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Jennifer Harbury: Deaths of Guatemalan Children at Border Have Roots in Decades of U.S.-Backed Genocide

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Five Guatemalan children have died after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol since December. We look at the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the border and its ties to decades of bloody U.S. intervention in Latin America with human rights attorney Jennifer Harbury. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, was a Mayan comandante and guerrilla who was disappeared after he was captured by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s. After a long campaign, she found there was U.S. involvement in the cover-up of her husband’s murder and torture. “We trained them. We taught them torture techniques. We funded them, and we armed them,” Harbury says of the Guatemalan military. “They’re devouring the country using the same techniques of torture and the terror that they used before. Once again, everyone is roaring north.” We also speak with Fernando Garcia, the founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an advocacy organization based in El Paso.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests are Jennifer Harbury of the Angry Tias, speaking to us from Weslaco, Texas—that’s where another Guatemalan child was found dead in U.S. border custody. We’re also joined in studio by Fernando Garcia, founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, based in El Paso.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Fernando, I wanted to ask you about President Trump’s threats to send the refugee applicants who are in detention into sanctuary cities as a—sort of as a payback to the sanctuary cities for their rebellion against federal policy. I’m wondering your thoughts about that?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Yeah, it seems like that’s a way to “punish”—with a, quote-unquote, “punish”—those cities that actually had welcomed immigrants, have embraced immigrants and immigration. And I think that is very horrific, I mean, because what they are trying to do is to create this sense of crisis, that doesn’t exist. At the end of the day, the so-called national security crisis is not happening. What they are trying to do and what they are trying to say is that these immigrants represent a threat to the United States. And that’s why they are releasing more immigrants in Phoenix, in Arizona, or in California, San Diego. In other countries, like, they had not seen immigration influx. And they want to actually make a case by releasing immigrants in these so-called sanctuary cities.

But I think this is not going to work. What we have seen in most of the cities, including El Paso and all along the border, is people in communities are welcoming these immigrants, because this is what we are. This runs in our veins. We are a nation of immigrants at the end of the day. And I think there is no way that we can erase that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Harbury, you have a long history with Guatemala. You were married to a man who was a Mayan comandante, disappeared. You fought for a long time to have his whereabouts known. You learned he was tortured and murdered by U.S.-backed Guatemalan military. That was back in the ’80s. How do you relate what has happened there then and the massive number of deaths, estimated at—what?—up to 300,000 people killed in Guatemala through the ’80s into the ’90s, with what is happening with the exodus of Guatemalans today?

JENNIFER HARBURY: I think there is a definite relationship. For one, of course, the United States worked absolutely hand in glove throughout the war with the army on all of the genocidal campaigns and stuff. We were literally sending CIA people to joint planning sessions. But what really stands out is the fact that so many of the high-level Guatemalan intelligence leaders of that era, who were trained in the School of the Americas and who served as CIA paid informants, also had slowly, but surely, become involved in the drug trade and, after the war, rose to the top and started their own cartels. One of my husband’s killers, Julio Roberto Alpirez, is exactly such a person. The DEA has him on their corrupt officer list, but they cannot go after him because he’s a former CIA contact, one of our former partners, therefore he’s off-limits.

So, we created these Frankensteins. We trained them. We taught them torture techniques. We funded them, and we armed them. They don’t much need our money anymore. And they’re devouring the country using the same techniques of torture and the terror that they used before. Once again, everyone is roaring north. Could we stop the true cause, which is them? We could, but we won’t. We’re not releasing files that would put them in jail. We still have relationships with the army that, one by one, keep showing up as being extremely involved in the gangs. We keep supporting the Frankenstein family, as I’ll call it. Those are what—the people that are driving the hundreds of thousands of people north. No one can survive there anymore. And we wouldn’t stay there with our children for one minute. So, yes, there’s a relationship. It’s the same people, and we’re once again standing back and letting them do it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, Jennifer, what you’re saying is that after the peace accords and the supposed establishment of civilian governments in several of these Central American countries, that nothing fundamentally has changed in terms of how—of the conditions of the people, whether it’s in Guatemala, Salvador or Honduras?

JENNIFER HARBURY: You know, I won’t say that in Guatemala there’s 300 people being killed every afternoon; those massacres, they’re not occurring. But, yes, are the mining companies burning villages down and driving leaders into hiding and stuff, just like before? Yes, it is going on still. And there’s been no true change in the structure. We’ve got people thrown into jail at the highest levels of the Guatemalan government, for example. And not long ago, one of the key candidates for president was arrested in Florida for trying to get the local cartel leaders to fund his campaign and also shoot his opponent. So, the actual structure of the government in all these countries has turned to rubble. The army leaders that carried out the worst of the dirty wars are still in de facto power, and now they’re the cartels.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response, Fernando, to the Jared Kushner immigration plan—the New York developer, the son-in-law of President Trump, who has come up with an immigration plan. I wanted to talk about what happened last week. I mean, last week, the Trump administration unveiled this new plan for a so-called merit-based immigration system that would prioritize highly skilled, English-speaking workers while further restricting asylum seekers and immigrants who have family living in the U.S., many lawmakers calling Trump’s immigration plan short on specifics and a nonstarter. This is Washington Democratic Congressmember Pramila Jayapal responding.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: It does not include any protections for DREAMers. It does not include any plan for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that are in this country that need a path to citizenship. It undermines the family immigration system that has been the cornerstone of our country’s immigration policy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Washington Congressmember Pramila Jayapal. Your response, Fernando?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, clearly, this is a political stunt. I mean, I guess the president is trying to energize his base towards the 2020 election. This plan doesn’t have any future of passing. I mean, whether it might have a chance in the Senate, we shall—I’ll doubt it. Not even Republicans support this plan. But also Democrats, actually, clearly rejected these plans, by the same reasons why Pramila was mentioning, which is what it’s not containing. It doesn’t contain a solution for the 11 million people, for DREAMers, for DACA recipients. I think this is not going anywhere.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, The New York Times reported today, quote, “Access to a government jet 24 hours a day. An office in the West Wing, plus guaranteed weekends off for family time. And an assurance of being made secretary of homeland security by November. Those were among a list of 10 conditions that Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, has given to the White House if he is to become the administration’s 'immigration czar,' a job President Donald Trump has been looking to create to coordinate immigration policy across government agencies.” Your reaction, Fernando, to the possibility of Kris Kobach becoming the immigration czar of America, of the United States?

FERNANDO GARCIA: It’s just one thing after the other. You know, I was listening to this story of this Salvadoran refugee that was in the plane with me coming to New York, to New York City. And she was telling me, again, another testimony of the conditions in detention. They don’t have water. They don’t have milk for the children. They don’t have medicine and medications. They don’t have basic services that they need. And in those conditions, now we’re willing to spend money on other stuff and not really taking care of children in detention. I think it just reflects how—so, how the priorities of this administration are set up. I mean, instead of releasing these children, we’re building walls, very expensive walls. And I think this just follows the same pattern.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Fernando Garcia, founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, based in El Paso, and Jennifer Harbury, longtime human rights lawyer, based in the Rio Grande Valley, along the U.S.-Mexico border, also an activist with the Angry Tias.

When we come back, we look at the imprisonment of the leading Saudi feminist activist, Loujain Al-Hathloul. She’s been jailed for more than a year for leading a movement to lift a ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia. We’ll speak with her brother and sister. Stay with us.

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Family of Jailed Saudi Feminist Loujain Al-Hathloul: She Was Waterboarded, Flogged & Electrocuted

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