OP-ED: Same refugee crisis in Central America—New administration, what’s next?

Immigrants from Central America and Mexican citizens, who are fleeing from violence and poverty, queue to cross into the U.S. to apply for asylum at the new border crossing of El Chaparral in Tijuana, Mexico, November 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes
Immigrants from Central America and Mexican citizens, who are fleeing from violence and poverty, queue to cross into the U.S. to apply for asylum at the new border crossing of El Chaparral in Tijuana, Mexico, November 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

The Central American refugee crisis of unaccompanied children is still with us. This year, an estimated 80,000 people from Central America, mostly children and families, are expected to apply for asylum in the U.S., a 658% increase since 2011. In spite of massive repatriations and an aggressive media campaign to discourage migration, the U.S. still faces an urgent humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. should work in collaboration with its allies in the region to provide temporary hosting to Central American migrants. Through shared responsibility we can address this humanitarian crisis effectively.

We should expand the number of countries willing to accept eligible families to be hosted temporarily. Costa Rica already hosts up to 200 eligible people for periods of six months – and more countries should follow its shining example. In addition, we can extend the current security screening program supervised by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Some possible partners to host eligible families include Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. They should accept up to 3,000 refugees each. The U.S. can encourage them through leading by example, expanding its Central American minors program up to 9,000. Security screening should be performed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in partner countries in collaboration with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

This proposal is clearly beneficial both to the region and to the United States. This temporary hosting program provides time for migrants to pass a security screening process outside their homelands in a safe location, and deters them from a risky journey to the U.S. border. For the United States, it reduces expenses in repatriations, and enhances shared responsibility.

Second, the program will reduce backlogs and costs associated with long detentions of refugee applicants.  This proposal expands the capacity of Homeland Security to address the large number of people who may have legitimate refugee claims, by having more security screening units outside the U.S. and more staff from UNHCR.

Third, security screening becomes a more effective process because it has access to more and better information, as well as resources and technical support from UNHCR and other countries in the region for its implementation.

The debate during the campaign fueled arguments of whether to welcome migrants fleeing violence or to build a wall to keep them out. Some will see the temporary hosting program as an invitation for Central Americans to seek asylum. But let’s be clear here: We already have repatriated thousands of people and, in joint collaboration with Mexico, we have increased control of the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

Building a wall will not stop migrants to take a risky journey to the U.S border. Collaborating with our allies in the region in a screening security program brings better, more creative and more effective use of our resources to address a humanitarian crisis.

Some will see temporary hosting of refugee applicants in the region as failing to provide a permanent solution. True, but we should not let a desire for the perfect get in the way of what’s possible. This temporary hosting proposal offers the most efficient and practical way to address an ongoing humanitarian emergency. We should embrace it, even as we look to longer-term solutions.

We can do more to address Central American refugee crisis. With shared responsibility, the United States and its allies in the region can provide temporary hosting to Central American migrants to address this urgent humanitarian need. A future of hope and integration for our region demands collaboration and a humanitarian perspective.

A future of hope for our societies in the Americas demands shared responsibility. Let us not forget that together we are more effective, and together we are stronger.

Opinion: ‘Denial,’ from the Holocaust to the Guatemalan Genocide

Posters of Guatemala's missing victims fill a wall outside the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. Photo: ferNNando via Visualhunt / CC BY
Posters of Guatemala's missing victims fill a wall outside the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. Photo: ferNNando via Visualhunt / CC BY

Denial is a film for our time. Focusing on the historic trial of US Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt in a London court resulting from libel charges brought against her by Nazi apologist and Holocaust denier David Irving, Denial reminds us that words matter. Irving, like all who deny the Holocaust and other genocides, presented himself as David confronting Goliath. From the Holocaust to slavery in America, from the Armenian Genocide to the Guatemalan Genocide, it is an oddity of revisionist history that perpetrators of mass violence claim to be victims of those they sought to annihilate as they deny the very act of annihilation.

Irving denied Auschwitz was a center of mass killing. He claimed that Holocaust survivors profited from their camp tattoos, minimizing their suffering and making their very survival suspect. He claimed that eyewitnesses and survivors were liars. By denying Auschwitz, he denied the Holocaust.  At one and the same time, he sought to make Holocaust denial a respectable position as he exculpated Hitler because if the Holocaust didn’t happen, then Hitler didn’t order it or know about it.

In this way, Irving argued there was no systematic intent to commit the Holocaust. The numbers of dead were far fewer than claimed, there were no gas chambers, the Holocaust myth was invented by Jews for financial compensation, and that war is, after all, a bloody business were among his central arguments. Down this slippery slope, he argued that those who dared to disagree with him were guilty of libel and infringing on his free speech. These are not original ideas. Indeed, they are repeated by genocidaires and their apologists around the world and throughout history.

In the Guatemalan Genocide, the United Nations sponsored truth commission found the army killed more than 200,000 mostly Mayan people, razed 626 Mayan villages in a scorched earth campaign, disappeared 50,000 civilians (including 5,000 children), and displaced 1.5 million people. In the 25 years I have investigated the Guatemalan Genocide, I have witnessed the deployment of propaganda to exculpate the army and those who benefited from the Genocide as well as sophisticated smear campaigns directed at those who defend the rights of survivors.

Exhumation of mass grave site in Compalapa, Chimaltenango (2005). Photo: United States Agency for International Development
Exhumation of mass grave site in Compalapa, Chimaltenango (2005). Photo: United States Agency for International Development

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the army claimed the disappeared had gone to Cuba and that massacre victims had died in crossfire from battles between the army and the guerrillas. They dropped leaflets from helicopters naming human rights leaders as marijuaneros (marijuana smokers) and human rights profiteers. In a campaign of distortion, they sought to equate human rights advocacy with armed insurgency and subversion. As mass graves were exhumed in the 1990s and 2000s, forensic evidence mounted demonstrating army massacres; the army responded that “both sides had made mistakes.”

The problem with this argument is that there were never two sides. Just as the Third Reich carried out the mass killing of unarmed Jewish men, women, children and elderly, the Guatemalan army carried out a massive, planned killing of Mayan communities intended to destroy the Mayan people and their culture. In the 2000s, the army and their apologists have sought to challenge the genocide by accusing Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu of lying, challenging the truth commission’s quantification of victims, accusing Maya massacre survivors of being guerrillas, and blaming the left for army massacres because the ideas of the left justified the army killing unarmed Mayan civilians.

Despite genocide trials and convictions of various army officers, including former dictator Efrain Rios Montt [whose 2013 conviction was overturned under pressure from the oligarchy], the aging genocidaires continue to blame the victims and threaten their lawyers and human rights advocates. I became the subject of attacks from the extreme right in Guatemala after I published an opinion editorial in the New York Times shortly after the Rios Montt conviction because I suggested that then-President (and former general) Otto Perez Molina should be tried for genocide because he was a commander at the Nebaj army base at the height of the Ixil genocide for which Rios Montt was tried.

Maria Soto and other Ixil women celebrate after former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide against the indigenous Ixil people in the 1980s. Trócaire's partners had fought for almost 30 years for justice for the Ixil people. (Photo: Elena Hermosa).
Maria Soto and other Ixil women celebrate after former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide against the indigenous Ixil people in the 1980s. Trócaire’s partners had fought for almost 30 years for justice for the Ixil people. Photo: Elena Hermosa.

Three days later, in a New York Times Letter to the Editor, then Guatemalan Ambassador to the United States Francisco Villagran de Leon praised Perez Molina and attacked my op-ed as an unfair political argument that misrepresented Perez Molina and Guatemalan history. Almost immediately, I found my name and image on a Facebook hit page of the extreme rightwing in Guatemala and echoed on 20 other Facebook pages of genocide deniers. In Guatemala, opinion editorials were run against me for my “corrosive work against Guatemala” and a significant portion of an hour long national radio program attacked me and also accused me of having a hand in the conviction of Fujimori in Peru (which is comical because I have never even been to Peru). It was reported in the Guatemalan press that Perez Molina wanted to sue me for slander and libel in Guatemala and the United States. Two weeks after the op-ed, when I opened my Gmail account, it had a flashing red banner that said: “Warning, we believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer.” I was also followed and harassed by two Guatemalan men with military bearing dressed in civilian clothing (matching grey suits) at an international scholarly conference in Washington DC. While the dark side of Guatemala was able to send a message to me in the United States, I was also able to respond by seeking support from the State Department (after which, the threats ceased).

My Guatemalan colleagues have not fared so well. In the past three years since the trial, they have had death threats, been physically attacked, had grenades thrown in their yard, found a dead rat hanging in a locked car, received threatening phone calls, been arrested on trumped up charges, been robbed, extorted, and forced into hiding or exile to protect their lives and those of their families. There is a continuum of official and extra-official violence from the civilian government appointees like Ambassador Villagran de Leon who legitimize violence by dismissing uncomfortable facts as “political arguments” to the anonymous internet death threats that amount to public hit lists against those with the temerity to seek justice to the actual violence meant to intimidate and silence the truth.

During the genocide trial of Rios Montt, then-President Otto Perez Molina told an elite group of Guatemalan businessmen, “I could observe what was happening, and I say here, I, Otto Perez Molina: In Guatemala there was no genocide. It is important to highlight this because I lived it.  I know the terrain and there was no document. I personally never received a document to go slaughter or kill a population.”

Actually, there are declassified United States and leaked Guatemalan documents that form a part of the preponderance of evidence. There is also a video of Perez Molina when he commanded Nebaj in 1982.  He stands with four dead bodies covered with flies at his feet as he says, “the army does not kill people.” The curious thing about his statement in the video is that while Perez Molina denies that the army kills people, his soldiers are kicking the dead, tortured bodies of civilian Maya on the ground of the courtyard.  One soldier says that they brought the men (alive) to the major (Perez Molina) and that the major had interrogated them. The soldier explains that the men gave no information, but does not explain how they came to be tortured dead bodies on the ground. (You can watch this video:  http://vimeo.com/29194958.)

Forensic evidence from hundreds of exhumations indicates massacres carried out by the army, not confrontations between two armies or armed groups, and not civilians caught in crossfire. The forensic evidence shows extrajudicial executions and massacres of civilians – indigenous people – men, women, youth, children, babies and the elderly- killed with army bullets. Poor and helpless people who were often buried with their hands tied behind their backs, women with their babies still wrapped in shawls on their backs – babies that were probably buried alive as they wailed. These are the victims of a planned genocide that was executed with precision by a highly trained army that functioned under a tight vertical command structure and Perez Molina was a commander on the ground during this genocide. Perez Molina, implicated in the genocide, now sits awaiting trial, not for genocide, but for corruption after being pushed out of office following the revelation of the parallel tax structure he established during his presidency for his own enrichment.

Recently, the Shoah Foundation’s Center for the Advanced Study of Genocide at the University of Southern California held the first international conference on the Guatemalan Genocide. More than 20 scholars from all over the world gathered to share their research on the genocide and plan collaborative work in the future. The Guatemalan Genocide is now in the Shoah Foundation’s archive along with the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide. The archive makes the documents, testimonies and other evidence of these genocides and the Holocaust available to all.  Those who deny the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide or the Guatemalan Genocide are not expressing an opinion, they are lying to promote their own agenda. While Denial shows that historical truths can be determined in a court of law, the Shoah Foundation leaves the last word to the thousands of survivors in its archives.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author)

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