Tucson AZ-based human rights and humanitarian groups have released a new report detailing systemic U.S. Border Patrol abuses of migrants which they say amounts to a “crisis of death and disappearance unfolding in the Southwest borderlands.”
Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths, two prominent rights groups operating in the southern Arizona and northern Sonora borderlands, authored the report.
In the first of a three-part installment, the report, titled, “Disappeared: How the US Border Enforcement Agencies Are Fueling a Missing Person Crisis,” details horrendous accounts of U.S. Border Patrol’s harsh “chase and scatter” tactics.
Using an arsenal of military helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, attack dogs, and standard-practice blunt force beatings and tackles, the tactics inflict psychological and physical injury and “commonly result in the disorientation and dispersal of individuals and groups into life-threatening terrain.”
Invariably, according to the report, the frequent declaration that Derechos Humanos receives over the phone from families who call their Missing Migrant Crisis Line, is: “Estoy buscando a una persona desaparecida./I’m looking for a disappeared person.”
The report explains: “If found, the disappeared turn up in detention centers, in morgues, or skeletonized on the desert floor; many human remains are never identified. Thousands more are never located. With each passing day, another father, sister, aunt, brother, partner, or child goes missing while attempting to cross the Southwest border.”
The authors don’t say so in their report—certainly the present-day focus was more pressing—but it’s useful to review the historical background. The language at the heart of the report’s text recalls a lasting symptom of aggressive U.S. policy in Guatemala under the liberal administrations of the 1960s.
U.S. in Guatemala: Origins of Mass “Disappearances”
In the 1981 publication, ‘Disappearances’: A Workbook, Amnesty International explains that “the term ‘disappearance’ was first used (as desaparecido in Spanish) to describe a particular government practice applied on a massive scale in Guatemala after 1966…” (Guatemala is currently one of the main origin countries of northward migration, for reasons related to the political circumstances that engendered the term, discussed more below.)
The year 1966 is revealing. That’s when an extensive counterinsurgency campaign erupted, led by Col. Carlos Arana Osorio, who was known as the “Butcher of Zacapa.” One of the first instances of the “disappearance” strategy fell in March 1966, when security forces abducted, tortured and murdered 28 members of the Partido Guatemalteco de Trabajo (Communist Party). Though confirmations of their demise came from participants in the mass arrest, the victims’ bodies were never discovered.
U.S. Col. John Webber oversaw the U.S. military mission in Guatemala at the time, boasting to Time magazine that he had personally initiated the organization of death squads as a means of counter-terror. Euphemistically called “civilian collaborators,” his army-organized paramilitary groups were “licensed to kill” those whom they labeled as guerrillas as well as “potential” guerrillas. “That’s the way this country is,” a cynical Webber told Time, in a January 1968 article published shortly after he was assassinated by Marxist guerrillas. “The Communists are using everything they have, including terror. And it must be met.” Reportedly, an August 1966 memorandum written by U.S. embassy personnel authorizing the formation of death squads goes well beyond Webber’s individual role in the matter.
Time reported that “Webber immediately expanded counterinsurgency training within Guatemala’s 5,000-man army, brought in U.S. jeeps, trucks communications equipment and helicopters to give the army more firepower and mobility, and breathed new life into the army’s civic-action program.”
Part of the literally fire-breathing “new life” pumped into the Guatemalan military to crush the guerrilla insurgency included U.S. napalm raids in the northeast corner of the country, carried out by bomber planes dispatched from American bases in Panama. Upwards of 10,000 people were killed over the next few years. As Col. Arana Osorio affirmed: “If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so.”
This was done to cleanse out any traces of a return to Guatemala’s still uniquely unprecedented “years of spring in a land of eternal tyranny,” which Guatemalan poet Cardoza y Aragón named the 1944-1954 period of liberal (nonsocialist) economic and political reforms under two democratically elected governments, snuffed out by an Eisenhower-authorized military coup.
“Endless Inventory” of Killings since 1954
Exiled Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel labeled the legacy of killings and “disappearances” to be “an endless inventory since 1954”—when U.S. planes bombed targets in the country and a U.S.-trained and -funded military force took over the country. But less than a decade after the coup, Guatemala was in economic shambles, rocked by civil unrest and a guerrilla movement on the rise that threatened to bring about a return to menacing state of democracy, ushered in by a 1944 populist revolt that toppled the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s favored dictator, Jorge Ubico.
Further alarming to Washington, an assessment by U.S. Special Forces advisors dispatched to Guatemala (straight from the American invasion of Southeast Asia) concluded that the Guatemalan military was “weak, disorganized and unprepared to meet the guerrilla threat.” The turbulent political scene prompted the U.S. to step in once again—and this time it was for keeps.
U.S. advisors had established a counterinsurgency base in the northeast of the country, in Izabal and Zacapa provinces, where the guerrilla movement was based. President Kennedy’s military advisors facilitated a massive Military Assistance Program (MAP) in order “to establish and maintain armed forces” within Guatemala for the purpose of “internal security”—the new doctrine for the hemisphere devised by the Kennedy administration. The first year of projected MAP funding tripled before the program even began and continued to increase dramatically through the first years of its operation.
When the construction dust cleared, a proficient Guatemalan military machine emerged from the American MAP project. By 1966, the year when mass disappearances started occurring, another U.S. government assessment concluded that the U.S.-sponsored MAP units of the Guatemalan military had reached “full strength.”
From then on, Guatemala’s new state military forces grew in strength and ruthlessness.
A “Laboratory” for Counterinsurgency in Latin America
Commenting on the 1980s era when the butchery would culminate in what the UN later designated as “acts of genocide,” Latin American Studies scholar Piero Gleijeses told the New York Times: “The Reagan Administration wanted to pretend the [Guatemalan] officers were good people, but it was the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations that gave them muscle to create a murderous machine. That’s when the Frankenstein was created.”
Over this period, Guatemala enjoyed the highest ratio of U.S. advisors to local military forces in all of Latin America. U.S. military assistance to “professionalize” Guatemalan armed forces appeared complete, but it needed something more to defeat a guerrilla movement that still presented an exemplary threat. To understand the nature of U.S. grooming of Guatemalan state forces, a leading Guatemala expert, Susanne Jonas, clarifies in her book The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power (Westview, 1991): “The key was not the amount of U.S. security aid to Guatemala, but its focus.”
In a careful, first-hand study based mainly on official U.S. documents, Amnesty International’s senior researcher Michael McClintock identified the critical shift in the Guatemalan military-security structure. Detailed in his book, The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala (Zed, 1985), McClintock discovered that U.S. advisors had organized a new system to decisively crush both armed and nonviolent resistance, in the cities and countryside.
The MAP-provided command center in Zacapa acted as a model for integrating police and military security forces into a joint counterinsurgency apparatus which included “militarizing the police command structure and some of its conventional forces.” This is how Guatemala quickly became the “laboratory” for counterinsurgency warfare throughout Latin America.
Bringing the Guatemala model to the U.S.-Mexico border
In subsequent years, as a result of rising refugee migration and a shift in domestic security initiatives, U.S. planners incorporated two related strategic concerns—at the border (immigration) and in Latin America (foreign policy)—into one prevailing, broadly applied tactical framework.
Begun under President Carter, expanded under President Reagan, policy leaders took the above process of “militarization”—namely focusing on programs of “internal” (over external) national defense, prioritizing control over a targeted civilian population rather than controlling a particular territory; and integrating military and police forces into a jointly coordinated state-security apparatus.
The Reagan administration labeled this strategy as Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) doctrine. The model stemmed from its experimental stage in mid-1960s Guatemala, where it continued to be perfected there and throughout the region. By the 1980s, very clear instances of the policy framework were being implemented along the Mexico-U.S. border. Indeed, early militarization strategy deployed on the border was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense Center for Low-Intensity Conflict.
Under President Carter, immigration enforcement capabilities and resources experienced “modest levels of growth” in security technology and equipment, the occasional use of military facilities, and an expanded intelligence network with federal security, police and military agencies.
Under Reagan, the trends skyrocketed. U.S. Border Patrol forces assumed anti-drug and anti-terror operational mandates, necessitating provisions of military-issue M-14 and M-16 assault rifles, expanded use of helicopters (from two to twenty-two, nearly all from the U.S. Army) and military-related technology.
Next came deployment examples on the ground. U.S. Border Patrol and local police forces conducted “joint foot patrols” throughout border communities. The Border Patrol Tactical Team (BORTAC) formed as an elite, special forces squad deployed to immigration enforcement, as described by sociologist Timothy Dunn in his landmark book, The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border: 1978-1992 (CMAS Books, 1996). Accordingly, BORTAC was “trained in riot control, counterterrorism, and other unspecified paramilitary activities.”
The highly organized planning involved all the elements of classic counterinsurgency for application in the domestic scene.
Dunn notes the most significant convergence of U.S. immigration enforcement and LIC doctrine in this period, developed through national “contingency plans for ‘immigration emergencies’ and the roundup of ‘alien terrorists and undesirables.’” Relevant to mention, Dunn would be the first to say that longtime Derechos Humanos members Isabel Garcia and Lupe Castillo educated him about concepts such as “militarization” when they were being reviled as “hysterical” for their early warnings on the then-newly created militarized border security apparatus.
Meanwhile, in Guatemala, the mounting bloodbath created a mass exodus of Guatemalans to the United States, which scholars Susanne Jonas and Nestor Rodriguez term “the generation of the 1980s” in their comprehensive study, Guatemala-U.S. Migration (UTexas Press, 2014). The generation’s collective experiences recall UN-designated “acts of genocide” by Guatemalan security forces, then still under active U.S. support and by its various proxies (Israel and other mercenary states).
This collective generation is still fleeing the genocidal wreckage of the 1980s dirty wars. Purported free trade policies of the neoliberal era advanced the political and economic factors that formerly prompted northward migration from the country.
Today in some areas along the U.S.-Mexico border, such as in Texas, the numbers of migrants hailing from Central America (but from only from the countries combusted by U.S. intervention—Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua), have begun to outpace those from Mexico. According to information provided to this author by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office, many Guatemalans who have perished while crossing these desert borderlands originated from among the indigenous Mayan areas hit hardest by the genocide: El Quiché, Huehuetenango, Chimaltenango.
“Disappearances” in the U.S.-Mexico border context today
In its 1981 workbook, Amnesty encloses every use of the term “disappearance” in quotation marks, stating early that the term itself is a misnomer because the many “who have ‘disappeared’ may well, at worst, have ceased to be. None, however, is lost or vanished. Living or dead, each is in a very real place as a result of a real series of decisions taken and implemented by real people. Someone does know and, more importantly, is responsible.”
Institutional knowledge of and responsibility for “disappearances,” as a matter of policy, is particularly striking regarding migrant incarceration. In its 2009 report, Jailed Without Justice, Amnesty International quotes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Former Executive director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination, James Pendergraph, speaking to attendees of the 2008 Police Foundation Conference: “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Derechos Humanos documents persons who “went missing within the detention system,” which is one of the areas “disappeared” migrants sometimes turn up.
These policies have “ripped holes in families and communities that will last for generations,” write the “disappearance” report authors, adding: “These cases are not just statistics—each is connected to a network of family and friends, entire worlds thrown into crisis by the phenomenon of disappearance.”
As anthropologist Robin Reineke, co-founder and executive director of Colibri Center for Human Rights, and former coordinator of the Tucson medical examiner’s Project on Missing and Unidentified Migrants, explains:
“Families experience what psychologists term ‘Ambiguous Loss,’ which means that the status of a loved one is in question—unresolved. The grief process cannot start because the person is neither dead nor alive. Families often report debilitating fear and inability to focus on daily tasks. At any point in their “normal” day, their loved one could be suffering somewhere without help. The search often becomes all-consuming.”
“Understanding of ‘disappearances’ is evolving constantly,” Amnesty disclaims in their 1981 report, as if anticipating future implications of the term and the responses by human rights organizations like Derechos and No More Deaths. “Thus this publication can necessarily be only one step toward a greater understanding of ‘disappearances,’ one step in the continuing search for effective remedies.”
To the Tucson-based groups that authored the “disappearance” report, border enforcement policies amounts to no less than “a campaign of state violence against migrating peoples.
“We protest the loss of life resulting from US border enforcement strategy, and we call for an immediate end to the policies and practices responsible for the ongoing epidemic of deaths and disappearances in the US–Mexico borderlands.”
Material for this article was taken from the author’s forthcoming book on U.S. foreign and immigration policy regarding Guatemala, with an introduction written by linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky.