Reagan & Guatemala's Death Files
by Robert Parry
iF magazine, May/June 1999
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 anticommunist 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 the optimism.
For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender of right-wing regimes
that engaged in bloody counterinsurgency campaigns against leftist
In the late 1970s, when Carter's human rights coordinator,
Pat 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.
Despite his aw shucks style, Reagan found virtually every
anticommunist action justified, no matter how brutal. From his
eight years in the White House, there is no historical indication
that he was troubled by the bloodbath and even genocide that occurred
in Central America during his presidency, while he was shipping
hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the implicated
The death toll was staggering -- an estimated 70,000 or more
political killings in El Salvador, possibly 20,000 slain from
the contra war in Nicaragua, about 200 political "disappearances"
in Honduras and some 100,000 people eliminated during a resurgence
of political violence in Guatemala.
The one consistent element in these slaughters was the overarching
Cold War rationalization, emanating in large part from Ronald
Reagan's White House.
Yet, as the world community moves to punish war crimes in
the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, no substantive discussion has
occurred in the United States about facing up to this horrendous
record of the 1980s.
Rather than a debate about Reagan as a potential war criminal,
the ailing ex-president is honored as a conservative icon with
his name attached to Washington National Airport and with an active
legislative push to have his face carved into Mount Rushmore.
When the national news media does briefly acknowledge the
barbarities of the 1980s in Central America, it is in the context
of one-day stories about the little countries bravely facing up
to their violent pasts.
At times, the CIA is fingered abstractly as a bad supporting
actor in the violent dramas. But never does the national press
lay blame on individual American officials.
The grisly reality of Central America was most recently revisited
on Feb. 25 when a Guatemalan truth commission issued a report
on the staggering human rights crimes that occurred during a 34-year
The Historical Clarification Commission, an independent human
rights body, estimated that the 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 north, the report termed the slaughter a "genocide."
[WP, Feb. 26,1999]
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 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," he added. [NYT, Feb. 26, 1999]
The report did not single out culpable individuals either
in Guatemala or the United States. But the American official most
directly responsible for renewing U.S. military aid to Guatemala
and encouraging its government during the 1980s was President
After his election, Reagan pushed aggressively to overturn
an arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by President Carter because
of the military's wretched human rights record.
Reagan saw bolstering the Guatemalan army as part of a regional
response to growing leftist insurgencies. Reagan pitched the conflicts
as Moscow's machinations for surrounding and conquering the United
The president's chief concern about the recurring reports
of human rights atrocities was to attack and discredit the information.
Sometimes personally and sometimes through surrogates, Reagan
denigrated the human rights investigators and journalists who
disclosed the slaughters.
Typical of these attacks was an analysis prepared by Reagan's
appointees at the U.S. embassy in Guatemala. The paper was among
those recently released by the Clinton administration to assist
the Guatemalan truth commission's investigation.
Dated Oct. 22, 1982, the analysis concluded "that a concerted
disinformation campaign is being waged in the U.S. against the
Guatemalan government by groups supporting the communist insurgency
The report claimed that "conscientious human rights and
church organizations," including Amnesty International, had
been duped by the communists and "may not fully appreciate
that they are being utilized."
"The campaign's object is simple: to deny the Guatemalan
army the weapons and equipment needed from the U.S. to defeat
the guerrillas," the analysis declared.
"If those promoting such disinformation can convince
the Congress, through the usual opinion-makers -- the media, church
and human rights groups -- that the present GOG government of
Guatemala] is guilty of gross human rights violations they know
that the Congress will refuse Guatemala the military assistance
" Those backing the communist insurgency are betting
on an application, or rather misapplication, of human rights policy
so as to damage the GOG and assist themselves."
Reagan personally picked up this theme of a falsely accused
Guatemalan military. During a swing through Latin America, Reagan
discounted the mounting reports of hundreds of Maya villages being
On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Guatemala's dictator,
Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as "totally
dedicated to democracy." Reagan declared that Rios Montt's
government had been "getting a bum rap."
But the newly declassified U.S. government records reveal
that Reagan's praise -- and the embassy analysis -- flew in the
face of corroborated accounts from U.S. intelligence.
Based on its own internal documents, the Reagan administration
knew that the Guatemalan military indeed was engaged in a scorched-earth
campaign against the Mayans.
According to these "secret" cables, the CIA was
confirming Guatemalan government massacres in 1981-82 even as
Reagan was moving to loosen the military aid ban.
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 noncombatants.
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 apology.
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. He reiterated his belief that
the repression is working and that the guerrilla threat will be
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."
[WP, 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" prompted
and supported by Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Yet, even as these rationalizations were presented to the
American people, U.S. agencies continued to pick up clear evidence
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 army high command is highly pleased with the initial
results of the sweep operation, and believes that it will be successful
in destroying the major EGP support area and will be able to drive
the EGP out of the Ixil Triangle. ... 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 noncombatants alike."
In March 1982, Gen. Rios Montt seized power. An avowed fundamentalist
Christian, he immediately impressed Washington. 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.
Based at the Presidential Palace, the "Archivos" masterminded
many of Guatemala's most notorious 3 assassinations.
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 of officers tried to check out some of these
reports but ran into bad weather and canceled the inspection.
Still, this cable put the best possible 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 its analysis that the
Guatemalan government was the victim of a communist-inspired "disinformation
campaign," a claim embraced by Reagan with his "bum
rap" comment in December.
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. Radios, batteries and battery
charges were also in package.
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
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
Despite these grisly facts on the ground, the annual State
Department human rights survey 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, ] 983, 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 insurgents."
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 coup.
Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued
to act with impunity.
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, 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.
According to the newly declassified U.S. records, the Guatemalan
reality included torture out of the Middle Ages. A Defense Intelligence
Agency cable reported that the Guatemalan military used an air
base in Retalhuleu during the mid-1980s as a center for coordinating
the counterinsurgency campaign in southwest Guatemala.
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 stated. Later,
the pits were filled with concrete to eliminate the evidence.
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 of live prisoners marked
for " disappearance" were loaded on planes that flew
out over the ocean where the soldiers would shove the victims
into the water.
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by
accident in the early 1990s, the DIA reported on April 11, 1994.
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. "
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 was a hallmark
of the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua as well. In one
case, Reagan personally lashed out at an individual 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 pet "freedom-fighters,"
Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985. The president
called Brody "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
To conceal the truth about the war crimes of 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 explicit goal of the
operation was to manage U.S. "perceptions" of the wars
in Central America.
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 more than 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.]
The tamed reporters, in turn, gave the administration a far
freer hand to pursue its anticommunist operations throughout Central
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 held accountable for the bloodshed.
The U.S. officials who sponsored and encouraged these war
crimes not only escaped any legal judgment, but remained highly
respected figures in Washington. Reagan has been honored as few
recent presidents have.
The journalists who played along by playing down the atrocities
-- the likes of Fred Barnes and Charles Krauthammer -- saw their
careers skyrocket, while those who told the truth suffered severe
Given that history, it was not surprising that the Guatemalan
truth report was treated as a one-day story.
The major American newspapers did cover the findings. The
New York Times made it the lead story. The Washington Post played
it inside on page A19. Both cited the troubling role of the CIA
and other U.S. government agencies in the Guatemalan tragedy.
But no U.S. official was held accountable by name.
On March 1, 1999, a strange Washington Post editorial addressed
the findings, but did not confront them. One of its principal
points seemed to be that President Carter's military aid cut-off
to Guatemala was to blame.
The editorial argued that the arms embargo removed "what
minimal restraint even a feeble American presence supplied."
The editorial made no reference to the 1 980s and added only a
mild criticism of "the CIA [because it] still bars the public
from the full documentation."
Then, with no apparent sense of irony, the editorial ended
by stating: "We need our own truth commission."
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, President
Clinton apologized for the past U.S. support of right-wing regimes
"For the United States, it is important that I state
dearly 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. [WP March 11, 1999]
But the sketchy apology appears to be all the Central Americans
can expect from El Norte.
Back in Washington, Ronald Reagan remains a respected icon,
not a disgraced war criminal. His name is still honored, attached
to National Airport and a new federal building. A current GOP
congressional initiative would chisel his face into Mount Rushmore.
Meanwhile, in the Balkans and in Africa, the United States
is sponsoring international tribunals to arrest and to try human
rights violators -- and their political patrons -- for war crimes.
Robert Parry covered Central American issues during the 1980s,
including disclosures about the resumption of U.S. military aid
Our War Criminals