mara Salvatrucha, or M-13, gang, which now flourishes in both countries with their young.

From there, it was a quick jump to participation in the more adult and more sophisticated drug gangs for whom Central America has taken the place of honor of the former Numero Uno, Colombia. Buses, trains, planes, trucks, cars: All of these are the vehicles by which the brutal drug cartels carry and transport heroin, cocaine, hashish and anything that will sell in El Norte -- and now they can carry young would-be immigrants, too, and perhaps turn them into their own drug carriers from one corner of the Caribbean to the other.

So what we are seeing are situations in which young Central Americans can simply put on another guise and turn their desire for money, security and drugs into a new reality. All of these new "personas" are illegal, some more so than others; but it is sure that all reflect poorly on their societies and their cultures, which seem to be losing stability with every day that passes. These small states are, of course, the present-day incarnation of the glorious kingdoms of the great Mayan peoples of 500 years ago. What a tragic denouement!

Saddest of all, perhaps, is the part the United States has played in all of this destruction. Since the beginning of the 20th century, America has seemed to be thoroughly incapable of seeing itself in any other role vis-a-vis needy societies "out there" except as replacing the old European colonial powers.

The French weren't "holding" at Dien Bien Phu in Indochina? We would send our boys to fight on the French side! The Portuguese made a mess of Angola? Just tell us where! The British made a perfect mishmash of the entire Middle East? Well, they never were very good at drawing maps -- and who ever understood the tribes and peoples of Iraq, anyway?

These convulsions may seem hard to understand, but they are, in truth, the inevitable consequence of decades of inattention and skewed priorities on our doorstep.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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