The original Guatemalan death squads took shape in
the mid-1960s under anti-terrorist training provided by a U.S. public
safety adviser named John Longon, according to the documents. In January
1966, Longon reported to his superiors about both overt and covert
components of his anti-terrorist strategies.
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,” according to Longon’s report.
Longon’s operation within the presidential compound
became the starting point for the infamous “Archivos” intelligence unit
that evolved into a clearinghouse for Guatemala’s most notorious
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, 1966.
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] counterinsurgency 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."
Human Rights Warnings
The mounting death toll in Guatemala
disturbed some American officials assigned to the country. 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 terms,
but his moral 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
Vaky also noted the deceptions within
the U.S. government that resulted from its complicity in state-sponsored
terror. “This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing
of all -- that we have not been honest with ourselves,” Vaky said. “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.”
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
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. Back in
Guatemala, Ramirez Cervantes was put in charge of plotting raids on
suspected subversives as well as their interrogations.
The Reagan Bloodbath
As brutal as the Guatemalan 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.
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 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 optimism.
For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender of right-wing regimes that
engaged in bloody counterinsurgency against leftist enemies.
In the late 1970s, when Carter's human rights coordinator,
Patricia 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.]
After his election in 1980, Reagan pushed to overturn an arms
embargo imposed on Guatemala by Carter. Yet as Reagan was moving to
loosen up the military aid ban, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence
agencies were confirming new Guatemalan government massacres.
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
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
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,"
inspired and supported by Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Yet, even as these
rationalizations were pitched to the American people, U.S. intelligence
agencies in Guatemala continued to learn of government-sponsored
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
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 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
In March 1982, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt seized power in a coup d’etat.
An avowed fundamentalist Christian, he immediately impressed official
Washington, where Reagan hailed Rios Montt as "a man of great personal
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
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, the cable put a
positive 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 an analysis that the Guatemalan
government was the victim of a communist-inspired "disinformation
campaign," a claim embraced by Reagan when he declared that the
Guatemalan government was getting a "bum rap" on human rights after he
met with Rios Montt in December 1982.
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. 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 sugarcoated the facts for the American public and
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
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 Montt’s vengeful
Christian fundamentalism was hurtling out of control, even by Guatemalan
standards. In August 1983, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in
Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued to kill
those who were deemed subversives or terrorists. 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 1983, 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 army’s stubborn
brutality, was gone, replaced by a far-right political appointee named
Alberto Piedra, who was all for increased military assistance to
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."
Other examples of Guatemala’s “death squad” strategy came to light
later. For example, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency cable in 1994
reported that the Guatemalan military had used an air base in Retalhuleu
during the mid-1980s as a center for coordinating the counterinsurgency
campaign in southwest Guatemala – and for torturing and burying
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
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 live prisoners marked for
“disappearance” were loaded onto planes that flew out over the ocean
where the soldiers would shove the victims into the water to drown, a
tactic that had been a favorite disposal technique of the Argentine
military in the 1970s.
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by accident in
the early 1990s when 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," the DIA report said.
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. Deception of
the American public – a strategy that the administration internally
called “perception management” – was as much a part of the Central
American story as the Bush administration’s lies and distortions about
weapons of mass destruction were to the lead-up to the war in Iraq.
Reagan's falsification of the historical record became a hallmark of
the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua as well as Guatemala. In one
case, Reagan personally lashed out at a 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 contra "freedom-fighters,"
Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985, calling him "one
of dictator [Daniel] Ortega's supporters, a sympathizer who has openly
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 memoirs, 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.]
To manage U.S. perceptions of the wars in Central America, Reagan
also authorized a systematic program of distorting information and
intimidating American journalists. Called "public diplomacy," the
project was run by a CIA propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who was
assigned to the National Security Council staff. 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 some 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: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
The tamed reporters, in turn, gave the administration a far freer
hand to pursue counterinsurgency operations in 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 given any significant punishment for the bloodshed,
nor did any U.S. officials pay even a political price.
The U.S. officials who sponsored and encouraged these war crimes not
only escaped legal judgment, but remain highly respected figures in
Washington. Some have returned to senior government posts under George
W. Bush. Meanwhile, Reagan has been honored as few recent presidents
have with major public facilities named after him, including National
Airport in Washington.
On Feb. 25, 1999, a Guatemalan truth
commission issued a report on the staggering human rights crimes that
Reagan and his administration had aided, abetted and concealed.
The Historical Clarification Commission, an
independent human rights body, estimated that the Guatemalan 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 northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter a "genocide."
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
"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 said.
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, 1999, President Bill
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.
[Many of the declassified documents are posted on the Internet by the
National Security Archive.]