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May 26, 1999
The US-Guatemala File

By Robert Parry

The modern Guatemalan tragedy traces back to 1954 and a CIA-engineered coup against the reform-minded government of Jacobo Arbenz. But other lesser-known chapters in the blood-soaked saga -- spanning 40 years -- also feature American officials in important supporting roles.

Newly released U.S. government documents describe in chilling detail, often in cold bureaucratic language, how American advisers and their Cold War obsession spurred on the killings and hid the horrible secrets.

In the mid-1960s, for instance, the Guatemalan security forces were disorganized, suffering from internal divisions, and possibly infiltrated by leftist opponents. So, the U.S. government dispatched U.S. public safety adviser John Longon from his base in Venezuela.

Arriving in late 1965, Longon sized up the problem and began reorganizing the Guatemalan security forces into a more efficient - and ultimately, more lethal - organization. In a Jan. 4, 1966, report on his activities, Longon said he recommended both overt and covert components to the military's battle against "terrorism."

One of Longon's strategies was to seal off sections of Guatemala City and begin house-to-house searches. "The idea behind this was to force some of the wanted communists out of hiding and into police hands, as well as to convince the Guatemalan public that the authorities were doing something to control the situation." Longon also arranged for U.S. advisers to begin giving "day-to-day operational advice" to Guatemalan police.

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." Longon's operation within the presidential compound was the starting point for the infamous "Archivos" intelligence unit that became the clearinghouse for political assassinations.

Longon's final recommendations sought assignment of special U.S. advisers to assist in the covert operations and delivery of special intelligence equipment, presumably for spying on Guatemalan citizens. With the American input, the Guatemalan security forces soon became one of the most feared counterinsurgency operations in Latin America.

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.

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] counter-insurgency 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."

The mounting death toll in Guatemala disturbed some of the American officials assigned to the country. One official, 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, rather than moral, terms, but his personal 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. I need hardly add the aspect of domestic U.S. reactions.

“This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all -- that we have not been honest with ourselves. 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.

“Have our values been so twisted by our adversary concept of politics in the hemisphere? Is it conceivable that we are so obsessed with insurgency that we are prepared to rationalize murder as an acceptable counter-insurgency weapon? Is it possible that a nation which so revers the principle of due process of law has so easily acquiesced in this sort of terror tactic?”

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 reports from the field.

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.

Fort Holabird was the center for Project X, the distillation of U.S. lessons learned in conducting counterinsurgency warfare.

Begun in the mid-1960s, Project X employed veterans of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam who shared their experiences on effective methods of interrogation, coercion and ambushes. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]

Back in Guatemala, Lt. Col. Ramirez Cervantes was put in charge of plotting raids on suspected subversives as well as their interrogations.

As brutal as the security forces were in the 1960s and 1970s, the worst was yet to come. In the 1980s, the Guatemalan army escalated its slaughter of political dissidents and their suspected supporters to unprecedented levels.

For the full documents, see the National Security Archive’s Web site at

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