Ronald Reagan's Bloody "Apocalypto"
by Robert Parry
Consortium News, December 17,
Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto,"
a violent capture-and-escape movie set 500 years ago in a brutal
Mayan society, ends ironically when European explorers arrive
and interrupt the final bloody chase.
The surprise appearance of the Europeans
was good news for Gibson's hero - distracting his last pursuers
- but, as history tells us, the arrival of the Europeans actually
escalated the New World's violence, bringing a more mechanized
form of slaughter that devastated the Mayas and other native populations.
An even greater irony, however, may
be that the U.S. media has done a better job separating fact from
fiction about Gibson's movie than in explaining to Americans how
some of their most admired modern politicians, including Ronald
Reagan, were implicated in a more recent genocide against Mayan
tribes in Central America.
America's hand in the later-day slaughter
of these Mayas traces back to Dwight Eisenhower's presidency in
1954 when a CIA-engineered coup overthrew the reform-minded Guatemalan
government of Jacobo Arbenz.
The coup set in motion waves of murder,
torture and assassination against almost anyone or any group deemed
leftist, including Mayan tribes in Guatemala's highlands. The
violent repression often benefited from U.S. advice and equipment,
according to U.S. government documents that were released during
the Clinton administration.
In the mid-1960s, for instance, the
Guatemalan security forces suffered from disorganization, internal
divisions and possible infiltration by leftist operatives. So,
the administration of President Lyndon Johnson dispatched U.S.
public safety adviser John Longon from his base in Venezuela.
Arriving in late 1965, Longon sized
up the problem and began restructuring 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," the report said.
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,"
the report said.
Longon's operation within the presidential
compound was the starting point for the infamous "Archivos"
intelligence unit that became the clearinghouse for political
Longon's final recommendations sought
assignment of special U.S. advisers to assist in 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, 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] counter-insurgency machine is out
of control." The report said 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.
"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
"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 the field.
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.
Yet, 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.
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" - which included 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
After his election in 1980, Reagan
pushed to overturn an arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by Carter
because of its ghastly human rights record. Yet even as Reagan
was moving to loosen up the military aid ban, the CIA and other
U.S. intelligence agencies were confirming new Guatemalan government
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, which
was 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
Despite the CIA account and 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 prohibited by the human rights embargo.
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 dictator, 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 sold to the American people, U.S. intelligence agencies in
Guatemala continued to learn about government-sponsored massacres.
One CIA report in February 1982 described
an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El
Quiche province, an area where descendants of the ancient Maya
"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 alike."
Rios Montt's Coup
In March 1982, the violence continued
to ratchet up when Gen. Efrain Rios Montt seized power in a coup
d'etat. An avowed fundamentalist Christian, he was hailed by Reagan
as "a man of great personal integrity."
By July 1982, 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. But the
political officers knew that such grim news was not welcome back
in Washington and to report it would only damage their careers.
So, the embassy cables increasingly
began to spin the evidence in ways that would best serve Reagan's
hard-line foreign policy. On Oct. 22, 1982, the embassy sought
to explain away the mounting evidence of genocide by arguing that
the Rios Montt government was the victim of a communist-inspired
President Reagan picked up on that
theme. During a swing through Latin America, Reagan discounted
the growing evidence that hundreds of Mayan villages were being
On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with
Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as "totally dedicated
to democracy" and declared that the Rios Montt government
was "getting a bum rap."
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
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
1982 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, in reality, 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 the killings.
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 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 army.
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
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.
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
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.
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. public perceptions
of the wars in Central America, Reagan also authorized a systematic
program of distorting information and intimidating American journalists.
Called "public diplomacy" or "perception management,"
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.
[For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
So, when the Reagan presidency came
to an end, not only did U.S. officials who sponsored and encouraged
war crimes escape accountability, they became highly respected
figures in Washington. In the 1990s, the Republican congressional
majority pushed to have scores of buildings and other facilities
named after Reagan, including National Airport in Washington.
An honest accounting of what actually
happened under Reagan's presidency became a political taboo in
the United States. Even when hard evidence surfaced about those
human rights crimes, the information was quickly brushed aside
On Feb. 25, 1999, for instance, a
Guatemalan truth commission issued a report on the human rights
catastrophe that Reagan and his administration had aided, abetted
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
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
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 Guatemalan military units that
committed "acts of genocide" against the Mayas.
"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,"
In other words, the Reagan-supported
Guatemalan security forces had conducted many apocalyptos against
the descendants of the Mayas whose torment five centuries earlier
was fictionalized in Mel Gibson's box office blockbuster.
Like their ancestors in the movie,
these Mayas had their communities surrounded and attacked, albeit
with more efficient weapons and vastly more lethality. As in the
movie, young women were dragged off to be raped, but in the 1980s,
the attackers were more interested in killing everyone in the
village rather than enslaving them.
If anything, the actions by Ronald
Reagan's allies were more ruthless, more bloodthirsty and more
barbaric than the actions of Gibson's fictionalized Mayan city-state.
Instead of a crazed priest hungry
for human sacrifices to appease the gods, the Reagan-era slaughters
were justified by well-dressed politicians and bureaucrats back
in Washington eager to score some geopolitical points against
their Cold War adversaries in Moscow.
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.
But the story of the Reagan-supported
genocide of the Mayan Indians was quickly forgotten, as Republicans
and the Washington press corps wrapped Reagan's legacy in a fuzzy
blanket of heroic mythology. The atrocities inflicted on actual
Mayan descendants just a quarter century ago are now less real
to many Americans than the abuses suffered by the fictional Mayas
in Mel Gibson's made-up story of five centuries ago.
[Many of the declassified Guatemalan
documents have been posted on the Internet by the National Security
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His
latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty
From Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com.
It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History:
Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.
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