Date: Thu, 27 May 1999 22:43:00 -0500 (CDT)
From: Tom Burghardt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [AFIB] Reagan & Guatemala’s Death Files
Ronald Reagan’s election in November 1980 set off celebrations in the well-to-do communities of Central America.
After four years of Jimmy Carter’s human rights nagging, the region’s anticommunist hard-liners were thrilled that they had someone in the White House who understood their problems.
The oligarchs and the generals had good reason for the optimism. For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender of right-wing regimes that engaged in bloody counterinsurgency campaigns against leftist enemies.
In the late 1970s, when Carter’s human rights coordinator, Pat
Derian, criticized the Argentine military for its
war—tens of thousands of
disappearances, tortures and
murders—then-political commentator Reagan joshed that she should
walk a mile in the moccasins of the Argentine generals before
Despite his aw shucks style, Reagan found virtually every anticommunist action justified, no matter how brutal. From his eight years in the White House, there is no historical indication that he was troubled by the bloodbath and even genocide that occurred in Central America during his presidency, while he was shipping hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the implicated forces.
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
Honduras and some 100,000 people eliminated during a resurgence of
political violence in Guatemala.
The one consistent element in these slaughters was the overarching Cold War rationalization, emanating in large part from Ronald Reagan’s White House.
Yet, as the world community moves to punish war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, no substantive discussion has occurred in the United States about facing up to this horrendous record of the 1980s.
Rather than a debate about Reagan as a potential war criminal, the ailing ex-president is honored as a conservative icon with his name attached to Washington National Airport and with an active legislative push to have his face carved into Mount Rushmore.
When the national news media does briefly acknowledge the barbarities of the 1980s in Central America, it is in the context of one-day stories about the little countries bravely facing up to their violent pasts.
At times, the CIA is fingered abstractly as a bad supporting actor in the violent dramas. But never does the national press lay blame on individual American officials.
The grisly reality of Central America was most recently revisited on Feb. 25 when a Guatemalan truth commission issued a report on the staggering human rights crimes that occurred during a 34-year civil war.
The Historical Clarification Commission, an independent human rights body, estimated that the conflict claimed the lives of some 200,000 people with the most savage bloodletting occurring in the 1980s.
Based on a review of about 20 percent of the dead, the panel blamed the army for 93 percent of the killings and leftist guerrillas for three percent. Four percent were listed as unresolved.
The report documented that in the 1980s, the army committed 626
massacres against Mayan villages.
The massacres that eliminated
entire Mayan villages...are neither perfidious allegations nor
figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in
Guatemala’s history, the commission concluded.
completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their
livestock and crops, the report said. In the north, the report
termed the slaughter a
genocide. [WP, Feb. 26, 1999]
Besides carrying out murder and
disappearances, the army
routinely engaged in torture and rape.
The rape of women, during
torture or before being murdered, was a common practice by the
military and paramilitary forces, the report found.
The report added that the
government of the United States, through
various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect
support for some [of these] state operations. The report concluded
that the U.S. government also gave money and training to a Guatemalan
military that committed
acts of genocide against the Mayans.
Believing that the ends justified everything, the military and the
state security forces blindly pursued the anticommunist struggle,
without respect for any legal principles or the most elemental ethical
and religious values, and in this way, completely lost any semblance
of human morals, said the commission chairman, Christian
Tomuschat, a German jurist.
Within the framework of the counterinsurgency operations carried
out between 1981 and 1983, in certain regions of the country agents of
the Guatemalan state committed acts of genocide against groups of the
Mayan people, he added. [NYT, Feb. 26, 1999]
The report did not single out culpable individuals either in Guatemala or the United States. But the American official most directly responsible for renewing U.S. military aid to Guatemala and encouraging its government during the 1980s was President Reagan.
After his election, Reagan pushed aggressively to overturn an arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by President Carter because of the military’s wretched human rights record.
Reagan saw bolstering the Guatemalan army as part of a regional response to growing leftist insurgencies. Reagan pitched the conflicts as Moscow’s machinations for surrounding and conquering the United States.
The president’s chief concern about the recurring reports of human rights atrocities was to attack and discredit the information. Sometimes personally and sometimes through surrogates, Reagan denigrated the human rights investigators and journalists who disclosed the slaughters.
Typical of these attacks was an analysis prepared by Reagan’s appointees at the U.S. embassy in Guatemala. The paper was among those recently released by the Clinton administration to assist the Guatemalan truth commission’s investigation.
Dated Oct. 22, 1982, the analysis concluded
that a concerted
disinformation campaign is being waged in the U.S. against the
Guatemalan government by groups supporting the communist insurgency in
The report claimed that
conscientious human rights and church
organizations, including Amnesty International, had been duped by
the communists and
may not fully appreciate that they are being
The campaign’s object is simple: to deny the Guatemalan army
the weapons and equipment needed from the U.S. to defeat the
guerrillas, the analysis declared.
If those promoting such disinformation can convince the Congress,
through the usual opinion-makers—the media, church and human
rights groups—that the present GOG [government of Guatemala] is
guilty of gross human rights violations they know that the Congress
will refuse Guatemala the military assistance it needs.
Those backing the communist insurgency are betting on an
application, or rather misapplication, of human rights policy so as to
damage the GOG and assist themselves.
Reagan personally picked up this theme of a falsely accused Guatemalan military. During a swing through Latin America, Reagan discounted the mounting reports of hundreds of Maya villages being eradicated.
On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Guatemala’s dictator,
Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as
dedicated to democracy. Reagan declared that Rios Montt’s
government had been
getting a bum rap.
But the newly declassified U.S. government records reveal that Reagan’s praise—and the embassy analysis—flew in the face of corroborated accounts from U.S. intelligence.
Based on its own internal documents, the Reagan administration knew that the Guatemalan military indeed was engaged in a scorched-earth campaign against the Mayans.
According to these
secret cables, the CIA was confirming
Guatemalan government massacres in 1981-82 even as Reagan was moving
to loosen the military aid ban.
In April 1981, a secret CIA cable described a massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory. On April 17, 1981, government troops attacked the area believed to support leftist guerrillas, the cable said.
According to a CIA source,
the social population appeared to fully
support the guerrillas and
the soldiers were forced to fire at
anything that moved. The CIA cable added that
authorities admitted that ’many civilians’ were killed in
Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were non-combatants.
Despite the CIA account and other similar reports, Reagan permitted Guatemala’s army to buy $3.2 million in military trucks and jeeps in June 1981. To permit the sale, Reagan removed the vehicles from a list of military equipment that was covered by the human rights embargo.
Apparently confident of Reagan’s sympathies, the Guatemalan government continued its political repression without apology.
According to a State Department cable on Oct. 5, 1981, Guatemalan
leaders met with Reagan’s roving ambassador, retired Gen. Vernon
Walters, and left no doubt about their plans. Guatemala’s
military leader, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia,
made clear that
his government will continue as before—that the repression will
continue. He reiterated his belief that the repression is working and
that the guerrilla threat will be successfully routed.
Human rights groups saw the same picture. The Inter-American Human
Rights Commission released a report on Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the
Guatemalan government for
thousands of illegal executions. [WP,
Oct. 16, 1981]
But the Reagan administration was set on whitewashing the ugly
scene. A State Department
white paper, released in December
1981, blamed the violence on leftist
extremist groups and their
terrorist methods prompted and supported by Cuba’s Fidel
Yet, even as these rationalizations were presented to the American people, U.S. agencies continued to pick up clear evidence of government-sponsored massacres.
One CIA report in February 1982 described an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El Quiche province.
The commanding officers of the units involved have been instructed
to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating with the
Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the EGP] and eliminate all
sources of resistance, the report stated.
Since the operation began, several villages have been burned to the
ground, and a large number of guerrillas and collaborators have been
The CIA report explained the army’s modus operandi:
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
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
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.
In March 1982, Gen. Rios Montt seized power. An avowed fundamentalist
Christian, he immediately impressed Washington. Reagan hailed Rios
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
In October, he secretly gave carte blanche to the feared
Archivos intelligence unit to expand
operations. Based at the Presidential Palace, the
masterminded many of Guatemala’s most notorious assassinations.
The U.S. embassy was soon hearing more accounts of the army conducting Indian massacres. On Oct, 21, 1982, one cable described how three embassy officers tried to check out some of these reports but ran into bad weather and canceled the inspection.
Still, this cable put the best possible spin on the situation. Though
unable to check out the massacre reports, the embassy officials did
reach the conclusion that the army is completely up front about
allowing us to check alleged massacre sites and to speak with whomever
The next day, the embassy fired off its analysis that the Guatemalan
government was the victim of a communist-inspired
campaign, a claim embraced by Reagan with his
comment in December.
On Jan. 7, 1983, Reagan lifted the ban on military aid to Guatemala and authorized the sale of $6 million in military hardware. Approval covered spare parts for UH-1H helicopters and A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency operations.
Radios, batteries and battery charges were also in package. State
Department spokesman John Hughes said political violence in the cities
declined dramatically and that rural conditions had
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
Archivos in October to
apprehend, hold, interrogate
and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they saw fit.
Despite these grisly facts on the ground, the annual State Department
human rights survey praised the supposedly improved human rights
situation in Guatemala.
The overall conduct of the armed forces had
improved by late in the year 1982, the report stated.
A different picture—far closer to the secret information held by the U.S. government—was coming from independent human rights investigators. On March 17, 1983, Americas Watch representatives condemned the Guatemalan army for human rights atrocities against the Indian population.
New York attorney Stephen L. Kass said these findings included proof
that the government carried out
virtually indiscriminate murder of
men, women and children of any farm regarded by the army as possibly
supportive of guerrilla insurgents.
Rural women suspected of guerrilla sympathies were raped before
execution, Kass said. Children were
thrown into burning homes. They
are thrown in the air and speared with bayonets. We heard many, many
stories of children being picked up by the ankles and swung against
poles so their heads are destroyed. [AP, March 17, 1983]
Publicly, however, senior Reagan officials continued to put on a happy
face. On June 12, 1983, special envoy Richard B. Stone praised
positive changes in Rios Montt’s government.
But Rios Montt’s vengeful Christian fundamentalism was hurtling out of control, even by Guatemalan standards. In August 1983, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in another coup.
Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued to act with impunity.
When three Guatemalans working for the U.S. Agency for International
Development were slain in November 1983, U.S. Ambassador Frederic
Chapin suspected that
Archivos hit squads were sending a
message to the United States to back off even the mild pressure for
human rights improvements.
In late November, in a brief show of displeasure, the administration postponed the sale of $2 million in helicopter spare parts. The next month, however, Reagan sent the spare parts.
In 1984, Reagan succeeded, too, in pressuring Congress to approve $300,000 in military training for the Guatemalan army.
By mid-1984, Chapin, who had grown bitter about the army’s stubborn brutality, was gone, replaced by a far-right political appointee named Alberto Piedra, who was all for increased military assistance to Guatemala.
In January 1985, Americas Watch issued a report observing that
Reagan’s State Department
is apparently more concerned with
improving Guatemala’s image than in improving its human
According to the newly declassified U.S. records, the Guatemalan reality included torture out of the Middle Ages. A Defense Intelligence Agency cable reported that the Guatemalan military used an air base in Retalhuleu during the mid-1980s as a center for coordinating the counterinsurgency campaign in southwest Guatemala.
At the base, pits were filled with water to hold captured
Reportedly there were cages over the pits and the water
level was such that the individuals held within them were forced to
hold on to the bars in order to keep their heads above water and avoid
drowning, the DIA report stated. Later, the pits were filled with
concrete to eliminate the evidence.
The Guatemalan military used the Pacific Ocean as another dumping spot
for political victims, according to the DIA report. Bodies of
insurgents tortured to death and of live prisoners marked for
disappearance were loaded on planes that flew out over the
ocean where the soldiers would shove the victims into the water.
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by accident in the early 1990s, the DIA reported on April 11, 1994. A Guatemalan officer wanted to let soldiers cultivate their own vegetables on a corner of the base.
But the officer was taken aside and told to drop the request
because the locations he had wanted to cultivate were burial sites
that had been used by the D-2 [military intelligence] during the
Guatemala, of course, was not the only Central American country where Reagan and his administration supported brutal counterinsurgency operations—and then sought to cover up the bloody facts.
Reagan’s falsification of the historical record was a hallmark of the conflicts in El Salvaodor and Nicaragua as well. In one case, Reagan personally lashed out at an individual human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York lawyer who had collected affidavits from more than 100 witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported contras in Nicaragua.
Angered by the revelations about his pet
Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985. The president
one of dictator [Daniel] Ortega’s supporters, a
sympathizer who has openly embraced Sandinismo.
Privately, Reagan had a far more accurate understanding of the true nature of the contras. At one point in the contra war, Reagan turned to CIA official Duane Clarridge and demanded that the contras be used to destroy some Soviet-supplied helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua.
In his memoirs, Clarridge recalled that
President Reagan pulled me
aside and asked, ’Dewey, can’t you get those vandals of
yours to do this job.’ [See Clarridge’s A Spy for All
To conceal the truth about the war crimes of Central America, Reagan also authorized a systematic program of distorting information and intimidating American journalists.
public diplomacy, the project was run by a CIA
propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who was assigned to the
National Security Council staff. The explicit goal of the operation
was to manage U.S.
perceptions of the wars in Central America.
The project’s key operatives developed propaganda
hot buttons to excite the American people, cultivated
pliable journalists who would cooperate and bullied reporters who
wouldn’t go along.
The best-known attacks were directed against New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner for disclosing Salvadoran army massacres of civilians, including the slaughter of more than 800 men, women and children in El Mozote in December 1981.
But Bonner was not alone. Reagan’s operatives pressured scores of reporters and their editors in an ultimately successful campaign to minimize information about these human rights crimes reaching the American people. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
The tamed reporters, in turn, gave the administration a far freer hand to pursue its anticommunist operations throughout Central America.
Despite the tens of thousands of civilian deaths and now-corroborated accounts of massacres and genocide, not a single senior military officer in Central America was held accountable for the bloodshed.
The U.S. officials who sponsored and encouraged these war crimes not only escaped any legal judgment, but remained highly respected figures in Washington. Reagan has been honored as few recent presidents have.
The journalists who played along by playing down the atrocities—the likes of Fred Barnes and Charles Krauthammer -- saw their careers skyrocket, while those who told the truth suffered severe consequences.
Given that history, it was not surprising that the Guatemalan truth report was treated as a one-day story.
The major American newspapers did cover the findings. The New York Times made it the lead story. The Washington Post played it inside on page A19. Both cited the troubling role of the CIA and other U.S. government agencies in the Guatemalan tragedy. But no U.S. official was held accountable by name.
On March 1, 1999, a strange Washington Post editorial addressed the findings, but did not confront them. One of its principal points seemed to be that President Carter’s military aid cut-off to Guatemala was to blame.
The editorial argued that the arms embargo removed
restraint even a feeble American presence supplied. The editorial
made no reference to the 1980s and added only a mild criticism of
the CIA [because it] still bars the public from the full
Then, with no apparent sense of irony, the editorial ended by stating:
We need our own truth commission.
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, President Clinton apologized for the past U.S. support of right-wing regimes in Guatemala.
For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that
support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in
violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States
must not repeat that mistake, Clinton said. [WP, March 11, 1999]
But the sketchy apology appears to be all the Central Americans can expect from El Norte.
Back in Washington, Ronald Reagan remains a respected icon, not a disgraced war criminal. His name is still honored, attached to National Airport and a new federal building. A current GOP congressional initiative would chisel his face into Mount Rushmore.
Meanwhile, in the Balkans and in Africa, the United States is sponsoring international tribunals to arrest and to try human rights violators—and their political patrons—for war crimes.