Reagan and Guatemala’s Death Files

From the Archive: A 9-foot-high bronze statue honoring President Ronald Reagan has been unveiled at National Airport, continuing the deification of the right-wing icon. Left out of the celebration was anything about Reagan’s dark side, as Robert Parry recounted in this article from 1999.

By Robert Parry (Originally published May 26, 1999)

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.

Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. President

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.

Truth Commission

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.

Overturning Carter

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.

Internal Admissions

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.

Massacre Reports

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.”

Regional Slaughter

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.]

Perception Management

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.

[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

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.

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14 comments on “Reagan and Guatemala’s Death Files

  1. Manny Gonzalez on said:

    Mr. Parry fact is prior to Reagan there was a red wave all over Latin America and Africa. After Reagan, even the perpetrators of more deaths than Hitler like good old Mao and Stalin have seen their glorious system fall to the ash heap of history.
    What about the Berlin wall? Did not see many capitalist in the west trying to climb over to join Honecker and the Stasi; I love when you guys mention Iran Contra. What was that about? lets see congress did not want to fund those who actually brought change to Nicaragua with actual election; so they sold through Israeli intelligence weaponry to Iran “who was at war with Iraq by the way” so they could fund the contra….. Oh yeah that was bad. I guess that is why Oliver North wiped the floor with congress. Nothing like fast and furious ah Mr Parry? By the way who did the people of Guatemala and El Salvador choose when they had a chance?

    No matter how hard you guys try to rewrite history when it come to Reagan you will have to deal with us and the facts.

    • tedbohne on said:

      YOU………are clearly bereft of any facts and a member of the republican cartel. notice that Daniel Ortega is the president in Nicaragua? the terrorists the republicans called “freedom fighters” are either dead or gone? What about Vietnam? America received an asskicking there as well as Iraq, Afghanistan, and only by cowardice led the coalition to kill Khaddafi. The u.s., by the way, has NEVER WON A CONFLICT SINCE WWII. you should see the american war crimes demonstrated then. reagan was a mushroom brained clod who talked to spirits his wife dug up for him. he was a mental midget and a TRUE republican.

  2. Larry Piltz on said:

    My first quick scan of the article gave me, “continuing the ‘defecation’ of the right-wing icon”. And we’ve been trying to shit out Reaganism ever since.

  3. Cecil Watson on said:

    and you continue with the untruths. Re the vegetable garden on the corner of the Air Base in Retalhuleu. That base has been dug up forwards and backwards and nothing has ever been found. Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes true????

    I have lived in Guatemala from 1975 to today and most of what you say is fabricated, embellishments of actual happenings. In 1981 most of the highlands were in hands of the guerillas and we didn’t know if we were going to be here in a year or not.

    The Army than began the program of “fusiles y frijoles” where they armed the civilian indigenous people to help the armed forces protect themselves. This was requested by the indigenous people. (things you omit from your article). The Army armed over 1,000,000 indigenous people during the conflict. This is where your genocide acusations do not hold water. This was more of a civil war with brother fighting brother. The Army itself was composed of more than 80% indigenous people. Their West Point back then was a High School which you could opt to go after completing your Sophmore year in High School and doing 3 years of basically High School work, graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant.

    That civil rights commision didn’t document 80% of the atrocities committed by the guerrillas. One small example…the cold blooded killing of Mr. Frank Bruderer on his small 200 acre coffee farm in the highlands of Quetzaltenango in February 1981. The man took 3 Kalashnikov rounds in the back through the kidneys and took several hours to die. See if that is listed in this historical commisions report?

    Thanks to the Frijoles and Fusiles policy they managed to start taking back territory and finally the signing of the peace which the guerrilla faction has not respected and taken advantage of.

    You people really make me sick.

    • Manny Gonzalez on said:

      Cecil, I lived in Honduras from 1972 to 1981. Like you I saw what the long gone Soviet System along with Castro did to that region. I challenge people like Mr. Parry to go to the horses mouth in form of Soviet Declassified documents that clearly state the impact that the Reagan doctrine along with the Pope, Thatcher and the decision of Helmut Kohl to allow the Pershings into West Germany had. I remember the peace marches in Europe (western) and in the U.S. I don’t recall any in Cuba or any of the Soviet satellites though.
      Great work Cecil.

      • It’s scarcely a surprise that neither Manny nor Cecil acknowledge that both the Catholic Church and the United Nations, independently, confirmed that roughly 93% of the murdering was done by the tyrannical, Guatemalan military that the USA armed, equipped and lied for. Nor do either acknowledge that Castro’s Cuba, despite its horrid practices, was a much better and safer place for the poor than virtually any of the military oligarchies the USA supported – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, etc.

        Nor is it a surprise that neither acknowledge that, as the London Independent pointed out on August 11, 2000:

        quote

        The Guatemalan President, Alfonso Portillo, astonished human rights activists yesterday by admitting government responsibility for a series of bloody atrocities during the country’s 36-year civil war.

        The Guatemalan President, Alfonso Portillo, astonished human rights activists yesterday by admitting government responsibility for a series of bloody atrocities during the country’s 36-year civil war.

        Coming so soon after the trials of repressors in other South American countries – particularly the high-profile immunity case against the former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet – Mr Portillo’s pledge to investigate Guatemalan village massacres, to prosecute the murderers and to compensate the victims’ families is seen as a significant gesture. Many Latin American regimes have taken decades to acknowledge the bloody repression that had installed them and kept them in power.

        Claudio Grossman, a Chilean diplomat who sits on the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Human Rights Commission, said: “It is very courageous what the president did today.” The commission has signed an agreement with the Guatemalan government that affirms the state’s institutional responsibility for war crimes, and will monitor the actions of the Guatemalan government in light of it new promises.

        The repercussions of airing Guatemala’s dark past can be profound: only two days after a report on army abuses was published in April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was responsible for the report, was bludgeoned to death. Five people have been arrested for his murder, but the case has yet to be resolved.

        Ethnic tensions between mixed-race Ladinos and dirt-poor Maya Indians still underly the country’s simmering violence, and the death toll of Guatemala’s often-overlooked “Dirty War” is estimated at 200,000, 50 times more than in Chile. Many Guatemalan activists view the new investigations as a response to international pressure and an official attempt to counteract the culture of violence that has remained ingrained in Central America’s most populous country. Mob violence, lynchings, and incessant urban street crime have marred Mr Portillo’s term, and he recently sent his family to safety in Canada after a gang sent death threats.

        Mr Portillo was elected in January on a national reconciliation manifesto, and in spite of his close campaign links with the former military dictator General Efrain Rios Montt he is determined that his country’s festering wounds begin to heal. He appointed former human rights activists to his cabinet and promised an end to impunity, apologising for the previous government excesses.

        Among the worst was a “scorched earth” policy overseen by Rios Montt, Mr Portillo’s political mentor, which in 1982 resulted in security troops routinely slaughtering villagers as they torched more than 400 Maya hamlets, often with the residents still trapped inside their huts. Any place suspected of sheltering insurgents was targeted. In one jungle settlement, the women were ordered to first roast all the village fowl so the soldiers could feast before the human slaughter began. One young pregnant woman had the foetus ripped from her womb and replaced by the severed head of a neighbour. Rape of women and children was commonplace.

        Last year, during a heated election campaign, a United Nations commission accused Guatemala of practising genocide during the civil war and called for the government to recognise the most infamous cases. Several court cases are already underway.

        Accusations against the former President Romeo Lucas Garcia, his former chief of staff, Benedicto Lucas Garcia, and the former Defence Minister Luis Rene Mendoza Palomo, centre on 17 massacres in which more than 800 civilians died.

        Mr Portillo affirmed that in 1982, Guatemalan troops massacred 200 Indians in Plan de Sanchez and a further 120 in Dos Erres. The disappearance of investigative journalist Irma Flaker in 1980, the murder of a dozen leftist students in 1989, and the suspicious 1990 robbery which ended in the fatal stabbing of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist who had accused the army of violating the rights of Maya Indians, are among the roll call of brutality to which Guatemala now admits.

        The President also held the state responsible for at least 10 disappearances of small children which were brought to light on Monday by the Roman Catholic Church in Guatemala. According to a report issued by ODEH, the human rights wing of the Catholic Church, children aged between one and four were frequently taken off as war booty and sold by individual Guatemalan soldiers.

        Frank LaRue, the Director of the Human Rights Legal Action Centre, which represents the families of massacre victims, said Mr Portillo’s action represented “an important step for human rights in Guatemala”.

        Compared to the bloodshed in neighbouring El Salvador and Nicaragua, where US interests were more at stake, the war in Guatemala was ignored for years. It has its roots in a United States-backed insurrection in 1954 that put Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas in power.

        The worst of the recent violence took place in remote highland villages. In Pacoj, a coffee-growing region, troops would arrive with packs full of toys and set up a marimba to lure as many villagers as possible to their death.

        Paul Seils, legal director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action in Guatemala City, said there was a “fundamental racism” in coverage of the atrocities. “The victims in Chile and Argentina were middle class and articulate with the media,” he said. “Here they are Indians, many of whom didn’t even speak Spanish.”

        unquote (you’ll find it by googling “Guatemala, Dirty War, Guatemala”)

        But it’s unfair to lay all blame on Reagan. He merely continued America’s policy of toppling popular democracies to install U.S. corporate-stooge govts, a policy that occurred most notably when our CIA toppled Guatemala’s popularly-elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954 in operation, “PBSUCCESS,” an event that set the stage for arming, equipping and supporting death squads throughout Latin America.

        Our support of murderous tyrants is consistent: Guatemala, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pinochet’s Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, Mubarak’s Egypt, Saddam Hussein, etc., etc. ad nauseum.

    • I’m a Guatemalan who lived through the darkest days of the civil war in that country and I know first hand what civil war means, also I know when people like Mr.Cecil Watson are distorting the facts trying to construct a reality base on false assumptions. I just don’t know what particulars are compelling you to state such falsehoods? It all point to a close relationship with the Guatemalan military someone committed to the re-writing of history for the benefit of the genocidal generals.

      You really make sick…

      Thank you Mr. Parry for this excellent story and for forcefully stating what really happened in Guatemalan’s civil war.

    • Wesley Sandel on said:

      I’ve spent some time in Guatemala and El Salvador investigating human rights abuses and found everything reported here to be completely accurate.

      As to the army arming the civilians: imagine you’re an Indian and a farmer in a remote Guatemalan village. Two hundred heavily armed Guatemalan soldiers show up and occupy your village. They single out a half dozen locals and torture them to death. Then they gather you and your neighbors up and tell you that the “insurgents” are “communists” and that you are going to form a civil guard to protect yourselves from them. The give you a half dozen old rifles and no ammunition and assign you to “patrol” duties every night for years. A few of the local protest this and they are beaten to death or simply disappeared after being accused of being “insurgents.”

      This is how Frijoles and Fusiles worked.

      In Guatemala and El Salvador, if you wanted to change the political and economic situation, which was that a very small handful of very rich people own your country and all of it’s resources, and you join a political party and begin to organize and lobby and try to get out the vote, you were labeled a “communist” and “insurgent” and put on a list. In El Salvador tens of thousands of ordinary civilians were picked up in the middle of the night from their homes or simply grabbed off the streets and tortured to death (one favored method was to hang you by your wrists and stick a hot soldering iron between the vertebrata until you died) and then dump the naked corpses in piles on the streets to be found in the morning.

      This was routine and went on for over a decade. And the people that did this were Ronald Reagan’s friends. Now many of them live in Florida.

      If Cecil and Manny would like I can take them to the sites of numerous mass graves of the victims of the army in Guatemala, or to the village of El Mozote in El Salvador. Don’t know about El Mozote? Google it and New Yorker for a really good and grimly entertaining account of the happenings there.

      In my first trip to Guatemala in 1991 I was simply a tourist and inadvertently ran into, not one, but two international war crimes commission grave exhumations. Large tents like you’d find at a wedding set up in the country but instead of festivities there be groups of scientists methodically dusting off the bones of victims of the Guatemalan government.

      Face it – if there was any justice every upper income Guatemalan would be rounded up, put in a plane and thrown out over the ocean at 20 thousand feet, and most of the Salvadoran “aristocracy” would have their children tortured to death with soldering irons and their bodies dumped at the doorsteps. What’s fair is fair.

  4. With respect, the “I was there” justification is narrow. Individual opinion is not necessarily wrong, of course, but it is limited compared with neutral, on site, fact-finding missions. Parry had access to those, and his books provide much more detail. Reagan’s denigration of the poor and middle class in THIS COUNTRY makes it easier to believe he would treat foreigners shabbily—given his paranoia about the Communists—even though intelligence reports showed the USSR was crumbling from within. If I am to decide between Parry and Reagan, I’ll side with Parry.
    Interesting side note: not an ounce of cocaine made it to the states while Ortega’s Sandanista government was in power, but it flowed in after he was deposed. Ortega once said, “Nicaragua is going to attack the US.”—or something like that. He was kidding, of course. The very idea was silly. He was poking fun at Reagan’s paranoia about the ‘red threat.’

  5. A friend of mine in grad school was from Guatemala. He told me that when he was about 13, he and some friends walked back into town one day to find villagers strung from lamp posts, dead. These folks had done nothing wrong. These people were victims of the army that our tax dollars funded…the same army that would decide an entire village was sympathetic to rebels for ridiculous reasons like being unable to provide info regarding rebel movements nearby.

    My friend said that he became a communist that day, because anyone fighting the army that we supported had to be doing a good thing.

    What Reagan did in Latin America was disgusting.

  6. Elisabeth Price on said:

    My Father at the time of Raygun was setting up air traffic control procedures and instruction in Latin America under OACI. He was asked to say that a Maryknoll missionary’s plane that was shot down delivering medicines was an accident. He said 50 mm bullets in a plane are not an accident. GODDAMN REAGUN AND HIS KILLING OF 250,000 GUATEMALEAN NATIVES. I HATE REAGUN-BUSH! My Father was pressured by both the US of A gov and the Guatemalean Gov. to say it was an accident, he said: NO,50 caliber bullets in the engine and fuseloge are not accidents.

    • Elisabeth Price on said:

      Reagan was probably incompetent at the time but BUSH1 wasn’t. He should be tried for Crimes against Humanity and Bill Clinton something for being such a close buddy to BUSH I

  7. rharwell on said:

    I have never been able to grasp this fascination/worshiping of Reagan. He was a sorry Calif. governor who favored the wealthy and hated all the social programs and unions–This was carried on into his Presidency along with other corporate hates. I believed for most of his life he was an idiot and fool, a tool for those who became the 1 Percenters, but that is not the case. He was not only a tool for corporate America, war profiteers, etc. but a sociopath/psychopath and I am most certain that is why he is on the pedestal next to their “God”. Not mine. The difference between Reagan and Bush 2 is this…Reagan really believed in what he was doing and cared less about genocide or human rights while Bush 2 only believed in himself and being one-up on his father. Both are criminals but Reagan was by far the worse one. Reagan is the Genghis Khan,the Mussolini, the Hitler, the Pinochet, the Hussen, the Gaddifi of war criminals and psychopaths. Oh, feel free to add others to this list.

  8. Pingback: Reagan and Guatemala’s death files | Independent Australia