Deployment of U.S. Agents to Guatemala Isn’t New

The U.S. owes Guatemalan migrants and asylum seekers some recognition after decades of destructive involvement in their country.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan thanks Guatemalan paramilitary police before he departed the country May 30 in Guatemala City. McAleenan was on a four-day trip to the Central American country, looking at the root causes of high immigration from Guatemala to the United States.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Dozens of Homeland Security agents have been dispatched some 2,000 miles south of the U.S. border into Guatemala to combat what the Trump administration has called the “scourge” of increased migration.

The 80 U.S. Border Patrol agents and Homeland Security investigators will train Guatemalan authorities to build checkpoints and examine the papers of migrants heading north.

On their heels, 6,000 Mexican National Guard troops also advanced south to meet this so-called threat and last week carried out a raid against a caravan of Central American migrants who had crossed the border from Guatemala into Mexico.

Meanwhile in Mexico City, police nabbed two activists affiliated with the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras for their part in organizing the caravans, which the group has done for several years.

The actions signal a new toughening of Mexico’s effort to curb the flow of U.S.-bound Central American migrants in the wake of the Trump administration’s now-canceled tariff threats against the country. In March, the administration cut aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—which make up the Northern Triangle—to punish them for the rise of asylum seekers and migrants amassing on the southern border.

Of course, none of this is new. Mexico and especially the U.S. have been building up Guatemala as a beachhead for foreign military and border security interests since at least the Kennedy administration.

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The reasons for focusing on Guatemala rhymes chords today with those in the history books. It is a waypoint for migrants from elsewhere in Central American making their way north. In April, Guatemalans made up the majority of all migrants apprehended by Border Patrol—the largest since 2007.

The Department of Homeland Security’s May 28 announcement about deploying immigration officials to Guatemala looked squarely at Guatemala to get at the “root” of what it sees as a migration crisis.

It follows old military logic of pinpointing Guatemala as a linchpin of U.S. strategic interests. Just a generation ago, the reasons to focus on that country were articulated by Lt. Gen. Wallace Nutting in 1982 while he served as head of the U.S. Southern Command: The “situation in Guatemala is potentially more serious than in El Salvador because the population is larger, the economy is stronger, and the geographical position is more critically located in a strategic sense.”

The U.S. kept close watch at every turn. The 1999 release of an historic United Nations Truth Commission report concluded that the Guatemalan state had carried out “acts of genocide” against Indigenous Mayans. The U.S. is implicated in the report as having provided decades of key material support (including training and doctrine) to Guatemalan military and security forces, which accounted for 93 percent of atrocities during the country’s period of armed conflict, 1962–1996.

Journalist Allan Nairn was on the ground 1981–1983, years in which strategic genocide in 662 rural villages wiped out tens of thousands of people. “It’s hard to overstate the U.S.’ role,” he said, “because the U.S. role was so extensive.”

Not far into Kennedy’s tenure, in 1962 crisis yet again rang from Guatemala. The nearly decade-old regime installed by the U.S.—authorized by President Dwight Eisenhower and carried out by the CIA—was in shambles, rocked by civil unrest and a fledgling movement on the rise, including an incipient guerrilla presence.

An assessment by U.S. Special Forces advisors, dispatched straight from Southeast Asia to Guatemala, concluded the next year that the Guatemalan military was “weak, disorganized and unprepared to meet the guerrilla threat,” according to the book Bitter Fruit by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer.

The answer was Kennedy’s military assistance program, known as MAP, which whipped the Guatemalan military into a bona fide killing machine, wrote former Amnesty International researcher Michael McClintock in his book The American Connection: State Terror and Resistance in Guatemala.

The first year of projected MAP funding tripled before the program even began, and levels of appropriations continued to increase dramatically, McClintock wrote. The U.S. outfitted Guatemala’s air force, provided state-of-the art weaponry as well as training and a vicious counterinsurgency doctrine to remake the hemisphere from external threats to “internal security”—a banal euphemism for war against the domestic population.

A glimpse into Guatemalan-U.S. history shows how high, and important, the stakes are. 

By 1966, McClintock wrote, another assessment concluded that the U.S-sponsored “MAP units” of the Guatemalan military had reached “full strength,” ready to be unleashed.

It was just in time for U.S. Border Patrol agent-turned-CIA-operative John Longan’s arrival in Guatemala to help create and run the first death squads in the region.

Military dispatches have continued after decades of counterinsurgency ended. Now U.S. interventions in Guatemala come under different names—from U.S. Marines sent to Guatemala in 2012 under the auspices of the drug war to current-day postings of immigration advisors to wrangle the Guatemalan military into a Homeland Security boundary force.

But not only political terms and military means have driven U.S. interests in Guatemala. Economic policy has been the backbone of U.S. influence in the region all along.

The wreckage from the genocide and counterinsurgency warfare after the 1954 U.S. intervention only accelerated after the turn of the 21st century, when U.S. interests rammed through neoliberal policies just as they did in Mexico in the early 1990s. While Mexico had NAFTA, Central American had CAFTA.

A U.S. Congressional Research Service report provides an illuminating example of these neoliberal policies at work. Obtained by WikiLeaks and written in the run-up to the 2006 establishment of a U.S.-led free trade agreement with Central America, the report reads like a debate between free trade “proponents” (namely, U.S. government and business elites) and their “critics.”

In Guatemala, the “critics” of the agreement were named in the report as the “[f]armers, union members, students, and social and indigenous groups.” In other words, they represented the majority of the Guatemalan population—people who led continuous protests against the agreements immediately after their passage in the spring of 2005, following secret negotiations.

Critical voices throughout the region argued against the labor and environmental provisions of the agreement, charging that, like NAFTA, the new CAFTA pact would “lead to the loss of jobs for workers in the United States and for subsistence farmers in Central America.”

Linda Green, an anthropologist who has studied the aftermath of the violence and ethnocide in Guatemala, said undermining of the Guatemalan agricultural sector stems from “the same kinds of processes that happened in Mexico [e.g., NAFTA], and we know what that does: It throws people off their land. Now they don’t even have what [Uruguayan writer] Eduardo Galeano called ‘plots of land the size of graves.’”

Not surprising, the early-mid 2000s displayed sharp spikes in unauthorized migration from Guatemala into the United States. The period between 2004 and 2011 represented a 127 percent increase in Guatemalan migration both documented and undocumented, according to Susanne Jonas and Nestor Rodriguez in their 2015 book, Guatemala-U.S. Migration.

It hasn’t stopped.

U.S. state and corporate interests have long cynically used military intervention and economic policy to assert U.S. will by force or coercion over all aspects of Guatemalan life. This has created mass flight from the horrors of political persecution but also economic hardship.

So, at a minimum, a decent starting point for U.S. progressive politicians might go beyond favoring only political refugees—as if they’re more deserving to stay in the U.S.—to recognize equally the rights of economic migrants for asylum status.

We can go even further than that by calling for direct reparations for the decades of destructive U.S. involvement and manipulation in Guatemalan affairs.

Perhaps then, instead of enduring more unnecessary dispatches of U.S. agents, Guatemalans can start to receive some justice and mobility wherever they reside, or aspire to go, from Guatemala to the U.S.