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Twelve graduates of the US Army’s “School of the Americas” are finally facing prosecution for atrocities documented in Guatemala three decades ago.
Thousands of people in rural Guatemala were disappeared by US-trained soldiers who between 1981 and 1988 carried out a campaign of forced disappearances as part of the Guatemalan government’s deadly campaign against alleged communist insurgents. The campaign eventually broadened into a dirty war against leftists, students, labor unionists and guerrillas, and led to the military’s genocide against indigenous communities.
On January 6, 2016, the Guatemala Public Ministry moved to arrest 18 top military officials from the era of the war, 12 of whom are graduates of the School of the Americas, the military training academy in Fort Benning, Georgia, that is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Then, on January 18, a Guatemalan court declared that the case against the aging military officers, who include commanders, intelligence officers and a major general, for the campaign of forced disappearances could advance.
The beginning of the legal process against the former military officials breaks 30 years of impunity, and begins to bring justice for the families of the disappeared. But an important question remains: When will the US government be held accountable for its role in the construction of Guatemala’s counterinsurgency – which left over 200,000 dead, 45,000 missing and a broken Guatemalan society more than 30 years after the war began?
The left became the enemy, and Washington’s enemy became the enemy of those under the sphere of US influence.
The US government has for decades tried to present itself as a champion of human rights in Latin America. It has pushed for prosecutions of Guatemalan military officials since the late 1980s, when the accusations of human rights violations first began to be reported, but has made little effort to acknowledge its own part in the creation of the monster that the School of the Americas unleashed on Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America. According to declassified US military documents from the National Security Archive at George Washington University, 12 of the 18 former military leaders facing charges in Guatemala were trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Key names include: Gen. Benedicto Lucas García, head of the army during the administration of his late brother Fernando Romeo Lucas García and mastermind of the military’s scorched-earth campaign in the early 1980s; Col. Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, co-conspirator of fellow School of the Americas alumnus Efraín Ríos Montt in his 1982 coup d’état; and Gen. Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, head of army intelligence during the scorched-earth campaign led by Lucas García. The Public Ministry has also filed for impeachment against Col. Édgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, one of the founders of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’ political party. Ovalle Maldonado recently won a seat in Guatemala’s Congress, providing him with immunity – unless the impeachment filing is successful.
The charges are based around an investigation by the Guatemalan Public Ministry into the campaign of forced disappearances in Military Zone 21 in Cobán. Since the end of the war, forensic anthropologists from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation have unearthed 558 skeletal remains from 84 different graves on the former military base, which today is called the Regional Training Center for Peacekeeping Operations.
Yet many times those accused of being guerrillas were not related to the guerrillas; they were an organized group of poor farmers who were struggling for their land, or groups inspired by the progressive leaders in the Catholic Church, struggling to form collectives and cooperatives. But Washington’s paranoia over the spread of communism led to unspeakable crimes against humanity. The left became the enemy, and Washington’s enemy became the enemy of those under the sphere of US influence.
The case of the Regional Training Center for Peacekeeping Operations highlights the tragic history of the United States’ intervention in Guatemala. The origins of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict can be traced to the CIA-backed coup d’état against democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 following the passing of land reform that impacted transnational companies like the United Fruit Company. The US State Department and the company, which justified why he was to be removed, had declared Arbenz a communist threat.
According to the book Bitter Fruit by historians Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, at the time, a State Department analyst by the name of Henry Holland had confided in a colleague his fears that any intervention could send the region into civil war; by 1960, the war had arrived. Young officers inspired by the democratic reforms of Arbenz took to the mountains alongside members of the Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) to fight to reinstate Arbenz’s progressive policies.
By the 1980s, the Guatemalan military had perfected its machinery of forced disappearances and massacres.
Washington began to send advisers to the region in support of the government that they had installed in 1954. In late 1965, Washington sent John P. Logan, the chief public safety adviser in Venezuela, to Guatemala for two weeks to meet with high-ranking Guatemalan military officials to lay the foundation of the covert and overt campaign of coordinated kidnappings. This would later evolve into a campaign of terror in response to the growing insurgency. By the 1980s, the Guatemalan military had perfected its machinery of forced disappearances and massacres.
This campaign was strengthened by the trainings that Guatemalan military commanders received from the United States at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. At the base, beginning in 1946, the United States began training high-ranking military officials from across Latin America in counterinsurgency tactics to combat guerrilla insurgencies across the region. The school’s graduates have been accused of some of the worst human rights violations during the dirty wars, including the campaign of forced disappearances.
Guatemala became Washington’s testing ground, where the dirty war was perfected, and where the students of the School of the Americas carried out a campaign against leftists. The victims would be taken, tortured and killed shortly after. According to now declassified US State Department, CIA and Defense Department cables made available through the National Security Archive, their remains would either be buried in clandestine graves, left along rural roads or thrown into the ocean. These are the same tactics that were deployed by alumni of the School of the Americas against leftists in South America as part of Operation Condor by the right-wing military dictatorships, under the direction of the United States.
The United States remained aware of the tactics used to disappear critics of the right-wing military dictatorship, and this technique is highlighted in a 1995 Defense Department cable, which covers some of the techniques the Guatemalan military intelligence, known as D-2, used during the 1980s. “One technique used (redacted) to remove insurgents that had been killed during integration, and at times, who were still alive but needed to disappear (was) to throw them out of an aircraft over the ocean.” But US officials never reference the United States’ hand in these policies throughout the declassified documents.
Ultimately, this new movement to prosecute former military leaders in Guatemala may be an important step in overcoming the impunity enjoyed by Guatemala’s former military leaders for their role in the campaign of terror against civilian populations during the war. It does little, however, to address the role of the United States and its Cold War politics in the unspeakable state-sponsored violence that occurred in Guatemala over the course of the war. Through trainings at the School of the Americas, the Guatemalan military learned and perfected tactics of torture and disappearance that were perpetrated against those they deemed “the internal enemy.”
In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton made a surprise trip to Guatemala to make a verbal apology for the US policies – what he referred to as “improprieties” – that so greatly impacted communities across Guatemala. But this apology did little for the communities that today still feel the fear and pain of the disappearance of their loved ones. They too are asking when the United States will be held responsible for their key role in constructing the infrastructure that enabled these crimes. But Washington’s power has kept the US untouchable, and the School of the Americas has stated that “no school should be held accountable for the actions of its students.” The effects of the policies that left so many missing, dead and psychosocially affected cannot be addressed until Washington recognizes the horrors that it created in the name of fighting communism.
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