History of Guatemala's Death
by Robert Parry
Though many Latin American governments
have practiced the dark arts of "disappearances" and
"death squads," the history of Guatemala's security
operations is perhaps the best documented because the Clinton
administration declassified scores of the secret U.S. documents
in the late 1990s.
The original Guatemalan death squads took
shape in the mid-1960s under anti-terrorist training provided
by a U.S. public safety adviser named John Longon, according to
the documents. In January 1966, Longon reported to his superiors
about both overt and covert components of his anti-terrorist strategies.
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,"
according to Longon's report.
Longon's operation within the presidential
compound became the starting point for the infamous "Archivos"
intelligence unit that evolved into a clearinghouse for Guatemala's
most notorious political assassinations.
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, 1966.
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] counterinsurgency 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."
Human Rights Warnings
The mounting death toll in Guatemala disturbed
some American officials assigned to the country. 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
terms, but his moral 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."
Vaky also noted the deceptions within
the U.S. government that resulted from its complicity in state-sponsored
terror. "This leads to an aspect I personally find the most
disturbing of all -- that we have not been honest with ourselves,"
Vaky said. "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."
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.
Back in Guatemala, Ramirez Cervantes was put in charge of plotting
raids on suspected subversives as well as their interrogations.
The Reagan Bloodbath
As brutal as the Guatemalan 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.
Ronald Reagan's election in November 1980
set off celebrations in the well-to-do communities of Central
America. After four years of Jimmy Carter's human rights nagging,
the region's hard-liners were thrilled that they had someone in
the White House who understood their problems.
The oligarchs and the generals had good
reason for optimism. For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender
of right-wing regimes that engaged in bloody counterinsurgency
against leftist enemies.
In the late 1970s, when Carter's human
rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, criticized the Argentine
military for its "dirty war" -- tens of thousands of
"disappearances," tortures and murders -- then-political
commentator Reagan joshed that she should "walk a mile in
the moccasins" of the Argentine generals before criticizing
them. [For details, see Martin Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]
After his election in 1980, Reagan pushed
to overturn an arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by Carter. Yet
as Reagan was moving to loosen up the military aid ban, the CIA
and other U.S. intelligence agencies were confirming new Guatemalan
In April 1981, a secret CIA cable described
a massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory.
On April 17, 1981, government troops attacked the area believed
to support leftist guerrillas, the cable said. According to a
CIA source, "the social population appeared to fully support
the guerrillas" and "the soldiers were forced to fire
at anything that moved." The CIA cable added that "the
Guatemalan authorities admitted that 'many civilians' were killed
in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were non-combatants."
Despite the CIA account and other similar
reports, Reagan permitted Guatemala's army to buy $3.2 million
in military trucks and jeeps in June 1981. To permit the sale,
Reagan removed the vehicles from a list of military equipment
that was covered by the human rights embargo.
Apparently confident of Reagan's sympathies,
the Guatemalan government continued its political repression without
According to a State Department cable
on Oct. 5, 1981, Guatemalan leaders met with Reagan's roving ambassador,
retired Gen. Vernon Walters, and left no doubt about their plans.
Guatemala's military leader, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia,
"made clear that his government will continue as before --
that the repression will continue."
Human rights groups saw the same picture.
The Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report on
Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government for "thousands
of illegal executions." [Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1981]
But the Reagan administration was set
on whitewashing the ugly scene. A State Department "white
paper," released in December 1981, blamed the violence on
leftist "extremist groups" and their "terrorist
methods," inspired and supported by Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Yet, even as these rationalizations were pitched to the American
people, U.S. intelligence agencies in Guatemala continued to learn
of government-sponsored massacres.
One CIA report in February 1982 described
an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El
Quiche province. "The commanding officers of the units involved
have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are
cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the
EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance," the report
stated. "Since the operation began, several villages have
been burned to the ground, and a large number of guerrillas and
collaborators have been killed."
The CIA report explained the army's modus
operandi: "When an army patrol meets resistance and takes
fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town
is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed." When the army
encountered an empty village, it was "assumed to have been
supporting the EGP, and it is destroyed. There are hundreds, possibly
thousands of refugees in the hills with no homes to return to.
The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian
population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army
can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants
In March 1982, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt
seized power in a coup d'etat. An avowed fundamentalist Christian,
he immediately impressed official Washington, where Reagan hailed
Rios Montt as "a man of great personal integrity."
By July 1982, however, Rios Montt had
begun a new scorched-earth campaign called his "rifles and
beans" policy. The slogan meant that pacified Indians would
get "beans," while all others could expect to be the
target of army "rifles." In October, he secretly gave
carte blanche to the feared "Archivos" intelligence
unit to expand "death squad" operations.
The U.S. embassy was soon hearing more
accounts of the army conducting Indian massacres. On Oct, 21,
1982, one cable described how three embassy officers tried to
check out some of these reports but ran into bad weather and canceled
the inspection. Still, the cable put a positive spin on the situation.
Though unable to check out the massacre reports, the embassy officials
did "reach the conclusion that the army is completely up
front about allowing us to check alleged massacre sites and to
speak with whomever we wish."
The next day, the embassy fired off an
analysis that the Guatemalan government was the victim of a communist-inspired
"disinformation campaign," a claim embraced by Reagan
when he declared that the Guatemalan government was getting a
"bum rap" on human rights after he met with Rios Montt
in December 1982.
On Jan. 7, 1983, Reagan lifted the ban
on military aid to Guatemala and authorized the sale of $6 million
in military hardware. Approval covered spare parts for UH-1H helicopters
and A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency operations. State
Department spokesman John Hughes said political violence in the
cities had "declined dramatically" and that rural conditions
had improved too.
In February 1983, however, a secret CIA
cable noted a rise in "suspect right-wing violence"
with kidnappings of students and teachers. Bodies of victims were
appearing in ditches and gullies. CIA sources traced these political
murders to Rios Montt's order to the "Archivos" in October
to "apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected
guerrillas as they saw fit."
Despite these grisly facts on the ground,
the annual State Department human rights survey sugarcoated the
facts for the American public and praised the supposedly improved
human rights situation in Guatemala. "The overall conduct
of the armed forces had improved by late in the year" 1982,
the report stated.
A different picture -- far closer to the
secret information held by the U.S. government -- was coming from
independent human rights investigators. On March 17, 1983, Americas
Watch representatives condemned the Guatemalan army for human
rights atrocities against the Indian population.
New York attorney Stephen L. Kass said
these findings included proof that the government carried out
"virtually indiscriminate murder of men, women and children
of any farm regarded by the army as possibly supportive of guerrilla
Rural women suspected of guerrilla sympathies
were raped before execution, Kass said. Children were "thrown
into burning homes. They are thrown in the air and speared with
bayonets. We heard many, many stories of children being picked
up by the ankles and swung against poles so their heads are destroyed."
[AP, March 17, 1983]
Publicly, however, senior Reagan officials
continued to put on a happy face. On June 12, 1983, special envoy
Richard B. Stone praised "positive changes" in Rios
Montt's government. But Rios Montt's vengeful Christian fundamentalism
was hurtling out of control, even by Guatemalan standards. In
August 1983, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in another
Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security
forces continued to kill those who were deemed subversives or
terrorists. When three Guatemalans working for the U.S. Agency
for International Development were slain in November 1983, U.S.
Ambassador Frederic Chapin suspected that "Archivos"
hit squads were sending a message to the United States to back
off even the mild pressure for human rights improvements.
In late November 1983, in a brief show
of displeasure, the administration postponed the sale of $2 million
in helicopter spare parts. The next month, however, Reagan sent
the spare parts. In 1984, Reagan succeeded, too, in pressuring
Congress to approve $300,000 in military training for the Guatemalan
By mid-1984, Chapin, who had grown bitter
about the army's stubborn brutality, was gone, replaced by a far-right
political appointee named Alberto Piedra, who was all for increased
military assistance to Guatemala.
In January 1985, Americas Watch issued
a report observing that Reagan's State Department "is apparently
more concerned with improving Guatemala's image than in improving
its human rights."
Other examples of Guatemala's "death
squad" strategy came to light later. For example, a U.S.
Defense Intelligence Agency cable in 1994 reported that the Guatemalan
military had used an air base in Retalhuleu during the mid-1980s
as a center for coordinating the counterinsurgency campaign in
southwest Guatemala - and for torturing and burying prisoners.
At the base, pits were filled with water
to hold captured suspects. "Reportedly there were cages over
the pits and the water level was such that the individuals held
within them were forced to hold on to the bars in order to keep
their heads above water and avoid drowning," the DIA report
The Guatemalan military used the Pacific
Ocean as another dumping spot for political victims, according
to the DIA report. Bodies of insurgents tortured to death and
live prisoners marked for "disappearance" were loaded
onto planes that flew out over the ocean where the soldiers would
shove the victims into the water to drown, a tactic that had been
a favorite disposal technique of the Argentine military in the
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp
was uncovered by accident in the early 1990s when a Guatemalan
officer wanted to let soldiers cultivate their own vegetables
on a corner of the base. But the officer was taken aside and told
to drop the request "because the locations he had wanted
to cultivate were burial sites that had been used by the D-2 [military
intelligence] during the mid-eighties," the DIA report said.
Guatemala, of course, was not the only
Central American country where Reagan and his administration supported
brutal counterinsurgency operations and then sought to cover up
the bloody facts. Deception of the American public - a strategy
that the administration internally called "perception management"
- was as much a part of the Central American story as the Bush
administration's lies and distortions about weapons of mass destruction
were to the lead-up to the war in Iraq.
Reagan's falsification of the historical
record became a hallmark of the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua
as well as Guatemala. In one case, Reagan personally lashed out
at a human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York lawyer
who had collected affidavits from more than 100 witnesses to atrocities
carried out by the U.S.-supported contras in Nicaragua.
Angered by the revelations about his contra
"freedom-fighters," Reagan denounced Brody in a speech
on April 15, 1985, calling him "one of dictator [Daniel]
Ortega's supporters, a sympathizer who has openly embraced Sandinismo."
Privately, Reagan had a far more accurate
understanding of the true nature of the contras. At one point
in the contra war, Reagan turned to CIA official Duane Clarridge
and demanded that the contras be used to destroy some Soviet-supplied
helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua. In his memoirs, Clarridge
recalled that "President Reagan pulled me aside and asked,
'Dewey, can't you get those vandals of yours to do this job.'"
[See Clarridge's A Spy for All Seasons.]
To manage U.S. perceptions of the wars
in Central America, Reagan also authorized a systematic program
of distorting information and intimidating American journalists.
Called "public diplomacy," the project was run by a
CIA propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who was assigned to
the National Security Council staff. The project's key operatives
developed propaganda "themes," selected "hot buttons"
to excite the American people, cultivated pliable journalists
who would cooperate, and bullied reporters who wouldn't go along.
The best-known attacks were directed against
New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner for disclosing Salvadoran
army massacres of civilians, including the slaughter of some 800
men, women and children in El Mozote in December 1981. But Bonner
was not alone. Reagan's operatives pressured scores of reporters
and their editors in an ultimately successful campaign to minimize
information about these human rights crimes reaching the American
people. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History: Contras,
Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' or Secrecy & Privilege:
Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
The tamed reporters, in turn, gave the
administration a far freer hand to pursue counterinsurgency operations
in Central America. Despite the tens of thousands of civilian
deaths and now-corroborated accounts of massacres and genocide,
not a single senior military officer in Central America was given
any significant punishment for the bloodshed, nor did any U.S.
officials pay even a political price.
The U.S. officials who sponsored and encouraged
these war crimes not only escaped legal judgment, but remain highly
respected figures in Washington. Some have returned to senior
government posts under George W. Bush. Meanwhile, Reagan has been
honored as few recent presidents have with major public facilities
named after him, including National Airport in Washington.
On Feb. 25, 1999, a Guatemalan truth commission
issued a report on the staggering human rights crimes that Reagan
and his administration had aided, abetted and concealed.
The Historical Clarification Commission,
an independent human rights body, estimated that the Guatemalan
conflict claimed the lives of some 200,000 people with the most
savage bloodletting occurring in the 1980s. Based on a review
of about 20 percent of the dead, the panel blamed the army for
93 percent of the killings and leftist guerrillas for three percent.
Four percent were listed as unresolved.
The report documented that in the 1980s,
the army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. "The
massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages are neither perfidious
allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic
chapter in Guatemala's history," the commission concluded.
The army "completely exterminated
Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops,"
the report said. In the northern highlands, the report termed
the slaughter a "genocide." Besides carrying out murder
and "disappearances," the army routinely engaged in
torture and rape. "The rape of women, during torture or before
being murdered, was a common practice" by the military and
paramilitary forces, the report found.
The report added that the "government
of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA,
provided direct and indirect support for some [of these] state
operations." The report concluded that the U.S. government
also gave money and training to a Guatemalan military that committed
"acts of genocide" against the Mayans.
"Believing that the ends justified
everything, the military and the state security forces blindly
pursued the anticommunist struggle, without respect for any legal
principles or the most elemental ethical and religious values,
and in this way, completely lost any semblance of human morals,"
said the commission chairman, Christian Tomuschat, a German jurist.
"Within the framework of the counterinsurgency
operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, in certain regions
of the country agents of the Guatemalan state committed acts of
genocide against groups of the Mayan people," Tomuschat said.
During a visit to Central America, on
March 10, 1999, President Bill Clinton apologized for the past
U.S. support of right-wing regimes in Guatemala. "For the
United States, it is important that I state clearly that support
for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence
and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must
not repeat that mistake," Clinton said.
[Many of the declassified documents are
posted on the Internet by the National Security Archive.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His
new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq; his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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