Archive for March, 2019

Guatemala: Recent History-Present and Civil War

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 23, 2019 by dsmith41

David Smith

To understand Guatemala’s Civil War, the defining moment in modern Guatemalan history, that officially began in 1960 and ended 36 years later, it is necessary to first explore the economic and social conditions of the country with an indigenous Maya majority. Dating back to Spanish Colonial times, Guatemala’s governments have been racist, elitist, militaristic, and corrupt. Access to land and resources, the lifeblood of the Maya people, has been historically restricted, and the landowners who controlled the agricultural economy have consistently used coercive methods to extract extremely cheap migrant labor from indigenous and mixed-race (ladino) people. In the 20th century, United Fruit Company, now Chiquita, employed what was essentially a monopoly over Guatemala’s economy, acquiring 40% of the arable land in the country through a series of contracts that they signed with dictator Jorge Ubico. In October of 1944, Guatemala’s government changed when the people elected Jose Arevalo, ushering in the “Ten Years of Springtime,” a brief era in which democratic reform in the country blossomed. Arevalo enacted a series of reform that provided basic social services to poor people across the country, but the glaring obstacle to a truly independent Guatemala was United Fruit Company’s concentration of land and their dominance of the economy. Arevalo’s democratically elected predecessor, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, decided to confront the foreign influence over the nation’s economy by nationalizing the land and re-distributing it, principally to the indigenous Maya.

Arbenz’ move, while perhaps justified, was certainly radical to the United States. What was perhaps even more radical was that Arbenz had legalized the Communist party in Guatemala, and while Arbenz was not himself a Communist, the members of the PGT (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo) were active in the government, especially on the issue of land reform. In an Eisenhower administration that was engaged in militant anti-communism around the world, the United States saw the seizure of land, the re-distribution of land, and the existence of an active Communist party as a serious threat to regional security. In 1954, in an operation named PBSUCESS, the CIA planned and executed a coup against Jacobo Arbenz by supporting Colonel Castillo Armas in the first Cold War conflict in the Western hemisphere. In a daring and, perhaps, arrogant display, the United States asserted control over the domestic affairs of Guatemala, ensuring the restoration of United Fruit Company’s landholdings and providing military and economic assistance to a military regime that supported US interests. The consequences of the 1954 coup against Jacobo Arbenz, executed nearly flawlessly from a US perspective, would reverberate around not only Guatemala for the next four decades, but around the entire Western Hemisphere for the duration of the Cold War. The events of 1954 played a direct role in the Cuban Revolution five years later, including that a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was in Guatemala City and an ally of Arbenz when the United States executed the coup, was profoundly impacted by the experience.

The vast majority of the people in Guatemala were opposed to the United States influence in their country, but any outward expression of opposition to the new military regime was met with secret police death squads. Castillo Armas unleashed a repression that murdered thousands of communists, teachers, students, and others who they perceived to be a threat to stability. The armed resistance to the government began in 1959, when some members of the military became angry that the United States had used Guatemala as a launching point for their Bay of Pigs invasion. They launched a coup that failed, but the seeds of revolution had been sown. Members of this attempted coup fled the cities and retreated into the countryside to form the origins of guerilla factions, like the FAR (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes), who were determined to lead a communist revolution.

The communists failed miserably in their mission during the 1960s. Superior government forces who had been trained by the United States routed the communists, including a visit from the Green Berets that nearly decimated the communists into non-existence. After their failures, some leaders decided to change strategies. Whereas before the communists had tried to re-create the foco strategy of the Cuban Revolution of the island nation just across the Gulf of Mexico, some of the leaders now believed that they needed more of a prolonged people’s war, similar to the likes of the successful North Vietnamese movement. In Guatemala, the “people” are indigenous, so the communist guerilla Mario Payeras started creating alliances with indigenous people in the remote Western Highlands. Payeras’ band of guerillas, known as the EGP (Ejercito de Guerillas Pobres), built a coalition with the largest indigenous peasant organization in Guatemala, the CUC (Comite de Unidad Campesina). As the road to widespread war became more and more inevitable, the communist guerillas believed they had the support of hundreds of thousands of peasants by 1980.

What followed is one of the saddest chapters in the spiral of violence that encompassed the entire Western Hemisphere through the second half of the 20th century. A difficult question that Guatemalans and historians have to confront is how and why this Civil War, a common experience among Latin American countries at the time, turned to genocide. There are no easy answers. When the communists launched their offensives against the military, the government responded with a scorched-earth campaign that is responsible for the slaughter of 200,000 Mayan people. The government would sweep through the village and murder anyone who was there, regardless of their involvement (or lack thereof) in the guerilla movement. Unarmed women, children, and men were raped, terrorized, tortured, and murdered, their bodies desecrated by soldiers who were often recruited from the same types of communities they were razing. The Reagan regime funded the military’s efforts, afraid of another Nicaragua in Central America.

Following the genocide, the guerilla movement was essentially over. After the Cold War, the military regime was forced to negotiate a peace process and conclude the Civil War. Their crimes against humanity were investigated by the United Nations. Their report details the genocidal terror unleashed upon the Maya people.

Following the peace process, Guatemala dismantled 2/3 of its military. The soldiers who had belonged to one of the most highly trained and organized militaries in the Western hemisphere were largely granted immunity, allowing them to participate in private and public life within Guatemala. Some of these soldiers formed criminal organizations that provided intelligence gathering and hit squads for people willing to pay. Many former officers in the military became high-ranking politicians, ascending to the presidency and the Interior Minister in some cases (Insight Crime investigation). In addition to these criminal organizations who are highly connected to corruption in Guatemala’s government, there has also been the development of a serious gang problem in the country. Thus, a highly complex picture of crime, corruption, impunity, and violence in Guatemala arises. Alliances among criminal organizations can quickly disintegrate, people with enough money and power can bribe judges and dismantle investigations, and  in order for anything to be done, international organizations attempting to bring some semblance of justice to the country must work with government officials who are often profoundly corrupt.

International and domestic attempts have been made to hold high-ranking members of the military accountable for the genocide they ordered and carried out. These efforts have produced mixed results. One such example was the trial of General Efrain Rios Montt. In 2013, a court in Guatemala City convicted Rios Montt of genocide and other crimes against humanity, but, three days later, the Guatemalan Supreme Court nullified the decision on a technicality. Before the re-trial, Rios Montt died. Some military officers and criminals responsible for extraordinary violence have been found guilty, but the reality is that most of the former members of the military and the members of the criminal organizations that exist today live with impunity from their crimes, though it remains a violent, tumultuous, and uncertain impunity.

What is overwhelmingly tragic about the circumstances in Guatemala is the vulnerability of indigenous and mixed-race women and children. Indigenous Maya have faced violent oppression from racist governments for centuries. Now, heavily-armed gangs and criminal organizations control the territories in which these people live and exert a reign of terror over these communities. Over time, these people have responded to this oppression in a variety of ways. Sometimes, they protest non-violently, sometimes they take up arms against those persecuting them, sometimes they co-exist with their enemies and carve out whatever opportunities they can find, and sometimes they flee the violence, seeking a better set of circumstances than those in their home country.

Source: Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America and the Cold War. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Edited and Introduced by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Translated by Ann Wright. London, UK: Verso, 2009.

Further Reading:

https://thepanoptic.co.uk/2016/11/19/american-intervention-guatemala/

This article offers a detailed description of the Guatemalan Civil war, its origins, and its impact. Beginning with an analysis of the economic and racial conditions that preceded the Civil War in Guatemala, it describes the Arevalo and Arbenz administrations and the land reforms they pursued. The article then offers an account of the CIA-sponsored coup in 1954 and the Civil War that was started in 1960. Finally, the conflict between the government and the indigenous communities that resulted in a genocide is explained. This article focuses on the role of US Intervention and claims the responsibility for the genocide lays in the United States government and the military regime of Guatemala.

https://www.insightcrime.org/guatemala-organized-crime-news/guatemala/

Insight Crime is a fantastic resource for learning more about organized crime in Central America. This Guatemala profile reflects on the history of the Civil War, and connects this history to the modern circumstances in Guatemala. It explains the rise of drug smugglers, or transportistas, and how they established drug transportation networks with the support of corrupt military and police. As the country exited Civil War, it explains that the military and police stayed heavily involved in organized crime, and it also explain the growth of gangs, such as MS-13 and Barrio 18. This profile also seeks to explain the relationship between Mexican cartels and the organized crime networks in Guatemala. Additionally, the profile explores the judicial system and the prison systems in the largest Central American nation. Insight Crime has also conducted numerous investigations about Central American corruption and criminal organizations that offer a clearer picture of organized crime across the region.

https://www.usip.org/publications/1997/02/truth-commission-guatemala

This is to read more about the conclusions of the UN Truth Commission that found evidence of the genocide, find the report here. This also has some information about the prosecutions of war crimes over the last 2 decades.

https://www.thenation.com/article/border-patrol-guatemala-dictatorship/

To read about direct United States intervention in Guatemala and to learn about how Washington trained army commanders that ordered a genocide, see this source.

https://www.thenation.com/article/guatemala-refugee-crisis-jakelin-caal-maquin/

To read a heartbreaking account of what is happening at the border in the Trump administration, and to read about the intersections of race, gender, and age that produce particularly vulnerable migrants, read this source.

El Salvador Civil War

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 21, 2019 by dsmith41

David Smith

Geographically, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, but it is also the most densely populated. With a population of over six million people in a country the size of the state of Massachusetts, El Salvador has been notorious in recent years for the high levels of murder and violence in the its capital city of San Salvador. About 20% of El Salvadorans live abroad, many of whom reside in the United States, and a significant portion of the El Salvadoran economy relies on remittances from these citizens (CIA World Factbook). Why El Salvadorans immigrate to the United  and why the country experiences such violence in the present can be directly traced to the Civil War in the 1980s.

El Salvador’s Civil War has roots in the conflict in La Matanza (The
Massacre) of 1932 when the military regime of General Maximiliano Martinez repressed a rebellion led by indigenous peasants and communists. Half of the communist party was killed or exiled in the aftermath while tens of thousands of indigenous people were murdered. While the military maintained control of the government for the next 50 years, the historical memory of 1932 would play a decisive role in the Civil war that ravaged the nation in 1980’s.

In addition to La Matanza, the context of the Cold War and the larger regional conflicts is important to understand. While El Salvador is a unique case study with its specific context, the descent into Civil War fits into a larger Central American framework in which the United States funded and trained ethically abhorrent military regimes in an attempt to combat communist insurgents who recruited indigenous people to support a people’s revolution. When the Reagan administration assumed power and took an extremely hard-line stance against communism in Central America, the US increased military aid to a repressive El Salvador regime that ordered and carried out devastating human rights abuses throughout the 1980s, such as executing a thousand unarmed peasants at El Mozote.

The Civil War began in 1980 with the formation of the communist FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). Previously, there had been a dirty war in which right-wing death squads and the military were fighting the communists. Events that sparked the official Civil War was a right-wing death squad’s assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a figure associated with Catholic Liberation Theology. Military forces assassinated Romero, a popular bishop of the poorer people in El Salvador, while he was saying mass in 1980. From a domestic point of view, this assassination was one of the events that sparked widespread participation in the Civil War. Also of import to this period was the rape and murder of four American churchwomen by the Salvadoran military in late 1980. The FMLN launched their first military offensive in 1981. Realizing they could not out-gun a well-organized, well-armed army in an open war, the guerrillas employed non-traditional tactics that kept the government chasing them into the mountains and across the countryside. In an unexpectedly successful campaign, the guerrillas used hit-and-run attacks to capture and consolidate control over about 1/3 of El Salvador’s territory. The US increased aid in the form of air support that forced the FMLN to go on the run again. A stalemate ensued in which the FMLN could not penetrate further into government territory while the military could not dislodge the FMLN from the regions they controlled. The FMLN launched one last national offensive in 1989, temporarily claiming territories in Salvadoran cities. The government responded to this offensive with panic and murdered six Jesuit priests, drawing heavy international criticism and devastating the military’s image in the eyes of the Salvadoran people. With no clear end in sight and the Cold War now at an end, both sides sat down for a peace agreement.

The violence was staggering. 75,000 civilians died at the hands of
the military, with many more thousand people killed in battle or by FMLN
perpetrators (it is important to note that the UN Truth Commission found the government responsible for 85% of war-time atrocities and the FMLN accounted for 5%). Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, many ending up in the United States. In the peace process, the UN formed a truth commission that detailed the human rights crimes of the government. The Atlacatl brigade, a counterinsurgency force of the military that had been directly trained by the United States at Fort Bragg, had been found responsible for numerous massacres of unarmed peasants, as well as the murder of the six Jesuit priests.

Justice, peace, and democracy is post-war El Salvador have been challenging to achieve. The FMLN transitioned from a guerrilla army to a political party and has won elections in 2009 and 2014. While the UN Truth Commission outlines the crimes committed by the military, the prosecution of people responsible has been impeded by the politics and the courts of El Salvador. Immunity for soldiers following orders was established for people in the military who had been mass executing peoples. When considering the today’s violence and the prevalence of gangs in El Salvador, the legacy of the Salvadoran Civil War cannot be untangled from the present.

Source: Erik Ching, Stories of Civil War: A Battle over Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Further Reading:

  1. For an overall introduction to El Salvador’s economics, politics, and demographics, see https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/es.html
  2. For more on Oscar Romero’s assassination of Oscar Romero and the profound impact this had on El Salvador’s collective conscience from the Civil War into today, see https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/archbishop-oscar-romero-becomes-a-saint-but-his-death-still-haunts-el-salvador
  3. To read more about the UN Truth commission and the peace process that took place in El Salvador during the mid 1990s and brought the Civil War to an end, see https://www.usip.org/publications/1992/07/truth-commission-el-salvador
  4. To read more about the brutality of the Atlacatl brigade, the death squad that was trained by the CIA and carried out atrocities such as El Mozote and the murder of the Jesuit priests, see https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-12-09-mn-1714-story.html
  5. To read more about US involvement and complicity in the El Salvadoran Civil War, see https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/trump-and-el-salvador/550955/ and https://medium.com/s/story/timeline-us-intervention-central-america-a9bea9ebc148

El Salvador Recent History-Present

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 21, 2019 by dsmith41

David Smith

In 1932, a loose alliance of rural, indigenous peasants and urban, ladino (mixed race) communists revolted because they were unhappy with the elite landowners’ control of the coffee economy. In a country the size of Massachusetts, land ownership was tightly concentrated into a few families, and these elites used coercive methods to compel the labor of indigenous people and poor ladinos. Economic and social reforms through the electoral process appeared possible in 1931, but visions of change ended with General Maximiliano Martinez’ overthrow of the first democratically elected government in El Salvador’s history. Thus, in response to Martinez’ coup, the peasants and communists executed a poorly organized revolt that resulted in one of El Salvador’s defining historical moments. Though the 1932 revolt lasted a mere three days and killed about 100 people, General Martinez responded by ordering a military repression that beat back the revolutionaries but then continued into the countryside in a quasi-genocidal campaign that slaughtered thousands to tens of thousands of indigenous people not involved in the Revolution in what has come to be known as La Matanza (The Massacre). The military repression left an indelible mark on the nation’s conscience, and it worked to consolidate power into the hands of the military for the foreseeable future. This conflict in 1932 formed the fault lines along which the two armies fought in the Civil War about five decades later.

Authoritarian military dictatorships governed El Salvador from 1932-1979, the longest consecutive stretch of military rule in Latin American history, a region notorious for such governments. These years leading up to the Salvadoran Civil War can be characterized by a tense military-elite alliance that kept the concentration of wealth into the hands of the powerful while trying to institute enough reform for the lower classes to avert general insurrection. These reforms were ultimately not enough to avoid Civil War, and the country, like its neighbors Guatemala and Nicaragua, spiraled into violence.

During the Civil War, hundred of thousands (millions?) fled the violence, with many of these refugees ending up in Los Angeles. There, witnesses of unbridled violence in their home country came into contact with the already established network of gangs in Southern California, one of which was MS-13. Young boys became involved in violent crime, were arrested, put in prisons where gangs flourished, then deported to El Salvador in the early 1990s, around the same time the Civil War was entering a peace process. Due to deportation laws in the United States, the US was not required to tell El Salvador’s government the criminal record of the deportees that were being released back into the war-torn country, and they didn’t. Thus, in the wreckage of post-Civil War society, MS-13 took root and drastically expanded its’ influence across El Salvador.

MS-13, Barrio-18, and other gangs have had a pervasive presence across El Salvador in the 21st century. In recent years, El Salvador has become known worldwide for excessive murder and violence, especially in the capital city San Salvador, which had the highest murder rate in the world per capita in (insert years). In order to address the gangs in the 2000s, El Salvador’s government turned to Mano Dura (Firm Hand) policies that used state force to battle gang members and arrest the leaders. Mano Dura enforcement increased violence in its’ efforts to eradicate the gangs, and though the state was able to imprison many of MS-13’s leaders, the existing body of evidence suggests that imprisonment has done little to hinder the erratic nature of MS-13 and may have even helped to better centralize the leadership’s lines of communication from the prisons. In 2014, the government agreed to negotiate a less hard-line policy and began negotiating with the gang leaders, which temporarily decreased the murder rate, but is unsteady. Extortion, rape, domestic violence, and kidnapping are serious threats to the citizens of El Salvador.

Source: Erik Ching, Authoritarian El Salvador: Politics and the Origins of the Military Regimes, 1880-1940. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014.

Further Reading:

https://cja.org/where-we-work/el-salvador/

This source offers more information on the historical background that preceded the Civil War. It offers an account of the Civil War, and the peace process that ensued. The article concludes by exploring the impunity for military and police personnel that participated in crimes against humanity.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/us/el-salvador-ms-13.html

This article from the New York Times explores the relationship between the United States and El Salvador and how interwoven these countries and their circumstances are. It further explores the topic of gang violence in the region and offers perspectives and offers insight as to why migrants flee their home nations.

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