In the ongoing public furor over immigration, there is often a tendency to lump all immigrants together into one amorphous class, ignoring the diverse contexts from which these millions of individuals come. Even well-meaning liberals, in their quest to make immigrants seem non-threatening, sometimes characterize them as a kind of featureless mass. Immigrants are just like us, we often hear: which is to say, just like U.S. Americans, who are the presumed audience of such advertising. As our increasingly nativist politics continue to forcibly flatten immigrants into a single interest group, we may well forget that, before their American lives, most immigrants played vivid parts in other stories, in other parts of the world. We may forget that, for all that the American dream is billed as a fresh start, many immigrants have had life experiences that U.S.-born individuals are, statistically, unlikely to have had. Where some people project threat onto immigrants, others may, with equal injustice, project a kind of assumed ordinariness. But for all you know, the person who cleaned your toilet this morning may have seen their family members murdered before their eyes. And for all you know, the mild-mannered father of eight, who lives down the street from you, may have slaughtered an entire village.
It does not help that in the U.S. we educate ourselves so little about the histories of other countries, even those close to us. The majority of people in the U.S. probably know more about European than Latin American history, even though Latin America, our colonial cousin, is closer to us geographically, and tightly bound to us by ties of blood and money. I certainly count myself among the ignorant. Before I started working in immigration law, I knew next to nothing about the world to our south.
With this in mind, I want to tell two stories that I have recently learned about. They involve events that took place in Guatemala and in the United States, twenty-five years apart. The connection between the two may not be immediately obvious. But they have both greatly troubled me, and I think they tell us something, taken together, that is more than the sum of their parts.
One day in April 1982, a group of armed men came to an agricultural settlement called Tululché in the highlands of Guatemala. Some of the men were Guatemalan soldiers. Others were members of civilian “self-defense” patrols, volunteers and conscripts charged with helping hunt down the leftist guerrillas who were then waging an insurgency against the government. The contingent was led by two “commissioners,” whose job was to coordinate operations between the army and the civil patrols. The names of the commissioners were Cándido Noriega and Juan Alecio Samayoa.
It was not the group’s first time in Tululché. They had been there on several previous occasions to steal horses, cows, chickens, and pigs. They would confiscate the villagers’ money and farm equipment, the women’s weaving supplies and traditional handmade clothes. They would drive off their cattle to the nearby town of Chinique. Whenever the soldiers and patrolmen came to Tululché, the dogs would begin to bark, and the soldiers would begin to shoot. When the shooting began, the inhabitants of Tululché—indigenous Mayans who spoke little to no Spanish—would flee their homes and hide in the surrounding wilderness, returning only when the raiders had gone. They did not entirely understand why the soldiers and patrolmen kept coming back. The people of Tululché were peasant farmers, not guerrillas: they took no particular part in the violent conflict between the leftists and the government. But the Guatemalan army, following a counterinsurgency policy known as “drain the sea to kill the fish,” was scorching its way through isolated rural areas with deadly inexorability, crippling or destroying the predominately indigenous villages where guerrillas might have sought shelter or supplies. Rumor had it, too, that one of the local commissioners, Cándido Noriega, had his eye on Tululché’s fertile farmsteads, which he hoped to claim for himself.
The first, second, and third times the soldiers had come, Candelaria Perez Gonzalez had fled Tululché with her husband and children to hide. This time, however, her husband Sebastian did not want to leave. Why go? he said. He had committed no crime—why should he be afraid of the soldiers? Candelaria’s father Tomás said the same thing. He had recently encountered some soldiers in the nearby town of Tierra Colorada and nothing bad had happened. In fact, they had invited him to share a cigar. “They didn’t do anything to me,” he told Candelaria, “so I don’t want to leave the house.”
Candelaria was torn. As the soldiers entered Tululché, she began to hear gunshots outside. Candelaria’s children were alarmed and fled into the woodland. But Candelaria felt that it was her duty to remain with her father. He was very old, and who would cook for him that night if she left? As she wavered, she heard the soldiers drawing nearer and nearer to the house. “What are we going to do?” she said. “Stay here,” her father said. He had begun to realize the danger they were in, Candelaria thought, but he didn’t want to admit it. “It will be worse for you if you run.”
When the soldiers were on the point of entering the house, Candelaria panicked. She fled out the back of the house and hid among the cornstalks. The soldiers came into the house, dragging with them a woman from the village, who was tied up and wearing only a bedsheet. Candelaria’s husband was sitting in the kitchen eating. Trying for nonchalance, perhaps, he greeted them: “How are you, gentlemen?” The soldiers knocked him out of his seat and onto the ground, where they cut him open with a knife. It was the way Candelaria would kill an animal, she thought, except that she always killed animals with respect. They shot Candelaria’s father twice.
Candelaria remained hidden in the corn all night. Several times she ventured into the house and tried to attend to the bodies. Several times the soldiers returned and she had to hide again. At one point, they set fire to the woods nearby, but luckily the blaze did not reach the house. At another point, they severed part of Tomás’s arm and took it away as a trophy. What are we going to do? thought Candelaria to herself, looking at the bodies of her husband and father. Recalling these events many years later, at age 88, Candelaria revised her inner monologue. “I should have asked, What am I going to do? because I was alone.”
When the soldiers finally departed, Candelaria returned to the house. Over the next two days, as the house filled up with flies, she boiled corn and waited for the neighbors and her children to return, to help her wash the blood off the bodies and bury them.
This was not the last time that the soldiers and patrolmen would terrorize the people of Tululché. Throughout the summer and fall of 1982—chiefly in April, July, and November—there were repeated attacks on the community. The exact timeline is difficult to reconstruct: between the chaos of the events, the trauma experienced by the victims, and the politically-fraught circumstances of the subsequent criminal trials, the witnesses’ estimated dates blur together into a gradient of uncertainty.
The atrocities alleged, in no exact order, were as follows. I list the names of all the identified victims here, and what was done to them, because I think there is some value in seeing these “massacres” not as simply a general melee of violence, but as a series of concrete acts committed against individual people. Noriega and Samayoa and the other patrolmen descended on the marketplace of the town of Chiché, where the women of Tululché had gone to do their shopping. Dozens of women, among them Candelaria’s daughter Juana, were rounded up and taken to the jail, where Noriega ordered that they be starved for four days. They were interrogated and tortured. Many of the women were raped. A man named José Tol Quino, who went to the market on the day of the raid, was never seen again. The government forces tied up and tortured Candelaria’s son-in-law, Pascual Tzoc Toj, beating him, stuffing chicken feces and dog feces into his mouth. He was taken away and never seen again. A number of people were roped together and taken to a ravine, where Cándido Noriega and Juan Alecio Samayoa attempted to hang them from the branch of a tree, but the branch broke beneath their weight. A pregnant woman named Micaela Nimajá Tol was stripped and menaced with a knife, causing her to miscarry her child. A man named Sebastian Tzoc Ordoñez was robbed and burned inside his home. The only thing his daughter Jacinta found left of his incinerated body were his two feet. A man named Manuel Tzoc Sucqui was kidnapped and tortured: they cut away parts of his arms and cheeks and paraded him around in chains, saying that he was a guerrilla. After that, he was never seen again. Noriega and Samayoa robbed a man, Sebastian Leon Guarcas, whom they accused of being a guerrilla because he had money in his bag. They did the same to Pedro Pedro Quino before setting fire to part of his beard, and then flaying off the rest of it with a knife, including part of his nose. Their patrol took away José Toj Toj, Tomas Pérez Quino, Pascual Tzoc Ordoñez, Tomás Tzoc Suy, Domingo Guarcas, Sebastián Gorge, Pedro León Naz, and Tomás Xirum Quino, whom they tortured and beat with rifles. At least some of these captives were killed on the road to the town of Zacualpa, near a canyon. Manuela Tzoc disappeared on the same day. They likewise kidnapped Enrique Hernández Tebalán, Sebastián Aj Pacoj, Sebastián Aj, Tomás Ordóñez Lastor Mejía, Manuel Panchaj Lastor, Pérez Calel, Sebastián Tiriquis Sicaj, Manuel Tiguar Xirum, and Miguel Calel. They beat them with sticks, hanged them by their necks, and hit them with rocks. Enrique’s eyes were torn out of his head. All the men were then buried alive and left to suffocate. They also took captive Martín Pérez Suan, María Aj, Micaela Aguilar Tzoc, and Marta Mejía. One of the women was tortured with a wire before the group was shot, and the women’s bodies were stripped and thrown into a river. Samayoa and Noriega’s group tortured and kidnapped ten people at the house of Jacinta Mejía; before leaving the house with their prisoners and stolen goods, they dragged a young girl into another room and raped her, threatening to burn the house down if she told anyone what had happened. They tortured a six-year-old boy and his father by standing on their prone bodies and threatening them with a machete to their throats. A female member of the family, Tomasa Ticun Martín, was hung by the neck from a beam. The father, Antonio Ticun Lastor, was taken away and never seen again. Two women, Micaela Salazar Sen and Tomasa Saquic Aguilar, were kicked and beaten with rifle butts before being hanged, surviving only because a soldier, for unknown reasons, intervened for them to be cut down. A woman named Dominga Aguilar was killed alongside her seven children. Their bodies were eaten by dogs. Another family was burned alive, in a fire set with maize and gasoline. Others were shot at, others kidnapped, others killed: it was hard to say how many, with so many people hiding and fleeing, and bodies being burned and devoured and buried in secret graves. Female survivors estimated that around 125 other women from their community were killed. They spoke, too, of prisoners brought to Tululché from other places, and publicly executed on the bridge.
Ten years later, in 1992, criminal proceedings were initiated against Cándido Noriega for the events in Tululché. His supporters and family members threatened the witnesses, and screamed insults at them when they came to testify. Court interpreters for the Quiche-speaking survivors were inconsistently provided. The prosecuting attorney had an affair with Noriega’s daughter. One of the judges on the tribunal repeatedly fell asleep during the proceedings. Noriega was acquitted in 1997, shortly after the civil war had nominally come to an end. He was tried a second time in 1999. He was again acquitted, the tribunal claiming that the witnesses were lying because the details of their accounts did not perfectly align; and, simultaneously, that their accounts were too consistent, which the tribunal took to be evidence of collusion. This was despite the fact that bodies bearing signs of torture had been exhumed from mass graves at the sites the witnesses had described. That same year, an appeals court vacated the second acquittal and ordered a new trial. This time, Noriega was finally convicted, on six counts of murder (for six of the men who were tortured and buried alive) and two of homicide (for Candelaria Perez Gonzalez’s husband and father). He was sentenced to 220 years in jail. He served eighteen of these before being let out on compassionate release, dying in 2017 at the age of 79.
Unsurprisingly, Noriega’s military accomplices and superiors were never brought to trial. But what of his civilian accomplice, his fellow-commissioner Juan Alecio Samayoa? When prosecutors had sought to bring charges against him in 1992, he had vanished into thin air. Human rights groups received intelligence that the Guatemalan military had airlifted him out of the country. For 25 years, officially, Samayoa’s whereabouts were unknown.
But in reality, many people knew exactly where he was. In the community of Guatemalan refugees, many of them indigenous, that settled in New England after the civil war, Samayoa’s whereabouts were an open secret. An indigenous Guatemalan woman spoke to Simón Rios, a reporter from WBUR, about the day when, while waiting in line at a Walgreens in Providence, Rhode Island, she spotted a man with a black sombrero and a familiar face. Afterwards, she approached him outside the store. “You are very famous in Guatemala,” she told him, and spoke the names of her father and her uncle, who had been murdered in the 1980s. The man’s expression changed. He started to shake.
She never again saw him face-to-face after that chance encounter, but subsequently lived with the knowledge that the man she believed had killed her father in Guatemala was now living less than a mile away from her. “My mother asked us before she died that our hearts never fill with anger against the people who took our father away,” she told Rios. “I believe it was [Samayoa].”
In 2017, thirty-five years after the events in Tululché, ICE picked up Samayoa in Providence, where he had been living undocumented with his family since the 1990s. He was whisked away to a detention center in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, where he now sits, awaiting his deportation hearing.
The morning of March 6, 2007 in New Bedford, Massachusetts was bitterly cold—more than 15 degrees below freezing. For the workers in the Michael Bianco factory, this fact alone would have meant a bad day, regardless of other circumstances. Their employer didn’t like to shell out too much for heating in the winter, so the workers had to suffer through the cold, even though their work was precise and delicate, requiring full use of their fingers. The work environment inside the factory was as chilling as the temperature. Workers were forbidden from speaking to each other on the job. They were not allowed to get up and use the bathroom during their shifts. They were docked for using toilet paper, for collecting their paychecks, for every minute (multiplied by fifteen) that they arrived late. They often worked for 16 hours straight, but officially billed their second-shift hours to a sham company, “Front Line Defense,” so that their employer could avoid paying them overtime. And then there was the constant harassment, the racist abuse. “Damn Guatemalans,” was a continual refrain, as one worker later recalled to a local Massachusetts reporter.
More than half of the factory’s employees were undocumented, and of the undocumented workers, nearly half of those were Guatemalans, mostly indigenous Mayans from the Guatemalan highlands. These Mayan workers had been children or infants, for the most part, during the worst years of the civil war: for many, their earliest memories were ones of fire, terror, violence, hunger, and displacement. They had left Guatemala because of rampant post-war unemployment and rising crime, and, in many cases, to escape the dark, foreboding atmosphere of small villages where the memory of murder was still fresh, where the murderers, locally infamous, still walked abroad unpunished, where neighbors and family members would still sometimes go missing in the night, or turn up dead in unexpected places.
As it happened, the same U.S. military that had helped bankroll the Guatemalan government’s genocidal purge of the highlands was now paying the meager salaries of second-generation Mayan refugees in New Bedford. Michael Bianco, Inc., was a contractor for the Department of Defense. Its employees sewed bulletproof vests, gun holsters, and backpacks for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
As the workers clocked in for their 7am shift, other secret preparations were taking place in the early-morning darkness surrounding the factory. ICE agents and law enforcement officers were assembling in riot gear. Roads were blockaded. Coast Guard vessels were patrolling the nearby harbor. Police cars formed a ring around the building. Helicopters began to circle overhead. The order to raid the factory—according to some ICE officials—came from the highest levels of the U.S. government, as part of the Bush administration’s second-term goal to get tough on unauthorized immigration. Nearly 500 law enforcement personnel were involved in the operation.
Witnesses recall immigration officers charging into the factory, shouting for the workers to turn off their sewing machines. Frantic workers ran in every direction, colliding with each other on the stairs. Those who made it as far as the exits found cop cars and helicopters waiting for them outside. People hid under stairwells, under tables, tried to jump out windows. “Nobody move! Don’t run! Hands in the air!” the agents yelled, as recalled by worker Ricardo Calel to Public Radio International. Workers were ordered to show identification, then cuffed with zip-ties. Some workers recall being forced to sit on the ground, handcuffed, for hours, watching as agents congratulated each other and exchanged high-fives. One young woman was so distraught that she fainted, and then, upon awakening, began to vomit profusely. She sat on the floor with a box between her legs, crying and throwing up.
Adrian Ventura, a worker and labor organizer who was not on shift that day, rushed to the scene when he heard the raid was in progress. The helicopters circling overhead made him remember his childhood, when the Guatemalan government would launch aerial attacks on villages from helicopters acquired from the U.S. government. “When you see the helicopter that says ‘U.S.’ on it, you think it’s the same,” he told reporter Michael Bonner of the New Bedford Standard-Times. “I went back in shock. My mind went back to the war in Guatemala.”
All told, 361 people were detained that day, loaded into vans and buses with blacked-out windows and transported to detention centers. Several dozen women were released at the scene, or the following day, because they were the mothers of small children. But fathers received no such consideration, and many women, moreover, were afraid to reveal to officers that they had children at home, for fear that ICE officers would go after their children too. (ICE repeatedly refused requests to allow social workers from the Department of Children and Families to be present at the factory during their operation.) By the time school let out on the day of the raid, the basement of a local New Bedford church was filled with children who had lost one or both parents, including infants in the arms of their bewildered babysitters.
Over the next few days, more than 200 workers were transported to detention centers in Texas, far from their families and local advocates. Others remained detained in Massachusetts or Rhode Island. Some workers managed to obtain permission to stay in the U.S.: a small number were offered the chance to apply for a special visa in exchange for cooperating with the U.S. government’s criminal investigation against Michael Bianco, Inc.—Francesco Insolia, the Sicilian immigrant who founded and owned the Michael Bianco company, would later be fined $30,000 and sentenced to a year in jail—while others sought asylum relief, or were granted discretionary release on humanitarian grounds. Immigration lawyers estimate that 150 of the people detained in the raid were deported during its immediate aftermath, most of them to Guatemala.
Today, the raid’s effects are still being felt. Some people who were deported have crept quietly back north to rejoin their families in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, many of the workers who were spared deportation in 2007 to pursue asylum cases, or who were granted humanitarian release for the sake of their children, are now in ICE’s crosshairs. Parents of U.S. citizen and DACA-eligible children—who were not deliberately targeted for deportation under the Obama administration—are now detained at their ICE check-ins and shipped off to distant holding centers. Guatemalans who came to the U.S. hoping to live in peace are faced with the prospect of returning to a country they have not seen for many years, where cities are increasingly harrowed by gang violence, where the Guatemalan military is once more establishing bases in indigenous areas.
The ICE officials who coordinated the raid have, ten years later, few regrets about their role. “None of my feelings have changed,” Michael Foucart, formerly a special agent, told reporters. “It has to be done the right way. We’re a country of legal immigrants.” Albert Orlowski, himself an immigrant from Poland, spoke similarly: “I have no remorse at all because every person I removed from this country, who I was responsible for, I realize that person has broken the law, he knew what he was doing.” Several ICE agents conjured vague, sinister possibilities about terrorists infiltrating factories to sabotage military equipment.
One worker who was deported to Guatemala, with no chance to say goodbye to his wife and children, dismissed these speculations as absurd: “We weren’t bad people. We weren’t criminals. We were just workers.” Another worker, remembering how detainees were handcuffed and loaded onto planes, declared: “They treat us as if we were murderers.”
What is the purpose of looking at these narratives together? I don’t mean to present them simply as parables of good and evil: it is always dangerous to reduce individuals to political symbols. Mayans and other indigenous people are not one-dimensional persons defined by victimhood—and indeed, in both Guatemala and New England, they have shown themselves very adept at organizing to advocate for their rights. The overseers at the Michael Bianco sweatshop were themselves largely immigrants, albeit documented ones from Portugal and Italy. Many of the people who suffered during the Michael Bianco raid were not Guatemalans, and many people who were persecuted in the Guatemalan civil war were not indigenous. Even war criminals are subject to life-and-death pressures that many of us would likely succumb to, under comparable circumstances. A few generous souls may even be imaginative enough to sympathize with ICE agents.
But I do think that the common thread of these two stories—the suffering of indigenous Guatemalans at the hands of the state—tells us something about Guatemala, and something about the United States. The U.S. has had a long history of meddling in Guatemala, going back to the turn of the twentieth century. After the CIA-orchestrated coup against democratically-elected president Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, the U.S. government was actively embroiled in political puppeteering, largely to thwart the rise of communist insurgencies. Right-wing Guatemalan dictatorships had the benefit of U.S. cash, weapons, and military support, and some of the worst butchers of the civil conflict were trained by the CIA in the School of the Americas. The scorched-earth anti-guerilla campaigns of the Guatemalan military led to the destruction of an estimated 626 indigenous villages during the 1970s and ’80s. Of the 200,000 identified casualties of war, nearly 83% were indigenous. The UN characterized this concerted targeting of indigenous villages as a genocide. It is a much fresher and more recent crime than the indigenous genocides in North America, which some regard as our country’s chief original sin, and which others treat as a remote and unavoidable accident of history. And yet very few of us have ever heard of this modern slaughter.
The refugees who fled to the U.S. in the wake of the Guatemalan war received a poor welcome: people escaping right-wing regimes were, in those days, far less likely to be granted protection than those escaping communist regimes. Indigenous people suffered, too, from being at an even further cultural remove than other immigrants from Latin America. Many of them had only limited competence in Spanish, to say nothing of English, and were understandably reluctant to throw themselves on the mercy of an untender government, especially given the way their own government had treated them back home. It is a bitter irony that so many indigenous Guatemalans were displaced to the U.S., the same country that sowed the seeds of their communities’ destruction: a bitterer irony still, that some of them ended up in a sweatshop making gear for the U.S. military: the bitterest irony of all, that the same pitiless operation of immigration law will dispatch both those workers and Juan Alecio Samayoa back to Guatemala, as if their official lack of immigration status were the only distinctive fact about them, as if the U.S. owes nothing to the people crushed by our foreign policy. All the scattered human jetsam of the Guatemalan conflict may be swept from the U.S. with a common brush, out of sight, where it can all be forgotten.
I am not, as a general matter, in favor of deporting people who have committed violent crimes, in part because such deportations tend to have a destabilizing effect on countries where resources are limited and impunity for violent crime is already very high. But I think there is a clear case for a limited exception for fugitive criminals—especially those accused of war crimes—who can be extradited directly back into a fair judicial process. We can, of course, debate whether Guatemala’s judicial processes are fair: Samayoa’s immigration lawyer’s most likely move will be to argue that Samayoa could face state-sanctioned torture on his return, though I imagine this would be difficult to substantiate. Those of us who oppose capital punishment may, of course, justly question the morality of allowing people to be sent back to countries where the death penalty is still operative (although, of course, we also have the death penalty here). We might also wonder, in the other direction, whether the Guatemalan judicial process is likely to be too lenient on someone like Samayoa: its track record on this topic has improved recently, with greater international financing and oversight, but remains decidedly mixed. All that aside, if we are going to be actively searching out any immigrants in this country, it certainly ought to be immigrants who have come to the U.S. specifically to escape accountability for violent crimes.
One interesting thing to note about Juan Alecio Samayoa is that it took the U.S. government a curiously long time to find him. How he got here in the first place is murky enough: it had been persistently rumored, since his initial disappearance in 1992, that the Guatemalan government airlifted him out of the country and that he was hiding out in the United States. All the more perplexing is the fact that Samayoa had the gall to apply for asylum in the U.S. under his real name in 1993, despite the fact that there was still an active warrant for his arrest in Guatemala. In his application, he openly identified himself as a military commissioner and claimed that he had been persecuted by guerillas. His case wended its way slowly through a series of appeals before being denied by the First Circuit in 2004. It’s amazing that ICE was willing to deploy 500 agents to round up terrified Guatemalan factory workers with no criminal histories, but it took them more than 20 years to decide that a self-confessed ex-commissioner, from a region of Guatemala where war crimes by the military and civilian patrols were notorious and extremely well-documented, was worth investigating. Anybody would think we didn’t really care very much.
But worse than that, even, is the fact that people who witnessed the crimes of Juan Samayoa, or other crimes very like them, are likely to be deported in the same indiscriminate wave of immigration enforcement. This, to me, reflects the U.S.’s total lack of ability to acknowledge any kind of responsibility for its own history, and our willful refusal to understand that migration is not some alien and inexplicable phenomenon, but a clear result of conditions our government helped create, and, in many cases, specific evils that it abetted. Rather than reckon with this reality, we choose to inter the memory of our mistakes in some hidden place, and let them silently die.
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