Programa Frontera Sur: Historical Violence Against Central America in a 21st Century Context

By Emily Miranda

When thinking about the concept of borderlands, it is natural to picture the region between the United States and Mexico, as well as the connotations of immigration associated with this area. The United States has spent decades militarizing and politicizing this region as it best fit the national agenda. In recent years, to further an anti-immigration and imperialist agenda, as well as distance itself from its responsibility for current immigration conditions, the U.S. has moved its focus from the U.S./Mexico border and taken an interest in the Southern Mexico border, offering the Mexican government support to bolster their border defenses. The United States has made Mexico a proxy in its war against immigration by funding the militarization of the Southern Mexico border against immigrants from Central America and by doing so, has secured its control in Latin America, while continuing to oppress Central Americans within U.S. borders and Central America itself.

In 2014, the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, launched Programa Frontera Sur (PFS) to strengthen border protections between Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico, as well as protect the migrants who enter Mexico. The program contains five components that were identified to meet these goals: 1) Regular and Ordered Migration, 2) Improvements in Infrastructure for border security and migration, 3) Protecting Migrants, 4) Regional Shared Responsibility, and 5) Interagency Coordination.[1] The Mexican government was very open about the assistance they received from the United States, and the Embassy of the United States in Mexico released a statement shortly after the announcement of PFS, saying: “We applaud yesterday’s announcement by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto regarding Mexico’s strategy for its southern border. The Mexican government has been working on this strategy for more than a year and has routinely briefed the U.S. government on Mexico’s objectives.”[2]  The two countries have a history of working together on border policy, an example being the Merida Initiative that was signed in 2008 and served as a steppingstone to PFS. Specifically, Pillar III of the Merida initiative focused on the creation of the 21st century U.S.-Mexican border, which included sending millions of dollars in equipment to strengthen the southern Mexican border, as well as training initiatives for Mexican border agents.[3]

 Criticisms came quickly following the announcement of PFS, specifically regarding the failure on Mexico’s behalf to consider the other Central American countries that should have been a part of this discussion, namely Honduras and El Salvador. These two countries represent the next largest immigrant pools that make their way through Mexico. One critic stated “[This program] makes things easier by giving Guatemalans and Belizeans permission to work and visit Mexico. This is certainly a very important part of the problem, however, is not the total solution, because there are also migrants coming from Honduras and El Salvador that right now are not included.”[4] Others also pointed out that Guatemala and Belize were not the populations that needed urgent intervention. Following the announcement, the Mexican government stated that they were in the process of working with other Central American countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, to assess migration from these regions and develop appropriate policy. However, what this meant was immigrants from these regions would not have the same protections as those from Guatemala and Belize and would still face a highly militarized border.

The U.S. involvement in this program is concerning for a multitude of reasons, many of which can be explained by the historical relationship of the U.S. and the countries of Central America. Over the last century, Central America has been subject to U.S. control through economic, political, and militaristic means, leading to the destabilization of the region and the development of the migrant situation we see today. Developing an understanding of this history will provide context to evaluate the consequences of PFS for Central American migrants.

Modern U.S. entanglement with Central America can be traced back to the development of so called “Banana Republics.” This derogatory term referred to the Central American countries that were under the control of the United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century.[5] The view of the company as it began its conquest of Central America was very much in line with the ideals of manifest destiny; Central America was there for the taking, to be controlled and bent to the will of Americans multinational corporations. This was compounded by the racial hierarchy ingrained in American society, meaning white managerial elites sent to “develop” these regions saw Central American citizens as theirs to control. It is no surprise that to continue foreign exploitation, U.S. military forces brutally curtailed insurrections to protect U.S. foreign investments. U.S.-trained military forces committed incalculable atrocities during this time—villages destroyed, citizens brutally tortured, disappeared, or killed, and generations of Central Americans traumatized under the guise of American democracy.[6] Currently, in its funding and training of agents for PFS, the U.S. supports oppressive regimes in Central America by supplying their military forces with aid, weaponry, and training. The reasoning given by the U.S. for earlier interventions was the fight against communism and the necessary role of the U.S. as “protector” of this region.[7] The truth, however, is that when Central Americans began to fight against oppressive governments, the U.S. feared they would lose their informal control, no longer able to exploit the region for economic gain.[8] More recently, the power the U.S. holds in Central America was exemplified by their involvement with the 2009 coup in Honduras. It is debated whether the U.S. had any direct hand in overthrowing the democratically elected leader Manuel Zelaya, but the reaction of U.S. officials in the aftermath of the coup leaves no doubts that this event worked in their favor.[9] By supporting the coup, the U.S. guaranteed that its interests would be protected; prior to the coup, the Zelaya government implemented policies that favored the Honduran people rather than transnational corporations.[10] This event, much like those in the 20th century, resulted in an uptick in migration as many citizens fled persecution by the coup regime.

I have chosen to discuss PFS, as well as these histories, because I feel these describe the exact reasons why America finds itself in this current immigration situation. On a more personal level, I feel compelled to share these histories as they are often hidden away, stripping any possibility of holding the United States accountable for its actions in this region. I fear that by not taking the time to evaluate our current system in the context of the past, we are subjecting more migrants to suffering at the hand of the United States. PFS is only one facet of the current immigration system; there is no doubt in my mind that this program, as well as other border security programs will only continue to grow in the coming years, and that we will see losses in these migrant communities that could have been prevented.  As Walter LaFeber describes in his work, Inevitable Revolutions, the United States does not want to control Central America on a day-to-day basis, rather, it wants to control the region just enough to serve its own interests, disregarding the people in the countries themselves.[11] This, in essence, describes the situation we see presented with Programa Frontera Sur. The United States is removing any responsibility from itself towards the Central American people and is instead using Mexico as a militarized buffer to do away with a mess of its own creation along the U.S./Mexico border. In this deal, the United States will keep its hands relatively clean. The lives affected because of this program can be attributed to the dangers associated with these countries, while the U.S. continues enjoying its position as oppressor from afar. What the United States has done is not “fix” the immigration problem, rather, these actions have pushed Central American immigrants further from the nations’ consciousness and exposed them to extreme violence (among other human rights atrocities), all while the United States exploits their countries for profit. By aiding in the development of programs such as Programa Frontera Sur, the United States forces Central Americans to pay the price of 21st century imperialism.


[1] Pedro Valenzuela and Christopher Wilson, “Mexico’s Southern Border Strategy: Programa Frontera Sur,” Border Issues (Wilson Center, 2014).

[2] Pedro Valenzuela and Christopher Wilson, “Mexico’s Southern Border Strategy”.

[3] Fernanda Martinez Flores, “The Effects of Enhanced Enforcement at Mexicos Southern Border: Evidence from Central American Deportees,” Demography 57 (2020), 5.

[4] Pedro Valenzuela and Christopher Wilson, “Mexico’s Southern Border Strategy”.

[5] Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993) 63; Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018) 10.

[6] Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 9.

[7]  Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 117.

[8] Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 8.

[9] Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night, 28.

[10] Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night, 31.

[11] Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, 16.

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One thought on “Programa Frontera Sur: Historical Violence Against Central America in a 21st Century Context

  1. Pingback: Cruelty and the History of Immigration: Special Essay Series | Borderlands History

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