In 1981, Ronald Reagan signaled Guatemala’s right-wing regime to escalate its death-squad operations, a decision that led to the murder of American priest Stanley Rother, now a candidate for sainthood, writes Nicolas J S Davies.
By Nicolas J S Davies
While Time magazine has named Donald Trump its “person of the year” for 2016, the Roman Catholic Church has honored a very different American by nominating Father Stanley Rother for sainthood.
Father Stanley was a parish priest in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala, from 1968 until a U.S.-backed death squad assassinated him in 1981. The inspiring life and tragic death of Father Stanley offer a counterpoint to the soulless, materialistic life of Donald Trump, and a life-affirming example of how an American can meet our country’s international brutality head-on in his own life and respond with grace, humanity and extraordinary courage.
Stanley is the first person born in the United States that the Catholic Church has recognized as a martyr. That he was killed by forces that his own government trained and supported, and that they killed him for the very qualities that make him a saint in the eyes of the Church, should spur Americans to reflect on the untenable moral position of our country in the world.
Father Stanley arrived in Guatemala 14 years after the CIA overthrew its democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. After the coup, U.S.-backed military governments reversed Arbenz’s modest land reforms and reinforced an economic and political power structure in which the descendants of 10 colonial families still own nearly all the productive land in Guatemala and rule over millions of poor indigenous people who they provide with only the barest minimum of healthcare, education and other public services.
A failed uprising by left-wing junior military officers at Guatemala’s national military academy in 1960 marked the beginning of 36 years of civil war, in which at least 200,000 people were killed. A U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission identified 93 percent of the dead and disappeared as victims of the U.S.-backed Guatemalan army, police and death squads, while only 3 percent were killed by guerrillas fighting the government and the killers of the other 4 percent were unknown.
Because the war devolved into a genocide against the Mayan indigenous population, who were sympathetic to the rebels, 83 percent of all the victims of the war were indigenous people. Since the peace agreement that ended the civil war in 1996, there have been modest improvements in public services in many indigenous communities: the meager fruits of decades of armed resistance that were only the latest chapter in a 500-year struggle for dignity and self-determination in the face of invasion, occupation, colonialism, slavery and brutality.
U.S. Role in Guatemala’s Civil War
Guatemala’s civil war was characterized by successive waves of brutal government repression and the emergence of new armed resistance groups in different parts of the country.
The survivors of the 1960 uprising worked with the Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT) and student groups to launch armed resistance in three different regions, but they numbered no more than 500 men under arms. In the mid 1960s, they were largely suppressed in Zacapa and Izabal provinces by the small 5,000-strong Guatemalan Army, supported by 2,000 paramilitaries and 1,000 U.S. special forces.
In Zacapa, the army’s scorched earth policy killed an estimated 15,000 people, 50 times more than were active in the armed resistance. Meanwhile, U.S.-trained urban death squads headed by Colonel Rafael Arriaga abducted, tortured and killed PGT members in Guatemala City, notably 28 prominent labor leaders who were abducted and disappeared in March 1966.
After the first wave of armed resistance was already largely suppressed, the government set out to compile more extensive lists of “subversives.” The model of “Committees Against Communism” set up by the CIA to kill thousands of Guatemalans after the 1954 coup was enhanced by a new telecommunications center and a new intelligence agency based in the presidential palace. The government compiled a database of people across the country, including leaders of farming co-ops and labor, student and indigenous activists, to provide ever-growing target lists for its death squads.
The CIA and the U.S. School of the Americas (SOA) have trained generations of U.S.-backed forces across Latin America and the world in this model of state terrorism, which is also still the model for U.S. special forces operations in Afghanistan and wherever U.S. occupation forces face resistance across the world.
Major Joseph Blair, the former director of instruction at the School of the Americas, described its training program to John Pilger in his film, The War You Don’t See: “The doctrine that was taught was that, if you want information, you use physical abuse, false imprisonment, threats to family members, and killing. If you can’t get the information you want, if you can’t get the person to shut up or stop what they’re doing, you assassinate them – and you assassinate them with one of your death squads.”
The SOA moved from Panama to Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1984, and was rebranded as the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” (WHINSEC) in 2001. U.S. officials have claimed that it no longer trains Latin American military officers in the use of torture and death squads, but Joe Blair has insisted that nothing really changed.
Testifying at a trial of SOA Watch protesters in 2002, Blair said, “There are no substantive changes besides the name. They teach the identical courses that I taught, and changed the course names, and use the same manuals.”
Another element of public deception in such U.S. “counterinsurgency” programs is the notion that the targets are actual guerrillas. In reality, because guerrillas are elusive by definition, these programs really target civilian populations to make them “pay a price” for giving material and moral support to armed resistance groups.
As the U.S. was unleashing newly trained death squads to counter growing resistance in Iraq in January 2005 in what Newsweek called the “Salvador option,” – but might equally have called the “Guatemala option” – a U.S. officer was unusually candid about the real purpose of the campaign.
“The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving the terrorists,” he told Newsweek, “From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.” The unintended but unavoidable consequence of such a brutal strategy against civilian populations is to put them in a position where they have nothing left to lose by joining armed resistance groups, driving many to do so.
As Albert Camus wrote in Combat, the underground French Resistance newspaper that he edited in 1944 “you will be killed, deported, or tortured as a sympathizer just as easily as if you were a militant. Act: your risk will be no greater, and you will at least share in the peace at heart that the best of us take with them into the prisons.”
From Guatemala to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government has not yet found an effective response to Camus’s appeal. The only real solution would be to not put people in such an intolerable position in the first place, but that would conflict with the intractable “institutional myopia” that is endemic in U.S. official circles, under which, as historian Gabriel Kolko wrote in 1994, “options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become not merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible in official circles.”
Father Stanley in Santiago Atitlan
Soon after Father Stanley arrived in Guatemala in 1968, Colonel Manuel Arana Ossorio was elected president in a far from democratic election in 1970. Arana declared a “state of siege” in the country. In one speech, he said he would “not hesitate to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it.”
Arana’s four-year reign of terror killed another 20,000 people across the country and provoked the formation of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) among the Ixil people in the northern highlands, where the Army’s brutal counter-insurgency strategy escalated to genocide in the 1980s.
In Santiago, Father Stanley drew on his own background in rural Oklahoma to establish a farmers’ cooperative, a school, a hospital and a radio station, and he shared the hard life and conditions of his parishioners in the spirit of “liberation theology,” like many other Catholic priests in Latin America at the time. He fell in love with the local Tz’utujil people and culture, and learned their language well enough to conduct church services in Tz’utujil and to translate the New Testament of the Bible into Tz’utujil.
In the mid-1970s, a new labor movement in Guatemala united indigenous farmers with other workers in new labor unions and rural farming co-ops like the one that Father Stanley helped to organize in Santiago. The new co-ops and labor organizing saved hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in the highlands from a way of life in which they had been forced to abandon their own land and crops to spend months of each year working in near-slavery conditions on coffee plantations along the Pacific coast.
In the late 1970s, Rodrigo Asturias, the eldest son of the Nobel-prize winning Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, returned from exile in Mexico and launched a new armed resistance group called the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA). It was based in the Western highlands around Xela (Quetzaltenango), and also in the mountains and cloud forest above Father Stanley’s parish in Santiago Atitlan.
The government saw the cooperatives and the Catholic Church as part of the civilian base of support for the EGP, ORPA and other armed groups, and so co-op leaders and Catholic activists became prime targets for the death squads. In Ixil, 163 village and co-op leaders and 143 Catholic activists were assassinated or disappeared between 1976 and 1978.
U.S. Support For Genocide in Ixil
The election of General Romeo Lucas Garcia as president in 1978 unleashed a new escalation of death squad violence in both Guatemala City and in the highlands. Once President Ronald Reagan restored U.S. support to the Guatemalan army in 1981, Lucas unleashed the genocide in Ixil for which senior Guatemalan officials are now being prosecuted.
Consortiumnews has reported extensively on declassified CIA documents that reveal how much the new Reagan administration knew of the atrocities being committed in Guatemala when it restored U.S. military aid and support, only months before Father Stanley was assassinated. The Carter administration had partially cut off military aid to Guatemala in response to the crimes of its military rulers, so the CIA prepared extensive reviews of the situation in the country to justify the U.S. policy change that would unleash genocide in Ixil and tacitly approve death squad murders like Father Stanley’s in Santiago.
In April 1981, Vernon Walters, the former Deputy Director of the CIA and Reagan’s special envoy in the region, met with President Lucas in Guatemala. Walters’s talking points for the meeting included the approval of $3 million worth of military trucks and jeeps for the Guatemalan army. The U.S. also provided $2 million in covert CIA funding for Guatemala that year and eventually delivered military transport planes and helicopters worth another $45 million and 10 M41 tanks worth $34 million.
As Walters told Lucas in April, “We wish to reestablish our traditional military supply and training relationship as soon as possible.”
Walters’ talking points to President Lucas continued, “If you could give me your assurance that you will take steps to halt official involvement in the killing of persons not involved with the guerrilla forces or their civilian support mechanism we would be in a much stronger position to defend successfully with the Congress a decision to begin to resume our military supply relationship with your government.”
In this carefully worded statement, as Consortiumnews noted, the U.S. tacitly approved the killing, not just of people “involved with the guerrilla forces,” but also of people involved with their ”civilian support mechanism.”
Other CIA documents detail the massacre and destruction of entire villages in Ixil, and acknowledge that the army treated the entire indigenous population as the “civilian support mechanism” of the guerrillas. One CIA report concluded, “The well documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP (Guerrilla Army of the Poor) has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”
But the Reagan administration made a deliberate decision to increase U.S. military aid and moral and logistical support for these systematic war crimes, up to and including genocide.
Once the “traditional military supply and training relationship” was restored, Lieutenant Colonel George Maynes, the senior U.S. military adviser in Guatemala, sat down with General Benedicto Lucas, the president’s brother, to plan “Operation Ash,” in which 15,000 army troops swept through Ixil massacring indigenous people and burning hundreds of villages to ashes.
Death Squads In Santiago Atitlan
After the ORPA guerrillas began openly recruiting in Santiago Atitlan, the army set up a camp on the outskirts of the town in October 1980, from where it dispatched death squads to kill local leaders and activists. Ten people were killed or disappeared in the first two months.
At Christmas, Father Stanley wrote a public letter to fellow Catholics in Oklahoma: “The reality is that we are in danger. But we don’t know when or what form the government will use to further repress the Church… Given the situation, I am not ready to leave here just yet… But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it… I don’t want to desert these people, and that is what will be said, even after all these years. There is still a lot of good that can be done under the circumstances. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”
On Jan. 7, 1981, Father Stanley wrote again, to a friend in Oklahoma City, and described how a parishioner was abducted by four armed men just 15 feet from the door of the church as he tried to reach sanctuary.
Father Stanley wrote: “by the time I … got outside, they had taken him down the front steps of the church and were putting him in a waiting car. … I just stood there wanting to jump down to help, but knowing that I would be killed or taken along also. The car sped off with him yelling for help, but no one was able to help him.”
“Then I realized that I had just witnessed a kidnapping of someone that we had gotten to know and love and were unable to do anything about it. They had his mouth covered, but I can still hear his muffled screams for help. As I got back in the rectory I got a cramp in my back from the anger I felt that this friend was being taken off to be tortured for a day or two and then brutally murdered for wanting a better life and more justice for his pueblo. He had told me before, ‘I have never stolen, have never hurt anyone, have never eaten someone else’s food, why then do they want to hurt and kill me?’ He was 30 years old, left a wife and two boys, ages 3 and 1.”
Father Stanley added a postscript to the letter. In retaliation for a guerrilla ambush of an army convoy, the army had now abducted and killed another 17 people from Santiago. “[They] were not involved in anything,” he wrote, “Their bodies were found in different parts of the country. They, these bodies, were badly tortured, e.g. skin peeled off their faces, etc.” He added that two schoolteachers were also shot and killed the same day at an army roadblock.
A week or two later, Father Stanley was warned that his name was also on a death list, and he returned to Oklahoma for a few months. But he very bravely decided to go back to Santiago to celebrate Easter with his parishioners, and he was still there when the death squad came for him on July 28, 1981. He resisted going with them to be disappeared, but he didn’t call out for help for fear that anyone who came to help him would be killed too. His killers eventually shot him in his office.
Today in the church in Santiago, visitors can still see the office where Father Stanley was killed and a beautiful memorial to everyone killed or disappeared in Santiago, a sculpture of a white swan on an altar in a side-chapel. There are always local people of all ages praying at the memorial, from elderly widows of men long dead or disappeared to grandchildren who never met their grandfathers.
The last time I was there, there was also a group of children with guitars rehearsing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing In the Wind” in Spanish. If Father Stanley had lived a bit longer, he might well have translated that into Tz’utujil too.
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.