Queqchí people carrying their loved ones' remains after an exhumation in Cambayal in Alta Verapaz department, Guatemala (2012).
Centre of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences
antecedent / power

Washington Trained Guatemala’s Mass Murderers—and the Border Patrol Played a Role

Now two Guatemalan children have died under Border Patrol custody. But the agency’s role in Latin American oppression has a long history.
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 to 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.
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