Guatemalan children at U.S. border there because of U.S. backed genocide

“Obama vow to speed deportation of children at odds with public opinion.” So reads the headline of Reuters online for August 10. What does this have to do with the Guatemalan tragedy in which tens of thousands of Maya Indians were slaughtered in the latter 20th Century?

The majority of border crossing children are from Guatemala and large numbers, if not the majority, are monolingual Maya speakers. The policy of deportation of these children is particularly heinous in light of the fact that they who are here because of the disaster of policy supported by the U.S. – the policy of genocide against Guatemalan Indians. As far as this writer is concerned, if the President persists in the deportation policy the question will arise whether he can ever be trusted again.

But to get back to the subject of this discourse, the American public needs to know the current situation in Guatemala and that the U.S. was responsible for both the carnage of the 1980’s and 1990’and the mass migration from that land. The border crisis has brought back memories of my time in that country in October 1991 as a delegate to the 500 years of Resistance – Second Intercontinental Indian Conference.

The Guatemalan military made it known that it was deadly hostile to the Conference being held in that country, as we were in open support of the Maya forces opposing the government. The civil war was still raging at the time. We had to travel by bus from Guatemala City to the Conference site, the town of Quetzaltenango, in the western highlands. Our buses were festooned with banners spelling out our support, in no uncertain terms, for the Indigenous insurgents engaged in armed struggle with the Guatemalan armed forces. Traveling the mountain roads was considered dangerous because of frequent firefights between the Maya guerillas and government forces.

But what is most important is that the U.S. public know basically what happened in the civil war and that this country, the United States, was responsible for the worst and longest war in modern Latin American history (the war actually started in 1960) and for the commission of the most horrendous war crimes. It is also important that the public know how what happened then is impacting the current border crisis. This was a fiendish, genocidal war waged against the Maya Indian majority by Guatemala’s military from 1981 to 1996. In sheer numbers and nightmarish, beastly brutality it was unequaled in the annals of 20th Century Latin American history.

More than 626 Maya towns were literally wiped from the face of the earth. More than 200,000 Indigenous men, women and children were bestially slaughtered, more often than not with unspeakable torture. Some 1.5 million were displaced either internally or externally.

The arms used in this genocide were supplied by successive U.S. administrations beginning with that of Ronald Reagan. The U.S. supplied the Guatemalan military with weapons of mass destruction.

The butchery was carried out in the name of the American people, ostensibly ‘to stop communism in this hemisphere.” As a related side note it was made public at the Conference that the right-wing newspapers in Guatemala City were advocating that the army “storm” the meeting grounds because we were ” all communists.”

At critical times in this war Guatemalan army units were accompanied in their “search and destroy missions,” so repugnantly reminiscent of Vietnam, by U.S. advisers. These advisers were complicit, to say the least, in the war crimes committed against the Maya people and other citizens.

The United States, in unleashing the proxy armies of the dictatorships, was responsible for the war crimes. These horrific atrocities included the literal skinning alive of Indian young people, male and female; the literal burning alive of Native men, women, children, the elderly who had been soaked in gasoline; Indian infants kicked to death as footballs by the military; the drowning of Indian prisoners in pits filled with human waste; the wholesale forcing of entire village populations into their community churches and the locking of the doors and the burning of those buildings while the screams of the victims echoed throughout the countryside. Countless thousands of Maya women were bestially raped, many until they hemorrhaged to death; the survivors summarily executed. These atrocities have all been copiously documented. As it was in Vietnam, the U.S. is responsible for war crimes in Central America generally and in Guatemala in particular.

In an explosive report issued in February, 1999, the United Nations Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) charged the U.S. government and American corporations with complicity in the genocide of over 200,000 Maya people in the bloody civil war. The final 3,600 page CEH report clearly placed the guilt for the thousands of deaths on the “racist” policy of the Guatemalan government and held the military and paramilitary forces responsible for the actual murders, tortures and disappearances. It charged the U.S. with directly and indirectly maintaining a “fratricidal confrontation” by furnishing prolonged training, arms and financial aid. The murderous U.S. role plateaued in 1981-1983, but did not cease until the peace accords were signed in 1996.

The CEH report determined that 626 massacres were attributable to the military and its allies and these were described as ” strategically planned genocide against the Mayan people.” The scorched earth campaigns, specifically in the early 1980’s, wiped out entire villages of men, women and children. The report went on: ” Special brutality was directed against Mayan women, who were tortured, raped and murdered.” Large numbers of girls and boys were victims of especially violent killings of unspeakable, tortuous cruelty.

The Guatemalan government used “anticommunism” as an excuse for the “physical annihilation’ of vast numbers of unarmed civilians. The country was transformed into a surrogate Cold War battlefield by the U.S. government. Successive American administrations knew of the atrocities that were being committed.

Other segments of the population such as trade unionists, political progressives and community activists were singled out by successive barbaric regimes and tortured and murdered. In the 1970s and 1980s, a U.S.- owned bottling company licensed by Coca-Cola made war against Guatemalan trade unions in which scores of citizens were killed by the military.

To bring matters up to the present, in recent years, since the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords, there had been a strong movement to have those internally responsible brought to justice, in particular military commanders, such as Guatemalan dictator General Efrain Rios Montt. The general, a staunch anti-communist, was a favorite of President Reagan. In May 2013 Montt was convicted of genocide and war crimes against the Maya people in the civil war and was sentenced to 80 years in prison. But the conviction was promptly overturned by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that he had been denied due process.

The human rights organization, Amnesty International, denounced the ruling as a “devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict.”

General Montt’s 17 months in power are considered to have been one of the most violent periods of the entire war. He is accused, along with other charges, of personally ordering the deaths of over 1,771 Ixil Maya men, women and children while holding office in 1982-1983. The trial is to resume in January 2015.

As a consequence of this horrific, violent legacy conditions of life are deplorable in every respect imaginable for the Indigenous, poor and working masses of Guatemala. The U. S. is responsible in every sense of the word for the Guatemalan migration, and also for that of El Salvador and Honduras. It is no coincidence that the mass migrations are from these three countries that were the focus of the U.S. government ‘s Latin American “anticommunist” crusade of the late 20th Century.

It is incumbent upon President Obama to take responsibility and make amends to those whose misery is directly attributable to the machinations of the government he now heads. The present course he is on now – pursuing deportations – can only reopen the pitiless wounds for which this country is responsible, in particular those sustained by the Indigenous of Guatemala and others in the region.

Photo: Ixil women during a protest in front of the Court of Constitutionality over the decision to annul the genocide conviction of Guatemala’s former U.S.-backed dictator Efrain Rios Montt and restart his trial in Guatemala City, May 24, 2013. Sign in the back says: “More than 626 massacres of indigenous communities and they still deny there was genocide?” Luis Soto/AP 




Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.