Commentary: U.S. bears blame for Central American crisis

More than 114,000 Guatemalans were apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol between October and April. Half of Guatemalan adults who travel to the U.S. bring their children, hoping to save their lives. But in the past six months, five Guatemalan children have died in U.S. custody. The most recent child migrant death was on May 20.

Why do parents expose their children to this treacherous journey? Desperation. The death, destruction and deprivation that people are fleeing is embedded in decades of U.S. foreign policy.

I first set foot in Guatemala in 1994 and lived there for two years as the civil war ended. Working with an international non-profit, I documented Guatemala’s genocide and the U.S. government’s role in nearly four decades of conflict. I returned several times over the next decade and studied the lives of refugees and the internally displaced. I spent many hours with families, making tortillas with moms, walking through the milpa (cornfields) with dads and eating with the children.

Since its bloody war ended, Guatemala hasn’t experienced the promised peace dividend. The country has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, with 3,881 homicides in 2018. For reference, Spain – with nearly three times as many people – has fewer than 400 murders per year. Violence and death are still too common in post-war Guatemala.

It’s not just violence. Barely surviving describes most Guatemalans today. More than 59% of the population is below the poverty line, with 23% of the population living in extreme poverty. Poverty among indigenous groups – more than 40% of the population – averages 79%, with 40% living in extreme poverty. Nearly one-half of Guatemalan children under age five are chronically malnourished -- one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.

Explaining how Guatemala became so impoverished requires more than one column. But let’s look closely at one child migrant’s life: Jakelin Caal Maquin. Jakelin was a Maya-Q’eqchi’ girl from Raxruhá, an indigenous village in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Her family of seven worked a small parcel of land, cultivating corn and beans, surviving on less than $5 a day, according to published reports.

Historically, the Maya-Q’eqchi’ inhabited the fertile expanses of Guatemala’s northern highlands. But foreign coffee producers forced the Maya-Q’eqchi’ from these lands in the early 20th century. A CIA-led coup in the 1950s halted land reform that might have returned those lands to their rightful owners. And in the post-war era, international development policies promoted by the U.S. – including the development of African palm plantations – further decimated this area, forcing people off their land. Between 2003 and 2012, 11 percent of Maya-Q’eqchi’ families lost their land to sugar and palm plantations. Decades of destructive international policy has driven the Maya-Q’eqchi’ to be among the poorest in Guatemala.

Like my own ancestors, Jakelin’s father made a calculated risk to seek refuge in the U.S. I can only imagine how sad he must have been to not be able to offer Jakelin – or her siblings – adequate food. And so he took her on this desperate journey. Then, while in U.S. custody, Jakelin died of a bacterial infection last December.

The U.S. government’s historic responsibility for Guatemala’s genocidal civil war is well-known. We often rationalize it as an unfortunate consequence of the Cold War. Less well-known is how our government continues to promote development policies that perpetuate violence against the survivors, their children and their grandchildren. Those policies vary, but they always subsume local needs to international interests.

Trump’s recent proposal to reduce the time between apprehension and deportation of migrant families seeking asylum is short-sighted. It assumes that the “border crisis” begins and ends at the border. It does not. Failing to recognize the U.S. government’s historic and current role in Guatemala’s crisis of violence and starvation means we are destined to deepen it. And this will mean more Guatemalan parents will risk their lives – and the lives of their children – in a desperate attempt to save them.

Julie Stewart is an associate professor in the Honors College at Westminster, Salt Lake City, and a member of the board of directors for Comunidades Unidas.