In response to public ire about the inhumane treatment of refugees on the southern US border, Valley leaders have been trying to understand the root causes of migration from Central America to the US.
Among the local leaders are Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla, Jr., and RGV Catholic Charities Founder and Executive Director Sister Norma Pimentel. Padilla and Pimentel scheduled a trip to Central America for this month, but recently canceled due to scheduling conflicts, they told Neta. But Pimentel and Gonzalez have already made a visit; they went in May.
Gonzalez represents Texas’ 15th US Congressional District. In June, the Corpus Christi native, who a month earlier organized a congressional delegation visit to the “Ursula” Detention Center, decried failed US policies in Central America.
During his second visit to Central America, in July, the junior congressman joined Republican US Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Democratic Representative Ruben Kihuen of Nevada in high-level talks with the Guatemalan government and Mexico. They discussed foreign investment, manufacturing, and security with the heads of state. Gonzalez told the Rio Grande Guardian that the “gang ridden” countries of the region need commercial engagement and “security on the ground.”
Gonzalez complimented the government, however, rating Guatemala “probably in the best shape” of the Central American countries. He said President Morales, with whom he claims to have a very good relationship, is trying to address insecurity.
Pimentel was not quoted in either report, although she was mentioned in both. Because of her extensive work providing humanitarian respite to refugees at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center, we spoke with Pimentel.
The Hispanic Heritage Award recipient told Neta she agreed that some of the “predominant circumstances” underlying migration are poverty and insecurity. She also believes commercial investment and “security” were the path forward for Central America. On her Facebook page, she posted a picture with Morales inside the Guatemala National Palace of Culture after a “very nice lunch meeting. Pimentel, AKA Pope Francis’ favorite nun, requested prayer for Morales’ time left in office.
“That our God guide him and protect him” so that “his people aren’t forced to migrate,” she wrote.
Neta spoke with Chief Padilla this week at the South Texas College (STC) Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence groundbreaking ceremony in Pharr—the newest STC campus is “dedicated to training local, state, and federal law enforcement officers.” Neta asked Padilla, who Commands a Joint Task Force and who, in the 1990s, instructed tactical procedures in Guatemala and elsewhere, why he thinks refugees are arriving on the US border. Padilla cited three factors: poverty, gang violence, and reunifying with loved ones already in the US.
Thus, a Congressman, a Border Patrol chief, and a religious leader are in agreement on the push factors discussed above, which they say are driving refugees to the southern US border. However, none considered US responsibility for causing the instability that has created these victims of war— commonly referred to as “asylum seekers.”
Ever since a US-sponsored coup d’etat in 1954, Guatemalan governments have been subservient protectorates of US-corporate interests. And Guatemalan “death squads” were armed and trained by the US at the School for Americas, in Fort Benning, Georgia.
The Guatemalan army, supported by the US and rife with assassins and torturers, carried out genocide against the country’s Mayan people. In three years, from 1981 to 1983, the army destroyed over 600 villages, killing or “disappearing” more than 200,000 people.
One of those people was Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a guerilla comandante for the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), a Mayan armed-resistance movement. He was also the husband of Jennifer Harbury, who today is a locally and internationally renowned human rights attorney for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA).
According to Harbury, the United States has everything to do “with the creation of the monsters” that are driving refugees up to the US border. “They’re fleeing the cartels.” Harbury argues that the inhumane treatment of refugees— from family separations to indefinite detentions— amounts to punishing the victims rather than the members of drug cartels, in direct contradiction to the Trump Administration’s proclamations of fighting them.
How the US created the monsters
Harbury went to Guatemala in the 1980s in order to investigate what her clients— Guatemalan refugees arriving in South Texas— reported to be acts of genocide against them. At the time, the firm was called Texas Rural Legal Aid.
She married Bámaca in 1991, shortly after returning to Guatemala to write a book on the Mayan revolutionary movement with which she had become so involved. Bámaca went missing a year later in combat with the Guatemalan army, however. Nearly three years of lies by the Guatemalan army and the US Central Intelligence Agency and State Department ensued, as all denied knowing the revolutionary leader’s whereabouts.
After forcing declassification of US government documents, Harbury discovered that the US knew of Bámaca’s whereabouts only six days after his capture. He was tortured by a US-trained Guatemalan colonel, who later lived in Virginia, near the CIA for 10 years with his family until Harbury found out. He fled back to Guatemala after becoming aware of Harbury’s intention to file a Torture Victims Protection Act case against him. The CIA tipped him off. Harbury says her husband was either thrown out of a helicopter or dismembered.
But achieving justice for the victims is an ongoing struggle.
Harbury won an international judgement at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but has not been able to bring all of the perpetrators to justice. That is because of US protection and because the Guatemalan army threatens and uses violence against judges and prosecutors.
According to Harbury, peace in Guatemala cannot be realized without the equivalent of a Nuremberg-trial to prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide. Her analysis contrasts starkly with the solutions for “push factors” offered by Rio Grande Valley leaders.
To their suggestions that foreign investment and aid is the path forward, Harbury scoffed at “throwing money at the problem” as a long standing avoidance tactic by the Guatemalan government.
But Sister Norma Pimentel told Neta that Morales is interested in moving forward, not looking to the past. This line of argument is also familiar to Harbury. The Guatemalan government’s “thing,” as she put it, “has always been, give us more money. Everything will be okay and the past is the past or we can’t move forward. That’s been their position since the 80s.”
What lies in the past is a genocide that Morales maintains never happened. Interestingly, his political party, the National Convergence Front (FCN), was founded by former military generals responsible for carrying out the genocide. During years of research and investigation, Harbury has established that these perpetrators removed their uniforms after the “dirty wars” and became drug cartel leaders or politicians.
Yet Pimentel downplays the genocide. “It was a long time ago,” she told Neta. She added that “I do not get involved in those sorts of politics,” maintaining that the government just wants to “move forward.”
There is another sort of politics that Pimentel does get involved in, however. She is a licensed professional counselor, and founder and director of Catholic Charities of the RGV’s Pregnancy Counseling Program. It is a center which, among its activities, discourages pregnant people from getting abortions. Pimentel’s program is not to be confused with McAllen Pregnancy Center (MPC). But she told Neta that she maintains “strong support” for MPC, which is notorious among local pro-choice advocates for its aggressive harassment and manipulation of abortion-seeking patients at Whole Women’s Health. Pro- or anti-choice, ‘apolitical’ is not an adjective that comes to mind when discussing access to abortion.
Recent comparisons in the media between Pimentel and Mother Teresa have been fawning, but there is an ugly and undiscussed side to the comparison as well. Mother Teresa, whose legal name was Agnes Bojaxhiu, used her status as a humanitarian to promote anti-abortion rhetoric. She even publicly called abortion the greatest destroyer of love and peace. And Mother Teresa said during a visit to Guatemala during the genocide that everything there was peaceful. She too added that she did not “get involved” in politics.
Genocide denial is the final and perpetual stage of genocide because it denies victims even the memory of their murdered family members. Our local leaders are not denying the genocide per se, but they are cozying up to and abetting those who are. Their support and praise for Morales comes at a time when Guatemalans themselves are calling on “The Donald Trump” of their country to resign after he refused to renew the mandate of a UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Morales, an unlikely candidate and former television comedian, was elected on a platform of anti-corruption. (Remind you of anybody?) But this proved only as good— or as bad— as Mr. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.”
Cicig has played a key role in prosecuting high-level officials for corruption, including taking down a sitting president and most of his cabinet ministers three years ago. Morales and his brother and son are the subjects of several Cicig investigations revolving around campaign finance violations and illegality.
The anti-corruption commission has proven effective in arbitrating justice for the indigenous people of Guatemala, who make up the majority of the country’s population. The commission has been moving the country toward peace, in Harbury’s view. But the indigenous population still has little political power; Harbury calls this situation a Guatemalan Jim Crow. Cicig is one of the only mechanisms of justice currently available to the Mayan people and to working-class Guatemalans.
That is why thousands of them blocked off the Pan-American highway on Monday, kicking off a week of marches, blockades, and rallies to protest the government’s decision to shut down Cicig. Protests are planned all over the capitol today.
Aside from President Morales’ TV background, he also seems like President Trump in his attitude towards those investigating him: he calls for shutting them down. Trump has not fired FBI Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, but Morales has already muzzled Cicig. One can hope that Trump does not become the Jimmy Morales of the US.
The two have been happy to work together. When Morales, a staunch Evangelical Christian, committed Guatemala as the first country to support and emulate the US Israeli Embassy’s move to Jerusalem, the White House promised to reward Guatemala for its support. Experts and former US officials see a possible link between Guatemala’s support for the embassy move and the Trump administration’s dropping of support for Cicig. Gonzalez praised and exalted this move as well.
Cicig Commissioner Ivan Velasquez is banned from entering Guatemala. Morales is demanding that a new commissioner be named. Secretary General Antonio Gutteres has condemned the move, but, on Thursday, Gutteres instructed the commission to appoint a deputy commissioner until the situation is sorted out. Harbury told Neta that the Guatemalan government should not be allowed to pick the prosecutors in their own case.
As Guatemalans plan to take to the streets across the capital Thursday to protest corruption, the posture our local leaders take towards the country might play a role in efforts to obtain justice for the Mayan people and for the family of victims of the genocide, including Harbury. If she is correct, then continuing to throw guns and money at Guatemala will merely sustain the violence and misery there— as well as on the southern US border. Instead of guns and money, solidarity is needed with Guatemalans who are fighting their own repressive government. Solidarity may be especially necessary if President Trump decides to repay an overdue debt to his Guatemalan peer with a tribute to the sincerest form of flattery.
Neta could not reach Gonzalez for comment despite various attempts.
Correction: Neta reported that Bámaca was tortured by a Guatemalan army general, when in fact he had been tortured by a Guatemalan colonel for the Guatemalan intelligence service—of which the army was an element.