Central American Immigrants and U.S. Intervention in Guatemala

By Jim Johnson

The article entitled “Migrants Seeking Better Life in United States Fall Prey to Mexico Violence” penned by Karol Suarez and published in the March 19, 2021 edition of the Courier Journal documents the massacre of some 19 immigrants.  That massacre took place in Tamaulipas, Mexico. These were immigrants fleeing the violence and poverty that has existed for over a century in Guatemala.

The Suarez article explains that “Tamaulipas’ Attorney General Irving Barrios Mojica announced 12 police officers are in custody on charges of homicide, abuse of authority and false statements.” The C-J article explains that Mexican police are sometimes collaborating with Mexican drug cartels in the killings of immigrants who are trying to reach the United States. Suarez explains that Mexican drug cartels extort money from immigrant families in exchange for their safe passage to the U.S. But the Suarez articles illustrates only part of the tragic story that is the history of Guatemala. That history explains why so many Guatemalans are attempting to migrate to the U.S. and the history exposes U.S. culpability as well.

A brief summary of Guatemala’s history explains why the U.S. is culpable. Guatemala has been ruled by austere military dictators from the time Central America was colonized by Spanish Conquistadores until the present.  Those military dictators ruled with the blessing and support of the United States government.  The support came because of deals administered by U.S. law firms like Sullivan & Cromwell, between the U.S. government officials and Guatemalan dictators on behalf of U.S. corporations that were doing business in Guatemala. (Kinzer’s & Schlesinger’s Bitter Fruit p. 106)   John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles were senior partners with Sullivan & Cromwell and helped execute many of those deals.

With the democratic legally elected Juan Jose’ Arevalo 1944, Guatemala had its first opportunity at establishing a democracy.  Although Arevalo was assassinated by unknown assassins, the Guatemalan people did not give up.  In 1951 Jacob Arbenz was then the second democratically elected president.  Arbenz implemented reforms that included redistribution of land, establishment of a minimum wage, a public school system and the legalization of unions.  These reforms would have benefited the majority of Guatemalan people; people that were still struggling under a political system that created dire poverty for most of its citizens.

The Arbenz’s reforms came to a screeching halt when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, under the direction of Allen Dulles and with the blessing of the Eisenhower administration, planned, organized, equipped, funded and led a military coup that removed Arbenz from office.  That military coup touched off a civil war that lasted the better part of 36 years and took the lives of some 200,000 Guatemalan citizens. The civil war, orchestrated on behalf of the Guatemalan Government by the Guatemalan military, was conducted by officers and soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia and the School of the Americas in Panama City, Panama. The Arbenz government was the one chance the Guatemalan people had of establishing a democracy that would have benefited the majority of the Guatemalan citizens.  That one chance was crushed by the American CIA coup.

Some believe that national security justifies the reason the CIA has to occasionally become involved in dirty dealings.  Guatemala was never a military threat to any of its neighbors and certainly never a threat to the United States. The military coup orchestrated by the CIA was purposed to protect the domination of U.S. corporations, like United Fruit company, within Guatemalan corporate society; an example of American neoliberalism. The fact the CIA intervention was disastrous for the Guatemalan people begs the questions:  In a country that claims it is a representative democracy, should a government agency, like the American CIA, be allowed to operate in secrecy, with only a few powerful individuals knowing the intent and the day-to-day operations of that agency? Should that agency be allowed to conduct paramilitary covert operations in foreign countries and do so without the knowledge of American citizens?   Cheap bananas and huge corporate administrative salaries do not justify military coups, instigated by the CIA. 

The Courier-Journal article, penned by Suarez, documents the horrific disaster that is occurring as a result of Central American migration. U.S. intervention in the domestic affairs in Guatemala and other Central American countries demonstrates U.S. culpability and explains the reason for the migration. Last question; do we turn away immigrants migrating to the U.S. because their country is ruled by dictators when those dictators are supported by U.S. intervention?                                                                        

Information for this article came from  Jim Handy’s, Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala as well as Handy’s Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-1954; Stephen Schlesinger’s and Stephen Kinzer’s Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala;  Paul Dosal’s  Doing Business with Dictators: A political History of United Fruit in Guatemala 1899-1944; Linda Green’s Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala;  andWilliam Blum’s,  Killing Hope; U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. If you are interested in a more detailed account of the CIA coup and the History of Guatemala check out archived programs of Solutions to Violence on forwardradio.org. Scroll down and search the archives for Solutions to Violence and look for these three episodes featuring Lockharts (2-10-21); Linda Green (2-22-21); as well as Stephen Kinzer and Jim Handy (3-1-21). 


Jim Johnson is a retired Jefferson County Public School teacher.  He has been involved in the Louisville Peace and Justice community since 1985. He is currently the facilitator for the Fellowship of Reconciliation affiliate “Aim Higher” and is a member of the board of directors of the Louisville Chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). He can be reached at  jimpeace8@gmail.com