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Guatemala part 3 - how the death squads became the cartels continued

Solidarity Engineering met Jennifer Harbury through our work in Reynosa, Mexico where we provide water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure in camps and shelters throughout the city. See more about our work in Reynosa here: 

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Jennifer Harbury


Jennifer K. Harbury is an activist, author, and attorney who has spent much of the past twenty years working to monitor and promote human rights in Guatemala. Her husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, was a Mayan resistance leader who was "disappeared" by the Guatemalan military in 1992; subjected to long-term, severe torture; then extrajudicially executed. Harbury's efforts to save his life, which included three dangerous hunger strikes, resulted in startling disclosures about the close working relationship between the CIA and the Central American death squads. Since learning of her husband's death, she has devoted much of her time to pressing for human rights reforms for both the United States and Guatemalan governments. Harbury graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978 and has published two books about her experiences in Guatemala: Bridge of Courage (Common Courage Press, 1994) and Searching for Everardo (Warner Books, 1997). In 2005, Harbury published another book, Truth, Torture, and the American Way, which documents the long time use of torture by the CIA. Since her retirement, she has helped start one of the aid groups at the border: the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley. She now works in Reynosa with the Tias documenting human rights violations and reporting them to Interamerican groups and national networks and leaders.

Audio Transcript

Chloe Rastatter: Hi, and welcome to Dignity Displaced, a podcast by Solidarity Engineering that’s largely focused on explaining why exactly so many people are fleeing to the US/Mexico border. I’m one of your hosts Chloe Rastatter and I'm an engineer and co-founder of Solidarity Engineering, a small grassroots organization that’s been working at the US/Mexico border on the Mexican side in refugee camps and shelters for the past year and a half. In today's episode, we are going to continue our series on Guatemala and why so many Guatemalans are fleeing to the US/Mexico border with the second half of our interview with Jennifer Harbury. Now, if you haven’t listened to the first episode of this series “Guatemala part 1- facing a climate crisis on stolen land”, we recommend you listen to it before this one to help get more context, but this episode can stand without it. If you haven’t listened to the first half of Jennifer’s interview “Guatemala part 2 – how the death squads became the cartels” we strongly, strongly suggest you listen to it before this one to fully grasp the weight of what Jennifer tells us today. So, in this episode we were joined again by one of our friends and close allies in Reynosa, Jennifer Harbury to talk about what happened after the hunger strikes, the fall out following the CIA releasing the documents, and how this all affects cumulative migration out of Guatemala, and thus, our own border; and just so everyone’s aware, today’s episode includes conversation about violence and uses strong language so it may not be appropriate for all audiences. Just to refresh everyone about who Jennifer is, she’s a human rights lawyer working here in Reynosa with us and although she's technically retired, she’s not really retired, but we’ll get to that in a bit. First, we’ll talk a little bit more about the past. So, in the 90s, following the disappearance of her husband who was an indigenous leader in the resistance to the Guatemalan genocide, Jennifer staged 3 hunger strikes that ultimately resulted in the CIA releasing documents that showed their direct involvement with the death squads in Guatemala and their direct empowerment, training, and funding of multiple military leaders who went on to start some of the deadliest cartels we see today and in today’s episode we’ll focus on the decades of consequences, such as the mass migration to the US/Mexican border, of both the formation of these cartels and the actions that were taken by the CIA that were outlined in these documents that Jennifer got released. 

Now if you haven’t listened to Jennifer explain how it all happened on Guatemala part 2, it's an incredible and heartbreaking story that we really suggest you listen to, and if you have already listened to it and are wondering what Jennifer has to say about the madness of her life, here’s the short of it. 

Chloe Rastatter: Jennifer you have such a crazy life story.  

Jennifer Harbury: Just keep on rolling it’s really, like, I quit trying to have any control over anything, right?


Chloe Rastatter: I mean you simultaneously have an insane amount of control and no control at the same time.


Jennifer Harbury: Like you know, it’s like, I just try to just pick myself up and yeah and not back away from it. 

Chloe Rastatter: So in todays episode, were going to focus on the fallout of Jennifers hunger strikes and how it answers a major question we have: why are so many people fleeing Guatemala today? Now Jennifer’s work has far from stopped after her hunger strikes ended, but we’re going to pick up where we stopped last episode: with Jennifer just finding out that her husband, Everardo, had been killed, and that despite being told for years by the US government that they had no knowledge of his whereabouts, her learning through declassified CIA documents that they knew of his illegal torture since the 6th day after his disappearance on March 12th, 1992. Here’s Jennifer: 

Jennifer Harbury: After a number of hunger strikes able to find out that you know he was picked up the day of account, the embassy was told six days later that as was a spy the CIA no less then also the White House was told that that he had been captured alive was lightly but not seriously wounded and that the army was going to fake his death so they could press him for his information (read that: torture). So, they knew from day six and I was on hunger strikes and in and out of Guatemala trying to get him out of there for three years. During that three-year period, they told the United Nations they had no information, State department. They told the OAS, the Inter-American Court, they had no information and they told just about everybody on Capitol Hill they had no information. It was becoming a very big scandal. And then I have most of those letters that they sent out saying, “We’re very sorry, we don’t have any information about Mr. Bámaca,” like that, and we have no independent evidence that any secret prisoners or prisons exist, and then after my hunger strike it turned out that they’d known from, from the sixth day and that they had multiple reports there were 350 prisoners of war being tortured and killed and thrown out of helicopters. And that they were all dead. That if you know if, if they had produced any information earlier, we could have saved some of those people. But by the time three years had gone by there were no survivors. 

Chloe Rastatter: And just to be clear, the CIA in the 90s was directly involved in the illegal torture of Everardo, but the US, first through the military and then through the CIA, were also involved in so much more in Guatemala - including the planning and funding of the massacres of villages of indigenous Mayans all throughout Guatemala. And that’s why they didn’t want to come forward with the whereabouts of Everardo, even when Jennifer was on the brink of death during her 32-day hunger strike. During the time of Jennifer’s hunger strikes which occurred in 1993, 1994, and 1995, it had already been widely recognized by multiple international actors, including the UN in their 1994 Truth Commission which is linked on our website, that the Guatemalan military was engaged in systematic human rights violations, so the US had to publicly stop funding them, but they continued funding them through the CIA, which was kept a secret until Jennifer’s hunger strikes resulted in the declassification of CIA files outlining their direct and continued involvement with the Guatemalan government, regardless of the documented human rights violations. 

Jennifer Harbury: If a country is engaged in systematic human rights violations, we cannot give them military aid.  

Chloe Rastatter: So, enough evidence came out by that point to show that they were systematically... 

Jennifer Harbury: It was atrocious 

Chloe Rastatter: Okay. 

Jennifer Harbury: So they, they kind of couldn’t get around that, and that’s why the US was desperate to hide what the army was in fact doing. That’s why we were covering up for them. Number one we were their partners and the CIA files described time and time again that we were at the, we were at a table, a joint operations table, and they were telling us what we were gonna do and we let it happen and we gave them the money. So, at any rate they had to cut down that part of the assistance, but there’s sort of a black account that no one can see or know about how much that goes through the CIA, and the CIA was continuing to pay all of its informants or assets including Alpirez during that time, even though he murdered a U.S. citizen. 

Chloe Rastatter: So, at the end of Jennifers last hunger strike, when a whistleblower came forward announcing Everardo's death, the CIA declassified tons of documents. Documents that went on to directly link the US and CIA to the formation of some of the worst cartels we see today. These are the same cartels that people are fleeing from in the hundreds of the thousands as our Vice President, regardless of this publicly documented connection between the cartels formation and the US, tells them to “Do not come” to the US. The documents that were released as a result of Jennifer’s hunger strikes not only showed the US’s involvement through the School of the Americas, which by the way also trained the leader of the El Salvadorian death squads Roberto D’Aubuisson, but the documents also showed the US’s involvement through the direct funding of Guatemalan military officials who were known to be involved in systematic torture. Officials who were either already involved in drug trafficking and/or went on to start some of the most dangerous cartels we see today. Officials like Alpirez.  Alpirez was a Colonel in the Guatemalan government who trained at the School of the Americas in 1970 and again in 1990. He went on to serve as a top military intelligence official in the 80s during the campaign of massacres that left well over 100,000 men, women, and children murdered or disappeared. And despite this, and despite his connection to the 1990 murder of an American innkeeper in Guatemala, Michael DeVine - who was killed after accidently stumbling upon a smuggling operation conducted by the Guatemalan military - Alpirez, starting in the late 80s, became a paid informant of the CIA, personally receiving tens of the thousands of dollars from the CIA each year for information.  Now, before starting her hunger strikes, an escaped prisoner of war came forward reporting that Everardo was being held captive and they directly named Alpirez as one of the torturers. And although at the time, the US claimed to know nothing of Everardo’s whereabouts, they were actively paying one his tortures for information, and the torture was pretty bad. Here’s Jennifer:

Jennifer Harbury: Really important connections, though, was that they also admitted in those documents that quite a few of those people were in fact CIA assets that had been torturing my husband and all the others. And one of the people that the eyewitness was able to name was Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez who’s very typical. He, he excelled in his job of liquidating the villages during the campaign of massacres, was known for his brutality. He trained at the school of the Americans in the United States and was high level intelligence. And he was involved in an open personal torture session with Everardo late in 1992. They wanted him to take them up to the clandestine radio station operating out of the volcanoes there. So Alpirez was injecting him with a gas that made him swell up enormously according to the eyewitness in rave, and an arm and leg were bandaged as if they had ruptured and Alpirez was taking notes. Within that month, someone from the CIA roared out to that remote Army base in the middle of nowhere with $40,000 in cash and handed it over to Alpirez. Alpirez was already known to both the embassy and the CIA to have killed, murdered and tortured an American citizen, because the citizen had stumbled across a drug deal going bad. Alpirez was already heavily involved as a narco-trafficking leader. Almost all leading upper echelon of the army, the rulers, they were already getting into the drug trade, and when the war ended, they just changed - as one of them laughing told me – “we just got into civilian clothes and now we do something else, but we’re right here.” And sure enough, they were right there.  So at any rate, there was a huge echelon of paid assets that tortured people and handed over the information to the United States, to the CIA and were paid handsomely for that, so they kept torturing people of course. And the CIA knew that was happening and covered for it. We’ve also always known that those people are drug Lords. Alpirez is in the DEA’s corrupt officer list, but, but even when things got really hot at the end of Everardo’s situation and stuff, he was in the paper every day and stuff, the DEA records are showing “but we can’t go after him he’s on our list of corrupt officers. We know he’s a drug Lord and he killed that poor guy Michael DeVine, but we can’t go after him ‘cause he belongs to the CIA.” And when two of the people named in Everardo's case started pointing at each other - which was interesting ‘cause they were equally involved and both of them working very closely with the CIA - the CIA then took Alpirez and his entire family, flew them to Washington, and they spent the next 10 years living safely and anonymously very near to the CIA with a small business. It’s completely illegal to bring a torturer, a known torturer, or human rights violator into the United States but they did. 

Chloe Rastatter: And this was after you got the CIA to release the papers.  

Jennifer Harbury: Yeah, he was absolutely known, and it was because of that uproar that they took him out. They were afraid he was going to start talking. So, they protected him and brought him to the United States instead. He’s one of many, many people who were known, really terrible torturers, who the CIA brought into the United States and sheltered. There’s a famous case of a Haitian woman who had both arms cut off with a machete who walked right around the corner and walked into her torturer at one point, in the streets of New Jersey.  There’s quite a few of those of those TomTom Haku people still out there. When friends of mine, who are Guatemalan, happen to see Alpirez at some kind of cultural event, they immediately told me. He’d been there for 10 years, so I was preparing my Torture Victim Protection Act case, and was preparing to get him served with the papers when the State Department heard about that. They have a human rights program, supposedly, and out of courtesy, they let the CIA know and the CIA plopped him on a plane and sent him with his family back to Guatemala after 10 years of protection. So, I couldn’t sue him up here, and he’s trying to sue me down there now and trying to get me thrown into jail, thank you very much. 

Chloe Rastatter: When the CIA documents were released showing the direct involvement of the US in the torture and genocide that was occurring, it didn’t exactly happen quietly. Remember, Jennifer had spent years trying to get all the attention she could on Guatemala and her case in order to try to save Everardo. And now, although mainstream media no longer talks about the US’s involvement in the destabilization and subsequent genocide in Guatemala, it wasn’t always like this. When Jennifer’s hunger strikes ended and the papers were initially released, showing this connection between the CIA and Guatemalan death squads, things went pretty crazy for a while, until they didn’t anymore. The CIA files revealed a wide variety of information - from the internal efforts to discredit Jennifer over the years of her hunger strikes, directly calling her a witch and a liar, to the timelines of the capture and torture of Everardo; who, by the way, never gave any information as to where the radio stations were, where the safe houses were, or where secret camps were despite the prolonged and brutal torture. When these files were released, people were outraged, but the outrage did not last nearly as long as the consequences for the US’s involvement in the genocide would. 

Jennifer Harbury: Oh, there was mayhem, it was wild, you know. It was like press everywhere and people screaming, and we were pulled into a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. And it was so ironic ‘cause, ‘cause the head of the Intelligence Committee was Republican by the way, was really outraged and said you know, “This is un-American. Torture is not going to be allowed. These are a few bad apples in the CIA and this will never happen again.” And then just a few years later after September 11th, I’m watching the TV with the Abu Ghraib photos coming up, and I’m watching it with a bunch of Guatemalan friends and there’s the White House: “This is un-American. Torture is not allowed and it will never happen again. It’s just a few bad apples.” And you go backwards in time to the Chile coup with Charles Horman, it’s like, “No, that’s un-American. It was just a few bad...”  

Chloe Rastatter: The same thing... 

Jennifer Harbury: It’s like they just make it go away. For a little while the CIA had a requirement that if people were going to hire an asset known to be torturing people, you know known to be a real bad actor, that they had to at least inform their supervisors. But even that, they were outraged that they had to answer to me and after, after the World Trade Center went down, Wolfowitz and several CIA people were getting blasted on the radio and TV during interviews like, wasn’t this the worst failure of intelligence in U.S. history? And they all named me, they said “It’s that woman, Jennifer Harbury, that was on the hunger strikes in Guatemala. She scared the CIA people so bad they couldn’t do their job right.” 

Chloe Rastatter: Really!? 

Jennifer Harbury: Yes, many. I was the great excuse, and I had people lining up around the block to do a defamation lawsuit for me like “We’ll do it, we’ll do it!” and I was just like this won’t last, like, if I’m their best excuse they’re sitting on something terrible. And then a few months later they came out, like, these memos of Al Quada determined to attack tall buildings in the United States, imminent attack, all that stuff. So, they just, they just screwed up, but that’s how mad they are they still. 

Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, you made some enemies in the CIA, apparently.  

Jennifer Harbury: Well for years they’ve been testifying to Congress that we were just professionalizing the Guatemalan military like teaching him how to do things right and not being murderers and we’ve never been in combat, we’re not involved in any of that stuff, we don’t know anything about the human rights violations. And then this were sitting at the table with them planning for 10 years. 

Chloe Rastatter: Yeah.  

Jennifer Harbury: That is embarrassing  

Chloe Rastatter: Yeah. 

Jennifer Harbury: I also just trashed them.  

Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, I mean it is I was like surprised. I mean when you Google your - I don’t know if you Googled it recently or anything, a lot of stuff is pretty dated, you know. It’s like from the 90s when everything was happening, obviously, but there’s just like this random CIA link where they just completely call you a liar. 

Jennifer Harbury: Yeah, that’s the, that’s the Guatemalan army’s defense to murder, torture, mayhem. It’s like, well, she wasn’t really married to him. She lied about that. And they, that’s the only thing they got to say for themselves. And it’s like about this murder and torture. I mean the versions are pretty bad he was either battered to pieces and buried under this little military base on the Mexican border where about 2000 other people are buried since 1980, or he was thrown out of a helicopter in cement from neck to ankles, or he was taken to a sugarcane field because you burnt sugar cane every year to harvest it, so there’s a military base with a huge sugarcane field, and they took him out of there out there and dismembered him and then burned the field and with a whole bunch of other people there. 

Chloe Rastatter: But you don’t know which. 

Jennifer Harbury: I’ve got a pretty good idea. 

Chloe Rastatter: but, confirmed, confirmed... 

Jennifer Harbury: If I go for it, they’ll shut me down for a few weeks and move whatever’s there. They may have already done that. That’s happened to several of my friends, where they go in and try to dig a place open, and they get delayed for 24 hours at gunpoint. 


Chloe Rastatter: And so now, we bring our story back to why this all matters for today. The cartels, which now control large portions of Latin America, use the same tactics of terror and torture as the death squads did. And as we learned in our last episode, many of the military leaders who were directly trained and/or supported by the US went on to start some of the deadliest cartels we see today. Now, Jennifer spends her days documenting human rights violations in Reynosa, Mexico - the city that we all work in. Reynosa is extremely dangerous, and the US considers it to be in the same level of danger as Syria or Afghanistan due to the extent of the violence that is perpetrated there by organized crime. On top of her work with the Angry Tias and Abuelas to help provide housing and shelter for the thousands of refugees who have been expelled into Reynosa under the COVID “public health policy” Title 42, Jennifer is assisting multiple legal cases: one against Greg Abbott, the Governor of Texas, and one against the DHS over the legality of Title 42. She spends much of her days talking to asylum seekers about their experiences and why they have fled and the stories they have to tell are stories of absolute nightmares. You often hear media refer to those stuck in Reynosa as “migrants” which makes it seem like they are coming to the US only for economic reasons, but this language, and the connotations that come with it, are simply just inaccurate. Legally speaking, people who are approaching the border are applying for asylum, which means they’re applying for protection. According to the US branch of UNHCR, “Asylum is a form of protection which allows an individual to remain in the United States instead of being removed (deported) to a country where he or she fears persecution or harm. Under U.S. law, people who flee their countries because they fear persecution can apply for asylum”. In other words, the people approaching our border are undergoing the same legal process as those who are arriving to Greece from Turkey on boats. However, in Europe, it’s considered a “refugee” crisis, whereas media has branded our border as a “migrant crisis.” Now, as we talked about in our Panama episode, migration is extremely multi-factorial and people leave their homes for a multitude of reasons that are almost always interlinked. And the people arriving at our border in the thousands who people who have been driven from their homes for a variety of reasons, but many are fleeing extreme violence that the US helped create, and instead of being allowed to enter the US and apply for asylum, they are being shut out without due process and sent back to face the very same situations they were fleeing from to begin with. 


Jennifer Harbury: So, the bottom-line link is we created this Frankenstein of high-level military officials who then created the worst cartels ever. They operate with the same techniques and methods of terror and mutilation, torture, massive murders, etc., etc.; exactly the same way that the military regimes in Central America took down the reform of, you know, basic reform efforts in the 80s and sent everybody back a century in terms of socioeconomic rights and stuff and reforms. So, then they created all of that and trained them in torture and terror methods, received a huge amount of money, and they now own the entire region. If they can’t buy the person, they kill a person or terrorize the person into working with them. So that’s why everybody is fleeing North. A mother was told that her 10-year-old son was gonna have to work with the gangs and she said, “he’s too little, you gottta wait, he’s like he just turned 10.” They went to the school dragged him back in front of the mother and chopped his finger off with an axe and said bring him tonight at 10. So, she didn’t even wait for the hour to pass she didn’t pack his suitcase, she fled with him right then and got to Reynosa. There are people, there’s a woman who was in an ambush with her husband and took seven bullets. She was seven months pregnant and her husband was killed. They left the children and thought that that was good enough, that the mother was dead too. She lived and when she woke up in a hospital, they had removed most of the bullets, but not one lodged near her cervix and the nurse said, “they figured out you’re alive, and you know, you recognize them they were people she knew, so they’re going to come here.” So, she fled the hospital, ran all the way across Mexico with her two children with a bullet lodged under her cervix, barely able to walk. Crossed the river twice and was sent back by the United States. Until I bumped into her and then we were able to get things taken care of. Having people found with multiple amputations, their arms cut off, their breasts cut off, their teeth pulled out. That’s not unusual and I remember all of that. We saw it in the morgue all the time in the 80s message, message, “don’t mess with us or else.” So that’s what people are running from, they cannot survive. A lot of people have been told you have to pay your taxes to the gangs no matter what and they had a little store that washed away during the hurricane or they were in the hospital with cancer and their, their families are being told that they’re going to be killed because the rent has not been paid. They don’t care what the reason is. And they know they will be killed or they’re being told, “if you don’t pay the rent by Friday, we take your daughter.” And they will take the daughter. So, they’re running, they’re all running, and not a single one of them is running ‘cause they, you know, want to try out a new country or, or buy a refrigerator. They’re running because they want their children to live, and when they get to a place like Reynosa which is every bit as packed. The gangs and cartels completely own Reynosa and Nuevo Loredo because they’ve been trapped there awhile because the United States is kicking everybody back no matter what their story because of Covid. Although we let truck drivers in and tourists and stuff I mean we don’t really care about COVID. We care about no more asylum seekers. But once they’re trapped there, I’ve interviewed hundreds just this year alone and every single one of them has been either kidnapped or held at gunpoint or beaten or raped at least once. Many of them twice or three times. There was a young woman who tried to save her three-year-old son that I told you about before who was kidnapped as she arrived in Reynosa, and they were told that the child would be sold for his organs. So, the dad paid the ransom really quickly they got close to the river and were grabbed again and this time another gang approached and there was a huge shootout. So, all the parents laid down on top of their children on the floor and prayed while the two different groups were machine gunning the walls off. Well, they got out, ran to the river, swam across with the other parents and turned themselves into CBP begging for help and we're told now we have MPP, everybody goes back, they’re perfectly safe there, and sent them back across. She was kidnapped again and thrown in the back of a pickup truck with her three-year-old son and gang raped right in front of her child who was crouching next to her face. They’re not alright. They’re not alright. It took a year even after that to get her out. We went straight to court and said, “you can’t leave her in Taumalipas look what you’ve done to her.” And after thinking about it for about 2 minutes the, the official in charge said “she’s not in danger, go back.” It was after sundown and they sent her back across the bridge alone. 


Chloe Rastatter: The violence that is seen today in Guatemala, Reynosa, and many other places is so widespread that it deeply infiltrates the governments, making rule of law nearly out of the question. It’s sometimes impossible to separate the government from the cartels, which just further perpetuates the violence and leaves people with basically no other option other than to flee. This is a huge problem that’s not only forcing literally millions to flee their homes to make the dangerous journey to the US/Mexico version, but it is the same situation that’s faced directly at our border, where inhumane policies like Title 42 and MPP require people to just sit and wait, essentially completely unprotected. 

Jennifer Harbury: As per you know the cartels being the government and vice versa, right. You know the government has no control over the cartels anymore and there’s huge overlap. They’re not necessarily exactly one in the same, they’re not necessarily completely coextensive, but the cartels are too powerful now and the government, even if it wanted to - and it probably doesn’t - even if it wanted to, they can’t stop them. Like some of the upper-class families have had daughters raped and kidnapped and stuff and they can’t do anything about it. So that’s all bad, but also the old school politically right, there was a very reform-minded Supreme Court judge who killed himself recently ‘cause he was insisting on enforcing international law. So, they framed his son, and arrested him for running a prostitution ring, I mean, which he didn’t, but he’s still in jail and they, they could keep him in there and he can be battered and stuff. And then apparently, they told him they were going after his daughter. And he said “I’ll leave the country” then, and they said “it’s too late.” So, he shot himself in the head. 

Chloe Rastatter: The US isn’t ignorant to what they’ve done and how they’ve worked with, and empowered, individuals who went on to lead major cartels, and Jennifer told us that there are multiple former assets who are now known gang leaders by the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration or the DEA, but there is still nearly no accountability as the cartels continue to grow stronger and stronger. 

Jennifer Harbury: So, what we’ve got is our monsters - the assets and the, you know, intelligence people that we made very wealthy - then became DEA corrupt officer list members but no one would go after them. They became phenomenally wealthy on their own, they don’t need you as money anymore, but we’re still not busting them. We’re still not releasing the files or anything. So now they totally own the country. They can shut down the courts anytime and the national palace. Like, no one can do anything to them. So, they’re running roughshod, terrorizing the countryside and if people want to save their children they have to leave. So that’s what’s happening. So, our own chickens, proverbial chickens, have come home to roost. They’re right here at the border. 

Chloe Rastatter: This story of military officials turning into cartel leaders is not unique just to Guatemala: it happened all over Latin America, and as more and more cartels formed, more and more fighting between groups started. And now, our border is a war zone that the US doesn’t want to acknowledge because if it’s a war zone, how could we send asylum seekers back there? But in reality, since 2006, Mexico has been in full cartel wars. And yet, still over the past year, 1 million asylum seekers have still made the dangerous journey through Mexico, and through this war zone that we Americans don’t talk about, to try to find safety. And remember many of these cartels, just like in Guatemala, were started by former military officials who then forced kids to join them in perpetuating acts of terror and torture.  

Jennifer Harbury: Well, what happened is the different military leaders just started forming cartels and stuff, right? and then the same thing happened in Mexico ‘cause you have to get through Mexico to get to the United States where the market is, right. So from Colombia on up it was like watching dominoes fall. You know, they may have started as partners but then started their own cartels and on and on. I know that some of the military in Guatemala got into the drug stuff because the Colombians drug Lords needed landing and refueling centers and the only people with air strips was the military. So, they sort of started that way and then went on upstairs from there. But there’s so much money involved that it’s easy to like just build a new gang and keep on going. The overlap between military police and gangs - Frank Smyth wrote a number of very good articles on exactly that a number of years ago, there’s a lot of documentation. It’s not 100%, every single one started with military, but they’re the ones that had the guns and they’re the ones that knew how to torture and terrorize everybody and did. They already had the experience. Then it was just a matter of recruiting the kids. 


Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, or forcing kids. 

Jennifer Harbury: “Recruiting” being a term of war.  

Chloe Rastatter: Sometimes people don’t realize just how deadly the cartels are, but they’re referred to “organized crime” for a reason. It is not uncommon for someone to reach Reynosa after fleeing by foot from Guatemala, just to be identified in Reynosa and subsequently killed by the very same gang they fled thousands of miles to get away from after they were sent back into Mexico by the US.  

Jennifer Harbury: I hear very often that people have fled Honduras and Guatemala, get across the border into Mexico, and go in to try to get those temporary transit visas. And as they come out, they see people from their own DSC Ocho Mona, so, people that they recognize, and so they flee north without even waiting for their papers. I hear a whole lot of them are getting calls on their phone, you know, they’re triangulating and their grandparents are being told, “we know where your kids are, they’re in Reynosa somewhere, we’re finding them.” People take pictures constantly and then trade with each other. I mean, gangs want to know if someone escape from them. They want to know where they are, and they want to go after him and make an example out of them; or at least, kidnap them and hold them for ransom. So, it’s quite a lot of tracking going on. Much more than there was even a few years ago. 

Chloe Rastatter: The problems we are facing at our border are honestly overwhelming as people keep arriving at the border, seeking protection, just to be told “sorry, go back to Mexico.” With thousands and thousands more asylum seekers approaching our closed Southern border every month, progress towards a real solution seems really limited. So, we asked Jennifer what potential solutions she sees to the ever-growing complexity of the problems we are currently facing. Here’s what she told us: 

Jennifer Harbury: We should immediately declassify the files of anyone in the DEA corrupt officer list or anyone that we know - independent of the DEA - can be involved or reported to be involved. All human rights stuff, that should be exposed, so that they can be processed and jailed, or put on trial and jailed. Anyone being put on trial for human rights abuses, if they used to work for us we should not be sheltering them. That way that core network of frankensteins, the grandpa frankensteins, can be shoved away and the younger generation can think about, you know, “No, you don’t have full impunity, you’re not fully shielded.” So that’s one thing: open the, open the human rights files. If they’re on the DEA list and they’re killing somebody else, it’s like, they should not be shielded. It’s like, we should be able to go right after them and extradite them and put them in prison. And yes, that's gonna take out a few of our partners, but maybe we should think about the basis of our partnership. You know I was interested in the CIA talking and the army talking about what a shame it was that Afghanistan fell so fast, and it’s because we pick our friends as people who will work with us because we pay them a lot of money. Like we were always talking about sending a huge amount of money to such and such a country in order to make it a showcase of democracy. Well, we did that in Iran, and we did that in Guatemala in 1954. Make that, make it a showcase of democracy, that was, that was our slogan. And then we tried to do it again recently in Iraq and Afghanistan and it never works. So, we gotta get over the idea that somehow, we can buy people who will then be absolutely faithful to the American way. They’re just laughing at us actually. So, that’s another one. The third thing is on us as Americans, we’re buying the drugs. The reason it’s so violent is because a small suitcase of heroin is worth an ungodly amount of money. The drug trade itself is just worth an insane amount of money, so take the profit out. Legalize drugs. Nobody likes that. I heard a Colombian priest say that more than 20 years ago, and he said, “No one’s gonna believe me, you know, but we have to legalize drugs or it’s going to, the drug war is coming to you guys. You think we’re the only country that’s going to have it this bad? Just you wait.” And he’s exactly right. It already is on this side of the border in Texas. It’s not foreigners, it’s homegrown people who are realizing how much money is, is available. And so, they’re doing it. So, we have to legalize it and we should use some of the money we save on this massive military failure of the anti-drug war. We should use some of it to build clinics and hospitals. The same as we have rehab for people who are, who have trouble with, with alcohol. If people misuse drugs and become ill, then help them with that illness, but stop putting this huge amount of money in there. If it’s not worth millions of dollars, they’ll be gone from our playgrounds. What’s the point if it’s worth, if you can buy it like aspirin at the drugstore, it’s going to be better. When you take the money out of it, there will still be prostitution and trafficking and all that, but then we can concentrate more on those things. But take the air out of those two out of those tires, it’s already very late.  I think, you know, we shouldn’t be afraid to realize that now with climate change, with the wars intensifying worldwide, COVID and everything else, there’s natural causes for huge numbers of migrants, but also the drug wars, and the repression. The government repression we’re seeing in many countries. Like for example, Uganda, that the United States is partnering with. We have to get our country out of the situation where we think it’s okay to partner with tyranny and terrorists. We think that’s just fine if it benefits us. And in the long run, it doesn’t benefit us. Look what’s happening. I mean, people desperately running to our borders are just one of the results of what we’re doing. We have to start by looking in the mirror and figuring out, “and the cause was what?” The cause is the United States. We keep saying to the refugees “Go back to Guatemala or El Salvador and fix your own country.” Well, they were trying to do that in the 80s and we had massacred them in the most brutal way possible. I mean it was just unbelievable and we did, it is on us. If we didn’t know, why didn’t we? and what have we done about it to make sure we know now?  

Chloe Rastatter: And so now, we are facing huge problems at our border as cartels - whose founding have direct ties to the US - are causing mass migration to the US/Mexico border. Since the start of the pandemic and the implementation of Title 42, over a million asylum seekers have been expelled back across our border into extremely dangerous border cities in Mexico, where a small number of aid organizations are working to provide basic survival needs for thousands. Even if aid organizations had the capacity to provide adequate access to basic necessities such as shelter and water, which we currently don’t, in places like Reynosa, we would never be able to provide what the asylum seekers really need, which is safety as the cartels terrorize the populations day in day out. Kidnapping of asylum seekers in Reynosa is nearly constant as, although the asylum seekers often don’t have much money, many have family in the US or in their home countries who are forced to pay the ransom because it’s either pay the ransom, or have your loved one murdered.  The crisis at our border is deeply rooted in history, and people often don’t realize that many people who are fleeing to our border today are indigenous people of the Americas who are trying to disentangle themselves from the scars left from centuries of genocide and extortion.  This episode concludes our conversations with Jennifer, and next month we’ll conclude our Guatemala series with an interview with a Guatemalan asylum seeker who we fondly call, La Abuelita, about why her family fled and the violence she endured at our own border while waiting for asylum stuck in Mexico.  Before that though, we’ll be publishing a special episode later this month, where the three founders of Solidarity Engineering - myself, Christa Cook, and Erin Hughes - will talk about what the past year looked like for us after we met as strangers at the border. Believe it or not, through listening to the same podcast, we decided to fully commit and start a humanitarian aid organization together at the border, during a pandemic, building it from absolutely nothing. To say a lot has happened in our lives in the past year feels a little like an understatement, but until then, here’s Christa with our regular update from the border. 

Christa Cook: Hi, my name is Christa Cook, and I’m a field engineer and co-founder of Solidarity Engineering, and it’s time to deliver our update at the border. As we start out 2022, we have a lot of upcoming projects. With the border still being closed, the bottleneck of asylum seekers in Reynosa, Mexico is causing the situation to become increasingly dire. We are continuing our efforts supporting the estimated 4,000 refugees now living in both the informal camp known as the Plaza and living local shelters like Senda de Vida. To date, we have provided over 170,000 liters of drinking water, 19,000 rolls of toilet paper, over 5,500 menstrual pads and more to the plaza, as well as continuing construction of the water distribution system at Senda de Vida.  

The plaza is now so overpopulated that there is not even enough room for everyone to have tents, so a portion of the population is forced to sleep outside in the open air. With growing density, comes growing tension, so we are working alongside multiple organizations, including Jennifer’s org the Angry Tias and Abuelas, to establish a new, safer camp. One of the only ways to keep asylum seekers safe here is to have a 10 ft concrete wall constructed all the way around the camp, so after months of searching for a site, organizations have agreed on a plot of land that we call the baseball field and construction of the wall has begun. While the wall is being constructed, we have been meeting with both NGO and government actors and are developing a site infrastructure plan fora new camp using drone imagery and GIS.   

Because these camps are not recognized by the United Nations, basic aid is being provided by humanitarian organizations and our response can only be as robust as our funding allows. So, we’re asking those who listen to this podcast, to please consider subscribing to our Patreon. Small, monthly, individual donations sustain our work. All money we receive from the Patreon goes directly to responding to the crisis we see every day at our Southern border, so whether you can give $5, $10, or $100/month please go to our Patreon “Solidarity Engineering” and sign up today.  Finally, if you want to find more about our podcast episodes or our work, check out our website at and follow us on social media, @solidarityengineering. If you got something out of today’s podcast, please subscribe to wherever you get podcasts so you see when we have a new episode out, and consider leaving us a nice review and tell your friends about us. This episode was produced by Chloe Rastatter, Christa Cook, and Erin Hughes, edited by Chloe Rastatter. Special thanks to Siobhan Merill and Joe Salter for helping pull this episode together. All sounds in today’s episodes come from our projects in the field and special thanks to Adam Erispaha for some bops.  If you’re every wondering where we get our facts from for the podcast, you can go to our website and look at the transcripts of each episode. They sometimes come out a few days after the episode, but we include links to all of our sources! Catch us on our next episode for a little change of pace and hear from the three founders of Solidarity Engineering about how 2021 went and what our first year was like starting a humanitarian aid organization. 


Jennifer Harbury: But there’s also many documents that are the army saying to the CIA, “that witch, you know, she’s a total fake.” And they don’t tend to redact those. They let me have those full. 

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