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 “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.]
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 “disappearances” in Honduras and some 100,000 people eliminated during a resurgence of political violence in Guatemala.
The one consistent element in these slaughters was the overarching Cold War rationalization, emanating in large part from Ronald Reagan’s White House.
Yet, as the world community punishes 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 war criminal, the former president is honored as a conservative icon with his name attached to Washington National Airport and with talk of having 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 revisited on Feb. 25, 1999, 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.
The army “completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops,” the report said. In the north, the report termed the slaughter a “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.
“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 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 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 Guatemala.”
The Reagan administration’s report claimed that “conscientious human rights and church organizations,” including Amnesty International, had been duped by the communists and “may not fully appreciate that they are being utilized.”
“The campaign’s object is simple: to deny the Guatemalan army the weapons and equipment needed from the U.S. to defeat the guerrillas,” the analysis declared.
“If those promoting such disinformation can convince the Congress, through the usual opinion-makers — the media, church and human rights groups — that the present GOG [government of Guatemala] is guilty of gross human rights violations they know that the Congress will refuse Guatemala the military assistance 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 “totally dedicated to democracy.” Reagan declared that Rios Montt’s government had been “getting a bum rap” on human rights.
But the declassified U.S. government records also revealed that Reagan’s praise — and the embassy analysis — flew in the face of corroborated accounts from U.S. intelligence. Based on its own internal documents, the Reagan administration knew that the Guatemalan military indeed was engaged in a scorched-earth campaign against the Mayans.
According to these “secret” cables, the CIA was confirming Guatemalan government massacres in 1981-82 even as Reagan was moving to loosen the military aid ban.
In April 1981, a secret CIA cable described a massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory. On April 17, 1981, government troops attacked the area believed to support leftist guerrillas, the cable said.
According to a CIA source, “the social population appeared to fully support the guerrillas” and “the soldiers were forced to fire at anything that moved.” The CIA cable added that “the Guatemalan authorities admitted that ‘many civilians’ were killed in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were 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.” [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” prompted and supported by Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Yet, even as these rationalizations were presented to the American people, U.S. agencies continued to pick up clear evidence of government-sponsored massacres.
One CIA report in February 1982 described an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El Quiche province.
“The commanding officers of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance,” the report stated.
“Since the operation began, several villages have been burned to the ground, and a large number of guerrillas and collaborators have been killed.”
The CIA report explained the army’s modus operandi: “When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed.”
When the army encountered an empty village, it was “assumed to have been supporting the EGP, and it is destroyed. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of refugees in the hills with no homes to return to. …
“The army high command is highly pleased with the initial results of the sweep operation, and believes that it will be successful in destroying the major EGP support area and will be able to drive the EGP out of the Ixil Triangle. …
“The well documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”
Hailing Rios Montt
In March 1982, Gen. Rios Montt seized power. An avowed fundamentalist Christian, he immediately impressed Washington. Reagan hailed Rios Montt as “a man of great personal integrity.”
By July 1982, however, Rios Montt had begun a new scorched-earth campaign called his “rifles and beans” policy. The slogan meant that pacified Indians would get “beans,” while all others could expect to be the target of army “rifles.”
In October, he secretly gave carte blanche to the feared “Archivos” intelligence unit to expand “death squad” operations. Based at the Presidential Palace, the “Archivos” masterminded many of Guatemala’s most notorious 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 we wish.”
The next day, the embassy fired off its analysis that the Guatemalan government was the victim of a communist-inspired “disinformation campaign,” a claim embraced by Reagan with his “bum rap” comment in December.
On Jan. 7, 1983, Reagan lifted the ban on military aid to Guatemala and authorized the sale of $6 million in military hardware. Approval covered spare parts for UH-1H helicopters and A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency operations. Radios, batteries and battery charges were also in package.
State Department spokesman John Hughes said political violence in the cities had “declined dramatically” and that rural conditions had improved too.
In February 1983, however, a secret CIA cable noted a rise in “suspect right-wing violence” with kidnappings of students and teachers. Bodies of victims were appearing in ditches 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 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, 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, 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.
Murdering AID Workers
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 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.”
According to the newly declassified U.S. records, the Guatemalan reality included torture out of the Middle Ages. A Defense Intelligence Agency cable reported that the Guatemalan military used an air base in Retalhuleu during the mid-1980s as a center for coordinating the counterinsurgency campaign in southwest Guatemala.
At the base, pits were filled with water to hold captured suspects. “Reportedly there were cages over the pits and the water level was such that the individuals held within them were forced to hold on to the bars in order to keep their heads above water and avoid drowning,” the DIA report stated. Later, the pits were filled with concrete to eliminate the evidence.
The Guatemalan military used the Pacific Ocean as another dumping spot for political victims, according to the DIA report. Bodies of insurgents tortured to death and of live prisoners marked for “disappearance” were loaded on planes that flew out over the ocean where the soldiers would shove the victims into the water.
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by accident in the early 1990s, the DIA reported on April 11, 1994. A Guatemalan officer wanted to let soldiers cultivate their own vegetables on a corner of the base.
But the officer was taken aside and told to drop the request “because the locations he had wanted to cultivate were burial sites that had been used by the D-2 [military intelligence] during the mid-eighties.”
Guatemala, of course, was not the only Central American country where Reagan and his administration supported brutal counterinsurgency operations — and then sought to cover up the bloody facts.
Reagan’s falsification of the historical record was a hallmark of the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua as well. In one case, Reagan personally lashed out at an individual human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York lawyer who had collected affidavits from more than 100 witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported Contras in Nicaragua.
Angered by the revelations about his pet “freedom-fighters,” Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985. The president called Brody “one of dictator [Daniel] Ortega’s supporters, a sympathizer who has openly embraced Sandinismo.”
Privately, Reagan had a far more accurate understanding of the true nature of the contras. At one point in the Contra war, Reagan turned to CIA official Duane Clarridge and demanded that the Contras be used to destroy some Soviet-supplied helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua.
In his memoir, 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 Seasons.]
To conceal the truth about the war crimes of Central America, Reagan also authorized a systematic program of distorting information and intimidating American journalists.
Called “public diplomacy” or “perception management,” the project was run by a CIA propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who was assigned to the National Security Council staff. The explicit goal of the operation was to manage U.S. “perceptions” of the wars in Central America.
The project’s key operatives developed propaganda “themes,” selected “hot buttons” to excite the American people, cultivated pliable journalists who would cooperate and bullied reporters who wouldn’t go along.
The best-known attacks were directed against New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner for disclosing Salvadoran army massacres of civilians, including the slaughter of more than 800 men, women and children in El Mozote in December 1981.
But Bonner was not alone. Reagan’s operatives pressured scores of reporters and their editors in an ultimately successful campaign to minimize information about these human rights crimes reaching the American people. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
The tamed reporters, in turn, gave the administration a far freer hand to pursue its anticommunist operations throughout Central 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 “what minimal 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 documentation.”
Then, with no apparent sense of irony, the editorial ended by stating: “We need our own truth commission.”
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, 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. [Washington Post, 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, a new federal building and scores of other government facilities. One GOP congressional initiative sought to have his face chiseled into Mount Rushmore.
Meanwhile, for human rights crimes in the Balkans and in Africa, the United States has sponsored international tribunals to arrest and to try violators — and their political patrons — for war crimes.