In light of immigration policies and their justifications presented by Donald Trump in his first State of the Union address, especially with regard to remarks made about the Salvadoran gang MS-13, this chapter contextualizes the origins of the gang, and the history of violence in El Salvador. Beginning with the coup in El Salvador in 1979, the chapter discusses the ways in which the U.S. media portrayed the conflict. The United States funded the Salvadoran security forces, first under the Carter Administration, and then through the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, which to extreme cases of Human Rights abuses. Media coverage consistently mystified the origins of the violence, asserting that it was caused by “extremists on both the left and the right.” In 1980, four church women were raped and murdered by Salvadoran Armed Forces and Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated by a right-wing death squad. Yet the United States continued to back the Salvadoran military. Under the neo-cold war policies of Ronald Reagan, justifications for U.S. support shifted to anti-communism, though no evidence of Soviet “meddling” in the hemisphere was ever verified. Early in the war, at the end of 1981 the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Brigade would murder almost 900 villagers in the El Mozote Massacre. Though the aftermath of the scene was well documented by journalist on assignment for the New York Times and the Washington Post, the U.S. State Department would continue to certify that the Salvadoran military was making progress on Human Rights. A peace accord brokered by the United Nations ended the civil war in 1992.
This chapter traces the origins of security discourses back to what British media theorists identified as the law and order frame used by U.K. media in the early 1980s. Media perspectives that favor security forces, and their responsive violence, over an accurate portrayal of the needs and demands of global citizens, shaped media coverage. Today, those same media frames constrain debates about border security, and I argue that they perpetuate a cycle of violence that crosses borders and causes great human suffering. U.S. intervention in Central America explains continuing acts of violence there. Without understanding the history of violence, a context rarely included in media coverage, the causes of out migrations remain obscured, and public debates about border security will necessarily be shallow, with little potential to yield policies able to benefit the people of the Americas.