It’s All About Borders

Written by Luis Monroy

“Look at the moon. Tell me. What do you think?” I was too incomprehensible to grasp the meaning of those words. My answer was a slight gesture.

‘For me, it is everything. For me, seeing the moon is a sign from God that somewhere in El Salvador my husband is watching the same thing. The moon is what keeps us together, since its light is the only thing we share now.’

These words crept deep into my conscience. I was on a bus going from San Antonio to Austin. And these words were said by a woman who had been traveling for more than two months from El Salvador to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Then, all the way to the US border, the deadliest migrants crossing in the world. Kidnaps. Extortions. Assaults. That is how law is enacted in the migrant’s world. It would have been reassuring that Texas was the last stop in her ordeal. But no. She and her baby, the only ‘possession’ she retained from El Salvador, still had a long way ahead. Her last stop was Baltimore. Without stopping at all, it takes about 23 hours to get there. But of course there will be stops. Of course, migrant officers will be sharpening their claws. Ready to perform their master trick: deport. Why would any person risk their life in such a dramatic way? Because the risk of staying is even higher.

1969. World Cup Qualifiers. El Salvador and Honduras were about to face each other. Football, a fascination for sociologists, a cathartic myth for the disenfranchised. Whoever wins will travel a few hundred kilometres to the north. To Mexico.  

First match. The setting was Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. A hostile environment for the visiting spectators. Nothing unexpected for whomever is familiar with Latin American football. First strike. Honduras won the match. The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, writing from Mexico, vividly narrated the unfolding drama. A Salvadoran girl shot herself in the head after the match. National tragedy. An innocent girl lost her life because of the defeat. The services were televised. The president. The army. Even the Salvadoran national team was there. As Kapuscinski wrote these words, another drama was unfolding. The armies of both countries were preparing for war.

But first, the second match. San Salvador is our new setting. Honduran players had to be escorted; protected by blacked-out automobiles. Regard for their life made Honduras lose the match. Good for them. They made it out of El Salvador alive. 3-0 was the score. That wouldn’t be the end. No. Another match would be played. This time without a ball. This time with guns and bombs. Kapuscinski, advised by a fellow journalist, travelled to Honduras. Both knew what was coming next. Reports came in. Hundreds of Salvadorans were kicked out of Honduras. Beaten to death. Assaulted. They had to escape. Back to El Salvador. The day Kapuscinski arrived, he writes, and a Salvadoran plane dropped the first bomb. People flee the streets. Even light flees the streets. After that, the city was drowned in darkness. More bombs ensued.

It was 14 July 1969. The war lasted five days. 100 hours. This conflict has many names, but none of them more accurate than ‘the Absurd War’. Kapuscinski was a journalist. He was there to report what was happening. His chronicles made it to Warsaw. And to Washington. The Honduran president and Kapuscinski used the same telex – now a relic of twentieth century communication. News spread. El Salvador and Honduras were at war. Since the outburst of the war followed the infamous football match, it was branded as ‘the Football War’. It is an alluring name, but not an accurate one. It is easier to be sensational than to be accurate. It is by no means Kapuscinski’s fault. He was a journalist. A storyteller. He did detail the real causes of the war. But politicians found it more useful to delegate the blame to others. They could not be framed as guilty. Football was to be blamed. Fans were to be blamed. The rest of the American countries had to mediate. Especially Colombia. And the war stopped. Six thousand dead. Five thousand misplaced. Five days. One hundred hours. Just one hundred hours and another stain on Latin American history.

Central America has always been a place of migration, by either letting people in or letting people out. It was the 1930s. There was not enough land for everybody in El Salvador. A few families possessed almost every inch of arable land. Honduras, meanwhile, had a spot for everyone. Its population at the beginning of the twentieth century was almost half of El Salvador. And its size doubled that of its neighbour. Salvadoran families migrated to the neighbouring country. Established themselves there. But they were still Salvadorans. Foreigners speaking the same language and doing the same job. But still foreigners.

During the 1960s, Honduran farmers demanded land. Massive demonstrations ensued. To deal with a social problem is nice and easy; you turn it into a political one. A bill was enacted. The Salvadorans had to leave the country. How could the Honduran government let its own people starve? They needed land. And this land was owned by foreigners. By ‘the other’. El Salvador’s government refused to accept a massive return of people. A crisis would follow. They could not accept that. There was no space for them. They kept refusing. Honduras kept pushing. Riots. Witch hunts. A football match between both countries in that context was the Shakespearean note. National pride at stake, some would say. National pride at stake, many assured. Perception beats reality. National pride was at stake. After Honduras lost, the only method of reassuring endangered pride was hurting the other. The foreigner. The victimiser. Hurt and be hurt. Feel so you can hurt back. That is how national pride is avenged in Latin America. Football was not the cause. Football was the tipping point.

War came to an end. Politicians agreed on terms. But people kept suffering. Just like that woman. She didn’t tell me her name. She didn’t have to. That war, that absurd war, paved the way for a militaristic race in Central America. And that, in turn, paved the way for even more violence. For more poverty. For the creation of gangs. Violence across the borders. Unparalleled violence. The very violence that the woman and her baby are escaping. These porous borders. In Latin America, it seems it is all about the borders. But it is not. It is more than that. It is about history. It is about remembering the most absurd decisions that have led to more violence than citizens can endure. The so-called Football War is just an episode. Just as this woman’s story is just another in the immense book of migrant’s stories. Some successful. Some dreadful. And, whatever the outcome, stories without a happy ending.  


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