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Greg Grandin: How U.S. Policies Punished Central Americans, Long Before Jakelin Caal Maquín’s Death

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As public outrage grows over the death of Jakelin Caal Maquín, a 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl who died in Border Patrol custody, we discuss U.S. policy in Central America with Greg Grandin, prize-winning author and professor of Latin American history at New York University. Searching for answers after Jakelin’s death, Grandin points to border militarization policies dating back to the Clinton administration and the closure of safer urban routes to the U.S. border. He also links the displacement of Jakelin’s family to the U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954 and economic policies that destroyed subsistence agriculture in her region. Grandin’s latest piece in The Nation, co-authored with Elizabeth Oglesby, is titled “Who Killed Jakelin Caal Maquín at the US Border?”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Greg Grandin, historian of Latin American history. Your reaction when you heard of this case, and the research that you’ve done in terms of Guatemalan migration in general?

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, I did a little research in the past on the region where Jakelin was from. Q’eqchi’—she was Q’eqchi’-Maya, one of the major Mayan groups in Guatemala. And if you wanted to do a history of 20th century displacement caused by political repression, caused by the expansion of capitalism, extractive capitalism, caused by one after another failed Washington policies, you can do no better than look at the history of the Q’eqchi’-Maya.

In the end of the 19th century, early 1900s, they were—tended to be grouped in the northern highlands in Guatemala. The coming of coffee capitalism, financed by New York U.S. banks, began pushing and basically stealing, dispossessing, massive amounts of land, turning Q’eqchi’s into agricultural laborers or then pushing them into the highlands, down into the lowlands—not the highlands, the lowlands, so the Caribbean or to the rainforest, where they settled new communities. And there, they ran into—they got caught up in other forms of extractive capital: logging and oil and now African palm. I mean, this is a region that is caught in the vortex of global capitalism. And a lot of the policies—we could talk about the drug policy, Washington’s war on drugs, which has devastated these communities; the emphasis on African palm, biofuels, which have devastated these communities.

And so, the history in the 20th century, up to the beginning of the 21st century, is an expansion of the radius of migration. And these are now people who—I mean, she was from a community that was recently created, a refugee community in the lowlands that was fleeing from repression and violence from an earlier cycle of extraction and political terror. And it’s all caught up in the history that a lot of listeners of Democracy Now! will know: the overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 in Guatemala, CIA’s full—first full-spectrum coup, which had baleful consequences on any number of levels, including leading to a 36-year civil war, a genocide against Mayan Indians. And the Q’eqchi’, her people, her community, bore an enormous amount of violence in that genocide.

So, there’s ways in which her death, this death of this 7-year-old girl—just turned 7 a couple of days before she crossed to the United States—kind of encapsulates this history, not—of a humanitarian crisis that is largely caused by Washington, not that Washington has to respond to it in a better way. It’s largely caused by not just the—and it’s not just the Trump administration. This has deep, deep history in U.S. relations with Central America.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s comments about Jakelin’s death. She was interviewed Friday on Fox & Friends.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally. What happened here was they were 90—about 90 miles away from where we could process them. They came in such a large crowd that it took our Border Patrol folks a couple times to get them all. We gave immediate care. We’ll continue to look into the situation. But again, I cannot stress how dangerous this journey is when migrants choose to come here illegally.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Kirstjen Nielsen saying—


AMY GOODMAN: And this is repeated over and over by the Trump administration, saying it’s the families that are putting their children in danger—


AMY GOODMAN: —by simply making this journey. Talk about the extremity of what these families face.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, look, the Trump administration is vile, but this history predates the Trump administration. And my co-author of the piece that you mentioned, Liz Oglesby, has written a lot about this, the way that, since starting in the 1990s, pretty much concordant—corresponding to the signing of NAFTA, the Clinton administration, Bill Clinton, began to militarize the border, making relatively safe urban passages—shutting them down and forcing migrants into the desert. This was intentional. Clinton officials said we can use geography as an ally, meaning we could use the torments of the desert in order—as deterrents to keep migrants out. That didn’t happen. The desperation, largely caused by economic policies like NAFTA, continued to force, displace hundreds of thousands, millions of peasants off their land. They had nowhere to go. They came to the United States.

And all the militarization of the border did was it raised the cost—it ended seasonal migration. It changed the nature of migration, because once you did make it into the United States, you were captured. You couldn’t go back and forth. You had to stay here. So, increasingly, the demographic profile of migration changed. You came with your whole family, rather than a worker would go work, come back, go and work. So, in some ways, the militarization of the border didn’t stop migration. It actually created a captive, undocumented, vulnerable population of tens of millions of people in the United States, that is one aspect of this interlocking set of policies that have just been catastrophic for North America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Clara Long, I’d like to ask you: Human Rights Watch issued a report earlier this year talking about the inhumane, jail-like conditions that many of these—especially the asylum seekers—migrants who crossed the border, or the asylum seekers, are being put in; could you talk about what you would see as a better solution, given the significant numbers, the increases, that have been occurring of migration? How would the government better be able to handle this, in your opinion, or should be able to handle this?

CLARA LONG: Right. I mean, first, I would say, you know, the government has thrown an enormous amount of resources at controlling and cracking down—militarizing, as Greg says—the border. You know, those resources could be better deployed. I’ve been in several of these border jails this year even. And, you know, they are very cold, highly air-conditioned. Children are kept in concrete cells with basically nothing to sleep on many times, you know, inadequate access to clean water, cold, you know, small amounts of ramen, often food that people can’t eat, and this sort of feeling that they can’t ask for anything or they will be punished. You know, the abusive behavior by agents is widespread and systematic.

You know, I would add also, you have large groups, like the one that Jakelin crossed in, that are perhaps increasingly crossing between ports of entry exactly because they cannot get through ports of entry, you know, under a policy, started under the Obama administration, of metering people who are going through ports of entry. We heard about that—you know, we’ve been hearing about this as congresspeople are going down to, say, Tijuana to walk people across the border and ensure that CBP accepts them. That shouldn’t be necessary. Under U.S. law, there is a way to go to the port of entry and turn yourself in and ask for asylum. But what the Trump administration has said, across the entire border, is that it won’t accept more than a couple people a day. And that’s resulted in huge backlogs, which have caused people to cross, again, in increasingly remote and harsh places.

AMY GOODMAN: And there’s a very serious question about whether this is even legal, what the Trump administration is doing. When Democracy Now! was down there on the border, we saw people that were there day after day after day. And just in the last few days, Congressmembers Barragán and Gomez were on the border. They got Maria up with her family, who famously was tear-gassed holding her children the other day, one of the Honduran immigrants. And they had to take her in and demand, hour after hour—they were held for something like seven to nine hours before they could come in.

I just want to—an interesting fact: The federal judge in the Washington, D.C., case, who just delayed the sentencing for Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has played a major role in challenging President Trump’s immigration policies. In August, District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who’s African-American, judge who was first named by Reagan, then George H.W. Bush and then President Clinton, expressed outrage when he learned the Trump administration had used an airplane to spirit away a migrant El Salvadoran mother and her daughter who were fleeing persecution in El Salvador. The woman was fleeing domestic violence there. Judge Sullivan ordered the government turn that plane around, either now or when it lands, turn that plane around and bring those people back to the United States. “It’s outrageous,” he said. He even threatened to bring criminal contempt proceedings against then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions if she wasn’t returned.

Greg Grandin, the opposition has been going on for a long time, but the significance of what’s happening?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, first let me say that the Border Patrol is a rogue agency, since its foundation in 1924. It’s arguably the most politicized, most abusive agency. It never had anything equivalent that the CIA had in the 1970s with the Church Committee report or Rockefeller Committee report looking at it, leading to some degree of reform. This is the front line of some of the worst elements of U.S. culture, white supremacy, racism. It’s had links to the KKK since its inception. There’s a reporter, John Crewdson, who wrote in the 1970s and 1980s of abuses in the Border Patrol that are as bad or worse than anything that we’re reading about here. This is a long, long history that predates the Trump administration.

So, on the one level, it’s enforcement, border enforcement, and the brutality and the way that that brutality and violence feeds into the nativism in this country, which has now found political expression in Donald Trump. It’s the more structural economic and security policies that Washington has been promoting, especially since the 1990s economic liberalization, which has destroyed subsistence farming in these regions, the promotion of mining and other extractive industries, biofuels, which have turned things like Polochic Valley, which is where many Q’eqchi’ live, or the Aguán Valley in Honduras into war zones where people are fleeing. It’s an exodous of biblical proportions. The mayor of the town where Jakelin is from says in the last couple of months he’s—he used the word “exodus.” He said hundreds of families have left with their children. They can’t feed themselves. There’s no money, and there’s no food.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the Border Patrol, and yet the size of the Border Patrol continues to skyrocket, right?

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, yeah. It used to be, from Carter through Reagan through Bush I and Bush II and Obama and Clinton, the idea was that you would get security first and then have some kind of one-off amnesty. Now, and then—I mean, you had Chuck Schumer agreeing that security was the number one issue. I mean, nobody’s been talking about an amnesty now, right? Now, it’s just—the bipartisan buy-in to the notion that the border has to be sealed is one of the sources of the moral crisis in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to end with Ruben Garcia. He’s the director of the shelter in El Paso, Texas, where Jakelin’s father is now staying. Garcia read from a statement issued by the attorney for Jakelin’s father.

RUBEN GARCIA: The family is seeking an objective and thorough investigation and are asking that investigators will assess this incident within nationally recognized standards for the arrest and custody of children. … Jakelin’s father took care of Jakelin, made sure she was fed and had sufficient water. She and her father sought asylum from Border Patrol as soon as they crossed the border. She had not suffered from a lack of water or food prior to approaching the border.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ruben Garcia, speaking at the house where Jakelin’s father took refuge. We’ll continue to follow the story. Clara Long, thanks so much for being with us, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, and Greg Grandin, prize-winning author and professor of Latin American history at New York University. We’ll link to your piece, co-authored with Elizabeth Oglesby, “Who Killed Jakelin Caal Maquín at the US Border?”

When we come back, 140 children are still separated from their families in U.S. custody. We’ll speak with a Harvard psychologist who started a petition demanding the media ramp up coverage of the crisis like it does when Americans are held hostage overseas. Stay with us.

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