Posted by rogerhollander in Genocide, Guatemala, Latin America, Torture, Uncategorized.
Tags: genocide, guatemala, jimmy morales, Latin America, roger hollander, School of the Americas, soa watch, torture
Roger’s note: another contribution to my series entitled “Your Tax Dollars at Work.”
Last week, eighteen former military officials were arrested on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in one of the largest mass arrests of military officers Latin America has ever seen. Twelve of them were trained at the SOA. The arrests happened one week before the January 14th inauguration of newly elected President Jimmy Morales, of the National Convergence Front (FCN).
Morales, whose party has close ties to the military, faces pressure in the face of the current developments. Morales’ right hand man, Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, who is also the FCN party co-founder, newly elected congressman, and retired colonel, is also facing similar charges, though he was not arrested because of his immunity as a congressman. Guatemala’s Attorney General, however, has requested the Supreme Court look at the case to strip him of his immunity. Ovalle Maldonado, who is also an SOA graduate, is linked to massacres and disappearances during the 1980’s.
The officers arrested last week are (see below for a list of notorious SOA graduates among those recently arrested):
- Ismael Segura Abularach (SOA, 1976)
- Pablo Roberto Saucedo Mérida (SOA, 1970)
- César Augusto Ruiz Morales (SOA, 1970)
- Manuel Antonio Callejas Callejas (SOA, 1962 & 1970)
- Colonel Fransisco Luis Gordillo Martínez (SOA, 1961)
- Carlos Humberto López Rodríguez (SOA, 1970)
- Edilberto Letona Linares (SOA; 1970)
- José Antonio Vásquez García (SOA, 1970)
- Manuel Benedicto Lucas García (SOA, 1965)
- Carlos Augusto Garavito Morán (SOA, 1984)
- Luis Alberto Paredes Nájera (SOA, 1960)
- César Augusto Cabrera Mejía (SOA, 1967)
- Juan Ovalle Salazar
- Gustavo Alonzo Rosales García
- Hugo Ramiro Zaldaña Rojas
- Raul Dahesa Oliva
- Edgar Rolando Hernández Méndez
The arrests are linked to two cases in particular, both of which have gone before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The first case concerns the operations that occurred at the military base in Cobán. In 2012, exhumations by forensic anthropologists led to the uncovering of at least 550 victims disappeared between 1981 and 1988. The second is for the disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, a 14-year-old boy disappeared by the G-2 military intelligence forces on October 6, 1981.
A pretrial held before a District Court this week in the case of the disappearance of Marco Antonio determined that four of the former military officers accused – three of whom are SOA graduates – will go to trial, facing charges of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity. The retired officers – Fransisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, Edilberto Letona Linares, Hugo Ramiro Zaldaña Rojas, and Manuel Antonio Callejas Callejas – remain in custody pending ongoing investigations by the public prosecutors.
It remains to be seen if newly sworn-in Morales, whose party is backed by the darkest structures of the Guatemalan military, will allow for these cases to run their course. The struggle for justice in Guatemala is still as much a challenge today as it was in the past. Given the recent mass mobilizations that brought down the former President and SOA-graduate Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice-President Roxana Baldetti, Morales faces a citizenry that has lost much of the fear that created a culture of silence. In a recent National Catholic Reporter article, Fr. Roy Bourgeois stated that “there will never be any justice or reconciliation until there is accountability and the perpetrators start going to prison”. The people of Guatemala are hungry for justice, and they have memory on their side.
Lessons for the U.S.
History has shown us that we cannot count on the government to hold itself accountable. We know from experience that the power we need to makes the changes we so desperately need will come from us, the grassroots. Vice-President Biden, who attended President Morales’ inauguration, also had a meeting with the northern triangle Presidents yesterday regarding the ill-named Alliance for Prosperity, which supposedly addresses the root causes of migration. This conversation comes at the same time that ICE is carrying out raids and deporting Central American refugees that have fled US-sponsored state violence. Instead of actually addressing the root causes of migration by changing its destructive foreign policy in Central America, the U.S. continues to create the conditions that make people flee their home countries through violence and economic exploitation. This was the case during the dirty wars of the 1980’s, and unfortunately it is the case now.
There is no question that there was absolute complicity by the U.S. during the 36-year-long armed conflict that marked Guatemala for generations to come. For Guatemalans, this is a decades-long struggle to break down the wall of impunity and the culture of silence and fear, and the steps being taken by surivors to bring cases forward have been nothing short of brave and courageous. For the U.S., what has unraveled over the past few days serves as a sobering reminder that the U.S. fully backed – covertly, directly and indirectly – the Guatemalan military through training, funding, adivising and equipping. Bill Clinton’s “apology” was clearly not enough. As Guatemala continues to seek truth, justice and accountability, shouldn’t the U.S. think about doing the same, and holding it’s officials accountable?
SOA Watch maintains that in order for there to truly be justice, those responsible in the U.S. for the training and funding one of Latin America’s most brutal conflicts must be held to account in any and all courts applicable, whether they be domestic, regional or foreign. The U.S. doesn’t have to look to far to see that lessons on justice and accountability can be learned through what is happening throughout Latin America.
General Manuel Antonio Callejas Callejas – 1988 SOA Hall of Fame graduate who attended the Command and General Staff College in 1970. As former head of intelligence, he was responsible for the assassinations that occurred under former dictator General Fernando Romeo Lucas García, also an SOA graduate. He later became Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces under President Vinicio Cerezo. In 2002, the U.S. revoked his visa due to suspected ties to human rights violations, narcotrafficking and organized crime.
Colonel Fransisco Luis Gordillo Martínez – Attended the Command and General Staff College, as well as Infantry and Weapons courses in 1961. Gordillo was part of the violent 1982 coup that brought SOA graduate and former dictator, General José Efraín Ríos Montt to power.
General Manuel Benedicto Lucas García – Head of the military under former dictator and brother, General Fernando Romeo Lucas García, he attended the Command and General Staff College in 1970, as well as the Combat Intelligence course in 1965. According to the Archdiocese truth commission report Guatemala, Nunca Más, he masterminded the creation of the Civil Defense Patrols (PACs).
Ismael Segura Abularach – Attended the Advanced Infantry Officer course in 1976, and was commander of the special forces that forced disappeared Maya guerrilla leader Efrain Bámaca to guide army patrols in their search for guerrilla arms caches.
Posted by rogerhollander in Chile, Foreign Policy, Genocide, Guatemala, Honduras, Immigration, Latin America, Peru.
Tags: Daniel Urresti, ebed yanez, guatemala genocide, josue antonio seirra, jovel martinez, Latin America, Latin America military, Pedro Barrientos, pinochet, rios-montt, roger hollander, School of the Americas, soa, soa grads, soa watch, soa/whinsec, victor jara, whinsec
Roger’s note: Another is my series: your American tax dollars at work in Latin America … to aid and abet murder.
In just the first two months of 2015, we have been horrified, though not surprised, to learn of the continued repression by SOA/WHINSEC graduates against their own people. As the US continues to secure economic and political interests by utilizing military solutions to social and political problems, SOA/WHINSEC graduates continue to make headlines in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, Peru and Chile, underscoring the importance of continuing the struggle to close the SOA/WHINSEC. While some graduates have yet to be held accountable due to the high levels of impunity in their country or in the US, they are all directly responsible for committing grave human rights violations, which include murder, torture and genocide.
As we continue to highlight these atrocities, we invite you to join us in Washington, DC for our Spring Days of Action this April 22-25, Growing Stronger Together: Resisting the “War on Drugs” across the America.
Lt. Pedro Barrientos Nuñez – Chile
In 2013, a Chilean Supreme Court formally requested the extradition of former Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos from the United States to Chile to stand trial for the 1973 torture and murder of folk singer Víctor Jara. Barrientos moved to the US after the Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1990. While the US government has yet to respond to this extradition request, a trial in a Florida court was set to begin on February 23. Though the trial has been postponed, Barrientos, who currently resides in Deltona, Florida, could potentially lose his US citizenship and later extradited to Chile where he would stand trial. In the US, Barrientos has been accused of immigration fraud, as he concealed his participation in human rights atrocities during the dictatorship in Chile. Joan Jara, widow of Víctor Jara, filed the case against Barrientos and has been seeking truth and justice for over 40 years.
General José Efraín Ríos Montt – Guatemala
On January 5, the retrial against SOA grad and former dictator General José Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez was set to resume following the annullment of the historic May 10, 2013 sentence condemning Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide against 1,771 Ixil Mayans. He is the first former head of state to be put on trial for genocide. On the morning of the retrial, the defense motioned for a postponement of the trial, using Ríos Montt’s deterioating health an excuse for not being able to present himself to the courtroom. Through stalling tactics by his defense, including attempts to seek amnesty, the retrial has been postponed once again despite international criticism. Ríos Montt came to power after a coup on March 23, 1982 and remained in power until August 1983. He is 88 years old.
Second Lieutenant Josué Antonio Sierra – Honduras
In January 2015, 2011 SOA/WHINSEC graduate Second Lieutenant Josué Antonio Sierra got off scot free for his role in the murder of 15-year-old Ebed Yanes despite the judges’ finding that “it has been proven Josué Antonio Sierra and Felipe de Jesus also fired their weapons at young Ebed Jassiel, which makes them participants in his death”. Sierra was in charge of the patrol, part of a US-vetted unit in charge of the US-donated vehicle used to chase down and kill young Ebed at a military checkpoint. Conveniently, Honduras’ Public Ministry solely accused a low-ranking solidier who was not part of the US-vetted unit of murder, while accusing Sierra and Rodríguez only of abuse of authority and cover-up. Human rights organization COFADEH had previously tried to include murder charges against them but the government Special Prosecutor for Human Rights decided against it. Now, the US can conveniently report that nobody from the vetted unit, much less a WHINSEC grad, has been found guilty of murder in the case. Click here to continue reading…
Col. Jovel Martínez – Honduras
Meanwhile, in the northern part of the country on the night of January 29, 18-year-old campesino leader Christian Alberto Martínez Pérez was riding his bike near the entrance to Paso Aguán Plantation, which is controlled by security guards for Dinant Corportation and soldiers from the Xatruch III Task Force, commanded by SOA graduate Jovel Martínez. Christian went missing, his bike found at the entrance to the Paso Aguán Plantation. Campesino and human rights organizations proceeded to search for him, finding his shirt on the Paso Aguán Plantation. Over 200 people combed the area for him, until finally on the third day of searching, he was found, blindfolded, barefoot, hands and feet tied up, left in a field. Once rescued, he told how a Dinant security guard approached him with a gun and together with a soldier put him in a vehicle, blindfolded him, and interrogated him about the leadership of the Gregorio Chávez campesino movement. Click here to continue reading…
General Daniel Urresti Elera – Peru
Yesterday in Peru, prosecutors requested 25 years of prison for SOA gradaute, retired General Daniel Urresti Elera, related to the 1988 murder of journalist Hugo Bustíos. As head of the Intelligence Section of the Countersubversive Military High Command Battalion at the time, Urresti is accused of masterminding the ambush and murder of Bustíos. Up until last week, Urresti was in charge of Peru’s police as Minister of the Interior and also made headlines as police repression was unleashed on protests against a law that would eliminate labor benefits and rights for young workers. Twenty thousand young people took to the streets, protesting neoliberal reform.
On January 15, 2015, police unleashed tear gas and detained protesters, and violence was reported between infiltrators and police. Soon after, on January 26, Urresti publicly boasted to the media that the young people would not be able to reach Congress and sent ten thousand police to block them. Nevertheless, the Peruvian youth and social movements prevailed and Congress was forced to repeal the law. Just last week, Urresti apologized for the February 11, 2015 death of 25-year-old Ever Pérez Huaman during protests against a petroleum company in Pichanaki, Peru. Amidst mounting criticism, Urresti admitted political responsibility for the use of firearms by police during the protest, and stepped down as Minister of the Interior.
Posted by rogerhollander in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Human Rights, Immigration, Latin America, Racism.
Tags: border crossing, central america, child refugees, deportation, El Salvador, gabriel stargardter, guatemala, Honduras, Immigration, Obama, refugee children, refugees, roger hollander, undcocumented
Roger’s note: what the mainstream media in its news and analyses universally fail to note is that the root cause of the migration from Central America lies in the actions and policies of the U.S. government over the years that have supported repressive business oriented governments controlled by oligarchic elites. In particular the Obama/Hillary Clinton policies in support of the military coup in Honduras have resulted in Honduras being perhaps the most violent country on the face of the globe. The lucrative drug trade and the attendant violence is a symptom of US directed imperial military supported corporatism, and not the fundamental cause of the massive migration. As for the costs of implementing a humanitarian policy of dealing with children refugees, a fraction of the dollars spent on the illegal wars in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan would be sufficient. That the U.S. government at the direction of a president who is both heartless and gutless, is sending Honduran mothers and their children back to the most violent city in the world, that while in custody these mothers and children are treated like animals, is beyond disgusting. That the commonly held perceived solution is increased border security and deportation is not only an example of tunnel vision, but a head in the sand approach to a problem that the US government has created, and along with corporate media and both political parties, refuses to acknowledge. Imperialism and xenophobia go hand in hand.
Posted: 07/14/2014 9:09 pm EDT
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras, July 14 (Reuters) – The United States deported a group of Honduran children as young as 1-1/2 years old on Monday in the first flight since President Barack Obama pledged to speed up the process of sending back undocumented immigrant minors from Central America.
Fleeing violence and poverty, record numbers of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have crossed into the United States over the past year, testing U.S. border facilities and sparking intense debate about how to solve the problem.
Monday’s charter flight from New Mexico to San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world, returned 17 Honduran women, as well as 12 girls and nine boys, aged between 18 months and 15 years, the Honduran government said.
Looking happy, the deported children exited the airport on an overcast and sweltering afternoon. One by one, they filed into a bus, playing with balloons they had been given.
Nubia, a 6-year-old girl among the deportees, said she left Honduras a month ago for a journey that ended when she and her mother were caught on the Mexico-Texas border two weeks later.
“Horrible, cold and tiring,” was how Nubia remembered the trip that was meant to unite the pair with her three uncles already living in the United States.
Instead, her mother Dalia paid $7,000 in vain to a coyote, or guide, to smuggle them both across the border.
Once caught, U.S. officials treated them like “animals”, holding them in rooms with as many as 50 people, where some mothers had to sleep standing up holding children, Dalia said.
During the eight months ended June 15, some 52,000 children were detained at the U.S. border with Mexico, most of them from Central America. That was double the previous year’s tally and tens of thousands more are believed to have slipped through.
So chaotic are the circumstances of the exodus that some of the children are not even correctly reunited with their parents, said Valdette Willeman, director of the Center for Attention for Returned Migrants in Honduras.
“Many of the mothers are sometimes not even the real mothers of the children,” she said.
Monday’s flight departed as Obama faces increasing pressure to address the surge of unaccompanied minors.
Immigrant advocates urge him to address the humanitarian needs of the migrants. At the same time, Republicans in Congress have blamed the crisis on Obama’s immigration policies and have called on him to secure the border.
Obama’s administration has stressed that Central American children who cross the border illegally will be sent home, and last week said it would speed up the deportation process.
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have suffered from gang violence and incursions from Mexican drug cartels using the region as a staging post for their trafficking operations.
Honduran President Juan Hernandez, in an interview published on Monday, blamed U.S. drug policy for sparking violence and ramping up migration to the United States. His wife urged the United States to do more to help.
“The countries consuming drugs need to support (us) and take joint responsibility because if there wasn’t demand, there wouldn’t be production and we wouldn’t be living like we are,” Ana Garcia de Hernandez said as she awaited the children.
Obama’s administration has projected that without government action, more than 150,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 18 could flee the three Central American nations next year.
The proposed actions will test Obama’s ability to negotiate effectively with Republican lawmakers who have blocked much of his agenda ahead of a November election when they hope to capture the U.S. Senate from his Democratic Party. (Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in San Pedro Sula and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)
Posted by rogerhollander in Foreign Policy, Genocide, Guatemala, Honduras, Latin America, Media.
Tags: central america, genocide, guatemala history, guatemala massacre, honduras coup, ira glass, jacabo arbenz, keane bhatt, micheletti, peabody awards, perez molina, porforio lobo, rios-montt, roger hollander, ronald reagan, soa, this american life, zelaya
Saturday, 03 August 2013 02:17 By Keane Bhatt, North American Congress on Latin America | News Analysis
Ira Glass. (Photo: Claire Asher / Flickr)Celebrating 2012’s best examples of broadcast journalism, the George Foster Peabody Awards attracted the likes of D.L. Hughley, Amy Poehler and Bryant Gumbel to the Waldorf-Astoria’s four-story grand ballroom in New York this past May. In a gaudy ceremony hosted by CBS star-anchor Scott Pelley, National Public Radio’s This American Life received the industry’s oldest and perhaps most prestigious accolade. The 16-member Peabody Board, consisting of “television critics, industry practitioners and experts in culture and the arts,” had selected a particular This American Life episode—“What Happened at Dos Erres”—as one of the winners of its 72nd annual awards on the basis of “only one criterion: excellence.”
This American Life’s host Ira Glass had once conceived of the weekly show, which reaches 1.8 million listeners each episode, as an experiment to do “the most idealistic, wide-eyed things that can do…to provide a perspective on this country that you couldn’t get elsewhere.” As is typical for the program, Glass weaved personal narratives and anecdotes together with broader context in “What Happened at Dos Erres,” which focused on a 1982 massacre of 250 Guatemalan civilians at the hands of their government’s elite military commandos—the Kaibiles.
But in his hour-long treatment of a savage period of Guatemalan history, Glass and his producers edited out essential lines of inquiry and concealed a key aspect of the bloodshed and its import for U.S. listeners: Washington’s continuous support of Guatemalan security forces—including the Kaibiles at Dos Erres—as they killed tens of thousands of largely indigenous civilians in 1982 alone. Moreover, by distorting the historical record, Glass performed an impressive feat of propaganda—he sensitively related Guatemalan victims’ harrowing personal stories while implying that the only fault of the United States was that it had simply not done enough to help them.
Ironically, “What Happened at Dos Erres” accomplished Glass’s longstanding goal of providing a perspective on the United States “that you couldn’t get elsewhere.” One would be hard-pressed to encounter another contemporary mainstream account of that period so thoroughly sanitized of Washington’s involvement in crimes against humanity.
During his brief 17-month rule from 1982-83, Guatemalan military dictator Efraín Rios Montt escalated to its grim apogee the state terror regularly employed during a decades-long attack on leftist insurgents, suspected sympathizers, and Mayan communities. This American Life correctly described the directives of the Army High Command’s scorched-earth campaign, in which soldiers burned farmland and homes, slaughtered animals, raped and mutilated women and children, and exterminated entire communities like the hamlet of Dos Erres. Glass concluded that state-led massacres “happened in over 600 villages” and added that an overall accounting of the larger conflict by “a truth commission found that the number of Guatemalans killed or disappeared by their own government was over 180,000.”
Glass did not mention, however, that the very same UN-sponsored truth commission also concluded in its 1999 report that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations” involved in atrocities like Dos Erres. (Both The Washington Post and PBS reported this particular finding at the time.)
Notwithstanding This American Life’s omission, the extent of U.S. criminality in Guatemala is astonishing, as is the abundance of publicly available evidence of it. Beginning with a Central Intelligence Agency-organized coup that overthrew Guatemala’s reformist democrat, President Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954, the United States played a dominant and closely documented role in the horrors that ripped the country apart over 40 years, throughout a long chain of dictatorships.
Between 1956-61, for example, the United States trained over 600 Guatemalan military officers either on U.S. soil or within the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone. By 1963, U.S. advisors were providing expertise in domestic surveillance and crowd control, while Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Edwin Martin, in an internal document, lauded the “encouraging progress toward [the] establishment of an effective counter-subversive intelligence apparatus.”
With the help of security adviser John Longan of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Public Safety, that apparatus developed into Operación Limpieza. New York University historian and Guatemala expert Greg Grandin describes the program, created in 1966, as a consolidation of “the operations of the police and military” that allowed them to “gather, analyze, and act on intelligence in a coordinated and rapid manner” with the aid of “state-of-the-art telecommunications and surveillance equipment.” Among its first successes were the tortures and murders of dozens of leftist leaders over a three-day period in March 1966—Operación Limpieza quickly became, according to Grandin, the “cornerstone” of Guatemala’s state repression.
In September of that year, the U.S. embassy hailed Operación Limpieza’s head, Colonel Rafael Arriaga Bosque, as one of Guatemala’s “most effective and enlightened leaders”; by October 1966, he would help carry out the country’s first scorched-earth campaign, massacring eight thousand. U.S. planners were fully aware of the consequences of their ongoing assistance: in a 1968 State Department memo, Longan frankly conceded that Guatemalan security forces “will be continued to be used, as in the past, not so much as protectors of the nation against communist enslavement, but as the oligarchy’s oppressors of legitimate social change.”
Successive U.S. presidents avoided publicly labeling Guatemala a gross violator of human rights for fear that “it would be too difficult to clear a country of such a label once given,” thereby jeopardizing the resumption of military aid, according to State Department officials cited in a 1986 U.S. General Accounting Office report. Nevertheless, under Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1977, Congress enacted a ban on military assistance to Guatemala. The legislation allowed for a loophole, however: it “did not prevent government arms deliveries previously under contract or commercial export of munitions,” the GAO found.
“While the Carter Administration at least implicitly recognized that Guatemala was a gross human rights violator,” wrote Tanya Broder and Bernard D. Lambek in the Yale Journal of International Law in 1988, “President Reagan’s desire to supply the Guatemalan military [with arms and training]” dealt a coup de grâce to any efficacy of Congressional prohibitions.
By 1982, U.S.-allied proxies such as Israel and Taiwan were tasked with arming Guatemala’s counterinsurgency forces, successfully circumventing U.S. restrictions. The CIA under Reagan also provided regular payments to top Guatemalan military leaders, and the administration illegally deployed advisers to teach Guatemalan cadets “anything our Army has,” according to Green Beret Jesse Garcia, who had arrived in the country months before the Dos Erres massacre. As reported by investigative journalist Allan Nairn, this included “ambushes, surveillance, combat arms, artillery, armor, patrolling, demolition and helicopter assault tactics.” Quoting Garcia, Nairn wrote that the United States provided expertise in “how to destroy towns.”*
On the evening of December 4, 1982, just two days before the Guatemalan Kaibil commandos would initiate their Dos Erres operation, Reagan addressed reporters at an Air Force base in Honduras regarding a “useful exchange of ideas” he had just had with Rios Montt. “I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice,” he declared. “The United States is committed to support his efforts to restore democracy,” he said in reference to the coup perpetrator, and “my administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”
In a question-and-answer period, Reagan also dismissed accusations of human rights violations committed by Rios Montt and his military: “Frankly I’m inclined to believe they’ve been getting a bum rap,” he protested. It has long since been clear that with these kinds of comments, the Reagan administration was deliberately obscuring Guatemala’s record of atrocities.
After all, following his 1980 election, two retired military leaders involved in his campaign reportedly told the Guatemalan military that “Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done.” According to national-security documents unearthed by investigative journalist Robert Parry at the Reagan Library, the United States knew of Guatemala’s longstanding efforts to annihilate leftists’ “civilian support mechanisms.” And nine days before Reagan downplayed allegations of Rios Montt’s criminality for journalists, a State Department report noted, “our Embassy recently informed us of a new, apparently well-founded allegation of a large-scale killing of Indian men, women and children in a remote area by the Guatemalan Army.”
Given Reagan and Rios Montt’s close collaboration, along with a Guatemalan judge’s finding of “sufficient evidence tying Rios Montt to the Las Dos Erres massacre,” it seemed obvious that This American Life would touch upon Reagan’s culpability in the course of an hour-long episode dedicated to the atrocity. Indeed, Glass appeared to indicate a willingness to do so, when early in the program he boasted:
OK, before we dive into this story, just a quick history review. Now, I myself was the kind of insufferable, politically correct person who was obsessed with Latin America back in the 1980s. I called Nicaragua “Neek-ar-ah-wah,” and actually went to Nicaragua for a month during the fifth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. I traveled in Guatemala during the civil war. You, however, might be what we call a normal person and didn’t do any of that.
Yet Glass’s history review for “normal people” completely excluded U.S. involvement in violations of international humanitarian law, despite the on-air appearance of researcher Kate Doyle of the National Security Archives, who specializes in declassified U.S. documents. He introduced her early in the episode and focused on an inane line of questioning regarding her personal “list of the ranking of most f’ed up countries” in Central America. As she related to me by phone, the program scrapped much of the rest of her in-studio discussion, in which she highlighted Washington’s participation in atrocities.
In its zeal to avoid all mention of active U.S. assistance in Dos Erres, This American Life also excluded content from its own media partner, ProPublica, which published a written article that coincided with the radio program. ProPublica’s account highlighted the case of Kaibil sergeant Pedro Pimentel, sentenced in 2012 to 6,060 years in prison for his role in the atrocities. Directly after the operation, he was spirited away by helicopter from Dos Erres to the School of the Americas, the U.S. military’s infamous training center for Latin American security forces, where he went on to serve as an instructor. (The School of the Americas had trained Rios Montt in 1950, and would in 1985 train Guatemala’s current president Otto Pérez Molina, who, as a Kaibil field commander, likely committed atrocities himself.)
When asked about such omissions by email, Glass replied, “I certainly know that history,” and admitted that he had talked “to Kate Doyle about U.S. participation in Guatemala.” Nonetheless, he and his co-producers “decided not to get into that in the program simply because we felt like we were throwing a lot of facts and history at our listeners and were worried about how much people could absorb.” He added, “It was a judgment call. And maybe we made the wrong call.”
Retrospection aside, his answer was disingenuous. While it was true that the words “Reagan,” “Jacobo Arbenz,” “School of the Americas” or “CIA” were never uttered in the hour-long broadcast, Glass and his co-producers did not simply omit context. They went one step further, by affirmatively—and falsely—framing the U.S. government as a negligent bystander whose only sin was a reluctance to speak out.
He claimed in the episode, for example, that “Embassy officials heard lots of reports about the Army massacring whole villages throughout Guatemala, which they dismissed,” until, “at the urging of the State Department back in Washington,” they went to “see for themselves if the stories were true.” This American Life’s harshest indictment is that, despite years of repeated massacres after Dos Erres, “the U.S. knew about it but stood by.”
If Glass worried about inundating listeners with too many facts, I asked in a follow-up email, “why did you introduce the factual claim that ‘the U.S. knew about [the ongoing killings] but stood by?’” And how could this characterization possibly be reconciled with his previous email’s description of “U.S. participation” in war crimes?
Glass did not respond.
In October 2011, Barack Obama echoed Reagan’s soaring, mendacious, 30-year-old script for his Central American ally. Having invited Honduran President Porfirio Lobo to the White House, Obama thanked him for his “strong commitment to democracy and leadership.” Lobo’s “restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation,” said Obama, gave him “great hope.” It would have been impolite, of course, to publicly acknowledge that Lobo had presided over state security forces, trained and financed with millions of U.S.-taxpayer dollars annually, that had killed and continue to kill Honduran civilians as a matter of routine.
Given This American Life’s conformity to official U.S. doctrine regarding Guatemala, it was to be expected that a subsequent half-hour segment on Honduras titled “Some Like It Dot,” which aired in early 2013, would in no way upset the official narrative set by President Obama. The episode predictably excluded crucial, if inconvenient, political context as it centered on the attempt to develop “charter cities” in Honduras—swaths of land to be ceded to international investors and developed into autonomous cities, with their own police forces, taxes, labor codes, trade rules, and legal systems.
Although the show dutifully included a warning by Princeton economist Angus Deaton, who described charter cities as a “reintroduction of colonialism,” This American Life nonetheless enthusiastically portrayed the messianic vision of University of Chicago-trained economist Paul Romer as an exciting solution to Honduran “corruption and chaos and violence.”
That very “corruption and chaos and violence,” This American Life failed to inform its listeners, exploded as a result of a 2009 coup d’etat against the country’s left-leaning, democratically elected leader, President Manuel Zelaya. Strong circumstantial evidence implicates the United States in his ouster. The early-morning plane that spirited the pajama-attired president and his family to Costa Rica, for example, stopped to refuel at the U.S. military base of Palmerola. U.S. officials also acknowledged that they were in discussions with the Honduran military (many of whose leaders were trained at the School of the Americas) up until the very day it deposed Zelaya.
What is known beyond any doubt is Washington’s vigorous efforts in 2009 to bolster the coup government of Roberto Micheletti, and to legitimize the repressive sham elections held under that regime. With the dubious transfer of power from Micheletti to Porfirio Lobo in 2010, the ultimate success of Zelaya’s removal was guaranteed. Unsurprisingly, neither the coup, its consequences, nor Washington’s involvement appeared in This American Life’s episode.
Other than Romer, the episode’s main protagonist was Lobo’s chief of staff, Octavio Sánchez. Besides being the leading Honduran advocate for charter cities, Sánchez was one of the most strident champions of the coup. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor just days after the elected president was removed from the country at gunpoint, Sánchez characterized the event as “nothing short of the triumph of the rule of law,” and urged readers not to “believe the coup myth.” This American Life could not be bothered to point out this fact, or Sánchez’s profound cynicism, preferring instead to describe him as the country’s idealistic “national dreamer.”
In his defense, Ira Glass wrote by email: “What interested our…reporters in that story was the relationship between Octavio Sanchez and Paul Romer, and what it said about the ability of outsiders to come into a country with a development scheme like Romer was suggesting.” Though he claimed his reporters “were well aware of the broader politics of Honduras,” This American Life wanted nothing to do with it. “I think another reporter could make a totally interesting and valid story going into more of the politics you’re talking about, but that simply wasn’t the focus of what we were doing.”
By coding the crux of the debate around charter cities as extraneous “politics,” Glass was able to evade it. But the fact remains: the imposition of “development schemes” by “outsiders” on Honduras would be considered impossible if the overthrow of its democratically elected leader and the resulting decimation of its sovereignty had not occurred.
In response to Glass’s attempt to narrowly circumscribe “the focus of what we were doing,” I raised another question: if Octavio Sánchez’s vigorous coup defense was too far afield from This American Life’s preferred subject matter, was it relevant to the show’s narrative that the most prominent Honduran opponent of charter cities, Antonio Trejo, was murdered in a death-squad-style assassination in September 2012?
Yet again, Glass remained silent.
In the 1980s, when U.S. officials were most viciously engaged in Central America’s political violence, they could rely on media outlets as their reliable partners. Journalist Allan Nairn noted in a 1999 interview with Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting that during the period of Guatemalan genocide, “the big corporate press in the U.S. was not covering the U.S. role at all”—it was “barely covering the fact that the mass killings were taking place.” So in addition to condemning the U.S. government, he concluded that “the press also has blood on its hands.”
This American Life’s “What Happened at Dos Erres” mimicked some of the most propagandistic media behaviors of the 1980s. Its producers prohibited even a single sentence from reaching millions of U.S. listeners regarding the murderous policies of their own elected officials, executed with their tax dollars and in their name. It also bolstered the specious intellectual framework for greater U.S. intervention throughout the world on “humanitarian” grounds, by inventing the historical figment that the United States “stood by” in the face of Guatemalan violence. Months later, with remarkable continuity, This American Life concealed for U.S. listeners their relationship to the seemingly far-flung and senseless violence of Honduras.
This American Life’s journalistic misconduct is manifold: First, Ira Glass unreservedly acknowledged that both he and his co-producers were fully aware of the politics of both Guatemala and Honduras. Second, he clearly stated that they deliberately chose to omit them for their U.S. audience (and in the case of Guatemala, they disseminated a pure fabrication). Third, their motivation for suppressing the U.S. government’s hand in the barbarity of the two countries stems from either a disdain for their listeners—Glass condescendingly “worried about how much [history and facts] people could absorb”—or from their willingness to perpetuate Washington’s flattering self-image.
Whatever This American Life’s rationale may be, its two episodes on Central America prove that Glass’s earlier aspiration to do “the most idealistic, wide-eyed things that journalism can do” has been extinguished. Given the generalized dishonesty of the U.S. media and intellectual class, it’s no surprise that Peabody’s “experts in culture and the arts” rewarded the show for its excellence. But this accolade should not distract anyone from the reality that This American Life’s compelling storytelling can in no way be confused with ethical journalism.
* Allan Nairn, “Despite Ban, U.S. Captain Trains Guatemalan Military,” Washington Post, October 21, 1982, page 1
Update (7/29): I spoke with the media watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting on its weekly radio program CounterSpin about This American Life‘s coverage of Central America. My segment can be listened to here. Our conversation touched upon the excellent work of Kevin Young in the latest NACLA Report on the Americas. His piece, “Washing U.S. Hands of the Dirty Wars: News Coverage Erases Washington’s Role in State Terror,” contextualizes the broader trends of the establishment media: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and National Public Radio reported on U.S. support for Latin American dictatorships in only 6% of their coverage from 2008-2013.
Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Foreign Policy, Genocide, Guatemala, History, Human Rights, Latin America, Nicaragua.
Tags: cia, genocide, guatemala, guatemala civil war, guatemala coup, guatemala genocide, history, human rights, Latin America, nicaragua, nicaragua contras, Noam Chomsky, rios-montt, robert parry, roger hollander, ronald reagan
Roger’s note: although I recently posted on this subject when the court found Rios Montt guilty of genocide, given the appeal court reversal and the background Chomsky outlines of the historic US intervention of atrocity to destroy genuine social justice, it bears reiteration.
Thursday, 06 June 2013 09:31 By Noam Chomsky, Truthout | Op-Ed
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)On Mother’s Day, May 12, The Boston Globe featured a photo of a young woman with her toddler son sleeping in her arms.
The woman, of Mayan Indian heritage, had crossed the U.S. border seven times while pregnant, only to be caught and shipped back across the border on six of those attempts. She braved many miles, enduring blisteringly hot days and freezing nights, with no water or shelter, amid roaming gunmen.
The last time she crossed, seven months pregnant, she was rescued by immigration solidarity activists who helped her to find her way to Boston.
Most of the border crossers are from Central America. Many say they would rather be home, if the possibility of decent survival hadn’t been destroyed. Mayans such as this young mother are still fleeing from the wreckage of the genocidal assault on the indigenous population of the Guatemalan highlands 30 years ago.
The main perpetrator, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala during two of the bloodiest years of the country’s decades-long civil war, was convicted in a Guatemalan court of genocide and crimes against humanity, on May 10.
Then, 10 days later, the case was overturned under suspicious circumstances. It is unclear whether the trial will continue.
Rios Montt’s forces killed tens of thousands of Guatemalans, mostly Mayans, in the year 1982 alone.
As that bloody year ended, President Reagan assured the nation that the killer was a “man of great personal integrity and commitment,” who was getting a “rap” from human-rights organizations and who “wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”
Therefore, the president continued, “My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”
Ample evidence of Rios Montt’s “progressive efforts” was available to Washington, not only from rights organizations, but also from U.S. intelligence.
But truth was unwelcome. It interfered with the objectives set by Reagan’s national security team in 1981. As reported by the journalist Robert Parry, working from a document he discovered in the Reagan Library, the team’s goal was to supply military aid to the right-wing regime in Guatemala in order to exterminate not only “Marxist guerrillas‚” but also their “civilian support mechanisms‚”which means, effectively, genocide.
The task was carried out with dedication. Reagan sent “nonlethal” equipment to the killers, including Bell helicopters that were immediately armed and sent on their missions of death and destruction.
But the most effective method was to enlist a network of client states to take over the task, including Taiwan and South Korea, still under U.S.-backed dictatorships, as well as apartheid South Africa and the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships.
At the forefront was Israel, which became the major arms supplier to Guatemala. It provided instructors for the killers and participated in counterinsurgency operations.
The background bears restating. In 1954, a CIA-run military coup ended a 10-year democratic interlude in Guatemala “the years of spring,” as they are known there and restored a savage elite to power.
In the 1990s, international organizations conducting inquiries into the fighting reported that since 1954 some 200,000 people had been killed in Guatemala, 80 percent of whom were indigenous. The killers were mostly from the Guatemalan security forces and closely linked paramilitaries.
The atrocities were carried out with vigorous U.S. support and participation. Among the standard Cold War pretexts was that Guatemala was a Russian “beachhead” in Latin America.
The real reasons, amply documented, were also standard: concern for the interests of U.S. investors and fear that a democratic experiment empowering the harshly repressed peasant majority ‚”might be a virus‚”that would “spread contagion,” in Henry Kissinger’s thoughtful phrase, referring to Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist Chile.
Reagan’s murderous assault on Central America was not limited to Guatemala, of course. In most of the region the agencies of terror were government security forces that had been armed and trained by Washington.
One country was different: Nicaragua. It had an army to defend its population. Reagan therefore had to organize right-wing guerilla forces to wage the fight.
In 1986, the World Court, in Nicaragua v. United States, condemned the U.S. for “unlawful use of force‚” in Nicaragua and ordered the payment of reparations. The United States’ response to the court’s decree was to escalate the proxy war.
The U.S. Southern Command ordered the guerillas to attack virtually defenseless civilian targets, not to “duke it out” with the Nicaraguan army, according to Southcom’s Gen. John Gavin testimony to Congress in 1987.
Rights organizations (the same ones that were giving a bad rap to genocidaire Rios Montt) had condemned the war in Nicaragua all along but vehemently protested Southcom’s “soft-target” tactics.
The American commentator Michael Kinsley reprimanded the rights organizations for departing from good form. He explained that a “sensible policy” must “meet the test of cost-benefit analysis,” evaluating
“the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end.”
Naturally, we Americans have the right to conduct the analysis, thanks, presumably, to our inherent nobility and stellar record ever since the days when the continent was cleared of the native scourge.
The nature of the “democracy that will emerge” was hardly obscure. It is accurately described by the leading scholar of “democracy promotion,” Thomas Carothers, who worked on such projects in the Reagan State Department.
Carothers concludes, regretfully, that U.S. influence was inversely proportional to democratic progress in Latin America, because Washington would only tolerate “limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the United States has long been allied (in) quite undemocratic societies.”
There has been no change since.
In 1999, President Clinton apologized for American crimes in Guatemala but no action was taken.
There are countries that rise to a higher level than idle apology without action. Guatemala, despite its continuing travails, has carried out the unprecedented act of bringing a former head of state to trial for his crimes, something we might remember on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Also perhaps unprecedented is an article in The New York Times by Elisabeth Malkin, headlined “Trial on Guatemalan Civil War Carnage Leaves Out U.S. Role.”Even acknowledgment of one’s own crimes is very rare.”
Rare to nonexistent are actions that could alleviate some of the crimes’ horrendous consequences – for example, for the United States to pay the reparations to Nicaragua ordered by the World Court.
The absence of such actions provides one measure of the chasm that separates us from where a civilized society ought to be.
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Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Foreign Policy, Genocide, Guatemala, History, Human Rights, Latin America.
Tags: central america, cia, death squads, foreign policy, genocide, guatemala, guatemala genocide, human rights, Latin America, mayan indians, rios-montt, robert parry, roger hollander, ronald reagan
The conviction of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide against Mayan villagers in the 1980s has a special meaning for Americans who idolize Ronald Reagan. It means that their hero was an accessory to one of the most grievous crimes that can be committed against humanity.
The courage of the Guatemalan people and the integrity of their legal system to exact some accountability on a still-influential political figure also put U.S. democracy to shame. For decades now, Americans have tolerated human rights crimes by U.S. presidents who face little or no accountability. Usually, the history isn’t even compiled honestly.
Ronald Reagan: Accessory to GenocideBy contrast, a Guatemalan court on Friday found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced the 86-year-old ex-dictator to 80 years in prison. After the ruling, when Rios Montt rose and tried to walk out of the courtroom, Judge Yasmin Barrios shouted at him to stay put and then had security officers take him into custody.
Yet, while Guatemalans demonstrate the strength to face a dark chapter of their history, the American people remain mostly oblivious to Reagan’s central role in tens of thousands of political murders across Central America in the 1980s, including some 100,000 dead in Guatemala slaughtered by Rios Montt and other military dictators.
Indeed, Ronald Reagan – by aiding, abetting, encouraging and covering up widespread human rights crimes in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua as well as Guatemala – bears greater responsibility for Central America’s horrors than does Rios Montt in his bloody 17-month rule. Reagan supported Guatemala’s brutal repression both before and after Rios Montt held power, as well as during.
Despite that history, more honors have been bestowed on Reagan than any recent president. Americans have allowed the naming of scores of government facilities in Reagan’s honor, including Washington National Airport where Reagan’s name elbowed aside that of George Washington, who led the War of Independence, oversaw the drafting of the U.S. Constitution and served as the nation’s first president.
So, as America’s former reputation as a beacon for human rights becomes a bad joke to the rest of the world, it is unthinkable within the U.S. political/media structure that Reagan would get posthumously criticized for the barbarity that he promoted. No one of importance would dare suggest that his name be stripped from National Airport and his statue removed from near the airport entrance.
But the evidence is overwhelming that the 40th president of the United States was guilty as an accessory to genocide and a wide range of other war crimes, including torture, rape, terrorism and narcotics trafficking. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Green Light to Genocide
Regarding Guatemala, the documentary evidence is clear that Reagan and his top aides gave a green light to the extermination campaign against the Mayan Ixil population in the highlands even before Rios Montt came to power. Despite receiving U.S. intelligence reports revealing these atrocities, the Reagan administration also pressed ahead in an extraordinary effort to arrange military equipment, including helicopters, to make the slaughter more efficient.
Rios Montt alongside supporter Ronald Reagan. (Photo: Upside Down World)
“In the tortured logic of military planning documents conceived under Mr. Ríos Montt’s 17-month rule during 1982 and 1983, the entire Mayan Ixil population was a military target, children included,” the New York Times reported from Rios Montt’s trial last month. “Officers wrote that the leftist guerrillas fighting the government had succeeded in indoctrinating the impoverished Ixils and reached ‘100 percent support.’”
So, everyone was targeted in these scorched-earth campaigns that eradicated more than 600 Indian villages in the Guatemalan highlands. But documents from this period indicate that these counterinsurgency strategies predated Rios Montt. And, they received the blessing of the Reagan administration shortly after Reagan took power in 1981.
A document that I discovered in the archives of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, revealed that Reagan and his national security team in 1981 agreed to supply military aid to Guatemala’s dictators so they could pursue the goal of exterminating not only “Marxist guerrillas” but people associated with their “civilian support mechanisms.”
This supportive attitude took shape in spring 1981 as President Reagan sought to relax human-rights restrictions on military aid to Guatemala that had been imposed by President Jimmy Carter and the Democratic-controlled Congress in the late 1970s. As part of that easing, Reagan’s State Department “advised our Central American embassies that it has been studying ways to restore a closer, cooperative relationship with Guatemala,” said a White House “Situation Room Checklist” dated April 8, 1981.
The document added: “State believes a number of changes have occurred which could make Guatemalan leaders more receptive to a new U.S. initiative: the Guatemalans view the new administration as more sympathetic to their problems [and] they are less suspect of the U.S. role in El Salvador,” where the Reagan administration was expanding military aid to another right-wing regime infamous for slaughtering its political opponents, including Catholic clergy.
“State has concluded that any attempt to reestablish a dialogue [with Guatemala] would require some initial, condition-free demonstration of our goodwill. However, this could not include military sales which would provoke serious U.S. public and congressional criticism. State will undertake a series of confidence building measures, free of preconditions, which minimize potential conflict with existing legislation.”
In other words, the Reagan administration was hoping that the U.S. government could get back in the good graces of the Guatemalan dictators, not that the dictators should change their ways to qualify for U.S. government help.
Soliciting the Generals
The “checklist” added that the State Department “has also decided that the administration should engage the Guatemalan government at the highest level in a dialogue on our bilateral relations and the initiatives we can take together to improve them. Secretary [of State Alexander] Haig has designated [retired] General Vernon Walters as his personal emissary to initiate this process with President [Fernando Romeo] Lucas [Garcia].
“If Lucas is prepared to give assurances that he will take steps to halt government involvement in the indiscriminate killing of political opponents and to foster a climate conducive to a viable electoral process, the U.S. will be prepared to approve some military sales immediately.”
But the operative word in that paragraph was “indiscriminate.” The Reagan administration expressed no problem with killing civilians if they were considered supporters of the guerrillas who had been fighting against the country’s ruling oligarchs and generals since the 1950s when the CIA organized the overthrow of Guatemala’s reformist President Jacobo Arbenz.
The distinction was spelled out in “Talking Points” for Walters to deliver in a face-to-face meeting with General Lucas. As edited inside the White House in April 1981, the “Talking Points” read: “The President and Secretary Haig have designated me [Walters] as [their] personal emissary to discuss bilateral relations on an urgent basis.
“Both the President and the Secretary recognize that your country is engaged in a war with Marxist guerrillas. We are deeply concerned about externally supported Marxist subversion in Guatemala and other countries in the region. As you are aware, we have already taken steps to assist Honduras and El Salvador resist this aggression.
“The Secretary has sent me here to see if we can work out a way to provide material assistance to your government. … We have minimized negative public statements by US officials on the situation in Guatemala. … We have arranged for the Commerce Department to take steps that will permit the sale of $3 million worth of military trucks and Jeeps to the Guatemalan army. …
“With your concurrence, we propose to provide you and any officers you might designate an intelligence briefing on regional developments from our perspective. Our desire, however, is to go substantially beyond the steps I have just outlined. We wish to reestablish our traditional military supply and training relationship as soon as possible.
“As we are both aware, this has not yet been feasible because of our internal political and legal constraints relating to the use by some elements of your security forces of deliberate and indiscriminate killing of persons not involved with the guerrilla forces or their civilian support mechanisms. I am not referring here to the regrettable but inevitable death of innocents though error in combat situations, but to what appears to us a calculated use of terror to immobilize non politicized people or potential opponents. …
“If you could give me your assurance that you will take steps to halt official involvement in the killing of persons not involved with the guerrilla forces or their civilian support mechanism … we would be in a much stronger position to defend successfully with the Congress a decision to begin to resume our military supply relationship with your government.”
In other words, though the “talking points” were framed as an appeal to reduce the “indiscriminate” slaughter of “non politicized people,” they embraced scorched-earth tactics against people involved with the guerrillas and “their civilian support mechanisms.” The way that played out in Guatemala – as in nearby El Salvador – was the massacring of peasants in regions considered sympathetic to leftist insurgents.
Reporting the Truth
U.S. intelligence officers in the region also kept the Reagan administration abreast of the expanding slaughter. For instance, according to one “secret” cable from April 1981 — and declassified in the 1990s — the CIA was confirming Guatemalan government massacres even as Reagan was moving to loosen the military aid ban.
On April 17, 1981, a CIA cable described an army massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory, because the population was believed to support leftist guerrillas. A CIA source reported that “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.” [Many of the Guatemalan documents declassified in the 1990s can be found at the National Security Archive’s Web site.]
Despite these atrocities, Reagan dispatched Walters in May 1981 to tell the Guatemalan leaders that the new U.S. administration wanted to lift the human rights embargoes on military equipment that Carter and Congress had imposed.
According to a State Department cable on Oct. 5, 1981, when Guatemalan leaders met again with Walters, they left no doubt about their plans. The cable said Gen. Lucas “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 successfully routed.”
Human rights groups saw the same picture, albeit from a less sympathetic angle. 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 horrific 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.
What the documents from the Reagan Library make clear is that the administration was not simply struggling ineffectively to rein in these massacres – as the U.S. press corps typically reported – but was fully onboard with the slaughter of people who were part of the guerrillas’ “civilian support mechanisms.”
U.S. intelligence agencies continued to pick up evidence of these 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 [the EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance,” the report said. “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 non-combatants alike.”
The reality was so grotesque that it prompted protests even from some staunch anticommunists inside the Reagan administration. On Feb. 2, 1982, Richard Childress, one of Reagan’s national security aides, wrote a “secret” memo to his colleagues summing up this reality on the ground:
“As we move ahead on our approach to Latin America, we need to consciously address the unique problems posed by Guatemala. Possessed of some of the worst human rights records in the region, … it presents a policy dilemma for us. The abysmal human rights record makes it, in its present form, unworthy of USG [U.S. government] support. …
“Beset by a continuous insurgency for at least 15 years, the current leadership is completely committed to a ruthless and unyielding program of suppression. Hardly a soldier could be found that has not killed a ‘guerrilla.’”
Rios Montt’s Arrival
But Reagan was unmoved. He continued to insist on expanding U.S. support for these brutal campaigns, while his administration sought to cover up the facts and deflect criticism. Reagan’s team insisted that Gen. Efrain Rios Montt’s overthrow of Gen. Lucas in March 1982 represented a sunny new day in Guatemala.
An avowed fundamentalist Christian, Rios Montt impressed Official Washington where the Reagan administration immediately revved up its propaganda machinery to hype the new dictator’s “born-again” status as proof of his deep respect for human life. 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, Rios Montt secretly gave carte blanche to the feared “Archivos” intelligence unit to expand “death squad” operations in the cities. Based at the Presidential Palace, the “Archivos” masterminded many of Guatemala’s most notorious assassinations.
The U.S. embassy was soon hearing more accounts of the army conducting Indian massacres, but ideologically driven U.S. diplomats fed the Reagan administration the propaganda spin that would be best for their careers. On Oct. 22, 1982, embassy staff dismissed the massacre reports as a communist-inspired “disinformation campaign.”
Reagan personally joined this P.R. spin seeking to discredit human rights investigators and others who were reporting accurately about massacres that the administration knew were true. On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as “totally dedicated to democracy” and added that Rios Montt’s government had been “getting a bum rap” on human rights. Reagan discounted the mounting reports of hundreds of Mayan villages being eradicated.
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 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, 1983, Americas Watch 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, adding that 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, senior Reagan officials continued to put on a happy face. In June 1983, special envoy Richard B. Stone praised “positive changes” in Rios Montt’s government, and Rios Montt pressed the United States for 10 UH-1H helicopters and six naval patrol boats, all the better to hunt guerrillas and their sympathizers.
Since Guatemala lacked the U.S. Foreign Military Sales credits or the cash to buy the helicopters, Reagan’s national security team looked for unconventional ways to arrange the delivery of the equipment that would give the Guatemalan army greater access to mountainous areas where guerrillas and their civilian supporters were hiding.
On Aug. 1, 1983, National Security Council aides Oliver North and Alfonso Sapia-Bosch reported to National Security Advisor William P. Clark that his deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane was planning to exploit his Israeli channels to secure the helicopters for Guatemala. [For more on McFarlanes’s Israeli channels, see Consortiumnews.com’s “How Neocons Messed Up the Mideast.”]
“With regard to the loan of ten helicopters, it is [our] understanding that Bud will take this up with the Israelis,” wrote North and Sapia-Bosch. “There are expectations that they would be forthcoming. Another possibility is to have an exercise with the Guatemalans. We would then use US mechanics and Guatemalan parts to bring their helicopters up to snuff.”
What it meant to provide these upgrades to the Guatemalan killing machine was clarified during the trial of Rios Montt with much of the testimony coming from survivors who, as children, escaped to mountain forests as their families and other Mayan villagers were butchered.
As the New York Times reported, “Pedro Chávez Brito told the court that he was only six or seven years old when soldiers killed his mother. He hid in the chicken coop with his older sister, her newborn and his younger brother, but soldiers found them and dragged them out, forcing them back into their house and setting it on fire.
“Mr. Chávez says he was the only one to escape. ‘I got under a tree trunk and I was like an animal,’ Mr. Chávez told the court. ‘After eight days I went to live in the mountains. In the mountain we ate only roots and grass.’”
The Times reported that “prosecution witnesses said the military considered Ixil civilians, including children, as legitimate targets. … Jacinto Lupamac Gómez said he was eight when soldiers killed his parents and older siblings and hustled him and his two younger brothers into a helicopter. Like some of the children whose lives were spared, they were adopted by Spanish-speaking families and forgot how to speak Ixil.”
Elena de Paz Santiago, now 42, “testified that she was 12 when she and her mother were taken by soldiers to an army base and raped. The soldiers let her go, but she never saw her mother again,” the Times reported.
Even by Guatemalan standards, Rios Montt’s vengeful Christian fundamentalism had hurtled out of control. On Aug. 8, 1983, another coup overthrew Rios Montt and brought Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores to power.
Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued to murder with impunity, finally going so far that even the U.S. Embassy objected. 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.
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 anyway. 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 favored 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.”
Reagan’s Dark Side
Despite his outwardly congenial style, Reagan – as revealed in the documentary record – was a cold and ruthless anticommunist who endorsed whatever “death squad” strategies were deployed against leftists in Central America. As Walters’s “Talking Points” demonstrate, Reagan and his team accepted the idea of liquidating not only armed guerrillas but civilians who were judged sympathetic to left-wing causes – people who were deemed part of the guerrillas’ “civilian support mechanisms.”
Across Central America in the 1980s, 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 the resurgence of political violence in Guatemala. The one consistent element in these slaughters was the overarching Cold War rationalization emanating from Ronald Reagan’s White House.
It was not until 1999, a decade after Ronald Reagan left office, that the shocking scope of the atrocities in Guatemala was comprehensively detailed by a truth commission that drew heavily on U.S. government documents declassified by President Bill Clinton. On Feb. 25, 1999, the Historical Clarification Commission estimated that the 34-year civil war had claimed the lives of some 200,000 people with the most savage bloodletting occurring in the 1980s. The panel estimated that the army was responsible 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 “genocide.” [Washington Post, 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 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. [NYT, Feb. 26, 1999]
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, 1999, President Clinton apologized for the past U.S. support of right-wing regimes in Guatemala dating back to 1954. “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.
Despite the damning documentary evidence and now the shocking judgment of genocide against Rios Montt, there has been no interest in Washington to hold any U.S. official accountable, not even a thought that the cornucopia of honors bestowed on Ronald Reagan should cease or be rescinded.
It remains unlikely that the genocide conviction of Rios Montt will change the warm and fuzzy glow that surrounds Ronald Reagan in the eyes of many Americans. The story of the Guatemalan butchery and the Reagan administration’s complicity has long since been relegated to the great American memory hole.
But Americans of conscience will have to reconcile what it means when a country sees nothing wrong in honoring a man who made genocide happen.
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