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Central American Refugee Crisis

Resources on the ongoing Central American refugee crisis.

Civil Wars and Instability:

Guatemala's Flag. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In June 1954, warplanes attacked several towns including the capital with the goal of ousting Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. In the fourth year of a six-year term, the president was addressing the country’s economic and social inequality, most significantly through land reform. The American United Fruit Company was the largest employer and landowner in the country, meaning their profits, production, and control over Guatemalan politics would be dramatically lessened by these reforms (Schlesinger, 70). Teresa Godwin Phelps writes, “It is now widely accepted that the rebels were encouraged and funded by the United States at the urging of the United Fruit Company and others who feared that President Arbenz was allied with communists” (623). Arbenz was forced to step down, leading to a civil war in 1960 that proceeded for 36 years (Nelson, 122).

The following military regimes utilized death squads that tortured unarmed citizens and massacred Mayan villages. Over 200,000 people were murdered or disappeared, most of them Mayan. The war ended in 1996, but the economic and social effects persist to this day, leading to the influx of Guatemalans seeking refuge in the United States (125). 


Schlesinger, Stephen C. “The Overlord: United Fruit Company.” Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Harvard University, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Cambridge, MA, 2005, pp. 70–82. 

Hove, Mark T. “The Arbenz Factor: Salvador Allende, U.S.-Chilean Relations, and the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala.” Diplomatic History, vol. 31, no. 4, 2007, pp. 623–63,

Nelson, Diane M. “Low Intensities.” Current Anthropology, vol. 60, no. S19, 2019, 

Phelps, Teresa Godwin. “Truth Delayed: Accounting for Human Rights Violations in Guatemala and Spain.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 4, 2014, pp. 820–43. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.

Further Library Resources:

Book ► Smith, Timothy J., et al. After the Coup : An Ethnographic Reframing of Guatemala 1954. 1st ed., University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Article ► Flynn, Michael. “Is This Peace? The Civil War Ended Six Years Ago. Although Guatemala’s Uprooted Are Trying to Rebuild Their Lives, Extreme Poverty, Violence, Distrust, and Fear Remain.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 58, no. 6, 2002, pp. 62–70.

El Salvador flag. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1980s, the government of El Salvador suffered from “corruption, widespread human rights abuses by state security forces, and a lack of democratic legitimacy” (Ladwig, 2). Matthew Philipp Whelan writes that the “routine and public display of corpses” was “not simply about eliminating the revolutionary opposition (or suspected opposition). It was also and especially about making a spectacle of violence by terrorizing and scattering the populace” (631). A coup in 1979 marked the beginning of a 12-year civil war, ending in 1992. At least “75,000 Salvadorans died in the conflict, and more than a million were displaced. Nearly 20 percent had left their country” (Moodie, 1).

In February 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote to President Jimmy Carter, urging him against financially supporting the Salvadoran government. A few days after receiving the reply that the U.S. would continue providing military support, Romero was assassinated (Gladd, 252). The Truth Commission for El Salvador, approved by the United Nations, named Roberto D'Aubuisson, the founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance and the President of El Salvador's Constituent Assembly from 1982 to 1983, as responsible for ordering his murder (Boutros-Ghali). 

The war mounted between guerrilla militant factions and the right-wing government. The guerilla troops gained control over significant masses of land at the outset of the civil war from 1981 to 1983, as the Salvadoran army was not prepared for the insurgency. The military grew dramatically in size and brutal offensive strategy with the continued support of the United States. American efforts to support the Salvadoran government were redoubled in 1983 under President Reagan (Ching, 43). As the war came to a close, a 1990s U.S. policy deported Salvadorians with criminal records, influencing increased gang activity in their home country, adding another layer to the conditions of corruption, crime, and violence that led to the modern refugee crisis (Lopez et. al).


Boutros-Grali, Boutros. “Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador.” Equipo Nizkor - Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, 1993, 

Ching, Erik. Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle over Memory. The University of North Carolina Press, 2016,

Glad, Betty. An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy. 1st ed., Cornell University Press, 2009, pp. xiii–xiii,

Ladwig, Walter C. “Influencing Clients in Counterinsurgency: U.S. Involvement in El Salvador’s Civil War, 1979–92.” International Security, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, pp. 99–146,

Moodie, Ellen. El Salvador in the Aftermath of Peace Crime, Uncertainty, and the Transition to Democracy. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010,

Whelan, Matthew Philipp. “‘You Possess The Land That Belongs To All Salvadorans’: Archbishop Óscar Romero and Ordinary Violence.” Modern Theology, vol. 35, no. 4, 2019, pp. 638–62,

Honduras flag. Source: WikiMedia Commons. 

In 1981, the Reagan administration sought to overthrow the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua through several policies aimed at injuring their economy while simultaneously financing the armed counter-revolutionary army, the Contras (Prevost, 5-9). Read more on the political circumstances with a library search for “Iran Contra Affair.” Additionally, see:

The National Security Archive: The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations, The Oliver North File 

Vital Speeches of the Day: Ronald Reagan's speech, 1987 - The Iran-Contra Affair; The Nation's Budget

United States Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia Circuit: Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters 

Philip L. Shepherd writes in 1984, "the lowest priority for current U.S. policy towards Honduras is Honduras" (1). The country was “transformed into a staging ground for covert operations” (CJA). There was not an “outright civil war in Honduras in the 1980s, although the country provided the base of operations for the Contras and other military forces that were aligned with U.S. interests and supported by millions of dollars in foreign aid” (Reichman 45). The U.S. trained death squad, Battalion 316, was charged with combatting “both domestic and regional subversive movements operating in and through Honduras,” according to a declassified CIA cable (Otterman, 88). Units were designated for torture, abduction, and executions. From 1980 to 1994, at least 180 persons were disappeared (Human Rights Watch). In 2009, As the country began to recover and confront its history of state sanctioned violence, President Manuel Zelaya was “removed from power at gunpoint and forced into exile by the Honduran army, acting on the orders of the Supreme Court and Congress” (CJA). 

“After the 2009 coup, the government essentially stopped functioning in rural areas where organized crime took hold and cocaine shipments started arriving in larger numbers,” Adam Isacson, senior program associate at the Washington Office on Latin America told The Guardian. “As institutions hollowed out and became corrupted, gang activity increased and the United States got a wave of migrants” (Kinosian). 


Honduras. The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA). (2009).

Shepherd, Philip L. “The Tragic Course and Consequences of U.S. Policy in Honduras.” World Policy Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, 1984, pp. 109–54. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.

Kinosian, Sarah. “ Crisis of Honduras Democracy Has Roots in US Tacit Support for 2009 Coup.” The Guardian, 2017,

Merrill, Tim, and Library Of Congress. Federal Research Division. Honduras: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress: For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O, 1995. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Nevins, Joseph. “How US Policy in Honduras Set the Stage for Today's Migration.” The Conversation, 15 Sept. 2022,

History Channel video summarizing critical points of Central American history. 

Time: Under 7 minutes. Published: 2018.