There exists a deeply troubled history of US foreign policy toward Latin America. As we move into the New Year, foreign governments with relationships in Latin America – like the United States and Canada – ought to take note of the failures of past engagements to inform future policy toward the region.
John P. Longan was an agent with the US Border Patrol in the 1940s and ’50s, working near the Mexican border, where two Guatemalan migrant children fell mortally ill last month in the custody of the Border Patrol—7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died on December 8, and 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, who died on Christmas Eve. Longan had a reputation for violence, as did many patrollers. Since its founding in the early 20th century, the Border Patrol has operated with near impunity, becoming arguably the most politicized branch of federal law enforcement—even more so than J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
As the Cold War heated up in Latin America, following the 1959 victory of the Cuban Revolution, Longan, who started his career as a police officer in Oklahoma, moved on to work with the CIA, providing security assistance—under the cover of the State Department—to allied anti-communist nations. Put simply, Longan taught local intelligence and police agencies how to create death squads to target political activists, deploying tactics that he had earlier used to capture migrants on the border. He arrived in Guatemala in late 1965, where he put into place a paramilitary unit that, early the next year, would execute what he called Operación Limpieza, or Operation Clean-Up. Within three months, this unit had conducted over 80 raids and multiple extrajudicial assassinations, including an action that, over the course of four days, captured, tortured, and executed more than 30 prominent left-opposition leaders. The military dumped their bodies into the sea while the government denied any knowledge of their whereabouts.
Longan’s Limpieza was a decisive step forward in the unraveling of Guatemala, empowering an intelligence system that through the course of the civil war would be responsible for tens of thousands of disappearances, 200,000 deaths, and countless tortures. (Greg Grandin describes Longan’s work in The Last Colonial Massacre.)
The US role in that civil war wasn’t, of course, limited to the covert operations of one former Border Patrol agent. Throughout the Cold War, Washington intervened multiple times in Guatemala, funded a rampaging army, ran cover for the death squads that its own security agents, like Longan, helped create, and signaled that it would turn a blind eye to genocide. Even before Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, two retired generals playing prominent roles in his campaign traveled to Central America and told Guatemalan officials that “Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done” (for this quote, see Allan Nairn’s 1980 “Controversial Reagan Campaign Links with Guatemalan Government and Private Sector Leaders,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, October 30, 1980). In office, Reagan supplied munitions and training to the Guatemalan army to carry out that dirty work (despite a ban on military aid imposed during the Carter administration, since existing contracts were exempt from the ban). Reagan was steadfast in his moral backing for Guatemala’s génocidaires, calling de facto head of state Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who seized power in a coup in the spring of 1982, “a man of great integrity” and “totally dedicated to democracy.”