On March 11, 1999, President Bill Clinton took an unprecedented step. During a four-nation visit to Central America, he expressed regret for the role the United States had played in a brutal counter-terrorism campaign that had caused the deaths of thousands of civilians in Guatemala’s civil war.
President Clinton’s apology followed the publication of the findings of an Independent Historical Clarification commission, which concluded that U.S. government support to the Guatemalan military was responsible for most of the human rights abuses committed during the 36-year war in which 200,000 people died.
The human rights abuses were also detailed in The Guatemala Truth Commission report which was coordinated by Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was brutally murdered. According to the report, children were killed, abducted, forcibly recruited as soldiers and sexually abused. Fetuses were cut from their mothers’ wombs and young children were thrown alive into pits.
Brutal as it was, this was not the first time that the U.S. government had intervened in Guatemalan affairs. In 1954, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out a covert operation that deposed the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. The coup that installed Carlos Castillo Armas was the first in a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes in Guatemala and was preceded by U.S. efforts to isolate Guatemala internationally. Arbenz had instituted near-universal suffrage, introduced a minimum wage, and turned Guatemala into a democracy.
Castillo Armas quickly assumed dictatorial powers, banned opposition parties, imprisoned and tortured political opponents, and reversed the social reforms of the Arbenz government. The coup was universally condemned and gave rise to strong anti-U.S. sentiment throughout the Americas.
Nearly four decades of civil war followed, with leftist guerrillas fighting a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes. The consequence was the genocide of the country’s Mayan population, when more than 200,000 indigenous people were murdered by Guatemalan military regimes supported by the U.S.
As in Guatemala, the U.S. also supported the government in the war in El Salvador against the leftist guerrillas (FMLN), providing military aid in the amount of between one and two million dollars per day. U.S. officers took over key positions at the top levels of the Salvadoran military and made critical decisions in conducting the civil war. The war lasted over 12 years (1979-1992) and resulted in more than 75,000 people murdered or “disappeared.”
According to the United Nations, while 5 percent of the murders of civilians were committed by the FMLN, 85 percent were carried out by the Salvadoran armed forces and the paramilitary death squads. The squads mutilated the bodies of their victims as a way of terrifying the population. The so-called Atlacatl Battalion, which savagely murdered and mutilated six Jesuit priests, was reportedly under the tutelage of U.S. Special Forces just 48 hours before the killings.
Honduras has had historically strong military ties with the U.S. In 2009, Manuel Zelaya, a liberal reformist, was ousted in a military coup. The U.S. refused to call it a coup while working to ensure that Zelaya did not return to power, in flagrant contradiction to the wishes of the Organization of American States. Today, the country is in disarray: violent gangs are everywhere, while government spending on health and education has declined.
These observations are very much related to today’s events. It has been estimated that almost 70 percent of the children who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border in 2014 came from what is called the Central American northern triangle, formed by Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Those three countries have suffered from U.S. intervention in their social and political affairs.
In the last century, the U.S. military intervention leading to the overthrow of democratically elected governments—or its support for tyrannical regimes—has played an important role in the instability, poverty, and violence that drives tens of thousands of people from the Central American countries toward Mexico and the United States. To these factors, one should add the destabilizing effect of natural disasters and a general climate of insecurity and violence in these countries.
Actions have consequences and interfering in other countries’ affairs can have long-lasting effects. This is especially true when one considers what happened in Central America. It would be naïve to blame the U.S. for all the ills in much of the region. But it would be equally naïve to ignore how U.S. intervention in Central America has helped create the situation that plagues the region today.