As millions of Americans gathered on Christmas Eve to celebrate love and family, the lifeless body of Jakelin Caal Maquín, 7, who died in the custody of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, was returned to her family home in Guatemala. Then on Christmas Day, the Border Patrol announced another Guatemalan child, 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonso, had died in the agency’s custody.
The U.S. government has blamed Maquín’s death on her father’s decision to cross the border illegally, as it has blamed other migrants who have suffered for their decisions to make the dangerous trip seeking asylum. But history and our recent experience in Guatemala underscore the influence of U.S. policy in the deaths of Felipe, Jakelín and uncounted thousands of others whose bones lie on both sides of the border.
First, the U.S. Border Patrol is legally responsible for the welfare of a child in its custody. There must be an independent examination to determine whether the agency took all necessary measures to protect Jakelin and Felipe’s health, and they must be held accountable if they failed to do so.
Second, the Trump administration must recognize that its border policies — such as placing sentries on international bridges to block migrants from setting foot on U.S. soil — have discouraged asylum seekers from using designated ports of entry, pushing them to try entering the country in more dangerous, desolate locations. These policies must be ended immediately.
And we must acknowledge that U.S. policies in Central America pressure many families like Jakelin’s and Felipe’s to choose between enduring poverty and oppression at home or risking their lives to migrate north.
As members of a human rights delegation organized by the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, we visited a rural hamlet of Q’eqchi subsistence farmers in Alta Verapaz — not far from Jakelin’s home town — several months ago. Families there told us that they felt like prisoners in their own homes not only due to endemic poverty and racism but because transnational agribusiness, hydroelectric and mining companies are using armed assaults and sexual violence to steal their lands.
For some, the price of defending their rights was death: One woman described how her husband was killed by company security guards while tending his fields. Others have faced criminalization and indefinite detention for offenses such as advocating on behalf of communities threatened by palm oil production or protesting the damming of a river sacred to the Q’eqchi people.
Between January and June of 2018, at least 13 indigenous and environmental activists were killed in Guatemala, and neither the Guatemalan nor the U.S. government has taken meaningful action in response. U.S. policy continues to favor business interests, including the ever-expanding palm oil industry. As the New York Times recently reported, U.S. incentives for palm oil production have wrought havoc across the developing world, including in Guatemala, resulting in toxic spills, the release of enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and decimated livelihoods for farmers.
For those familiar with the history of U.S. intervention in Guatemala, these stories will sound like a rerun. In 1954, the U.S. government helped overthrow democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz, whose modest land reforms threatened the interests of the United Fruit Company and other U.S. businesses. The coup set off 36 years of war, during which the Guatemalan army and paramilitaries, with U.S. backing, systematically ravaged Maya villages, killing over 200,000 people and obliterating over 600 communities. One of the first massacres occurred in Alta Verapaz, when soldiers opened fire on Q’eqchi villagers protesting land grabs by a transnational mining company. Their bullets killed the protest leader, a courageous woman named Adelina Caal Maquín, along with 100 other villagers.
Now, as the Trump administration blames Central American immigrants and asylum seekers for their own plight, we must remember the stories of Felipe, Jakelín and the activists who have fought for indigenous Guatemalans to have a voice. Their bravery — and in the case of Jakelin, Felipe, and Adelina Caal Maquín, their unjust deaths — must prompt us to recognize not only the folly of our border policies but also the oft-forgotten history of U.S. intervention in Guatemala, and work tirelessly to prevent this history from repeating itself.