When a large, makeshift medical facility was set up near New York’s Central Park in April 2020, most Americans accepted it at face value: a treatment center for COVID-19 patients. Where some saw health care, though, others saw conspiracy. According to one group of right-wingers, the large white tents weren’t a medical facility at all, but rather a clever cover for a heroic mission: Trump’s administration was planning to rescue the “mole children.”
Just hours after the white tents appeared, followers of the conspiracy theory known as QAnon concocted this elaborate story: in a network of underground tunnels beneath Central Park, children had been bred and raised for sexual slavery. These “mole children” were raised underground, kept in cages, destined to feed the dark desires of an elite society of devil worshippers. The Trump administration was fighting back, however: the president had given orders for military special forces to storm the tunnels and liberate the children.
The tale of the mole children would be laughable—one imagines Hans Moleman of The Simpsons making a cameo appearance—were it not for the people who take it seriously. Thousands of Americans, perhaps millions, take this macabre and fanciful story as gospel truth. When this particular urban legend appeared back in April 2020, only two percent of Americans had even heard of the fringe conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Since then, Q believers have run for office, and some have been elected. Q believers have an expansive mythology, complete with its own terminology, alternate history, and apocalyptic eschatology, with roots in medieval anti-Semitism and the more recent “Satanic Panic.” A key part of this modern-day mythology is the “Save the Children” narrative—an elite cabal of Satanists is abducting thousands of American children for the sex trade. There is a tragic irony to this: while these conspiracy theorists repeat unfounded claims of child abduction, they turn a blind eye to a very real crisis of missing children
QAnon began with a series of 4chan posts in October 2017. A person or group of persons claimed to be a high-level government official sharing secret information with the public. Under the name “Q” (a reference to a high-level security clearance), they posted a series of cryptic and obtuse messages. The online community following Q eventually developed an elaborate, pro-Trump mythology. For many years, they said, the world has been controlled by a secret society of Satanists who kidnap and traffic children. These Satanists are all on the progressive side of politics: Democratic politicians, Hollywood liberals, and billionaires such as George Soros and Bill Gates. Donald J. Trump was recruited by top military brass to fight back against this conspiracy by running for president. QAnon followers believe that the Trump administration will soon bring about “The Storm”: the US military will conduct mass arrests and executions of these Satanic liberals. This will usher in a period of martial law in the US, which—within the blood-soaked mythology of QAnon—is considered a happy ending.
A central tenet of their mythology is the claim of widespread child abductions. Global elites are kidnapping thousands of children every year, they say. These children are victims of sex trafficking, and maybe cannibalism as well—the elites consume the children’s flesh, or harvest chemicals from their blood to extend their own lifespan. By 2020, QAnon followers had co-opted the hashtag #SaveTheChildren (created by the legitimate child welfare organization Save the Children). These claims have been supported by President Trump, who has retweeted or mentioned QAnon followers over 250 times, according to Media Matters for America. At a White House press briefing, he referred to the movement specifically: “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.”1
QAnon has breathed new life into the debunked 2016 conspiracy theory “Pizzagate,” which claimed that a Washington, DC pizzeria was connected to a Democrat-led child trafficking ring. That, too, led to violent action: in December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch fired on the restaurant with a semi-automatic rifle. The FBI has recently described QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat.2 Some QAnon followers have already shown a willingness to take violent action. Jessica Prim traveled to New York in April 2020 with a dozen illegal knives; she was arrested for threatening to kill Biden.3 As she live-streamed a video of her own arrest in real time, she tearfully invoked the alleged captive children: “Have you guys heard about the kids? OK, I’m not lying.”
The idea of a secret, global elite that abducts and murders “our children” is centuries old. The blood libel myth was a key component of anti-Semitism in Europe, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Jewish people were accused of kidnapping Christian children, using their blood to make unleavened matzah bread, consuming human flesh during their synagogue rituals. Although most of QAnon’s discourse is not overtly anti-Semitic, strong undertones are present: in mentioning “global elites,” followers give inordinate focus to George Soros, the Rothschilds, and other prominent Jewish families. (There is a similar fixation on celebrities and politicians who are Black.)
The “save the children” myth is also reminiscent of a more recent wave of hysteria: the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. In 1980, a Canadian therapist and his patient published an account of the memories the latter had recovered. Michelle Remembers tells the story: through hypnosis, Michelle Proby “remembered” undergoing torture and ritual abuse at the hands of a Satanic cult. The book’s success sparked a massive cultural phenomenon across the United States and Canada. Psychologists, clergy, law enforcement, politicians were all convinced that a massive secret organization of Satanists existed. They were kidnapping children by the thousands, sexually abusing them and sacrificing them in occult rituals. For years, the American public at large was convinced that this was real. It wasn’t until years later that the truth was sorted out: there was absolutely no evidence of any secret Satanic conspiracy. The trials and prosecutions had all been based exclusively on the testimony of children. As would later be revealed, their testimony and “recovered memories” were the result of leading questions and aggressive interviewing techniques. Following the accepted conventional wisdom, as established in Michelle Remembers, therapists and counselors would ask the children about sexual abuse and Satanic rituals, pressuring them until they elicited the desired response. The effects were devastating. Roughly 200 people were indicted and prosecuted. The McMartin preschool, in the California town of Manhattan Beach, became a focal point of accusations. Eight adult staff members were tried for child abuse. Even after most of them were acquitted, parents returned to the school to search for the underground Satanic temples children had described. They dug under the school, expecting to find caverns and tunnels with occult imagery. All they ever found was dirt. The similarities to QAnon are striking.
Why are these stories making a comeback now? In a recent issue of Psychology Today, Jennifer Latson describes conspiracy theories as a way to cope with anxiety and uncertainty.4 The article quotes Karen Douglas, a professor at the University of Kent, who has studied conspiracy theories for years. In a 2012 study, Douglas found that people who believed in one conspiracy theory were more likely to believe other theories—even when they contradicted the first theory! “The core underlying idea of most conspiracy theories,” Douglas says, “is that the official line is not to be trusted. The details might not even matter that much. You’re prepared to at least entertain the two ideas at the same time, even if they’re not consistent with each other. While these theories are used to cope with anxiety, they can also end up causing more anxiety in the end. Douglas is quoted as describing this as “a bit of a cycle”: one embraces the theory to cope with anxiety, but the belief in massive evil forces that are out to get us causes more anxiety.
I spent some time with a group of actual Satanists in March 2019. When Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan? was released, I attended an advance screening of the film in Los Angeles. The film follows the political activism of several members of the Satanic Temple. Rather than promoting Devil worship, they fight for separation of church and state. For them, the idea of “Satan” is a symbol of opposition to the status quo. In the film, members of the Temple comment on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Children actually were being abused—in the trusted sanctuaries of institutional Christian churches. No hidden cults of child-abusing Satanists existed, but Catholic and Protestant clergy were abusing children in a very real way. “The Satanic Panic,” one member says in the film, “we now know, in an entirely verified way, was projection. They were doing it.”
Author Kurt Andersen is more empathic toward those who fell under the sway of the Satanic Panic. In his book Fantasyland, he describes it as a fictionalized version of a very real crisis: “Legitimate concern over the sexual abuse of children spun off a new, almost entirely fictional subgenre.”5 In his excellent book, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (2011), W. Scott Poole writes: “Master narratives are, by definition, lies and untruths. This is why we need to study monsters. They are the things hiding in history’s dark places.6
The factual claims of QAnon are false: Hollywood liberals and Democratic politicians are not kidnapping children to drink their blood. And yet, the legendary and mythological language of their stories hints at a present reality: children are being abducted for sinister purposes. The all-American kookiness of QAnon obscures the fact that there is a real-life crisis of child abduction and human trafficking in the Americas. The culprits are not a cabal of elite Satanists, but the much more mundane and insidious forces of organized crime. The children most at risk come from the most vulnerable populations—Latin American migrants from poor and underprivileged communities.
According to a study by CEIDAS (the Center for Studies and Research in Development and Social Assistance) in Mexico, the southern border state of Chiapas is particularly susceptible to human trafficking. Irregular migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are frequently exploited in bars and brothels. Migrants are even more at risk in Guatemala, where young girls are frequently abducted and trafficked. The NGO Casa Alianza found that at least 15,000 children had been trafficked in Guatemala for sexual exploitation; in Guatemala City alone, the NGO identified over 2,000 children who were being sexually exploited in bars and massage parlors. 89 percent were migrants from the nearby countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Children between the ages of eight and 14 were bought and sold in Guatemala, for as little as 100 US dollars.7
In 2018, the Public Prosecutor’s office in Guatemala identified 478 possible victims of human trafficking. 132 of them, 28 percent of the total, were children and adolescents.8 During a UN ceremony commemorating the World Day against Trafficking in Persons in 2013, Honduran spokesman Jorge Ramos announced that 55 percent of Central America’s human trafficking victims were underage girls. Between 2018 and 2019, over 330 people were rescued from human traffickers in Honduras.9 In 2011, the CINDE Foundation and UNICEF conducted an expansive study of missing children in Central America. They announced that a severe problem of child trafficking existed in the region, particularly in “blind points” along border regions.10 Residents of the “Northern Triangle” countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—are particularly vulnerable to organized crime. These countries are among the poorest in the Americas, with a per capita income less than a third of Mexico’s.
Mexico’s National Institute for Women (INMUJERES) estimates that 25,000 underage girls are subjected to prostitution in the Dominican Republic, trafficked within the country. An increase in sex tourism in the region has led to higher levels of human trafficking, with women, girls, and boys brought to countries like Costa Rica from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines.11 And Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission issued a report last year on children and adolescents who are victims of organized crime. The report states that, according to the Secretariat of Tourism, roughly 21,000 legal minors are trafficked in Mexico every year for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The border state of Baja California is cited as one of the five Mexican states with the highest rates of human trafficking.12
Another crisis of child abductions has been ongoing in Latin America for decades—poor families whose infants are kidnapped for illegal international adoption. The Guatemalan news website Radio Ocote reported on the extensive abduction and trafficking of children for foreign adoption, from the 1980s to the early 2000s.13 Many cases have been reported in Peru as well. As far back as the 1980s, journalist Ismael León participated in an investigation for the Peruvian newspaper La República, which discovered a child trafficking network. Children were stolen from their biological parents in poor and indigenous communities and sold for irregular adoption by foreign couples. This real-life story inspired director Melina León’s 2019 film Canción sin nombre (Song without a Name), which made its international debut at a film festival in Mexico City last year.
And while many of the foreigners who paid for irregular adoptions came from the United States, that is just the tip of the iceberg. The widespread crisis of human trafficking and abduction in Latin America is no accident—it is the direct result of a century of US policies in the region.
In Mexico, the issue of human trafficking cannot be disconnected from the crisis of violence against women: abductions, gender-based murders, and disappearances. The city most famous for rampant femicides—gender-based murder of women—is Juárez, a border city intricately linked to global capital and free trade. Many of the women and girls abducted and murdered in Juárez were recent migrants, having moved north to work in the maquiladoras, assembly-line factories. Foreign capital needed cheap labor to work the assembly lines, and a whole generation of newly-mobile, single females moved north. Organized crime took advantage of this vulnerable population. The number of women and girls who were abducted, disappeared, and murdered began to rise in 1993. This was shortly before the signing of NAFTA, as foreign companies built numerous maquiladora factories along the border. By 2005, the number of femicides in Juárez since 1993 had shot up to 370. This gender-based violence, kidnapping, and human trafficking affects underage girls at an alarming rate.
Growing protests have erupted across the country, calling for justice for their fallen sisters. Ni una menos (“We will not suffer one more missing woman”), Nos están matando (“They’re killing us”). On March 8 of this year—International Women’s Day—millions of women marched across the country.14 More recently, this September, a group of activists broke into the offices of the National Human Rights Commission to protest the Commission’s lack of action on this issue. They were joined by family members of women and girls who had been abducted and disappeared.
The human trafficking rings that have abducted thousands of women, teenagers, and children in Mexico and Central America are controlled by criminal organizations. Many of these, including the fearsome Mara Salvatrucha gang, are themselves the product of US foreign policy. The Mara emerged in the power vacuum that followed the Central American civil wars of the 1980s. As the US fought to keep socialism out of the region, Washington funded brutal paramilitary thugs in Central American nations. Through the US State Department, the CIA, and the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, the US taught these paramilitaries how to torture, intimidate, and subjugate the civilian population. After the USSR fell and the civil wars subsided, those paramilitary forces remained. They melded with a new group in Central America: recent deportees from the United States who, while in detention, had adopted the culture of US street gangs. They were sent back to El Salvador and Guatemala, and the two forces—gang culture and paramilitary violence—fused together.
US policy has consistently aimed at keeping the region within the US sphere of influence, by any means necessary. This interventionism has continued well into the 21st century, long after the Berlin Wall fell. In 2006, when Honduras elected progressive president Manuel Zelaya, who sought to redistribute land and tax US fruit companies, the US supported a military coup against him. Hillary Clinton may not be part of a Satanic sex cabal, but she did help to plunge Honduras into violence. As Secretary of State under the Obama administration, she gave legitimacy to the putschist military government in Honduras, even as most Latin American regions called for a return to democracy. Honduras is now one of the deadliest countries in the world, with an average of 13 people murdered every day. It is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, with at least 40 reporters murdered in the last decade, according to Europa Press.15
Neocolonial interventions have defined US policies toward Latin America for over 100 years. Central America has been kept in a constant state of underdevelopment and poverty, held back from anything resembling self-determination. The end result is obvious: millions have been forced to migrate. As people fled the Northern Triangle countries in recent years, gangs quickly took control of the migration routes, abducting adults and children alike. So the migrants sought protection in one another—they joined together and migrated in large caravans, seeking safety in numbers. They began trekking together shortly before the Christmas season. Catholic and Evangelical organizations provided humanitarian support, seeing the migrants’ journey as a modern-day manifestation of the Holy Family seeking shelter.16
But when they reached the US, the migrants found a closed door. As early as 2017, the Washington Post reported on the new (unofficial) tendency of turning away asylum-seekers at the border.17 When one caravan reached the US border in 2018, most migrants were not given the opportunity to apply for asylum—rather, US agents fired tear gas into the crowd. The “Remain in Mexico” policy became the norm. As they languished in tent cities along the border, migrants became even more vulnerable to human traffickers and organized crime. More children went missing.
While criminals took advantage of this population, another child crisis enfolded along the border: migrant children were abducted by the US government itself. In June 2018, the DHS publicly admitted to a policy of family separation. The practice had been in place since the previous year; almost 2,000 children were separated from their parents in April and May 2018 alone. While the official number was 2,737, the government admitted in early 2019 that the actual figure may be much higher. This practice was a natural outgrowth of the Trump administration’s decision to criminally prosecute any adult crossing the border without papers. Once charges were brought against the adults, their children were declared “unaccompanied,” and fell under the supervision of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Children were ripped from their parents arms, with no regard for age. CNN reported a story of a Honduran woman whose infant daughter was taken from her while breastfeeding.18 Some evidence suggests that parents were tricked into releasing their children—perhaps forever. Defense attorneys reported that their clients had been told that Border Patrol agents were only taking their children away for questioning, or to be given a bath.
Many international media have decried the conditions in these migrant detention facilities. Children sleep on cold concrete floors, eating meager rations and washing without soap.19 A facility in Clint, Texas housed 250 children, including several toddlers younger than four. Three-year-old children have been forced to appear in immigration court on their own.20Members of the administration, however, attempted to justify the policy. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly explained that the policy was “a tough deterrent,” insisting that it was not cruel or inhumane. “The children will be taken care of,” he insisted, “put into foster care or whatever."21 Attorney General Jeff Sessions callously announced, "If people don't want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them.”22 The policy contained no measures for reuniting families. Although the policy was officially canceled in the summer of 2018, many are still separated. According to the New York Times, the parents of 545 of the children have not yet been located. Around 60 of these children were younger than five years old when they were taken away from their parents.23
Meanwhile, QAnon followers continue with their cries of “Save the Children.” With no sense of irony, they also parrot the anti-immigrant vitriol of the radical right. Marjorie Taylor Green, the recently elected QAnon-supporting Georgia congresswoman, recently described migration as “a full on illegal invasion.” In a Facebook post, she described California sanctuary state policies as “traitorous,” and accused Nancy Pelosi of providing “aid, comfort, and protection to illegal aliens.”24
Our migrant siblings and the disenfranchised children of our continent need our solidarity now more than ever. Perhaps by fighting for their basic human rights, we can draw people away from the sinister ideology of QAnon. There are real children who need saving.
- Kevin Roose, “What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?” New York Times, October 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-qanon.html.
- Jana Winter, “Exclusive: FBI document warns conspiracy theories are a new domestic terrorism threat,” Yahoo!News, August 1, 2019, https://news.yahoo.com/fbi-documents-conspiracy-theories-terrorism-160000507.html?guccounter=1.
- Will Sommer, “A QAnon Devotee Live-Streamed Her Trip to N.Y. to ‘Take Out’ Joe Biden,” Daily Beast, April 30, 2020, https://www.thedailybeast.com/a-qanon-devotee-live-streamed-her-trip-to-ny-to-take-out-joe-biden.
- Jennifer Latson, “The Mind of a Conspiracy Theorist,” Psychology Today, November 3, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/202011/the-mind-conspiracy-theorist.
- Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, Random House, 2017, p. 330.
- W. Scott Poole, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting, Baylor University Press, 2018, p. XV.
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Trata de mujeres y niñas en Centroamérica,” Delincuencia Organizada Transnacional en Centroamerica y el Caribe, https://www.unodc.org/documents/toc/Reports/TOCTASouthAmerica/Spanish/TOCTA_CA_Caribb_trata_mujeres_ninas_CA_ES.pdf.
- Edgardo Ayala, “America Central es tierra fecunda para la trata de personas,” Inter Press Review: Agencia de Nocitas, November 6, 2019, http://www.ipsnoticias.net/2019/11/america-central-tierra-fecunda-la-trata-personas/.
- EFE, “El 80% de las víctimas de trata de personas en Centroamérica son mujeres y niñas,” Agencia EFE, July 30, 2019, https://www.efe.com/efe/america/sociedad/el-80-de-las-victimas-trata-personas-en-centroamerica-son-mujeres-y-ninas/20000013-4033952.
- María Elena Navas, “El drama de los niños desaparecidos de América Latina,” BBC News, November 6, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2013/11/131106_ninios_perdidos_desaparecidos_explotados_america_latina_men.
- Ministerio Federal de Cooperación Económica y Desarrollo, http://cedoc.inmujeres.gob.mx/documentos_download/trata_de_personas_35.pdf
- (See my article in this publication, “A Day without Women: The Rise of “the Purple Tide” in Mexico.”https://brooklynrail.org/2020/04/field-notes/A-Day-without-Women-the-Rise-of-the-Purple-Tide-in-Mexico
- See my Brooklyn Rail article, In Search of the Promised Land: Hope and Despair in the Migrant Caravan,https://brooklynrail.org/2019/02/field-notes/In-Search-of-the-Promised-Land-Hope-and-Despair-in-the-Migrant-Caravan