- Jennifer Harburyhuman rights lawyer based in the Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico border.
We get an update from South Texas, where eight people were killed and at least 10 more injured Sunday in Brownsville after a driver rammed his SUV into a group of people near a shelter for migrants. The incident comes just days before the Trump-era Title 42 policy is set to expire and more migrants are expected to seek asylum at the southern U.S. border. “I can only describe it as a hate crime. It was motivated by hate,” Jennifer Harbury, a longtime human rights lawyer and activist with the Angry Tias and Abuelas, says of the car-ramming attack. She also talks about the history of U.S. interventions in Central America that destabilized the region.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in the South Texas city of Brownsville along the U.S. border with Mexico, where eight people were killed and at least 10 more injured Sunday after an SUV drove into a group of people outside a migrant shelter. People say the driver is Hispanic and is in custody but is not cooperating with their investigation into his motive. Most of the men killed were Venezuelan and had arrived in the U.S. days earlier, their identities still being determined by Customs and Border Patrol. One survivor said the driver was shouting obscenities and yelled that immigrants were invading the United States as he plowed into the group of men. This is a witness.
WITNESS: [translated] We hope they will recover, because they have families far away who count on them. We crossed mountains, marched and passed migration. It was a long way to come here, and we fought hard.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the number of people coming to the border to seek asylum is expected to continue to rise as the Trump-era Title 42 policy ends Thursday. A coalition of more than 240 rights groups is calling for the Biden administration not to use immigrant jails to address the expected increase.
Just last month, two dozen tents were set on fire in a makeshift migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville. And in March, a fire killed 40 men at a Mexican immigration jail in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.
For more, we go to Weslaco, not far from Brownsville, Texas. We’re joined by Jennifer Harbury, longtime human rights lawyer along the U.S.-Mexico border, activist with the Angry Tias and Abuelas, who support asylum seekers in the area. Jennifer’s late husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, was a Mayan guerrilla and comandante in Guatemala who was disappeared after he was captured by the Guatemalan army in the '80s. After a long campaign, she found there was U.S. CIA involvement in the cover-up of her husband's murder and torture. She is also the author of Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture.
Jennifer Harbury, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you tell us about the Bishop Enrique San Pedro Ozanam Center and the people killed outside.
JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, Amy, good morning to you, first of all. And I’m glad to be back.
All of us here that have been working so closely with the migrant community since 2017, many of us, are heartbroken today. This certainly is a — I can only describe it as a hate crime. It was motivated by hate, that has been, of course, fomented for a long time by the right wing, and especially during the Trump administration.
These people had made it from Venezuela and other countries, all the way across Mexico, which is a horrific journey, and managed to make it to the border. I work on the Reynosa side, Matamoros side, and have since 2017. And I would say close to 100% of the people I have interviewed have suffered either a rape, a vicious attack, a kidnapping, or worse, on the way north.
For these people to have fled Venezuela, made it all the way north, waited their turn, crossed legally across the bridge with the new app on their phone, spent the night at a shelter, and then were at a bus stop to go to the airport so they could reunite with their families at last and wait for the courts to decide on their immigration status — for them to be plowed down by a vicious American spurred on by hate, it’s killing all of us, to be honest, all of us that have seen what they’ve been through. We’ve held their children. We’ve held their hands when their children have died, when they’ve tried to tell their stories. These are such horrific backgrounds that most of us are pretty traumatized, too. And to have them needlessly and irrationally mowed down, literally, with an SUV, I just — I’m at loss of words.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the comment of the ACLU of Texas noting the crash followed weeks of escalating anti-immigrant policy that has been made by Texas lawmakers, and while the Biden administration considers imposing a new ban on the right to seek asylum in the United States when the Trump-era Title 42 ends on Thursday. In a statement, the ACLU wrote, “President Biden, Texas Gov. Abbott, and other elected officials continue to spread fear about immigration instead of treating the needs of people crossing the border as a humanitarian matter.” Can you talk about the context this is all happening in?
JENNIFER HARBURY: Yes. Certainly, there’s been a ridiculous amount of fearmongering and villainization, politically inspired, against migrants from the beginnings of the new migrant waves, you know, certainly starting in 2017, but even before. Remember? “They’re all rapists and murderers.”
In fact, a majority of them are families. The forced recruitment age by gangs in most of Central America — if your little boy is between 8 and 10, they’re going to come for him. One mother said no, and they chopped the child’s fingers off with an ax to convince her. What we have to understand, these people are not coming here to buy a fancy refrigerator. This is an incredible migration north out of desperation to save the lives of their children, whether from political violence or from cartel violence, which is now out of control. I note that for Reynosa and Matamoros and most of Tamaulipas, the United States Department of State has declared it a category 4 insecurity. That makes it the same as Iraq and Afghanistan. When we tell people to wait in Mexico or go back where you came from, we’re saying, “Why don’t you just sit down and watch your children drop dead?”
We need to think about that. We need to think about it not just legally, but we need to think about that in terms of our national identity. This is us, a nation of immigrants but for the Native Americans. We’re telling these people they should sit and watch their children die? Why?
AMY GOODMAN: You know, Jennifer, you were responsible for the release of that famous audio —
JENNIFER HARBURY: Yeah, the crying babies.
AMY GOODMAN: — of babies crying in 2018.
JENNIFER HARBURY: Yeah, I’m laughing only because it felt good to release that, but I think people need to see and hear the reality. I watched a short video clip last night of the scene, when people were still lying on the ground, literally bleeding to death last night in front of Ozanam. And needless to say, it made me ill. I haven’t recovered yet. But it was not the blood and the incredible scene of cadavers lying helter-skelter where they’d been thrown through the air by the van. The worst was the soundtrack accompanied by a shadow of a man holding his hands to his head and screaming for his brother: ”No, no, mano! No, hermano! No, manito!” “No, no, my brother! No, no!” But the tone of utter despair. They were just about to reach safety with their families, and now the young man is dead.
I think most people like to read statistics. They like dry press articles. If they — I invite any of them to come down here. People are pretty much scared to come down here now that there was the shooting in Matamoros. But that’s an hourly reality for all of the migrants. Someday history is going to show who the migrants really were, and the fact that we knew perfectly well who they really were. And then everyone is going to ask us, our children and our grandchildren, “Why did you turn a cold shoulder to them?” This is a time for a moral and historical decision by all countries. There is an enormous migration for many, many reasons, including climate but also including wild political and cartel violence.
If all of us really want to help with the migration issue, the first thing we should do is take the profits out of the drug trade. A Colombian priest at an event 20 years ago in San Francisco said, “I know how unpopular a suggestion this is, but the only way to stop the violence that is killing us in Colombia now, and having it pass all the way to your doorstep and into your cities — the only way is to legalize drugs, take the profit out, and put the money into rehab centers and schools and job training. You have to do it now, before it’s too late.” Well, we clearly lost the drug war. It’s time to legalize, as much as that’s horrifying to so many of us. But as with any other kind of narcotic or prohibited substance, people will get it. Now it’s with fentanyl and with men with AR-15s on the playground, literally. Maybe it’s time for us to wake up and get that shut down. While we’re at it, think a little bit about what we’re talking about when we talk about recreational or party drugs.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Jennifer Harbury, the reason I introduced you the way I did, going back in your history, what, 40 years — it’s hard to believe, 40, 30 years, about the killing of your husband, Everardo. And it turned out, because of your numerous hunger strikes, almost dying in Guatemala, that it was revealed in U.S. documents that he was killed by CIA-backed informants who murdered him, in the Guatemalan military. Can you trace the trajectory of U.S. support for right-wing regimes and death squads in Central America to what we’re seeing today, and end with May 11th, Thursday? President Biden is sending over 1,500 troops to the border. Your thoughts?
JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, clearly, we don’t need more guns. The only people they’re getting used on is, you know, five-feet-tall women with babies, and young men who are trying to refuse to work with — you know, for the drug cartels.
The trajectory is this. The United States government backed — during the dirty wars of the ’80s, they backed the governments that were mostly oligarchy, large plantation owners and right-wingers, because our investments and financial interests squared with theirs. As a result, we sent in the CIA and, de facto, many more parts of our security forces into, for example, Guatemala, and we worked hand in glove with the death squads. That would be the military death squads that were working for the Guatemalan government and that carried out a campaign of genocide throughout Guatemala all of the ’80s and all of the ’90s and used torture and terror as a daily technique. That is documented in “Memoria del Silencio,” the United Nations Truth Commission report, that held Guatemala responsible as a government for 94% of the war crimes which had occurred. The URNG forces were found responsible for 3%.
After the war ended, most of those high-level military officials, who were so well trained in torture, terror and corruption, still needed a good income, and they were out of a job. And the CIA wasn’t hiring as much anymore. The CIA, by the way, had paid $40,000 to one of my husband’s torturers the same month that he was seen being tortured by that colonel, Colonel Julio Roberto Alpírez. Yes, we knew people were being tortured. We knew where the torture centers were. And we paid money to get more information. We conspired, aided and embedded in torture and murder and disappearances.
So, after the war, where would they go? Well, they’d been, for a small fee, assisting Colombian drug lords for a very long time, including Mr. Alpírez. So, they were well trained in that, too. They formed their own cartels, one of the best known being the Zeta Cartel, which is operating up here in northern Mexico along the border, as well. And they trained them in torture techniques and the use of terror. And that, of course, is extremely functional. So, all of those people now so terrorize the general population that they are running northwards as refugees to our border, and all of us are villainizing them as some kind of monsters for trying to do exactly what our own grandparents did — in my case, my own father running from the Holocaust with his parents. So, they’re running from a monster that we created. We could help lessen that current problem if instead of giving huge amounts of money to a corrupt government and watching it all flow back to the same drug lords, the same military units, etc., etc., if we would, for example, allow the DEA to arrest and take people that were once CIA partners.
Alpírez is also known to have aided and abetted the murder of a U.S. citizen named Michael DeVine. After the uproar in my husband’s case, everyone was pointing at him and talking about what to do. The DEA has him on a corrupt officer list, but instead of being arrested, the CIA brought him to the United States secretly with his entire family and kept him in a safe place not far from their headquarters. When I tried to come forward and file a Torture Victim Protection Act case against him up there, needless to say, he was tipped off by our own government and fled back down to Guatemala, where he is now trying to put me in jail if I move forward with the case.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer, we just have 20 seconds.
JENNIFER HARBURY: So, yes — all right.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that going through to Thursday, the day that Title 42 lapses.
JENNIFER HARBURY: We will not see a different storm or flood of people. There may be a flood, but that is because many people have left their home countries, and they’re hiding out wherever they can. If they know there’s a chance, if they come to Matamoros or Brownsville or Juárez, that they’ll be in a horrible danger but they can at least get on the phone and arrange for a date, they’re going to try. Going back or staying where they are or saying in Reynosa for any length of time or Matamoros is a death sentence, but they’re going to try. This is a huge wave of desperate civilians trying to escape an impossible situation. The real question here is not “How do we stop them?” The real question is “How do we all, as an international community, work together and take them in and stop the bonfire that’s destroying them all?”
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Harbury, I want to thank you so much for being with us, longtime human rights activist and lawyer based in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Thank you so much for being with us. I know you’re going off to a vigil in honor of the people killed and injured.
Next up, we look at the coronation of King Charles III and calls for him to pay reparations and apologize for Britain’s legacy of genocide and colonization. Back in 30 seconds.