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 by 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 (The Dream of the North), remittances rebuilt these war-ravaged communities. With few exceptions, international migration was the only reparation they had, as Guatemalan anthropologist Ruth Piedrasanta shows.
Residents of Yalambojoch subsist on plots of only a few hectares of marginal land per family. The peace accords didn’t change the inequitable land-tenure structure or the concentration of political and economic power in the country. That chance was lost with the 1954 coup and the counterinsurgency of the early 1980s, as, time and again, the US government tipped the balance of power in favor of the status quo in Guatemala. Elites in Guatemala are only too happy to see people emigrate, as banks controlled by the oligarchy reap financial dividends from the transfer of remittances, and beginning in the 1990s international development banks began to promote the idea of remittances as development.
Instead of pursuing a people-centered rural development, the Guatemalan government’s postwar strategy, backed by international development loans, has been to open up large swaths of the country to foreign investment in megaprojects like mining and hydroelectric dams. As Guatemalan economist Luis Solano notes, there is not a single Maya name among the list of investors in these projects, where the profits go to international conglomerates in association with elite family networks in Guatemala.
One such project is the Northern Transversal Highway, a project initiated by Guatemala’s military governments to open up the northern reaches of the country to oil drilling and other forms of extraction. Guerrilla sabotage halted the project during the war, but since the peace accords it has returned with a vengeance. The Transversal now spans the whole region from northern Huehuetenango, where Felipe Gómez Alonzo lived, to Alta Verapaz, where Jakelin Caal Maquín’s grave is.
In Yalambojoch, people banded together to stop construction of the highway through their village, not because they don’t want a road, but because the Israeli company contracted to build it threatened to cut down hundreds of trees in a protected forest reserve next to the community’s only supply of fresh drinking water. A few kilometers away, community and environmental activists opposing the megaprojects have been jailed, attacked, or killed, and Guatemalan security forces have militarized the zone once again. The most recent killings in this region occurred the day before Felipe and his father crossed the US border.
Finally, there is climate change. While it is too simplistic to claim that Central American migrants are “climate refugees” (the claim is dangerous, too, since it ultimately justifies even more apocalyptic border-enforcement policies), there is evidence that in some regions, climate change may be eroding people’s ability to stay on their lands. In Huehuetenango, including in Yalambojoch, the potential to earn cash by growing coffee on small plots is being undermined by the spread of a plant-choking fungus called la roya, or coffee leaf rust, which some scientists attribute to climate change.
There are circles within circles, all spinning forward to this dismal moment: A Border Patrol agent began working with the CIA, and helped put into place a death-squad regime that accelerated a civil war that produced biblical levels of displacement; when refugees from that civil war, including families from Yalambojoch, tried to return home, many found they couldn’t survive in the society created by war. According to news reports, Felipe’s father was drowning in debt. Suffering yet more violence, more displacement, and more dispossession, doing their best to fend off the worst social and environmental effects of resource extraction and grinding poverty, many try to escape, with the only viable route being north, to a militarized border, where, in a way, it all began.
According to Stuart Schrader, in his forthcoming Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, it was common practice during the Cold War to send former Border Patrol agents, like Longan, to train foreign police through CIA-linked “public safety” programs, since they were more likely to speak Spanish than agents from other branches of law enforcement. In countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, they did the “dirty work” that Reagan’s envoys said needed doing. Until the early 1970s, the United States, according to a 1974 Lost Angeles Times report, was flying its Latin American death-squad apprentices up to the Border Patrol academy in Los Fresnos, Texas, to receive “training from CIA instructors in the design, manufacture, and potential use of bombs and incendiary devices.” Longan himself, in 1957, clearly described what he thought he was doing at the border: “we’re fighting a war” on a “wide battle front.”
As the Drive-By Truckers wrote in a 2016 song—about a murderous Border Patrol agent who went on to lead the NRA into its current militant, right-wing phase—“It all started with the border. And that’s still where it is today.”