BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. The past several weeks have seen a surge in coverage of the crisis on the US-Mexico border, where upwards of 52,000 migrant children have been apprehended by US Customs and Border Protection since October. The media abound with critics of immigration reform who say the influx is proof that the administration's bleeding heart policies are to blame. Here’s political commentator Dinesh D'Souza Tuesday on Fox News.
DINESH D'SOUZA: So why is this occurring now? Are there revolutions swirling across Central America that are coughing up refugees? No, nothing has changed over there. What has changed is over here. The Obama administration for the past six years has been signaling that it's not serious about enforcing the immigration laws.
BOB GARFIELD: But Carlos Dada, co-founder and editor of the El Salvador newspaper El Faro, says that, in fact, something has changed, a long, slow change now at a tipping point, and that the US critics are completely missing the point.
CARLOS DADA: Children are not going to the United States because they think the United States has what you called “heart-bleeding policies,” because they still have to go through this hellish path, which is Mexico, which is not a joke and which very few people survive.
BOB GARFIELD: So adults are in the United States. They’ve been there in various states of legality for years. Their kids are still in El Salvador and facing uncertain futures, and the parents finance this extraordinarily dangerous trip north. You have documented that perilous path. Tell me about your coverage.
CARLOS DADA: We decided five years ago that we needed to cover that path, so we installed a special unit in Mexico City that included a reporter, Oscar Martinez, a photographer, Edu Ponces, and a documentarist, which is Marcela Zamora, to live in Mexico and document what was going on there.
What we found was that people that were traveling by themselves, when they have just gotten to Oaxaca, which is still south of Mexico, 80% of women have already been submitted to sexual harassment or being raped. Lots of emigrants were already assaulted, robbed, killed, kidnapped and that the drug cartels also wanted a piece of the big business that is illegal smuggling. So they were kidnapping by hundreds every day and asking for money to their relatives in the United States; if they didn’t pay, they would get killed.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the main conduits through Central America is a freight train which has been called “La Bestia,” “The Beast.” Did Martinez and Ponces ride that train?
CARLOS DADA: Yes, they did, several times.
BOB GARFIELD: And their stores were dramatic and horrifying. What effect did your coverage have on the government and on the readership?
CARLOS DADA: I think it had a certain impact, especially on the Mexican authorities which, in the end, confessed that all the migration services were very corrupt because the state was unable to fight all these big gangs and all these big cartels. What impact did it have in El Salvador? Well, not much because their relatives or their friends have already done this road before, so this was not new for them. This was new basically for decision-makers, and it was like an awakening for them to discover what was really going on and what our nationals would have to go through aiming for a better life.
BOB GARFIELD: On this side of the border, there’s a lot going on. There is, of course, the Border Patrol just absolutely inundated. There's the political battle over immigration reform. And then there is the propaganda war which the government is trying to wage, to dissuade young people from undertaking this reckless journey. And it’s taken many forms. One of them is this.
[SINGING: “LA BESTIA”]
Now, that song is not subtle. It is about a death train. There’s been some criticism because that song is played in regular rotation on popular radio stations and it evidently is quite well-received by the audience, who don't realize that it was written, produced and distributed by the US government to influence, some would say manipulate, the audience. But you say it sort of doesn't really matter.
CARLOS DADA: People already know what La Bestia is. People already know the perils. So will this kind of campaign stop them from going to the United States? No, I don't think so.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s also a, a TV campaign from the US government about the extraordinary danger of making this journey. Here’s what one of the spots sounds like.
[CLIP IN SPANISH]:
Oh, dear God, this is a tearjerker. This teenage boy is writing a letter to his uncle, thanking him for allowing him to make the journey north, and he says goodbye to his mother, and then what happens, Carlos?
CARLOS DADA: Well, and then we see the kid dies in the desert. He can’t keep walking and he just lies there until he’s dead.
Let me put here a phrase that was said by a Mexican priest called Alejandro Solalinde, who runs a shelter for migrants in Oaxaca. He once said, “If these migrants are willing to take this road, knowing everything they’re risking, even their lives, I don’t even want to imagine what they are running away from.” And, in the end, that is the problem. It’s true. The road is really dangerous, and I don’t know how many times we have to insist on this. The thing is that they are running away from a place because they don’t think they could keep on living under circumstances in which they’re living.
BOB GARFIELD: If it is really futile for the government to send the message that people already understand, what can the US government do in Salvador to help conditions at the source?
CARLOS DADA: There was a meeting in Honduras, and the Honduran president said maybe the United States could invest all that money in some kind of a mini Marshall Plan. He didn’t explain that much, but it actually makes sense because, in the end, the United States not only is getting the consequences of this situation, it’s also in a way, also, responsible in part for the situation because we have gangs here that originated when the United States started a massive deportation program when our peace agreements were signed, after our civil wars. When they came back here, they established here both Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gang, which we didn’t have before.
But there is another social violence which is drug cartels. I want to be very careful because I don’t want to blame the United States for the malfunctioning of our own political systems, but it was a United States decision to totally close the Caribbean drug routes, thinking that drug cartels could be better fought in the Central American corridor. The global battles are being fought in our territories with states, again, that are rich enough not to be able to face this huge problem, as are these drug cartels.
BOB GARFIELD: Apart from a mini Marshall Plan to lend some stability to the region, is there anything that gives you hope?
CARLOS DADA: Well, if I didn’t have hope, I couldn’t go on doing the work everybody at El Faro does every day.
[GUITAR MUSIC UP & UNDER]
I mean, we have hope that there is a lot of good people trying to do their best to build a more functional country.
BOB GARFIELD: Carlos, thank you very much.
CARLOS DADA: Thank you again, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Carlos Dada is the founder and editor of El Faro.