Saturday, July 19, 2008

Immigration: Why Prudencia Died

Prudencia Martin Gomez's death in the desert is rooted in the chaos wrought by U.S. involvement in Guatemala's decades-long civil war


More than 4,000 people have died along the U.S. border with Mexico over the past 13 years. With no hope for immigration reform from Congress this year, the dying season is here again.

Neither President Bush nor the presidential candidates wants to address immigration reform. Many Americans believe Latin American governments are responsible for the immigration problem. On the contrary, no country has been more egregious in creating this problem than the United States.

The history behind the case of Prudencia Martin Gomez makes that clear.
Prudencia, 19, came from Todos Santos, Guatemala, an indigenous village in the Cuchumatanes Mountains. She was migrating to California to join her boyfriend, Ismael. When she fell ill from dehydration and heat exposure, her group abandoned her. She died June 15, 2007, in the Tucson Sector of the Sonoran Desert. The recorded temperature that day was 115 degrees.

Many men and women, like Prudencia, have fled Guatemala despite the peace accord that was signed in 1996. The civil war that raged there in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

And in a CIA report released under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency's David M. Barret readily admits to U.S. clandestine complicity in the civil war. The CIA and the U.S. government gained tremendous currency during the Cold War by selling fear that Guatemala was a rising communist country. Pivotal roles in overthrowing the Guatemalan government were played by two brothers - John Dulles, then secretary of state, and Allen Dulles, who was CIA director.

Allen's investments in United Fruit Co. were threatened by the possible expropriation of land that President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán wanted returned to peasant farmers. As John Foster Dulles said in 1958, "The United States of America does not have friends; it has interests."

The lucrative interests of United Fruit Co. were of foremost importance.
The CIA and U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy directed certain Guatemalan military leaders in overthrowing Arbenz's government, CIA documents report.

"It was also psychological warfare - cleverly deceptive efforts to persuade Guatemala's citizens and political/military leaders that a major invasion force was steadily moving toward the nation's capital," the CIA papers say.
Under such secret directives by the U.S. government, Todos Santos, the hometown of Ismael and Prudencia, became one of many villages burned to the ground in the 1980s.

Ismael's father was forced to join the ranks of the military (or be murdered) and fought against his own ilk. When Ismael grew up and became a teacher, he could not find work and migrated to the U.S.

"The Guatemala affair (was) a disreputable moment - Eisenhower was 'directly responsible' for 'death and destruction' yet showed no signs of embarrassment then or later over his 'bullying of a banana republic,' " writes Christopher Andrew, a scholar on the history of U.S. intelligence. More than 200,000 people had been murdered by the time the civil war ended in 1996.

But whether the military violence ever really ended is questionable. Last year, 3,000 women "disappeared" in Guatemala - many of their bodies later found mutilated, therefore to remain forever unidentified. Many observers suspect the killers are former Guatemalan military and police officers, trained by the U.S. at the notorious School of the Americas.

In an attempt to bring back the conservative party known as mano dura (iron fist), the military appears to be using mutilations to instill fear, persuading peasants that only "the fist" can stop the violence. Many migrants leaving Guatemala are without work or even, as in Ismael's case, without a community. The fallout of the decades-long civil war continues despite the ongoing efforts of Amnesty International.

The legacy of death and destruction, due largely to U.S. covert operations, thwarts any efforts to restore Guatemalan life to prewar conditions.
But we remember Prudencia, though she was but one of many, many victims of U.S. intervention in Guatemala.

July 14, 2007, a memorial service was held in the desert where she had died. That day, 33 humanitarians caravanned along a dusty road to a remote region about 20 miles west of Tucson. Discarded backpacks, filthy jeans, brittle water bottles and worn shoes spread across miles of greasewood, mesquite and devil's claws. In the bed of a truck, Father Bob covered his mouth and nose with a bandana to avoid choking on the fine dust that creates our stunning sunsets. It was over 100 degrees at 5:30 p.m. But we had transportation. Prudencia never even had a chance.

Since her death, at least 239 more bodies have been recovered from Arizona deserts. Each of these people had a history, a family, a face. We must continue to fight for humane immigration reform, and we must give voice to the dead, such as Prudencia.

Jody L. Ipsen is a Tucson writer and humanitarian working with migrants in the desert and across the border. Email:

No comments: