May 26, 1999
Reagan & Guatemalas Death Files
By Robert Parry
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 moves to punish 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 potential war criminal, the ailing ex-president is honored as a conservative icon with his name attached to Washington National Airport and with an active legislative push to have 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 most recently revisited on Feb. 25 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." [WP, 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, he 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.