By Matt Ford
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Aug. 25 in CounterPunch. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.)
On July 25, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who has been condemned for his role in the torture and murder of civilians by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, as well as journalists and academics, sat down with President Obama. Along with the presidents of El Salvador and Honduras, the heads of state gathered to discuss the causes of the massive northern exodus from Central America, as well as the 50,000 migrants—largely women and children—that have already been detained by the U.S. government for crossing the border.
The presidents are not alone in their theatrics. Last month, a delegation of California lawmakers visited Central America to meet with the political leadership of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. According to press reports, the lawmakers hoped to explore the “political, economic, and social environments” of the nations in order to understand why thousands of people are fleeing north. Repeated references to gangs and violence seem to have satisfied the need for a push factor. However, this fails to understand the roots of the violence that plagues the Central American nations.
The thousands of children detained in warehouses and military bases in the southwestern United States have illuminated the worst racial tensions that loom under the shallow surface. Among the worst examples are the Ku Klux Klan using the recent publicity as a recruiting tool by advocating a “shoot to kill” border policy. Of the many repugnant versions that can be found in the back pages of California newspapers is a Letter to the Editor in the Fresno Bee in which Ed Miller, who identifies himself as a “freedom loving patriot,” recommends loading the “little crumb snatchers” onto cargo planes and flying them south of the border. When the plane is over its destination, Miller recommends, “fly in real low and slow and open the bay doors,” letting the children fall to their deaths.
On top of the abhorrent rhetoric floating around, the children have endured countless acts of inhumanity and degradation while detained. Girls have been forced to drink from toilets and faced physical and sexual assault from border patrol agents. One 16-year-old boy testified that a border patrol agent told him, “You are in my country now, and we are going to bury you in a hole.” According to the testimony of a 17-year-old Guatemalan girl, another border patrol agent told her, “We are going to put you on a plane, and I hope it explodes. That would be the happiest day of my life.”
As lawmakers—and the general public—prod into the causes of the northern exodus, it is helpful to take a quick look into the history of the United States in Central America, revealing a legacy of imperialism and violence. For the U.S. government, the migrants are but another case of the chickens coming home to roost.
Skeletons in the Closet
The postwar history of Guatemala begins with the 1954 coup of democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz. As a result of Arbenz’s left-leaning politics and agrarian reform—which expropriated thousands of acres from United Fruit Company with the intention of turning the banana republic into an independent nation—the CIA and United Fruit joined forces to organize and carry out the overthrow. Codenamed “Operation PBSUCCESS,” the CIA/United Fruit plot was condemned by the Security General of the United Nations as a violation of the UN charter. The coup plunged the nation into a 40-year violent civil war in which U.S.-backed right-wing governments battled Guatemalan rebels.
Guatemalan President and U.S. ally Otto Perez Molina played a crucial role in this conflict. During the civil war, Molina received military training from the U.S. government at the School of the Americas (SOA) and became a high-ranking military official. He was in charge of a military force that carried out the Guatemalan version of a “scorched earth” policy that resulted in the deaths of more than 80% of people—almost exclusively indigenous—in villages of the Ixil region in 1982‒1983. Many journalists, scholars and institutions, including the reputable Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, have characterized Molina’s actions during the civil war as genocide.
Among the victims is Efrain Bamaca, the Mayan guerrilla leader who, according to the Human Rights Commission, was captured, tortured and murdered by paid CIA informants acting on the orders of Molina. Through the efforts of Bamaca’s wife, the American lawyer Jennifer Harbury, the details of the Bamaca murder have been brought to a Western audience. Surely, there are dozens—or hundreds or thousands—of other Bamacas in the mass graves of Guatemala that were not married to American lawyers and will thus rest quietly. Their children, who suffer from the same violence of their parents, flee north and are likely among the ranks filling the detention centers in the southwestern United States.
In El Salvador, the roots of the violence that forces thousands to flee north can be found in a similar civil conflict in which the U.S. government was highly involved. After the 1979 success of the Sandinista Revolution, the U.S. government began pouring millions of dollars into right-wing political organizations and the Salvadoran military in order to prevent “another Nicaragua.” In 1980 alone, the U.S. government provided more than $6 million in aid to the Salvadoran military. Not coincidentally, it was in 1980 that the Council on Hemispheric Affairs named the Salvadoran military as the worst violator of human rights in Latin America.
Among the victims were Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by the death squads under the control of Roberto D’Aubuisson, who also received training from U.S. forces at the SOA in 1972. Just before Christmas in 1980, four American nuns were raped and murdered by the U.S.-trained and funded Salvadoran military. Soon after, the Carter government increased funding for the Salvadoran military to $10 million annually. By this time, the military had adopted the “scorched earth” policy of exterminating civilians in order to eliminate the hiding places for the FMLN guerillas. In 1981, this policy manifested into what has become perhaps the most infamous massacre of the war.
In 1980 at the SOA, U.S. forces handpicked elite Salvadoran military men and organized the Atlacatl Battalion. The battalion was flown to Fort Bragg, N.C., and trained by U.S. special forces. Upon arrival in El Salvador, the battalion was deployed into the FMLN stronghold of the Department of Morozan. On Dec. 11, 1981, the Atlcatl Battalion occupied the village of El Mozote under the pretext that the peasants were supporting the guerillas. Over the next few days, villagers were tortured, raped, machine-gunned and hanged. By the end, more than 900 men, women and children were murdered.
Journalists like Mark Danner and Alma Guillermoprieta brought the story to the West, resulting in widespread condemnation. However, other massacres of similar scale have largely flown under the radar. For example, the battalion was also responsible for the 1982 El Calabozo Massacre, where 200 civilians were killed beside the Amatitan River.
It was in this era of U.S.-backed violence that large numbers of Salvadoran migrants fled north. The gangs that currently plague El Salvador were brought up in the culture of violence of the 1980s. Although contemporary violence takes a different form—that is, gangs instead of cold war guerrillas and death squads—it would require an effort of total historical ignorance to not recognize that the legacy of violence can be traced back, at least partially, to U.S.-funded violence.
Lastly, the recent political history of Honduras offers another glimpse into the causes of the massive northern migration. In 2009, the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a coup that was set in motion by former U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford. According to Zelaya, the reason he fell out of favor was that he refused to allow Ambassador Ford to name his ministers, which had been common practice for decades. Making matters worse, Zelaya also refused Ambassador Ford’s request to grant asylum to Luis Posada Carilles, the CIA operative who bombed a Cuban airliner in 1976 and delivered military supplies to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras. Furthermore, as Zelaya made steps toward an alliance with the fiery Left of Latin America by joining the Hugo Chavez led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), he secured his fate.
On June 28, 2009, Zelaya was pulled out of bed at gunpoint by the military and forced onto a plane. Just as the plane peaked over the Mesoamerican clouds, it descended onto the U.S. military base at Palmerola to refuel. From there, Zelaya was taken to Costa Rica and officially joined the ranks of the dozens of overthrown Latin American presidents. With Zelaya gone and the U.S. imperial apparatus intact, millions of U.S. dollars have poured into the post-coup Honduran military to carry out the new war to uphold U.S. hegemony, widely known as the “war on drugs.”
The children of these conflicts, which the U.S. government had an integral role in creating, are the ones that flee Central America to escape the violence. When they cross our borders, as U.S.-dollars and violence crossed theirs, they are criminalized, detained and humiliated.
Those in charge of this unjust system—predominantly White Americans—have largely forgotten that they themselves are descendants of undocumented immigrants. The wild-eyed buffoons that fled into the American West in the mid-19th century chasing riches in the gold rush savagely overran the Native Americans that had upheld a system of social and natural harmony for centuries. In the name of progress and civilization, these White undocumented immigrants annexed the land, drew borders and wrote laws that legalized their conquest and kept others out.
This historical reality should be the place to start in any current discussion on migration. As lawmakers and the rest of us attempt to understand the factors driving Central Americans north, it is imperative that we look into the historical mirror.
Matt Ford is a graduate student studying Latin American History at Fresno State.