John P. Longan was an agent with the US Border Patrol in the 1940s and ’50s, working near the Mexican border, where two Guatemalan migrant children fell mortally ill last month in the custody of the Border Patrol—7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died on December 8, and 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, who died on Christmas Eve. Longan had a reputation for violence, as did many patrollers. Since its founding in the early 20th century, the Border Patrol has operated with near impunity, becoming arguably the most politicized branch of federal law enforcement—even more so than J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
As the Cold War heated up in Latin America, following the 1959 victory of the Cuban Revolution, Longan, who started his career as a police officer in Oklahoma, moved on to work with the CIA, providing security assistance—under the cover of the State Department—to allied anti-communist nations. Put simply, Longan taught local intelligence and police agencies how to create death squads to target political activists, deploying tactics that he had earlier used to capture migrants on the border. He arrived in Guatemala in late 1965, where he put into place a paramilitary unit that, early the next year, would execute what he called Operación Limpieza, or Operation Clean-Up. Within three months, this unit had conducted over 80 raids and multiple extrajudicial assassinations, including an action that, over the course of four days, captured, tortured, and executed more than 30 prominent left-opposition leaders. The military dumped their bodies into the sea while the government denied any knowledge of their whereabouts.
Longan’s Limpieza was a decisive step forward in the unraveling of Guatemala, empowering an intelligence system that through the course of the civil war would be responsible for tens of thousands of disappearances, 200,000 deaths, and countless tortures. (Greg Grandin describes Longan’s work in The Last Colonial Massacre.)
The US role in that civil war wasn’t, of course, limited to the covert operations of one former Border Patrol agent. Throughout the Cold War, Washington intervened multiple times in Guatemala, funded a rampaging army, ran cover for the death squads that its own security agents, like Longan, helped create, and signaled that it would turn a blind eye to genocide. Even before Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, two retired generals playing prominent roles in his campaign traveled to Central America and told Guatemalan officials that “Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done” (for this quote, see Allan Nairn’s 1980 “Controversial Reagan Campaign Links with Guatemalan Government and Private Sector Leaders,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, October 30, 1980). In office, Reagan supplied munitions and training to the Guatemalan army to carry out that dirty work (despite a ban on military aid imposed during the Carter administration, since existing contracts were exempt from the ban). Reagan was steadfast in his moral backing for Guatemala’s génocidaires, calling de facto head of state Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who seized power in a coup in the spring of 1982, “a man of great integrity” and “totally dedicated to democracy.”
The civil war that the United States drove forward in Guatemala hit the home regions of Felipe Gómez and Jakelin Caal—the two children who just died in US custody—hard. In an earlier Nation essay, we described the waves of land theft, terror, and immigration that, for much of the 20th and all of the 21st centuries, have washed over Caal’s Alta Verapaz, in the country’s north.
Felipe Gómez Alonzo was born in the western highlands, in the department of Huehuetenango, in an isolated village called Yalambojoch, a 10-hour drive from Guatemala City and not far from the Mexican border. The village sits in a sunken valley surrounded by pine-tipped hills. In the middle of this valley is a knoll, looking like a baby in its mother’s womb. In Chuj, the Maya language of this region, this knoll is unin witz, the child hill.
Where Jakelin was Q’eqchi’, Felipe was Chuj, part of a community of former tenant farmers with a long history of fighting for their land. As in the Q’eqchi’ region, the US-orchestrated 1954 coup in Guatemala, which overturned agrarian reform, kicked off decades of political strife in Huehuetenango, pitting local landowners allied with the military against impoverished Maya peasants desperate for land and a better future. Many communities in this region were influenced by the Catholic social-justice doctrines of liberation theology that swept through Central America in the 1960s and ’70s. When the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres) entered Huehuetenango in the mid-1970s, large numbers of villagers greeted them as allies in the struggle against the “army of the rich,” and by 1980, the province was in open rebellion against Guatemala’s corrupt and violent military government.
On June 17, 1982, Guatemalan soldiers under the command of Ríos Montt entered the San Francisco cattle estate immediately adjacent to Yalambojoch. The estate’s owner, a military colonel, had fled because of guerrilla activity in the area. Soldiers went house to house rounding up workers and their families, whom they accused of supporting the guerrillas. They separated children from their parents and killed them by slashing their stomachs or smashing their heads against poles. Women were raped and then burned alive. The soldiers killed the men with bullets or by beheading. After a day of slaughter, 350 people were dead. A lone survivor made his way into Mexico, where Guatemalan anthropologist and Jesuit priest Ricardo Falla interviewed him. The San Francisco massacre was highlighted in Guatemala’s 1999 Truth Commission report.
After the massacre, Yalambojoch residents fled along with thousands of others, leaving the border corridor between Guatemala and Mexico completely depopulated, as government troops razed their villages. Some were captured and killed by the army as they fled. Others ended up in refugee camps or dispersed throughout Mexico’s southern states. Still others continued on to the United States, beginning the great movement of Guatemalans to “el Norte.” All told, 1.5 million people were displaced by the Guatemalan army’s scorched-earth campaign in 1981 and 1982. Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification called the violent displacement in the Maya-Chuj region an “act of genocide.” Young Felipe Gómez Alonzo’s father, Agustín Gómez Pérez, was a child of 11 during that exodus. Yalambojoch’s villagers stayed away for 14 years, returning only after the signing of the peace accords in 1996.
Already, Huehuetenango was the one of the top migrant-sending regions. Why couldn’t these returnees survive in postwar Guatemala?
One explanation is the genocide’s legacy: The army’s broad purpose was not just to beat back the guerrillas but also to destroy hope for a different future in Guatemala. People from Yalambojoch were scattered in Mexico after 1982. Only half of the community returned to Guatemala, and those who did were strangers to each other. Young adults who had fled as children didn’t know much about the land or how to farm it. When Mexican and US labor recruiters arrived in Huehuetenango to hire Maya youth for jobs in US agriculture and poultry plants—as Mexican workers unionized, the Guatemalan workers were seen as more pliable—these youth jumped at the chance to go. As Ricardo Falla and Elena Yojcom describe in El sueño del Norte en Yalambojoch (The Dream of the North in Yalambojoch), remittances rebuilt these war-ravaged communities. With few exceptions, international migration was the only reparation they had, as Guatemalan anthropologist Ruth Piedrasanta shows.
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