Last week’s grotesque revelation about American public health doctors infecting nearly 700 Guatemalans with venereal disease to test penicillin from 1946-48 marked just the start of the U.S. government’s post-World War II abuse of that Central American country.
Indeed, as troubling as the VD experiments were, U.S. administrations from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan would do much worse, treating Guatemala as a test tube for Cold War counterinsurgency experiments that led to the slaughter of some 200,000 people, including genocide against Mayan Indian tribes.
Guatemala’s special place as Washington’s experimental lab for repression began in 1954 when President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to try out new psychological warfare strategies in destabilizing and removing Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz.
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Arbenz had offended U.S. business and government leaders by implementing a land reform project that threatened the massive holdings of United Fruit and by letting leftists compete within the political process.
The CIA ousted Arbenz with a combination of clever propaganda and armed insurrection, leading to a series of repressive military dictatorships that further radicalized Guatemala’s indigenous poor and urban intellectuals.
Washington grew more alarmed after Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution in 1959, his alliance with the Soviet Union and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. As the Cold War heated up with the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson’s administration looked for new strategies to thwart the spread of leftist revolution elsewhere, especially in Latin America.
By the mid-1960s, the United States was assisting the Guatemalan military in developing more refined methods of repression. Guatemala’s first “death squads” took shape under anti-terrorist training provided by a U.S. public safety adviser named John Longon, according to U.S. government documents released in the late 1990s.
In January 1966, Longon reported to his superiors about both overt and covert components of his anti-terrorist strategies. On the covert side, Longon pressed for “a safe house [to] be immediately set up” for coordination of security intelligence.
“A room was immediately prepared in the [Presidential] Palace for this purpose and … Guatemalans were immediately designated to put this operation into effect,” according to Longon’s report.
Longon’s operation within the presidential compound became the starting point for the infamous “Archivos” intelligence unit that evolved into a clearinghouse for Guatemala’s most notorious political assassinations.
Just two months after Longon’s report, a secret CIA cable noted the clandestine execution of several Guatemalan “communists and terrorists” on the night of March 6, 1966.
By the end of the year, the Guatemalan government was bold enough to request U.S. help in establishing special kidnapping squads, according to a cable from the U.S. Southern Command that was forwarded to Washington on Dec. 3, 1966.
By 1967, the Guatemalan counterinsurgency terror had gained a fierce momentum. On Oct. 23, 1967, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research noted the “accumulating evidence that the [Guatemalan] counterinsurgency machine is out of control.” The report noted that Guatemalan “counter-terror” units were carrying out abductions, bombings, torture and summary executions “of real and alleged communists.”
A Diplomat’s Complaint
The mounting death toll in Guatemala disturbed some American officials assigned to the country. The embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Viron Vaky, expressed his concerns in a remarkably candid report that he submitted on March 29, 1968, after returning to Washington. Vaky framed his arguments in pragmatic terms, but his moral anguish broke through.
“The official squads are guilty of atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated,” Vaky wrote.
“In the minds of many in Latin America, and, tragically, especially in the sensitive, articulate youth, we are believed to have condoned these tactics, if not actually encouraged them. Therefore our image is being tarnished and the credibility of our claims to want a better and more just world are increasingly placed in doubt.”
Vaky also noted the deceptions within the U.S. government that resulted from its complicity in state-sponsored terror.
“This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all — that we have not been honest with ourselves,” Vaky said. “We have condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged or blessed it. We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalized away our qualms and uneasiness.
“This is not only because we have concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as Communists are being killed it is alright.
“Murder, torture and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists. After all hasn’t man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people.”
Though kept secret from the American public for three decades, the Vaky memo obliterated any claim that Washington simply didn’t know the reality in Guatemala. Still, with Vaky’s memo squirreled away in State Department files, the killing went on. The repression was noted almost routinely in field reports.
On Jan. 12, 1971, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that Guatemalan forces had “quietly eliminated” hundreds of “terrorists and bandits” in the countryside. On Feb. 4, 1974, a State Department cable reported resumption of “death squad” activities.
On Dec. 17, 1974, a DIA biography of one U.S.-trained Guatemalan officer gave an insight into how U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine had imbued the Guatemalan strategies.
According to the biography, Lt. Col. Elias Osmundo Ramirez Cervantes, chief of security section for Guatemala’s president, had trained at the U.S. Army School of Intelligence at Fort Holabird in Maryland. Back in Guatemala, Ramirez Cervantes was put in charge of plotting raids on suspected subversives as well as their interrogations.
The Reagan-Era Slaughter
As brutal as the Guatemalan security forces were in the 1960s and 1970s, the worst was yet to come. For several years the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter took steps to shut down U.S. complicity in Guatemala’s state-sponsored butchery. Besides condemnations from his new human rights office at the State Department, Carter had imposed an embargo on U.S. military aid.
However, that brief period of American disapproval ended with Ronald Reagan’s election in November 1980. Celebrations swept well-to-do communities across Central America as the region’s anti-communist hard-liners were thrilled that they had someone in the White House who understood their problems.
The oligarchs and the generals viewed Reagan as a longtime defender of right-wing regimes that had engaged in bloody counterinsurgency against leftist enemies.
For instance, in the late 1970s, when Carter’s human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, criticized the Argentine military for its “dirty war” — tens of thousands of “disappearances,” tortures and murders — then-political commentator Reagan joshed that she should “walk a mile in the moccasins” of the Argentine generals before criticizing them. [For details, see Martin Edwin Andersen’s Dossier Secreto.]
After his inauguration in 1981, Reagan gave enthusiastic support to right-wing governments in El Salvador and Honduras, while ordering the CIA to organize a counter-revolutionary movement of Nicaraguan exiles to harass and overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista regime. Reagan also began whittling away at Carter’s arms embargo on Guatemala.
Yet, even as Reagan was looking for ways to support the Guatemalan military, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were confirming more slaughters by the army of indigenous Guatemalans in the countryside.
In April 1981, a secret CIA cable described a massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory. On April 17, 1981, government troops attacked the area believed to support leftist guerrillas, the cable said.
According to a CIA source, “the social population appeared to fully support the guerrillas” and “the soldiers were forced to fire at anything that moved.” The CIA cable added that “the Guatemalan authorities admitted that ‘many civilians’ were killed in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were 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.”
Human rights groups saw the same picture. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report on Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government for “thousands of illegal executions.” [Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1981]
But the Reagan administration was set on whitewashing the ugly scene. A State Department “white paper,” released in December 1981, blamed the violence on leftist “extremist groups” and their “terrorist methods,” inspired and supported by Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Yet, even as these rationalizations were pitched to the American people, U.S. intelligence agencies in Guatemala continued to learn of government-sponsored massacres. One CIA report in February 1982 described an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El Quiche province.
“The commanding officers of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance,” the report stated. “Since the operation began, several villages have been burned to the ground, and a large number of guerrillas and collaborators have been killed.”
The CIA report explained the army’s modus operandi: “When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed.”
When the army encountered an empty village, it was “assumed to have been supporting the EGP, and it is destroyed. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of refugees in the hills with no homes to return to. … The 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 Rise of Rios Montt
Yet, as grim as the violence was in 1981, it was only going to get worse.
In March 1982, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, an avowed fundamentalist Christian, seized power in a coup d’etat and immediately impressed official Washington, where Reagan hailed Rios Montt as “a man of great personal integrity.”
By July 1982, however, Rios Montt had begun a new scorched-earth campaign called his “rifles and beans” policy. The slogan meant that pacified Indians would get “beans,” while all others could expect to be the target of army “rifles.” In October, he secretly gave carte blanche to the feared “Archivos” intelligence unit to expand “death squad” operations.
The U.S. embassy was soon hearing more accounts of the army massacring Indians, even as the Reagan administration sought to minimize the bloodshed.
On Oct, 21, 1982, one cable described how three embassy officers tried to check out some of the massacre reports but ran into bad weather and canceled the inspection. Despite the thwarted field trip, the embassy fired off an analysis that the Guatemalan government was the victim of a communist-inspired “disinformation campaign.”
Reagan embraced that claim when he met with Rios Montt in December 1982 and insisted that the Guatemalan government was getting a “bum rap” on human rights.
On Jan. 7, 1983, Reagan formally lifted the military embargo on Guatemala, authorizing the sale of $6 million in military hardware, including spare parts for UH-1H helicopters and A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency operations. State Department spokesman John Hughes said political violence in the cities had “declined dramatically” and that rural conditions had improved too.
In February 1983, however, a secret CIA cable noted a rise in “suspect right-wing violence” with kidnappings of students and teachers. Bodies of victims were appearing in ditches and gullies. CIA sources traced these political murders to Rios Montt’s order to the “Archivos” in October to “apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they saw fit.”
These grisly facts on the ground didn’t stop the annual State Department human rights survey from praising 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]
A Happy Face
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 show little restraint in killing anyone who got in the way, even local U.S. government employees.
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 on human rights.
In late November 1983, in a brief show of displeasure, the U.S. 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 was all for increased military assistance to Guatemala.
In January 1985, Americas Watch issued a report observing that Reagan’s State Department “is apparently more concerned with improving Guatemala’s image than in improving its human rights.”
Other examples of Guatemala’s “death squad” strategy came to light later. For example, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency cable in 1994 reported that the Guatemalan military had used an air base in Retalhuleu during the mid-1980s as a center for coordinating the counterinsurgency campaign in southwest Guatemala – and for torturing and burying prisoners.
At the base, pits were filled with water to hold captured suspects. “Reportedly there were cages over the pits and the water level was such that the individuals held within them were forced to hold on to the bars in order to keep their heads above water and avoid drowning,” the DIA report stated.
The Guatemalan military used the Pacific Ocean as another dumping spot for political victims, according to the DIA report. Bodies of insurgents tortured to death and live prisoners marked for “disappearance” were loaded onto planes that flew out over the ocean where the soldiers would shove the victims into the water to drown, a tactic that had been a favorite disposal technique of the Argentine military in the 1970s.
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by accident in the early 1990s when a Guatemalan officer wanted to let soldiers cultivate their own vegetables on a corner of the base. But the officer was taken aside and told to drop the request “because the locations he had wanted to cultivate were burial sites that had been used by the D-2 [military intelligence] during the mid-eighties,” the DIA report said.
Guatemala, of course, was not the only Central American country where Reagan and his administration supported brutal counterinsurgency operations and then sought to cover up the bloody facts. Nor where these experiments in counterinsurgency strategies strictly limited to the hapless countries where the actual killings occurred.
The Reagan administration also tested out new concepts for deceiving and manipulating the American public, a secret strategy called “perception management” which was viewed as essential to enable the brutal policies in Central America to go forward, by confusing and diffusing any domesitic U.S. opposition. Part of the propaganda strategy involved discrediting journalists and human rights investigators who dug up the grim truth.
For instance, Reagan personally lashed out at a human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York lawyer who had collected affidavits from more than 100 witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported contras in Nicaragua. Angered by the revelations about his contra “freedom-fighters,” Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985, calling him “one of dictator [Daniel] Ortega’s supporters, a sympathizer who has openly embraced 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 memoir, A Spy for All Seasons, Clarridge recalled that “President Reagan pulled me aside and asked, ‘Dewey, can’t you get those vandals of yours to do this job.'”
So, to manage U.S. perceptions of the wars in Central America, Reagan authorized a systematic program of distorting the facts and intimidating American journalists. The project was run by a CIA propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who was assigned to the National Security Council staff.
The project’s key operatives developed propaganda “themes,” selected “hot buttons” to excite the American people, cultivated pliable journalists who would cooperate, and bullied reporters who wouldn’t go along.
The best-known attacks were directed against New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner for disclosing Salvadoran army massacres of civilians, including the slaughter of some 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 exposure of human rights crimes committed by U.S. clients. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History or Secrecy & Privilege.]
The tamed U.S. reporters gave the administration a far freer hand to pursue counterinsurgency operations in 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 given any significant punishment for the bloodshed, nor did any U.S. officials pay even a political price.
The U.S. officials who sponsored and encouraged these war crimes not only escaped legal judgment, but many remained respected figures in Washington, with some, like former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte, returning to senior government posts under President George W. Bush.
Reagan has been honored as few recent presidents have with major public facilities named after him, including National Airport in Washington. A major celebration of his 100th birthday is planned for 2011.
The concept of perception management also emerged from the Reagan years as a tested method for manipulating the American people through propaganda and fear. The same tactics were used in 2002-03 to herd the public behind George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
The broader success of perception management and its impact on an intimidated U.S. press corps was revealed, too, in the general disinterest shown by most of the major news media when the historical record about Guatemala’s atrocities was released in the late 1990s.
On Feb. 25, 1999, relying heavily on documents made available by the Clinton administration, a Guatemalan truth commission issued a report on the staggering human rights crimes that U.S. governments from Eisenhower through Reagan had aided, abetted and concealed.
The Historical Clarification Commission, an independent human rights body, estimated that the Guatemalan conflict claimed the lives of some 200,000 people with the most savage bloodletting occurring in the 1980s.
Based on a review of about 20 percent of the dead, the panel blamed the army for 93 percent of the killings and leftist guerrillas for three percent. Four percent were listed as unresolved.
The report documented that in the 1980s, the army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. “The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages … are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala’s history,” the commission concluded.
The army “completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops,” the report said. In the northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter a “genocide.”
Besides carrying out murder and “disappearances,” the army routinely engaged in torture and rape. “The rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice” by the military and paramilitary forces, the report 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,” Tomuschat said.
In 1999, the U.S. national press corps, which had obsessed for months over allegations regarding President Bill Clinton’s sex life, treated the Guatemalan disclosures, including the Reagan administration’s complicity in genocide, as a one-day story that got almost no attention on the 24-hour cable TV networks.
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.
“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.
Last week, the Obama administration issued a similar apology for the medical experiments in the 1940s, but there is no indication that either the U.S. government nor the American news media has learned any lasting lessons or will act any differently in the future.
If the United States were really sorry for all the harm it has inflicted on Guatemala — and other developing nations in Latin America and around the world — it might at least dial back next year’s celebrations of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. But there is no sign even of that.
[Many of the declassified U.S. government documents regarding Guatemala are posted on the Internet by the National Security Archive.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.