On Contact: A Different Kind of War
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the plight of everyday people victimized by the hardships of life in Mexico and Central America with author and journalist J. Malcolm Garcia. His new book is ‘A Different Kind of War: Uneasy Encounters in Mexico and Central America’. A collection of essays informed by grief and anger, the book reveals the varied and distinctive voices of those families fleeing the violence of Honduras, Mexican reporters covering gang conflict in Juarez, and children living off the refuse of a landfill.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss J. Malcolm Garcia’s book, A Different Kind of War.
J. Malcolm Garcia: I believe it’s the largest dump in Central America. And it’s just garbage built upon garbage. And people live off that by attempting to recycle trash that can be reused. And the, you know, the filth is astronomical. And they live in in hovels, little shacks that no one would care to live in. They’re barely making any kind of money. And then when it rains, the stability of the landfill becomes so unstable, that you literally have landslides where people will be buried alive. And that happened when I was there. The violence is endemic. People are just trying to make a living anywhere they can and make no excuses for it. But a society that gets dehumanized to a point where they see their life isn’t valued isn’t going to value life themselves. And they don’t see a way out. There are generations who have been living this way, scraping by, and the broader society has tolerated it. No one objects to the notion of children trying to survive by collecting trash and literally risking their lives.
CH: J. Malcolm Garcia has long chronicled the lives of outcasts from the plight of unhoused men and women in the Bay Area. To those he wrote about in his book, Without A Country, The Untold Story of America’s Deported Veterans, and his book, Fruit of All My Grief: Lives in the Shadows of the American Dream. In his new book, A Different Kind of War, he gives voice to families fleeing the violence in Central America, orphans, courageous Mexican reporters who cover the gang violence in Juarez, abused children whose parents earn a dollar a day sifting metal and glass out of garbage dumps, and prostituted women who sell their bodies for five dollars a sexual encounter so they can feed their children. He puts a human face on the demonized and forgotten, especially those who are desperately fleeing north to the United States to escape government repression, violence, fear, and extreme poverty. He is a recipient of the Studs Terkel prize for writing about the working class, and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Excellence in Journalism. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Essays, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Joining me to discuss his new book, A Different Kind of War is J. Malcolm Garcia. So I have an affinity for your work because this is exactly the kind of people who I spent most of my lives with as a reporter. Six years in Latin America, five years in Central America, and those I have written about since I came back to United States, of course, much of my time in Gaza. And I know, you know, but I want you to explain why it’s important that we hear these voices. And before you begin, I will add that this, of course, is how most of the world lives.
JMG: Right. Well, first of all, thank you for having me on. I appreciate your interest. It’s important to put a human face on what’s happening certainly all over the world, but in particular on this subject Central America and Mexico now because the people are being so demonized by our politics. Trump began his campaign and by calling, you know, Mexicans rapists and murderers, and perhaps a few were good people, what he’s essentially saying was that none of them are good people. So whatever people may think about the immigration issue, they need to understand why people are leaving. They need to understand how difficult it is to leave your home, leave your country, and everything you know to go to a foreign land, just in order to save your life. It’s sometimes portrayed as they’re coming here for opportunity. And certainly there are people who are looking for jobs, but they’re looking for jobs, because there aren’t jobs in their country, in many cases aren’t jobs in their country, because of US policy supporting despotic regimes, that use the people to--for their own personal gain. But they’re also fleeing for their life from gangs. And unless we understand the motivation and see them as real people as we see ourselves, we’ll never really get a grip on why people are coming to the United States.
CH: You were very aware in the book of this vast disparity between the ruling elites who began in Guatemala, you write about the huge bribes, Molina for instance, received as much as $3 million in bribes from importers. And then the huge numbers of people within the country that are just cast aside, you write--you spend time in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns for disabled or crippled children who are often just abandoned on the street. And that divide is something that is becoming more and more pronounced in the industrialized world and in the United States, but on the one hand, you have those who not only can’t find work, but live around horrific violence. And again, you write about the gang violence, especially in Mexico, and then those who profit off of human misery. There’s this huge disparity in these countries, which people often forget about in places like Guatemala, you have the uber rich, the 10 Families as they were known when I covered the war in El Salvador. And that’s something that you’re very aware of in your writing.
JMG: It is. Its--yes, it’s very apparent. And it’s hard to conceive in this country, we certainly have, you know, the one percent as I referred to, but in Central America and Mexico, the one percent is on steroids. They’re--they live in palatial homes, they’re really like neighborhoods that are just completely gated off from the community. And they’ve learned to live in their own bubble. So in Guatemala and Honduras, you know, you drive around with your windows up and you have a--I don’t know what they referred to as a sort of a plastic screen so people can’t see into the car, see what you have, so that they avoid being robbed. So they just operate in their own little universe to an extent that they--many people that I encountered who were very wealthy had no idea of the people that I was writing about. It’s just something that’s not even part of their sphere.
CH: You began as a social worker on the streets of Oakland, I believe. And you’ll draw parallels to the poor you write about in Central America. At one point, you write about how you--”I recalled how my staff and I would hold memorial services for homeless people who had died. We would sit in a circle and talk about so and so. I’d often realize at these moments that I never knew the deceased’s real name, just as their street name Too Tall, Gypsy, Alabama, Red, names that define them in a way that Don, or John, or Carol never would, those given names belong to a world they were no longer a part of.” And it seems to me that that is the focus of your writing. Writing about people who have entered another world, another subculture, one that as, you just said, is often invisible.
JMG: It has been. I mean, when I was a social worker that really opened my eyes, I came from a middle class family that in some ways, like the people I was describing in Guatemala and Central America in general, had no idea of the Gypsies and the Too Talls, and the other names that you just read. And as I worked with them, I realized it was a different world. These are men and women who had skills, who at one time could have been my neighbors when I was growing up in my middle class neighborhood, they suffered whatever misfortune they had, and there--and the notion that we can just pull ourselves up from--by our bootstraps just didn’t work for them as hard as they--as hard as they tried. So they began looking and really what was a separate country for them within the United States. And I did see parallels with that, in San Francisco and Oakland, as well as in my work in Central America, a similar dynamic where people were just operating as if they were on a different planet.
CH: You have a kind of fatalism which I share. I think because you understand how ruthless monolithic these forces, economic, political, military, of oppression are. And at one point in the book, again, you’re referring back to your time as a social worker, how you would go to protest outside city hall because of the constant budget reductions in social services. And then you write about how you would hang out with--for an hour afterwards with homeless people who’d--we had sort of adopted. The ones who had volunteered at our agencies and whom we thought of as just like us, because they appeared no difference from us. And then after the protest was over, your homeless--the homeless friends would return to the streets or shelter, the line between our lives and theirs accepted without question. Amazing now that I think of it that none of us saw the separate but equal hues, coloring our relationship and we went home to our apartments, social justice, clocking out until the next work day, our lives no different really than those with the people who share--who slashed our budgets. And that also was a passage that resonated with me having spent time in places like Gaza, for instance, because there is at the end of the day, that huge divide.
JMG: Well, there really is. And unfortunately, in social services, because you’re always trying to impress people to get funds, you always sort of showcase that homeless person that isn’t a threat or that poor person who doesn’t appear to be a threat. But at the end of the day, they are that poor person, they--the power dynamic between you and them is very one sided. And at the end of the day, after they’ve been showcased, they return to their--to their lives, whether it’s, you know, a ghetto or it’s in a shelter. And I think similar things happen in Central America, where people in an effort to advocate for people showcase people, but then at the end of the day, you get to go back to your house with your security and your logistical support from whomever you’re working for. And they go back to the barrio.
CH: Well, and it’s also we’re going to talk about this now about the huge garbage dump in Guatemala City. I think it’s a third of the country’s garbage, and then you have people who live around it, who make their living, sorting through the garbage. And it’s so massive that there will be these landslides, you write about that in the book…
CH: …people buried underneath and killed. And then, of course, at the end of the day, you go home to your hotel. But let’s talk about that. That’s a phenomena that’s not unique to Guatemala, but these people again, who are completely severed from society, they can live around the garbage in hovels--garbage dumps and hovels, because they don’t have to pay rent. You write quite extensively about that. And one of the things that is endemic about that environment is violence. So speak about that.
JMG: Well, the garbage dumps in, particularly Guatemala, that--you want to talk about another world that really is. It’s--I believe it’s the largest dump in Central America. And it’s just garbage built upon garbage. And people live off that by attempting to recycle trash that can be reused. And the, you know, the filth is astronomical. And they live in in hovels, little shacks that no one would care to live in. They’re barely making any kind of money. And then when it rains, the stability of the landfill becomes so unstable, that you literally have landslides where people will be buried alive. And that happened when I was there. The violence is endemic. People are just trying to make a living anywhere they can and make no excuses for it. But a society that gets dehumanized to a point where they see their life isn’t valued isn’t going to value life themselves. And they don’t see a way out. There are generations who have been living this way, scraping by, and the broader society has tolerated it. No one objects to the notion of children trying to survive by collecting trash and literally risking their lives.
CH: Great. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about families fleeing the violence in Central America and the conditions under which they live with the journalist and author J. Malcolm Garcia.
CH: Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about families fleeing violence in Central America and the conditions under which they live with the journalist and author J. Malcolm Garcia. You write quite a bit about the lives of children, and what this kind of poverty and violence does to them. At one point, you’re writing about Fernanda, who lives with her uncle and aunt, and you write, she does not remember when her father died. Her uncle told her he was mugged and shot. Her mother died near their home when Fernanda was in second grade. Not in this neighborhood, another one, sometime at night. She had been toiling in the landfill and was killed on the way home. A friend found her body. Fernanda always stayed with her uncle when her mother worked. That night, he told Fernanda she would not be going home. Talk a little bit about what generation after generation, what this does to the children and then maybe we’ll speak about La Linea, what is this brutalization doing to a generation of children?
JMG: Well, you know, there’s a notion of post-traumatic stress in Guatemala, it’s ongoing traumatic stress, it never ends. And it breeds a sense of just hopelessness and despair, where they really don’t see a way out. It’s interesting, when you--when you talk to children, you know, kids who are not yet teenagers, they have ambitions of being doctors, or nurses, or teachers, like the nuns who were teaching them. But then you talk to kids and their teenage years, when they’re really getting out there and having to work, that the family doesn’t want them in school anymore because they need the money they can earn, that kind of hope is no longer there. They don’t really see any way out other than doing what their parents did, doing what their grandparents did, and really repeating the cycle. They get married, they have--they’re impoverished, they have children, and they raise those children in an impoverished state. And the nuns are doing their best to try to show them an alternative. But the state isn’t supportive. And so it’s very difficult even when you have a child who does well in school to get the funds necessary, take them to the next step where they can get out of the landfill. In fact, there is one student who left and came back because the cost of living was such that she had to come back to the landfill as an adult, and she teaches at the school that I write about that’s around the landfill, because she couldn’t afford anywhere outside of that neighborhood.
CH: Well, you also write about, I think, there’s a case in there where there’s a grandmother who runs a tortilla stand, she gets sick, the mother has to take it over.
CH: She pulls the son out of school because the son has to work. It’s about economic survival, and the children because they live at such a low level, are immediately drawn into that.
JMG: Right. No. That’s exactly it. Survival takes precedent [INDISTINCT]
CH: There are powerful forces, despotic government, corrupt governments as you point out, but also multinational companies that essentially write their own laws, can seize land, organize violence against those people who struggle to protect their rights, protect their land. And I want you to talk a little bit about Montana Exploradora de Guatemala, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Goldcorp and the Marlin Mine.
JMG: The Marlin Mine’s in Guatemala, in a rural area of Guatemala, far outside the capital of Guatemala City. Goldcorp’s a Canadian company. And what these companies do is they come in, they essentially say we want this piece of land to explore. They talk to the government, and the laws are such that they can just move in and essentially kick the people off the land. Now, they’ll say they paid the people, but they paid them a pittance. And there’s also a great deal of pressure to move the farmers--most people are farmers, move the farmers off the land so they can then establish their mine. And the mine doesn’t bring in--bring in jobs, there’s some local jobs when they first opened the mine, but the rest of it is pretty much technology. So, you displace people who know nothing other than farming who have to, you know, try to find some other way to live, and more often than not, they decided to come to the United States because their only means of livelihood has been taken from them.
CH: Well, and also, as you point out, that these extraction industries, when they finish, what they leave behind is--the land isn’t any good, it’s poisoned. The water is poisoned, the soil is poisoned, so there’s no reclamation. There’s no going back.
JMG: No. There’s no going back. I mean, they claim that they do, but study after study show the water is poisoned, the land is poisoned, the crops and animals die, or their animals are--give birth to disfigured calves. So, you know, the area where the farms were has been essentially destroyed. And they leave--and they take the mine, they take what they can, and then they just--they just leave, that’s it.
CH: Well, and they leave behind, as you write, arsenic and toxic chemicals in the rivers and in the soil, and this, of course, cancer becomes an epidemic, all sorts of birth deformities, so it’s not just that the land is devastated, but the ability to stay in a healthy life is also destroyed.
JMG: Well, it is, yeah. It creates a great deal of health problems which then gets into the whole situation that you described earlier, a grandmother gets sick so then a child has to try to take over, and the cycle continues.
CH: There’s a lot of violence around this land--these land extraction industries, which I saw throughout Latin America during the six years I was there. Why? Why do these places become epicenters of violence?
JMG: Well, people get pitted against each other, there are some other local people, they see the opportunity to make what appears to them more money they--than they could possibly make farming. They don’t realize that the money will be gone and then they have no land to continue their lives with, and that--so the money will eventually disappear. Then you have another group that wants to maintain the farming culture, that doesn’t trust the extraction industries, anticipates what could happen in terms of health and the destruction of the land. They also have a cultural attachment to the land. And you have these two forces pitted against each other. So it’s really kind of a mini civil war with the extraction agencies kind of pulling the strings, so eventually, they can move in and get their way.
CH: Well, you’re right about how much of it is perpetrated by these extraction industries because everyone’s frightened to speak. You talked about San Miguel, you said this is another mine, there were infiltrators, if someone’s complaining, they would tell on that person and that can be very dangerous to speak out.
JMG: Right. And again, that’s the way the community is pitted against each other. People try to score points, they think they’ll get in with the mining company and get a job or get some kind of payment. So you have people telling on other families, so and so said this about you, so and so said that. And they’d bring in their goon squads, there’s a security, and so if advocates against the mine have a meeting, you’ll have people outside of the meeting with military weapons. Not necessarily doing anything, but just standing there with their military weapons, and that’s enough to send a message about what’s going to happen if they continue their activities.
CH: Well, my--the first story I ever published was for the Christian Science Monitor and it was about a company, a transnational, called Gulf and Western, and how they label leaders who were organizing a La Romana around sweat shops are being found dead in a ditch with a bullet through the back of the head, it’s not new. I want to talk about La Linea because one of the--you write a lot about women in the book, and one of the kind of persistent themes is that when women get pregnant, the men often leave them. And that leads you to the red light district of Guatemala City, La Linea. Can you speak about that phenomena that’s extra assault against girls and women?
JMG: Well, it’s another effort, really, at survival. You have women coming in from the country, some who have been displaced by these extraction industries looking for a way to make a living. You have married women who are struggling to support their families, and their husbands are working, but they’re not making enough money, so they go to La Linea, means The Line, and it is the red light district of Guatemala, and they--do what you do in a--in a red light district to make--to make ends meet. Oftentimes, you--some of the women are married, they go home to their husbands. It’s a matter of survival and trying to maintain their families as best they can. And again, you have Westerners that feed off that, there are online pages that are, you know, just disgusting to read about men clearly talking about La Linea, and what you can get there, and that sort of thing. It’s just--it’s really kind of a cesspool where the women are the victimized on a--on a routine basis.
CH: Well, victimized, then often killed.
CH: There’s a lot of violence against the women as well.
JMG: Right. There’s one woman, yeah, that I wrote, who was killed.
CH: I want you to talk about cultural genocide, which you also write about. There’s a huge indigenous community, the Maya, in Guatemala, who have their own language, their own dress, their own--and the stripping away of that cultural identity, is also really a form of social death.
JMG: Well, it is. And there are parts of Guatemala where I went, where the Maya language was still spoken, and they see the Earth and the colors of the Earth, the trees, flowers, the soil, all represent something very distinct. And, you know, when the mining companies come in and in the view of people who are touched with their heritage, they’re destroying it, they’re destroying the people’s attachment to the land, and what that--what it means, and what it has meant for generations, and how that feeds into their spiritual beliefs. And when that’s stripped away, you’re stripping, like, really a person’s character. Then, you know, what do they have left? They don’t have a job, they’re scraping by, and now they don’t even have the heritage that that--that they’re raised with, that identify them as a person, that is gone too.
CH: Well, they look at the landscape, and in particular, the mountains in a very different way from an extraction--
CH: --industry, these are sacred objects to them, and indeed, their religious rituals are often held on the mountain peaks.
JMG: Right. It’s like they’ve combined, like, you know, aspects of the Catholic religion with their Maya beliefs. But yeah, no, you’re right. It’s--the flowers, trees, soil, the mountains, they all have a distinct meaning.
CH: Just to close, I want to talk about gangs very quickly, which you also write about, you write from Honduras. Why is there such a huge proliferation of gangs? Of course, it’s about extortion, but it’s also, I think, you would argue about something else as well.
JMG: It is. It’s about extortion but it’s also about belonging. And one of these gangs, you know, again, all the stuff is tied together, you have children growing up in poverty, the parents who are not around because they’re working all the time, or maybe they have been killed. And so the gangs want a part because it’s a--it’s a form of family, it’s also a form of power, it’s a form of self-esteem. I’m not justifying it, but it’s a way to have strength in a--in a situation where you don’t have strength in any other way.
CH: And has turned cities like San Pedro still into the violent capital of the world, which is of course why many people are fleeing.
CH: Great. That was J. Malcolm Garcia on his new book, A Different Kind of War.