In 1932, in response to desperate poverty and unacceptable levels of wealth inequality, El Salvadorian peasants rose to protest their government. The government responded by slaughtering the protesters. Historians estimate that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed by the government.
More than three decades of oppression and rising tensions followed "La Matanza." The government continued to kill protestors in the streets. In 1978 the government killed at least 687 union organizers and leftist sympathizers. In 1979 that number rose to 1,796.
Then, in 1979, with the support of the United States government, there was a military coup of the government. The U.S. was afraid that the people would rise in revolution against their government. The Americans preferred a right-wing military junta to a communist revolution of the people.
In the 1980s, death squads - supported by the United States - began a violent repression of Salvadorians and people began to flee the country.
This is where MS-13 comes into the picture. José Miguel Cruz details this progression in his Washington Post piece from earlier this year:
The early members were [Salvadorian] teenagers [fleeing the civil war] who hung out on street corners and bonded around reefer and rock concerts, not unlike thousands of other kids living in Southern California’s underprivileged communities.
Things started to change when many of the same kids were arrested during massive “anti-gang” police operations in the 1980s and ultimately sent to juvenile centers across California. Those sweeps, part of a militaristic zero-tolerance response to the nation’s social problems, failed to acknowledge that such problems were the direct result of underfunded social programs and systemic marginalization. Instead of serving as a deterrent, they further weakened social ties and increased exclusion, and thus facilitated the transformation and consolidation of MS-13 into a serious criminal enterprise. It was in the juvenile centers and prisons that local kids — joined soon by immigrants — interacted with hardened criminals and learned how to run a gang. The criminal bent that shaped MS-13 emerged from U.S. prisons and juvenile centers, not from countries south of the border.
The Clinton administration made things worse after the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, deporting thousands of foreign-born residents convicted of crimes. The deportations turned the gang loose in El Salvador and its neighbors. Gang members went from California jails to Central American streets.
To recap: The United States helped start a violent civil war because of they were afraid of the people being in charge. Teenagers, fleeing violence in their home country, were caught up in racist policing in the United States. Those teens were indoctrinated into a culture of violence in American prisons. Then, these people were sent back to their home country where they created one of the most violent gangs in history.
The refugee's coming to our southern border are fleeing a monster that we had a hand in creating every step of the way. Instead of admitting we were wrong and giving these traumatized people a chance of a better life, we are putting them in prison, separating them from their children, and keeping children in concentration camps.
We aren't to blame for the sins of those who ran our country a generation ago, but we are responsible for righting their wrongs. If we don't welcome our fellow humans who are fleeing violence, we will all be complicit in serious human rights violations. And helping these refugees is literally the least we can do if we want to start addressing our country's past wrongs.