Skip to content Skip to footer

History Shows Why Guatemalans Flee

In the modern history of Guatemala, migrants of all ages are escaping the wreckage of genocide, exacerbated by economic policies, both of which the US helped bring about.

The mass arrival of child migrants from Central America (including reports of abuse by Border Patrol) has relentlessly gripped the nation. The spectacularly public issue, deemed a national emergency, has forced local, state and national governments to react to ostensibly care for the children.

Yet the tragic stories of older youth and their parents’ and elder generations, have been enduring the result of harmful U.S. policies and are getting lost in the media frenzy.

Consider the history of how Guatemala came to be in such turmoil — forcing its residents to flee — and the role the United States has played since the 1990s and before.

In the modern history of Guatemala, migrants of all ages are escaping the wreckage of genocide, exacerbated by economic policies, both of which the U.S. helped bring about.

In 1999, former President Bill Clinton admitted the wrongness of supporting Guatemalan state violence for so long. A UN Truth Commission attributed 93 percent of all atrocities for more than 30 years, including “acts of genocide” against mainly indigenous Maya groups in the country’s western highlands, to the U.S.-backed Guatemalan forces.

In Huehuetenango, for example, the “Silent Holocaust” prevailed where one of the military bases set up with U.S. support “maintained its own crematorium and ‘processed’ abductees by chopping off limbs, singeing flesh and administering electric shocks,” according to veteran journalist Allan Nairn who interviewed a former agent of the G-2 secret intelligence service — the notorious Guatemalan agency long on the payroll of the U.S. State Department.

U.S. culpability for Guatemala’s plight endures to this day. The problem is — then and now — the United States is in denial as a nation over what to do about its complicity.

Just ask Clinton. The day of his remorseful words in Guatemala City, he looked genocide survivors in the face, recognized that Washington enabled their suffering, and then rejected their impassioned pleas for U.S. immigration reform because, he said, “we must enforce our laws.”

Today, many continue to call on the U.S. for reform measures like temporary protected status. And still, U.S. officials meet them with silence or dismissal.

Though a 1977 military aid ban on Guatemala remains in place, U.S. policies since Clinton have adopted anti-drug and counter-terror rhetoric to justify U.S. militarization across the Guatemalan boundary with Mexico as the “new southern border” of the United States, in the words of chief Diplomatic officer for Department of Homeland Security Alan Bersin.

So what’s next? Recognizing guilt is a crucial first step. Even more important is what comes after that recognition. Relevant here, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the function of a “guilt complex” in the U.S. conscience regarding past and ongoing abuses. In a 1957 interview with NBC, King remarked: “Psychologists would say that a guilt complex can lead to two reactions. One is acceptance and the desire to change. The other reaction is to indulge in more of the very thing that you have the sense of guilt about.”

Recognition of U.S. guilt over the Guatemalan genocide should translate into concrete forms of remedial action which, to the degree possible, corresponds with the scope of the crime.

Ending the ongoing influx of Guatemalans across the U.S.-Mexico divide requires not only a recognition of the long history of U.S. abuse of the Guatemalan people but some sort of substantial restitution: from radical immigration reform to extensive reparations in Guatemala.

Following the U.S.-sponsored 1954 invasion when American planes bombed Guatemala City, young Guatemalan poet Otto Rene Castillo wrote “as a man struggling…in the middle of the century.” He envisioned that “at the end / of this century / the children / will be happy, / they will laugh again,/be born again in gardens.”

Many of the children for whose lives Castillo imagined hope and happiness are being born in the “gardens” of the United States and in a ruinous Guatemala. In neither place do many find stay or welcome.

As U.S. policies remain unchanged, migrants will continue to travel northward as a necessary means of decent survival. When will we welcome them and make sure that migration is undertaken more by choice rather than by necessity?

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.