IN THE FALL OF 2012, when I was a freshman in high school, I took a class called AP human geography.
It was one of the most eye-opening classes I’d taken up to that point in my life—as well as the most depressing. Rooted in the global study of demographics, the class entailed discussing the breadth of human suffering, matters that provoke most people to drown their apprehension by turning on Netflix: overpopulation, poverty, environmental collapse. On one typical day, I remember we watched a documentary about overpopulation in Indian slums. The imagery within—dust-choked shanties, emaciated mothers, all narrated by a smooth British voice—was so depressing that, by the end of it, I was left despairing at the futility of human existence.
The video depicts a huddled mass of migrants, quiet, exhausted, several hundred in number, their eyes squinting dimly in the bright light of the camera. They squat in the creosote, heads bowed in defeat, coughing and shivering in the cold. All around them, men in green fatigues bearing AR-15s and thigh-strapped pistols saunter the group’s perimeter, examining the migrants with cold glances of suspicion and shouting the occasional command in poorly pronounced Spanish.
“How bad will we let it get,” a concerned female voice muses, “before we actually build the wall?”
Midway through the video, the crowd is ushered downhill at gunpoint to a cluster of Border Patrol vehicles. After the video cuts off, they’ll be shuttled to detention centers, locked in cages, and detained interminably before being ejected back into the cartel-dominated no-man’s-land of northern Mexico. They’ll have little protection once they’re dropped there, with no means of getting home nor knowledge of the whereabouts of their parents or children.
Manuel Zelaya, Honduras’ ousted ex-President, eases into the couch in the headquarters for his LIBRE party and lays out the opposition’s mounting insurrection.
This summer marked 10 years since Zelaya was overthrown in a US-backed military coup. The decade since has transformed Honduras, exacerbating the Central American nation’s preexisting social problems by turning it into one of the poorest, most violent places in the hemisphere.Since the coup, a junta of right-wing, billionaire drug traffickers has slipped into political power— including President Juan Orlando Hernández, who U.S. prosecutors recently accused of complicity in a drug money scheme to illegally fund his 2013 presidential campaign.
Several of my friends recently have come to me and said: “I’m not anti-immigration, man. I’m anti-ILLEGAL immigration!”
Resisting the urge to be a jerk, it would be more productive if—having spent a solid chunk of time south of the border—I laid out some reasons to demonstrate how problematic it is to say you’re anti-ILLEGAL immigration, and how such a viewpoint is rooted in potentially racist presuppositions that are often flat-out false:
From a pasty blue building behind a crumbling church in a Guatemalan highland village, a contortion of antennas stands raised against the sky.
Beneath the antennas is a metal-plated door. Behind that, in a sparse room with a paint-chipped table and a sprawling tangle of wires, sits Osmar Miranda, a radio operator. Adjusting the black knobs on a control board, he takes off his headphones and explains how Radio San José—one of the Central American country’s so-called “pirate radio” stations—offers its poor Mayan population one of the few ways to get their voices heard on the airwaves.
In April, 1997, several thousand fighters from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, entered the Caribbean department of Bolívar, along the Magdalena River, their stated goal being the “cleansing of the area and (the) handing it over to multinational corporations.”
The AUC, short for Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, was a paramilitary army whose right-wing ideology had grown out of the network of rural businessmen and druglords who supported them. The official raison d’etre of the AUC had originally been to fight the communist guerrillas of the FARC and ELN, against whom the Colombian state had been waging a three-decade internal war. Yet making the departments of Bolívar and Magdalena safe for corporations meant far more than merely clearing out communists, and the broader agenda at play was more sinister than mere “self-defense.”
Early one evening in 1993, Daniel Wilkinson, a Harvard postgrad researcher, was finishing an interview in a remote Guatemalan village when he began hearing gunshots on the mountain above him.
Though at first, the sound seemed to be little more than a discordant series of unconnected reports, it soon became clear that he was hearing a battle between leftist guerrillas and the Guatemalan military. Wilkinson’s interviewee, an indigenous man and former hand on a coffee plantation, insisted on account of the danger that his guest spend the night at his house, an offer which, machine guns rattling in the distance, the fearful Ivy-leaguer was eager to accept.
For conservationist Jen Lomberk, the Matanzas River is both a blessing and a curse.
“We have something very beautiful that a lot of people are passionate about protecting,” she says, contemplating the estuary she’s spent the last year fighting to protect. “But I’ve also noticed it’s very hard to get people to care and pay attention when things aren’t catastrophic.”
As the “Matanzas Riverkeeper,” Lomberk, 28, is a legal expert-turned-conservationist who’s ingratiated herself into a web of local volunteers agitating to protect the waterways around St. Augustine, the majority of which lay within the beautiful but threatened Matanzas River watershed.
Robert Fisk is a journalistic genius—though not because he’s discovered anything new.
The brilliance of Fisk, in his monstrously large The Great War for Civilization, lies in his unparalleled ability to animate swaths of history that could otherwise seem static, doing so with such emotional immediacy that this book—whose raw material could easily serve as a dossier of injustices—is transformed into a vast, compulsively readable human drama. The result is a story that’s by turns intimate, tragic, heartbreaking and epic.
IT WAS IN THE SOUTH MEXICAN town of Comitán, Chiapas that I first caught wind of the shootout. I had been taking a taxi to the edge of town when the driver, hearing I was a journalist, first offhandedly mentioned it to me. Three days before, he said, two rival gangs broke into a bloody territorial dispute in a local market, and the firefight that followed was dispersed only when a local faction of the army arrived. Twenty had been shot in the melee, many of them innocent bystanders. Five more people had died.
“Were you scared?” I asked the taxi driver.
He smiled. “It’s normal around here,” he said, shrugging. The lightheartedness of his response seemed to suggest that he thought the whole scene to be little more than an absurd cosmic joke.