Guatemala 1962 to 1980s

A less publicized "final solution"

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

by William Blum


Indians tell harrowing stories of village raids in which their homes have been burned, men tortured hideously and killed, women raped, and scarce crops destroyed. It is Guatemala's final solution to insurgency only mass slaughter of the Indians will prevent them joining a mass uprising.

This newspaper item appeared in 1983. Very similar stories have appeared many times in the world press since 1966, for Guatemala's "final solution" has been going on rather longer than the more publicized one of the Nazis.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the misery of the mainly-Indian peasants and urban poor of Guatemala who make up three-quarters of the population of this beautiful land so favored by American tourists. The particulars of their existence derived from the literature of this period sketch a caricature of human life. In a climate where everything grows, very few escape the daily ache of hunger or the progressive malnutrition ... almost half the children die before the age of five ... the leading cause of death in the country is gastroenteritis. Highly toxic pesticides sprayed indiscriminately by airplanes, at times directly onto the heads of peasants, leave a trail of poisoning and death ... public health services in rural areas are virtually non-existent ... the same for public education ... near-total illiteracy. A few hundred families possess almost all the arable land ... thousands of families without land, without work, jammed together in communities of cardboard and tin houses, with no running water or electricity, a sea of mud during the rainy season, sharing their bathing and toilet with the animal kingdom. Men on coffee plantations earning 20 cents or 50 cents a day, living in circumstances closely resembling concentration camps ... looked upon by other Guatemalans more as beasts of burden than humans. A large plantation to sell, reads the advertisement, "with 200 hectares and 300 Indians" ... this, then was what remained of the ancient Mayas, whom the American archeologist Sylvanus Morely had called the most splendid indigenous people on the planet.

The worst was yet to come.


... in 1960, nationalist elements of the Guatemalan military who were committed to slightly opening the door to change were summarily crushed by the CIA. Before long, the ever-accumulating discontent again issued forth in a desperate lunge for alleviation-this time in the form of a guerrilla movement-only to be thrown back by a Guatemalan-American operation reminiscent of the Spanish conquistadores in its barbarity.

In the early years of the 1960s, the guerrilla movement, with several military officers of the abortive 1960 uprising prominent amongst the leadership, was slowly finding its way: organizing peasant support in the countryside, attacking an army outpost to gather arms, staging a kidnapping or bank robbery to raise money, trying to avoid direct armed clashes with the Guatemalan military.

Recruitment amongst the peasants was painfully slow and difficult; people so drained by the daily struggle to remain alive have little left from which to draw courage, people so downtrodden scarcely believe they have the right to resist, much less can they entertain thoughts of success; as fervent Catholics, they tend to believe that their misery is a punishment from God for sinning.


In March 1962, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest against the economic policies, the deep-rooted corruption, and the electoral fraud of the government of General Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes. Initiated by students, the demonstrations soon picked up support from worker and peasant groups. Police and military forces eventually broke the back of the protests, but not before a series of violent confrontations and a general strike had taken place.

The American military mission in Guatemala, permanently stationed there, saw and heard in this, as in the burgeoning guerrilla movement, only the omnipresent "communist threat". As US military equipment flowed in, American advisers began to prod a less alarmed and less-than-aggressive Guatemalan army to take appropriate measures. In May the United States established a base designed specifically for counter-insurgency training. (The Pentagon prefers the term "counter-insurgency" to "counter-revolutionary" because of the latter's awkward implications, yet up in the northeast province of Izabal, which, together with adjacent Zacapa province, constituted the area of heaviest guerrilla support, the installation was directed by a team of US Special Forces (Green Berets) of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent to make the North American presence less conspicuous. The staff of the base was augmented by 15 Guatemalan officers trained in counter-insurgency at the US School of the Americas at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone.

American counter-insurgency strategy is typically based on a carrot-and-stick philosophy. Accordingly, while the Guatemalan military were being taught techniques of ambush, booby-traps, jungle survival and search-and-destroy warfare, and provided with aircraft and pilot training, a program of "civil action" was begun in the northeast area: some wells were built, medicines distributed, school lunches provided etc., as well as promises of other benefits made, all aimed at stealing a bit of the guerrillas' thunder and reducing the peasants' motivation for furnishing support to them; and with the added bonus of allowing American personnel to reconnoiter guerrilla territory under a non-military cover. Land reform, overwhelmingly the most pressing need in rural Guatemala, was not on the agenda.

As matters were to materialize, the attempt at "winning the hearts and minds" of the peasants proved to be as futile in Guatemala as it was in southeast Asia. When all the academic papers on "social systems engineering" were in, and all the counter-insurgency studies of the RAND Corporation and the other think-tanks were said and done, the recourse was to terror: unadulterated, dependable terror. Guerrillas, peasants, students, labor leaders, and professional people were jailed or killed by the hundreds to put a halt, albeit temporarily, to the demands for reform.

The worst was yet to come.


In the period October 1966 to March 1968, Amnesty International estimated, some where between 3,000 and 8,000 Guatemalans were killed by the police, the military, right wing "death squads" (often the police or military in civilian clothes, carrying out atrocities too bloody for the government to claim credit for), and assorted groups of civilian anti-communist vigilantes. By 1972, the number of their victims was estimated at 13,000. Four years later the count exceeded 20,000, murdered or disappeared without a trace.

Anyone attempting to organize a union or other undertaking to improve the lot of the peasants, or simply suspected of being in support of the guerrillas, was subject ... unknown armed men broke into their homes and dragged them away to unknown places ... their tortured or mutilated or burned bodies found buried in a mass grave, or floating in plastic bags in a lake or river, or Iying beside the road, hands tied behind the back ... bodies dropped into the Pacific from airplanes. In the Cualan area, it was said, no one fished any more; too many corpses were caught in the nets ... decapitated corpses, or castrated, or pins stuck in the eyes ... a village rounded up, suspected of supplying the guerrillas with men or food or information, all adult males taken away, in front of their families, never to be seen again ... or everyone massacred, the village bulldozed over to cover the traces ... seldom were the victims actual members of a guerrilla band.

One method of torture consisted of putting a hood filled with insecticide over the head of the victim; there was also electric shock-to the genital area is the most effective; in those days it was administered by using military field telephones hooked up to small generators; the United States supplied the equipment and the instructions for use to several countries including South Vietnam where the large-scale counter-insurgency operation was producing new methods and devices for extracting information from uncooperative prisoners; some of these techniques were finding their way to Latin America.

The Green Berets taught their Guatemalan trainees various methods of "interrogation", but they were not solely classroom warriors. Their presence in the countryside was reported frequently, accompanying Guatemalan soldiers into battle areas; the line separating the advisory role from the combat role is often a matter of public relations.


F-51(D) fighter planes modified by the United States for use against guerrillas in ( Guatemala ... after modification, the planes are capable of patrolling for five hours over a limited area ... equipped with six .50-caliber machine guns and wing mountings for bombs, napalm and 5-inch air-to-ground rockets. The napalm falls on villages, on precious crops, on people ... American pilots take off from Panama, deliver loads of napalm on targets suspected of being guerrilla refuges, and return to Panama... the napalm explodes like fireworks and a mass of brilliant red foam spreads over the land, incinerating all that falls in its way, cedars and pines are burned down to the roots, animals grilled, the earth scorched ... the guerrillas will not have this place for a sanctuary any longer, nor will they or anyone else derive food from it ... halfway around the world in Vietnam, there is an instant replay.

In Vietnam they were called "free-fire zones"; in Guatemala, "zonas libres': "Large areas of the country have been declared off limits and then subjected to heavy bombing. Reconnaissance planes using advanced photographic techniques fly over suspected guerrilla country and jet planes, assigned to specific areas, can be called in within minutes to kill anything that moves on the ground.''

"The military guys who do this are like serial killers. If Jeffrey Dahmer had been in Guatemala, he would be a general by now." ... In Guatemala City, right-wing terrorists machine-gunned people and houses in full light of day ... journalists, lawyers, students, teachers, trade unionists, members of opposition parties, anyone who helped or expressed sympathy for the rebel cause, anyone with a vaguely leftist political association or a moderate criticism of government policy ... relatives of the victims, guilty of kinship ... common criminals, eliminated to purify the society, taken from jails and shot. "See a Communist, kill a Communist", the slogan of the New Anticommunist Organization ... an informer with hooded face accompanies the police along a city street or into the countryside, pointing people out: who shall live and who shall die ... "this one's a son of a bitch" ... "that one ... " Men found dead with their eyes gouged out, their testicles in their mouth, without hands or tongues, women with breasts cut off ... there is rarely a witness to a killing, even when people are dragged from their homes at high noon and executed in the street ... a relative will choose exile rather than take the matter to the authorities ... the government joins the family in mourning the victim ...


The US Agency for International Development (AID), its Office of Public Safety (OPS) and the Alliance for Progress were all there to lend a helping hand. These organizations with their reassuring names all contributed to a program to greatly expand the size of Guatemala's national police force and develop it into a professionalized body skilled at counteracting urban disorder. Senior police officers and technicians were sent for training at the Inter-American Police Academy in Panama, replaced in 1964 by the International Police Academy in Washington, at a Federal School in Los Fresnos, Texas (where they were taught how to construct and use a variety of explosive devices ... and other educational establishments, their instructors often being CIA officers operating under OPS cover. This was also the case with OPS officers stationed in Guatemala to advise local police commands and provide in-country training for rank-and-file policemen. At times, these American officers participated directly in interrogating political prisoners, took part in polygraph operations, and accompanied the police on anti-drug patrols.

Additionally, the Guatemala City police force was completely supplied with radio patrol cars and a radio communications network, and funds were provided to build a national police academy and pay for salaries, uniforms, weapons, and riot-control equipment.

The glue which held this package together was the standard OPS classroom tutelage, similar to that given the military, which imparted the insight that "communists", primarily of the Cuban variety, were behind all the unrest in Guatemala, the students were further advised to "stay out of politics", that is, support whatever pro-US regime happens to be in power.

Also standard was the advice to use "minimum force" and to cultivate good community relations. But the behavior of the police and military students in practice was so far removed from this that continued American involvement with these forces over a period of decades makes this advice appear to be little more than a self-serving statement for the record, the familiar bureaucratic maxim: Cover your ass.

According to AID, by 1970, over 30,000 Guatemalan police personnel had received OPS training in Guatemala alone, one of the largest OPS programs in Latin America.

"At one time, many AID field offices were infiltrated from top to bottom with CIA people," disclosed John Gilligan, Director of AID during the Carter administration. "The idea was to plant operatives in every kind of activity we had overseas, government, volunteer, religious, every kind."

By the end of 1968, the counter-insurgency campaign had all but wiped out the guerrilla movement by thwarting the rebels' ability to operate openly and casually in rural areas as they had been accustomed to, and, through sheer terrorization of villagers, isolating the guerrillas from their bases of support in the countryside.

It had been an unequal match. By Pentagon standards it had been a "limited" war, due to the absence of a large and overt US combat force. At the same time, this had provided the American media and public with the illusion of their country's non-involvement. However, as one observer has noted: "In the lexicon of counterrevolutionaries, these wars are 'limited' only in their consequences for the intervening power. For the people and country under assault, they are total."

Not until 1976 did another serious guerrilla movement arise, the Guatemalan Army of the Poor (EGP) by name. Meanwhile, others vented their frustration through urban warfare in the face of government violence, which reached a new high during 1970 and 1971 under a "state of siege" imposed by the president, Col. Carlos Arana Osorio Arana, who had been close to the US military since serving as Guatemalan military attaché in Washington, and then as commander of the counter-insurgency operation in Zacapa (where his commitment to his work earned him the title of "the butcher of Zacapa"), decreed to himself virtually unlimited power to curb opposition of any stripe.

Amnesty International later stated that Guatemalan sources, including the Committee of the Relatives of Disappeared Persons, claimed that over 7,000 persons disappeared or were found dead in these two years. "Foreign diplomats in Guatemala City," reported Le Monde in 1971, "believe that for every political assassination by left-wing revolutionaries fifteen murders are committed by right-wing fanatics."

During a curfew so draconian that even ambulances, doctors and fire engines reportedly were forbidden outside ... as American police cars and paddy wagons patrolled the streets day and night ... and American helicopters buzzed overhead ... the United States saw fit to provide further technical assistance and equipment to initiate a reorganization of Arana's police forces to make them yet more efficient.

"In response to a question [from a congressional investigator in 1971] as to what he conceived his job to be, a member of the US Military Group (MILGP) in Guatemala replied instantly that it was to make the Guatemalan Armed Forces as efficient as possible. The next question as to why this was in the interest of the United States was followed by a long silence while he reflected on a point which had apparently never occurred to him."

As for the wretched of Guatemala's earth ... in 1976 a major earthquake shook the land, taking over 20,000 lives, largely of the poor whose houses were the first to crumble ... the story was reported of the American church relief worker who arrived to help the victims; he was shocked at their appearance and their living conditions; then he was informed that he was not in the earthquake area, that what he was seeing was normal.

"The level of pesticide spraying is the highest in the world," reported the New York Times in 1977, "and little concern is shown for the people who live near the cotton fields ... 30 or 40 people a day are treated for pesticide poisoning in season, death can come within hours, or a longer lasting liver malfunction ... the amounts of DDT in mothers' milk in Guatemala are the highest in the Western world. "It's very simple," explained a cotton planter, "more insecticide means more cotton, fewer insects mean higher profits." In an attack, guerrillas destroyed 22 crop-duster planes; the planes were quickly replaced thanks to the genius of American industry ... and all the pesticide you could ever want, from Monsanto Chemical Company of St. Louis and Guatemala City.

During the Carter presidency, in response to human-rights abuses in Guatemala and other countries, several pieces of congressional legislation were passed which attempted to curtail military and economic aid to those nations. In the years preceding, similar prohibitions regarding aid to Guatemala had been enacted into law. The efficacy of these laws can be measured by their number. In any event, the embargoes were never meant to be more than partial, and Guatemala also received weapons and military equipment from Israel, at least part of which was covertly underwritten by Washington.

As further camouflage, some of the training of Guatemala's security forces was reportedly maintained by transferring it to clandestine sites in Chile and Argentina.


Testimony of an Indian woman: "

'My name is Rigoberta Menchu Tum. l am a representative of the "Vincente Menchu" [her father] Revolutionary Christians ... On 9 December 1979, my 16-year-old brother Patrocino was captured and tortured for several days and then taken with twenty other young men to the square in Chajul ... An officer of [President] Lucas Garcia's army of murderers ordered the prisoners to be paraded in a line. Then he started to insult and threaten the inhabitants of the village who were forced to come out of their houses to witness the event. I was with my mother, and we saw Patroclno; he had had his tongue cut out and his toes cut off. The officer jackal made a speech. Every time he paused the soldiers beat the Indian prisoners.

When he finished his ranting, the bodies of my brother and the other prisoners were swollen bloody, unrecognizable. lt. was monstrous, but they were still alive.

They were thrown on the ground and drenched with gasoline. The soldiers set fire to the wretched bodies with torches and the captain laughed like a hyena and forced the inhabitants of Chajul to watch. This was his objective-that they should be terrified and witness the punishment given to the "guerrillas".

In 1992, Rigoberta Menchu Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Testimony of Fred Sherwood (CIA pilot during the overthrow of the Arbenz government in 1954 who settled in Guatemala and became president of the American Chamber of Commerce), speaking in Guatemala, September 1980:

"Why should we be worried about the death squads? They're bumping off the commies, our enemies. I'd give them more power. Hell, l'd get some cartridges if I could, and everyone else would too ... Why should we criticize them? The death squad-I'm for it ... Shit! There's no question we can't wait until Reagan gets in. We hope Carter falls in the ocean real quick ... We all feel that he [Reagan] is our savior. "

The Movement for National Liberation (MLN) was a prominent political party. It was the principal party in the Arana regime. An excerpt from a radio broadcast in 1980 by the head of the party, Mario Sandoval Alarcon ...

"I admit that the MLN is the party of organized violence. Organized violence is vigor, just as organized color is scenery and organized sound is harmony. There is nothing wrong with organized violence; it is vigor, and the MLN is a vigorous movement."


Mario Sandoval Alarcon and former president Arana ("the butcher of Zacapa") "spent inaugural week mingling with the stars of the Reagan inner circle", reported syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. Sandoval, who had worked closely with the CIA in the overthrow of Arbenz, announced that he had met with Reagan defense and foreign-policy advisers even before the election. Right-wing Guatemalan leaders were elated by Reagan's victory. They looked forward to a resumption of the hand-in-glove relationship between American and Guatemalan security teams and businessmen which had existed before Carter took office.

Before that could take place, however, the Reagan administration first had to soften the attitude of Congress about this thing called human rights. In March 1981, two months after Reagan's inaugural, Secretary of State Alexander Haig told a congressional committee that there was a Soviet "hit list .. for the ultimate takeover of Central America". It was a "four phased operation" of which the first part had been the "seizure of Nicaragua". "Next," warned Haig, "is El Salvador, to be followed by Honduras and Guatemala."

This was the kind of intelligence information which one would expect to derive from a captured secret document or KGB defector. But neither one of these was produced or mentioned, nor did any of the assembled congressmen presume to raise the matter.

Two months later, General Vernon Walters, former Deputy Director of the CIA, on a visit to Guatemala as Haig's special emissary, was moved to proclaim that the United States hoped to help the Guatemalan government defend "peace and liberty".

During this period, Guatemalan security forces, official and unofficial, massacred at least 2,000 peasants (accompanied by the usual syndrome of torture, mutilation and decapitation), destroyed several villages, assassinated 76 officials of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, scores of trade unionists, and at least six catholic priests.

"19 August 1981 ... unidentified gunmen occupy the town of San Miguel Acatan, force the Mayor to give them a list of all those who had contributed funds for the building of a school, pick out 15 from the list (including three of the Mayor's children), make them dig their own graves and shoot them."

In December, Ronald Reagan finally spoke out against government repression. He denounced Poland for crushing by "brute force, the stirrings of liberty ... Our Government and those of our allies, have expressed moral revulsion at the police-state tactics of Poland's oppressors. "

Using the loopholes in the congressional legislation, both real and loosely interpreted, the Reagan administration, in its first two years, chipped away at the spirit of the embargo: $3.1 million of jeeps and trucks, $4 million of helicopter spare parts, $6.3 million of other military supplies. These were amongst the publicly announced aid shipments; what was transpiring covertly can only be guessed at in light of certain disclosures: Jack Anderson revealed in August 1981 that the United States was using Cuban exiles to train security forces in Guatemala, in this operation, Anderson wrote, the CIA had arranged "for secret training in the finer points of assassination". The following year, it was reported that the Green Berets had been instructing Guatemalan Army officers for over two years in the finer points of warfare. And in 1983, we learned that in the previous two years Guatemala's Air Force helicopter fleet had somehow increased from eight to 27, all of them American made, and that Guatemalan officers were once again being trained at the US School of the Americas in Panama.

In March 1982, a coup put General Efrain Rios Montt, a "born-again Christian" in power. A month later, the Reagan administration announced that it perceived signs of an Improvement in the state of human rights in the country and took the occasion to justify a shipment of military aid. On the first of July, Rios Montt announced a state of siege. It was to last more than eight months. In his first six months in power, 2,600 Indians and peasants were massacred, while during his 17-month reign, more than 400 villages were brutally wiped off the map. In December 1982, Ronald Reagan, also a Christian, went to see for himself. After meeting with Rios Montt, Reagan, referring to the allegations of extensive human-rights abuses, declared that the Guatemalan leader was receiving "a bad deal."

Statement by the Guatemalan Army of the Poor, made in 1981 (by which time the toll of people murdered by the government since 1954 had reached at least the 60,000 mark and the sons of one-time death-squad members were now killing the sons of the Indians killed by their fathers):

"The Guatemalan revolution is entering its third decade. Ever since the government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in 1954, the majority of the Guatemalan people have been seeking a way to move the country towards solving the same problems which were present then and have only worsened over time.

The counterrevolution, put in motion by the U.S. Government and those domestic sectors committed to retaining every single one of their privileges, dispersed and disorganized the popular and democratic forces. However, it did not resolve any of the problems which had first given rise to demands for economic, social and political change. These demands have been raised again and again in the last quarter century, by any means that seemed appropriate at the time, and have received each time the same repressive response as in 1954."


Statement by Father Thomas Melville, 1968:

"Having come to the conclusion that the actual state of violence, composed of the malnutrition Ignorance, sickness and hunger of the vast majority of the Guatemalan population, is the direct result of a capitalist system that makes the defenseless Indian compete against the powerful and well-armed landowner, my brother [Father Arthur Melville] and I decided not to be silent accomplices of the mass murder that this system generates.

We began teaching the Indians that no one will defend their rights, if they do not defend themselves. If the government and oligarchy are using arms to maintain them in their position of misery, then they have the obligation to take up arms and defend their God-given right to be men . We were accused of being communists along with the people who listened to us, and were asked to leave the country by our religious superiors and the U.S. ambassador [John Gordon Mein]. We did so.

But I say here that I am a communist only if Christ was a communist. I did what I did and will continue to do so because of the teachings of Christ and not because of Marx or Lenin. And I say here too, that we are many more than the hierarchy and the U.S. government think.

When the fight breaks out more in the open, let the world know that we do it not for Russia not for China, nor any other country, but for Guatemala. Our response to the present situation is not because we have read either Marx or Lenin, but because we have read the New Testament."


Postscript, a small sample:

1988: Guatemala continues to suffer the worst record of human-rights abuses in Latin America, stated the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in its annual report on human rights in the Western Hemisphere.

1990: Guatemalan soldiers at the army base in Santiago Atitlan opened fire on unarmed townspeople carrying white flags, killing 14 and wounding 24. The people had come with their mayor to speak to the military commander about repeated harassment from the soldiers.

1990: "The United States, said to be disillusioned because of persistent corruption in the government of President Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, is reportedly turning to Guatemala's military to promote economic and political stability ... even though the military is blamed for human rights abuses and is believed to be involved in drug trafficking."

This was reported in May. In June, a prominent American businessman living in Guatemala, Michael DeVine, was kidnapped and nearly beheaded by the Guatemalan military after he apparently stumbled upon the military's drug trafficking and/or other contraband activities. The Bush administration, in a show of public anger of the killing, cut off military aid to Guatemala, but, we later learned, secretly allowed the CIA to provide millions of dollars to the military government to make up for the loss. The annual payments of $5 to $7 million apparently continued into the Clinton administration.

1992: In March, Guatemalan guerrilla leader, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, was captured and disappeared. For the next three years, his American wife, attorney Jennifer Harbury, waged an impassioned international campaign-including public fasts in Guatemala City (nearly to death) and in Washington-to pressure the Guatemalan and American governments for information about her husband's fate. Both governments insisted that they knew nothing. Finally, in March 1995, Rep. Robert Torricelli of the House Intelligence Committee revealed that Bamaca had been tortured and executed the same year of his capture, and that he, as well as DeVine, had been murdered on the orders of Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, who had been on the CIA payroll for several years. (Alpirez thus becoming another illustrious graduate of Fort Benning's School of the Americas). The facts surrounding these cases were known early on by the CIA, and by officials at the State Department and National Security Council at least a few months before the disclosure. Torricelli's announcement prompted several other Americans to come forward with tales of murder, rape or torture of themselves or a relation at the hands of the Guatemalan military. Sister Dianna Ortiz, a nun, related how, in 1989, she was kidnapped, burned with cigarettes, raped repeatedly, and lowered into a pit full of corpses and rats. A fair-skinned man who spoke with an American accent seemed to be in charge, she said.

Killing Hope