U.S. - Guatemala File
by Robert Parry
www.consortiumnews.com, May 26,
The modern Guatemalan tragedy traces back
to 1954 and a CIA-engineered coup against the reform-minded government
of Jacobo Arbenz. But other lesser-known chapters in the blood-soaked
saga -- spanning 40 years -- also feature American officials in
important supporting roles.
Newly released U.S. government documents
describe in chilling detail, often in cold bureaucratic language,
how American advisers and their Cold War obsession spurred on
the killings and hid the horrible secrets.
In the mid-1960s, for instance, the Guatemalan
security forces were disorganized, suffering from internal divisions,
and possibly infiltrated by leftist opponents. So, the U.S. government
dispatched U.S. public safety adviser John Longon from his base
Arriving in late 1965, Longon sized up
the problem and began reorganizing the Guatemalan security forces
into a more efficient - and ultimately, more lethal - organization.
In a Jan. 4, 1966, report on his activities, Longon said he recommended
both overt and covert components to the military's battle against
One of Longon's strategies was to seal
off sections of Guatemala City and begin house-to-house searches.
"The idea behind this was to force some of the wanted communists
out of hiding and into police hands, as well as to convince the
Guatemalan public that the authorities were doing something to
control the situation." Longon also arranged for U.S. advisers
to begin giving "day-to-day operational advice" to Guatemalan
On the covert side, Longon pressed for
"a safe house [to] be immediately set up" for coordination
of security intelligence. "A room was immediately prepared
in the [Presidential] Palace for this purpose and Guatemalans
were immediately designated to put this operation into effect."
Longon's operation within the presidential compound was the starting
point for the infamous "Archivos" intelligence unit
that became the clearinghouse for political assassinations.
Longon's final recommendations sought
assignment of special U.S. advisers to assist in the covert operations
and delivery of special intelligence equipment, presumably for
spying on Guatemalan citizens. With the American input, the Guatemalan
security forces soon became one of the most feared counterinsurgency
operations in Latin America.
Just two months after Longon's report,
a secret CIA cable noted the clandestine execution of several
Guatemalan "communists and terrorists" on the night
of March 6, 1966. By the end of the year, the Guatemalan government
was bold enough to request U.S. help in establishing special kidnapping
squads, according to a cable from the U.S. Southern Command that
was forwarded to Washington on Dec. 3.
By 1967, the Guatemalan counterinsurgency
terror had gained a fierce momentum. On Oct. 23, 1967, the State
Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research noted the "accumulating
evidence that the [Guatemalan] counter-insurgency machine is out
of control." The report noted that Guatemalan "counter-terror"
units were carrying out abductions, bombings, torture and summary
executions "of real and alleged communists."
The mounting death toll in Guatemala disturbed
some of the American officials assigned to the country. One official,
the embassy's deputy chief of mission Viron Vaky, expressed his
concerns in a remarkably candid report that he submitted on March
29, 1968, after returning to Washington.
Vaky framed his arguments in pragmatic,
rather than moral, terms, but his personal anguish broke through.
"The official squads are guilty of
atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies
are mutilated," Vaky wrote. "In the minds of many in
Latin America, and, tragically, especially in the sensitive, articulate
youth, we are believed to have condoned these tactics, if not
actually encouraged them.
"Therefore our image is being tarnished
and the credibility of our claims to want a better and more just
world are increasingly placed in doubt. I need hardly add the
aspect of domestic U.S. reactions.
"This leads to an aspect I personally
find the most disturbing of all -- that we have not been honest
with ourselves. We have condoned counter-terror; we may even in
effect have encouraged or blessed it. We have been so obsessed
with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalized away our
qualms and uneasiness.
"This is not only because we have
concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really
tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and
that as long as Communists are being killed it is alright. Murder,
torture and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and
the victims are Communists.
"After all hasn't man been a savage
from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror.
I have literally heard these arguments from our people.
"Have our values been so twisted
by our adversary concept of politics in the hemisphere? Is it
conceivable that we are so obsessed with insurgency that we are
prepared to rationalize murder as an acceptable counter-insurgency
weapon? Is it possible that a nation which so revers the principle
of due process of law has so easily acquiesced in this sort of
Though kept secret from the American public
for three decades, the Vaky memo obliterated any claim that Washington
simply didn't know the reality in Guatemala. Still, with Vaky's
memo squirreled away in State Department files, the killing went
on. The repression was noted almost routinely in reports from
On Jan. 12, 1971, the Defense Intelligence
Agency reported that Guatemalan forces had "quietly eliminated"
hundreds of "terrorists and bandits" in the countryside.
On Feb. 4, 1974, a State Department cable reported resumption
of "death squad" activities.
On Dec. 17, 1974, a DIA biography of one
U.S.-trained Guatemalan officer gave an insight into how U.S.
counterinsurgency doctrine had imbued the Guatemalan strategies.
According to the biography, Lt. Col. Elias Osmundo Ramirez Cervantes,
chief of security section for Guatemala's president, had trained
at the U.S. Army School of Intelligence at Fort Holabird in Maryland.
Fort Holabird was the center for Project
X, the distillation of U.S. lessons learned in conducting counterinsurgency
Begun in the mid-1960s, Project X employed
veterans of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam who shared their experiences
on effective methods of interrogation, coercion and ambushes.
[For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
Back in Guatemala, Lt. Col. Ramirez Cervantes
was put in charge of plotting raids on suspected subversives as
well as their interrogations.
As brutal as the security forces were
in the 1960s and 1970s, the worst was yet to come. In the 1980s,
the Guatemalan army escalated its slaughter of political dissidents
and their suspected supporters to unprecedented levels.
For the full documents, see the National
Security Archive's Web site at www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive/