May 26, 1999
Reagan & Guatemalas Death Files
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 recently released by the Clinton administration to assist the Guatemalan truth commissions 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 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."
But the newly declassified U.S. government records reveal 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 Reagans 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." [WP, 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 Cubas Fidel Castro.
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."
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 Guatemalas 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. 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 Montts vengeful Christian fundamentalism was hurtling out of control, even by Guatemalan standards. In August 1983, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in another coup.
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.
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 armys 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."