The US hand in the Guatemalan migrant tragedy

Neither Trump nor his Democrat opponents acknowledge the historical responsibility of US in creating a migration crisis in Guatemala.

December 29, 2018 by Pavan Kulkarni
Jakelin's grandfather Domingo holds a photo of her. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera

Hours after the body of 7-year-old Jakelin Maquin was sent back to her village in Guatemala – from where, in hope for a better life, she had set out with her father to the United States weeks ago – another 8-year-old Guatemalan immigrant died in US custody on December 24.

Jakelin hailed from the village of San Antonio in Guatemala, part of a family which made just about $5 a day growing corn and beans. Subsistence farmers from indigenous families like that of Jakelin have traditionally complemented their income with hunting and fishing to meet their nutritional requirements.

However, after the forest to the north of the village was turned into an oil palm plantation, the number of wild boars and deer has dwindled, and there are fewer big fish in the river, her grandfather Domingo Caal complained. Distressed by the inability to feed themselves sufficiently, about 200 families from her municipality have emigrated in the last two months alone, according to its mayor César Castro.

With no television sets or internet access in the village, most setting out on the journey, while being well aware about the dangers in the 2,000-odd mile journey through Mexico, know little about the machinations of the US state to check migration, at the cost of putting their lives at further risk.

However, news of members of neighbouring families successfully crossing over to the US and even sending some money back does reach the people here, giving them fresh hope. Members of 13 families from this village who have settled in US are reported to burst firecrackers in celebration every time they learn that another person from their hometown has found asylum in the US.

And it was out of this hope that Jakelin’s father, 29-year-old Nery Caal Cuz, mortgaged his little plot of land to pay the smuggler who dropped the duo near the US border on December 6. They had travelled for 2,000 miles through Mexico. Only three days before, the girl had celebrated her seventh birthday.

After walking for an hour-and-a-half from where they had been dropped off, the duo reached the American border, where, near Antelope Wells crossing in the remote desert of New Mexico, they surrendered to the Border Patrol officers. The officers made her father sign a document in English, stating that both himself and his daughter were in good health. Neither could read English.

The exact circumstances that led to her death after spending over a day in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are still being debated. Accounts from authorities and the girl’s family contradict each other. The autopsy report is yet to be released.

What is clear, however, is the quality of medical attention and the speed, or lack of it, with which those deemed “illegal” receive, could not save her life when she fell sick with high fever. Back in her village, her family members who had bid them farewell with high hopes, received Jakelin’s dead body on December 24.

Hours later that day, only minutes before the midnight of Christmas, a second death occurred in the custody of CBP. Eight-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo was also an undocumented migrant from Guatemala who had travelled to the US with his father. The home he had left behind was about 250 kilometres to the northwest of Jakelin’s village, in the Nenton municipality in the Huehuetenango region, where over 70% of the population live below the poverty line.

Felipe and his father were first apprehended by the border patrol for crossing the border illegally on December 18, near the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas. Their destination was Johnson city, Tennessee.

Days later, while in detention, on the morning of December 24, Felipe was down with cough and “glossy eyes.” He was transported with his father to a medical centre in New Mexico, where he was diagnosed with common cold and administered tylenol. Half hour later, when the boy was suffering with a fever of 103 degrees, he was held under observation and subsequently, released from the hospital less than two hours later with a prescription of amoxicillin and ibuprofen.

Later in the night, when no medical professionals were on duty at the detention facility where he was held, Felipe became nauseous. On the way to the hospital, Felipe lost consciousness after vomiting, and was declared dead 12 minutes to Christmas. Unlike in the case of Jakelin’s death, about which the Congress learnt only after it was reported in the press, the CBP notified the Congress, as required by law within 24 hours.

Soon after being notified, Congressman Joaquin Castro, chairman-elect of the Congressional Hispanic caucus, raised concerns that the “Administration’s policy of turning people away from legal ports of entry, otherwise known as metering, is putting families and children in great danger” by forcing them to take illegal routes.

Further, he added, “Serious concerns were raised about the condition of CBP detention facilities, and the lack of adequate medical supplies, equipment and resources to properly treat migrants and the agents working there. Many questions remain unanswered, including how many children have died in CBP custody.”

While Trump administration blames the parents bringing their children along for an illegal crossing, the Democrats have blamed the Republican administration for restricting access to legal ports of entry. Neither, however, seem keen on acknowledging the responsibility of the US in creating a migration crisis in Guatemala.

Recollecting the American role in forcing Guatemalans to migrate

Migration from Guatemala to the US was negligible until the early 1960s, when neoliberalism began making inroads into the country under the US-backed dictator, Carlos Castillo Armas. Armas was installed in power after the previous democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown by the CIA, with authorization from the then US president Eisenhower. This was in order to reassure the notorious United Fruit Company, which, being the largest landowner in the country, felt threatened by the left government’s agrarian reforms.

Soon, the new US-backed government began to roll back the agrarian reforms and unleashed a violent crackdown on the peasant movements which had fought for it. In the 60s, as the violence intensified, the number of Guatemalan immigrants to the US more than tripled, from barely from 5,000 to 17,000.

The reign of terror that was unleashed in the country in the name of counterinsurgency was comparable to the “methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads,” as the then counterinsurgency advisor, Charles Maechling Jr, admitted later in 1982, in an article titled “The Murderous Mind of the Latin Military”.

By the time of his admission, when the population of Guatemalan immigrants in the US had risen to over 60,000, the Reagan administration had provided the Guatemalan army with military helicopters worth $19.5 million and over $3 million worth of jeeps, apart from allocating $2 billion for a CIA covert operation.

By mid 1980s, 150,000 civilians had been killed by the regime and around 250,000 others forced to flee as refugees to Mexico, as entire villages were bombed and its residents summarily executed on the suspicion of being in favour of the left-wing guerillas. From Mexico, many migrated further north to the US. By the end of the decade 226,000 Guatemalans were living in US.

The economic assault continues

By the time the U.N succeeded in brokering a peace deal in 1996, which allowed the resumption of elections, the left forces were thoroughly weakened in the war-ravaged country, whose economy was in grip of neoliberal practices.

In 2006, the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which was signed in 2004, went into effect. This ensured the US corporations access to the Guatemalan market, protected intellectual property rights which restricted access to technology by native industries, restricted government procurement of grain from native producers and eliminated tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade.

Duty free entry was allowed for all of U.S. consumer and industrial goods, and 95% of U.S. agricultural exports, which were produced with high subsidies. By 2020, the country is required under this agreement to eliminate the duties on the remaining 5% of American agricultural products.

This made agriculture, which is the most important source of livelihood for the population, increasingly untenable. Between 2011 and 2017, there was an almost 10% decline in the percentage of population supported by agriculture.

With no significant industrial growth to absorb the labor force, gangs preyed on the unemployed, causing a rise in street violence in the country. Between 2000 and 2016, as increasing numbers fled the country to escape violence or to find employment, the number Guatemalan immigrants in the US almost doubled, reaching 936,000.

This seemingly huge number, however, is only 2.1% of the total number of immigrants in the US, who make up 13.5% of the country’s population as on 2016. All the immigrants from Central America, where US-induced crises have been a common factor triggering migration, add up to 3.4 million, which is still only 8% of the American immigrant population.

Nevertheless, to deal with this ‘threat’ emerging from what he has called ‘shit-hole countries’, Trump is determined to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, from where those fleeing violence and hunger in Central America cross into the US. Should the Democrats in the senate refuse to pass the bill allocating $5 billion dollars, Trump has threatened to close the “the Southern Border entirely” for migrants.

Less than an hour after this Twitter threat, Trump followed up with another tweet – this one attacking the governments of Central American countries for not taking strong enough measures to stop the emigration to US.

“Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador”, he said, “are doing nothing for the United States but taking our money.. We will be cutting off all aid to these 3 countries – taking advantage of U.S. for years!”

It will serve well for Trump – as well as for his politically correct opponents on the Democratic side – to be reminded that this American money has not been spent on philanthropy. Instead it has been spent on overthrowing left-wing governments, financing military and death squads to terrorize and exterminate peasant and indigenous movements, and maintaining right-wing authoritarian regimes which readily bend over before the interests of American corporations.