Quite naturally discussion of the border refugee problem focuses on what the United States should do about it now, and to what extent U.S. policies (ranging from anti-trafficking laws to Barack Obama’s alleged engraved invitation to the undocumented) may have contributed to it.

At TNR Saul Elbein reminds us of realities in Central America–specifically Guatemala–that have relatively little to do with U.S. policies, except perhaps for the Reagan-era support for reactionary regimes in the region. After a quick history of the ancient provenance of repressive military efforts on behalf of oligarchic families (and the United Fruit Company), Elbein concludes the latest crisis is simply a new stage in a very old story:

The only model of power that exists in Guatemala is, in other words, terroristic, extra-legal, and dominated by violence. So is it any surprise that after the war, on the streets—where people grasped for the scraps that weft, where children grew up with no chance at wealth and less at respect—pirate organizations like the MS-13 grew?

What we’re seeing in Guatemala is not quite, in other words, a crime wave. It’s simply the way things have been there for a long time, pushed to the next level. If you are a civilian there, beneath the labels—soldier; gangster; policeman; army; cartel—is but one underlying reality: men with guns who do what they want and take what they want. Your options are to buy your own security and gunmen; to join a gang yourself; or to leave.

And so many leave.

The threat of deportation from the U.S. could well be a pretty manageable proposition compared to what the refugees face at home.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.