William Blum

Guatemala, 1962 to 1980s: A less publicized “final solution”

Indians tell harrowing stories of village raids in which their homes have been burned, men tortured hideously and killed, women raped, and scarce crops destroyed. It is Guatemala’s final solution to insurgency: only mass slaughter of the Indians will prevent them joining a mass uprising. 1

This newspaper item appeared in 1983.  Very similar stories have appeared many times in the world press since 1966, for Guatemala’s “final solution” has been going on rather longer than the more publicized one of the Nazis.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the misery of the mainly-Indian peasants and urban poor of Guatemala who make up three-quarters of the population of this beautiful land so favored by American tourists.  The particulars of their existence derived from the literature of this period sketch a caricature of human life.  In a climate where everything grows, very few escape the daily ache of hunger or the progressive malnutrition … almost half the children die before the age of five … the leading cause of death in the country is gastro-enteritis. Highly toxic pesticides sprayed indiscriminately by airplanes, at times directly onto the heads of peasants, leave a trail of poisoning and death … public health services in rural areas are virtually non-existent … the same for public education … near-total illiteracy.  A few hundred families possess almost all the arable land … thousands of families without land, without work, jammed together in communities of cardboard and tin houses, with no running water or electricity, a sea of mud during the rainy season, sharing their bathing and toilet with the animal kingdom.  Men on coffee plantations earning 20 cents or 50 cents a day, living in circumstances closely resembling concentration camps … looked upon by other Guatemalans more as beasts of burden than humans.  A large plantation to sell, reads the advertisement, “with 200 hectares and 300 Indians” … this, then was what remained of the ancient Mayas, whom the American archeologist Sylvanus Morely had called the most splendid indigenous people on the planet. 2

The worst was yet to come.

We have seen how, in 1954, Guatemala’s last reform government, the legally-elected regime of Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown by the United States.  And how, in 1960, nationalist elements of the Guatemalan military who were committed to slightly opening the door to change were summarily crushed by the CIA.  Before long, the ever-accumulating discontent again issued forth in a desperate lunge for alleviation – this time in the form of a guerrilla movement – only to be thrown back by a Guatemalan-American operation reminiscent of the Spanish conquistadores in its barbarity.

In the early years of the 1960s, the guerilla movement, with several military officers of the abortive 1960 uprising prominent amongst the leadership, was slowly finding its way: organizing peasant support in the countryside, attacking an army outpost to gather arms, staging a kidnapping or bank robbery to raise money, trying to avoid direct armed clashes with the Guatemalan military.

Recruitment amongst the peasants was painfully slow and difficult; people so drained by the daily struggle to remain alive have little left from which to draw courage; people so downtrodden scarcely believe they have the right to resist, much less can they entertain thoughts of success; as fervent Catholics, they tend to believe that their misery is a punishment from God for sinning.

Some of the guerrilla leaders flirted with Communist Party and Trotskyist ideas and groups, falling prey to the usual factional splits and arguments.  Eventually, no ideology or sentiment dominated the movement more than a commitment to the desperately needed program of land reform aborted by the 1954 coup, a simple desire for a more equitable society, and nationalist pride vis-a-vis the United States.  New York Times correspondent Alan Howard, after interviewing guerrilla leader Luis Turcios, wrote:

Though he has suddenly found himself in a position of political leadership, Turcios is essentially a soldier fighting for a new code of honor.  If he has an alter ego, it would not be Lenin or Mao or even Castro, whose works he has read and admires, but Augusto Sandino, the Nicaraguan general who fought the U.S. Marines sent to Nicaragua during the Coolidge and Hoover Administrations. 3

In March 1962, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest against the economic policies, the deep-rooted corruption, and the electoral fraud of the government of General Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes.  Initiated by students, the demonstrations soon picked up support from worker and peasant groups.  Police and military forces eventually broke the back of the protests, but not before a series of violent confrontations and a general strike had taken place.

The American military mission in Guatemala, permanently stationed there, saw and heard in this, as in the burgeoning guerrilla movement, only the omnipresent “communist threat”.  As US military equipment flowed in, American advisers began to prod a less-alarmed and less-than-aggressive Guatemalan army to take appropriate measures.  In May the United States established a base designed specifically for counter-insurgency training.  (The Pentagon prefers the term “counter-insurgency” to “counter-revolutionary” because of the latter’s awkward implications.)  Set up in the northeast province of Izabal, which, together with adjacent Zacapa province, constituted the area of heaviest guerrilla support, the installation was directed by a team of US Special Forces (Green Berets) of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent to make the North American presence less conspicuous. The staff of the base was augmented by 15 Guatemalan officers trained in counter-insurgency at the US School of the Americas at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. 4

American counter-insurgency strategy is typically based on a carrot-and-stick philosophy.  Accordingly, while the Guatemalan military were being taught techniques of ambush, booby-traps, jungle survival and search-and-destroy warfare, and provided with aircraft and pilot training, a program of “civil action” was begun in the northeast area: some wells were built, medicines distributed, school lunches provided etc., as well as promises of other benefits made, all aimed at stealing a bit of the guerrillas’ thunder and reducing the peasants’ motivation for furnishing support to them; and with the added bonus of allowing American personnel to reconnoitre guerrilla territory under a non-military cover.  Land reform, overwhelmingly the most pressing need in rural Guatemala, was not on the agenda.

As matters were to materialize, the attempt at “winning the hearts and minds” of the peasants proved to be as futile in Guatemala as it was in southeast Asia.  When all the academic papers on “social systems engineering” were in, and all the counter-insurgency studies of the RAND Corporation and the other think-tanks were said and done, the recourse was to terror: unadulterated, dependable terror.  Guerrillas, peasants, students, labor leaders, and professional people were jailed or killed by the hundreds to put a halt, albeit temporarily, to the demands for reform. 5

The worst was yet to come.

In March 1963, General Ydigoras, who had been elected in 1958 for a six-year term, was overthrown in a coup by Col. Enrique Peralta Azurdia.  Veteran Latin American correspondent Georgie Anne Geyer later reported that “top sources within the Kennedy administration have revealed the U.S. instigated and supported the 1963 coup.”  Already in disfavor with Washington due to several incidents, Ydigoras apparently sealed his fate by allowing the return to Guatemala of Juan José Arévalo who had led a reform government before Arbenz and still had a strong following.  Ydigoras was planning to step down in 1964, thus leaving the door open to an election and, like the Guatemalan army, Washington, including President Kennedy personally, believed that a free election would reinstate Arévalo to power in a government bent upon the same kind of reforms and independent foreign policy that had led the United States to overthrow Arbenz. 6  Arévalo was the author of a book called The Shark and the Sardines in which he pictured the US as trying to dominate Latin America.  But he had also publicly denounced Castro as “a danger to the continent, a menace”. 7

The tone of the Peralta administration was characterized by one of its first acts: the murder of eight political and trade union leaders, accomplished by driving over them with rock-laden trucks. 8 Repressive and brutal as Peralta was, during his three years in power US military advisers felt that the government and the Guatemalan army still did not appreciate sufficiently the threat posed by the guerrillas, still were strangers to the world of unconventional warfare and the systematic methods needed to wipe out the guerrillas once and for all; despite American urging, the army rarely made forays into the hills.

Peralta, moreover, turned out to be somewhat of a nationalist who resented the excessive influence of the United States in Guatemala, particularly in his own sphere, the military.  He refused insistent American offers of Green Beret troops trained in guerrilla warfare to fight the rebels, preferring to rely on his own men, and he restricted the number of Guatemalan officers permitted to participate in American training programs abroad.

Thus it was that the United States gave its clear and firm backing to a civilian, one Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro, in the election held in March 1966.  Mendez won what passes for an election in Guatemala and granted the Americans the free hand they had been chafing at the bit for.  He served another important function for the United States: as a civilian, and one with genuine liberal credentials, Mendez could be pointed to by the Johnson administration as a response to human rights critics at home.

However, whatever social conscience Julio Cesar Mendez may have harbored deep within, he was largely a captive of the Guatemalan army, and his administration far exceeded Peralta’s in its cruelty.  Yet the army did not trust this former law school professor – in the rarefied atmosphere of Guatemala, some military men regarded him as a communist – and on at least two occasions, the United States had to intervene to stifle a coup attempt against him. Within days after Mendez took office in July, US Col. John D. Webber, Jr. arrived in Guatemala to take command of the American military mission.  Time magazine later described his role:

Webber immediately expanded counterinsurgency training within Guatemala’s 5,000-man army, brought in U.S. Jeeps, trucks, communications equipment and helicopters to give the army more firepower and mobility, and breathed new life into the army’s civic-action program.  Towards the end of 1966 the army was able to launch a major drive against the guerrilla strongholds … To aid in the drive, the army also hired and armed local bands of “civilian collaborators” licensed to kill peasants whom they considered guerrillas or “potential” guerrillas.  There were those who doubted the wisdom of encouraging such measures in violence-prone Guatemala, but Webber was not among them.  ”That’s the way this country is,” he said. “The communists are using everything they have including terror.  And it must be met.” 9

The last was for home consumption.  There was never any comparison between the two sides as to the quantity and cruelty of their terror, as well as in the choice of targets; with rare exceptions, the left attacked only legitimate political and military enemies, clear and culpable symbols of their foe; and they did not torture, nor take vengeance against the families of their enemies.

Two of the left’s victims were John Webber himself and the US naval attaché, assassinated in January 1968.  A bulletin later issued by a guerrilla group stated that the assassinations had “brought to justice the Yanqui officers who were teaching tactics to the Guatemalan army for its war against the people”. 10

In the period October 1966 to March 1968, Amnesty International estimated, somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 Guatemalans were killed by the police, the military, right-wing “death squads” (often the police or military in civilian clothes, carrying out atrocities too bloody for the government to claim credit for), and assorted groups of civilian anti-communist vigilantes.  By 1972, the number of their victims was estimated at 13,000.  Four years later the count exceeded 20,000, murdered or disappeared without a trace.

Anyone attempting to organize a union or other undertaking to improve the lot of the peasants, or simply suspected of being in support of the guerrillas, was subject … unknown armed men broke into their homes and dragged them away to unknown places … their tortured or mutilated or burned bodies found buried in a mass grave, or floating in plastic bags in a lake or river, or lying beside the road, hands tied behind the back … bodies dropped into the Pacific from airplanes.  In the Gualán area, it was said, no one fished any more; too many corpses were caught in the nets … decapitated corpses, or castrated, or pins stuck in the eyes … a village rounded up, suspected of supplying the guerrillas with men or food or information, all adult males takenaway in front of their families, never to be seen again … or everyone massacred, the village bulldozed over to cover the traces … seldom were the victims actual members of a guerrilla band.

One method of torture consisted of putting a hood filled with insecticide over the head of the victim; there was also electric shock – to the genital area is the most effective; in those days it was administered by using military field telephones hooked up to small generators; the United States supplied the equipment and the instructions for use to several countries, including South Vietnam where the large-scale counter-insurgency operation was producing new methods and devices for extracting information from uncooperative prisoners; some of these techniques were finding their way to Latin America. 11

The Green Berets taught their Guatemalan trainees various methods of “interrogation”, but they were not solely classroom warriors.  Their presence in the countryside was reported frequently, accompanying Guatemalan soldiers into battle areas; the line separating the advisory role from the combat role is often a matter of public relations.

Thomas and Marjorie Melville, American Catholic missionaries in Guatemala from the mid-1950s until the end of 1967, have written that Col. Webber “made no secret of the fact that it was his idea and at his instigation that the technique of counter-terror had been implemented by the Guatemalan Army in the Zacapa and Izabal areas.” 12  The Melvilles wrote also of Major Bernard Westfall of Iowa City who:

perished in September 1967 in the crash of a Guatemalan Air Force jet that he was piloting alone. The official notices stated that the US airman was “testing” the aeroplane.  That statement may have been true, but it is also true that it was a common and public topic of conversation at Guatemala’s La Aurora air base that the Major often “tested” Guatemalan aircraft in strafing and bombing runs against guerrilla encampments in the Northeastern territory. 13

F-51(D) fighter planes modified by the United States for use against guerrillas in Guatemala … after modification, the planes are capable of patrolling for five hours over a limited area … equipped with six .50-calibre machine guns and wing mountings for bombs, napalm and 5-inch air-to-ground rockets. 14 The napalm falls on villages, on precious crops, on people … American pilots take off from Panama, deliver loads of napalm on targets suspected of being guerrilla refuges, and return to Panama 15 … the napalm explodes like fireworks and a mass of brilliant red foam spreads over the land, incinerating all that falls in its way, cedars and pines are burned down to the roots, animals grilled, the earth scorched … the guerrillas will not have this place for a sanctuary any longer, nor will they or anyone else derive food from it … halfway around the world in Vietnam, there is an instant replay.

In Vietnam they were called “free-fire zones”; in Guatemala, “zonas libres”: “Large areas of the country have been declared off limits and then subjected to heavy bombing. Reconnaissance planes using advanced photographic techniques fly over suspected guerrilla country and jet planes, assigned to specific areas, can be called in within minutes to kill anything that moves on the ground.” 16

“The military guys who do this are like serial killers.  If Jeffrey Dahmer had been in Guatemala, he would be a general by now.” … In Guatemala City, right-wing terrorists machine-gunned people and houses in full light of day … journalists, lawyers, students, teachers, trade unionists, members of opposition parties, anyone who helped or expressed sympathy for the rebel cause, anyone with a vaguely-leftist political association or a moderate criticism of government policy … relatives of the victims, guilty of kinship … common criminals, eliminated to purify the society, taken from jails and shot.  ”See a Communist, kill a Communist”, the slogan of the New Anticommunist Organization … an informer with hooded face accompanies the police along a city street or into the countryside, pointing people out: who shall live and who shall die … “this one’s a son of a bitch” … “that one … ”  Men found dead with their eyes gouged out, their testicles in their mouth, without hands or tongues, women with breasts cut off … there is rarely a witness to a killing, even when people are dragged from their homes at high noon and executed in the street … a relative will choose exile rather than take the matter to the authorities … the government joins the family in mourning the victim … 17

One of the death squads, Mano Blanca (White Hand), sent a death warning to a student leader. Former American Maryknoll priest Blase Bonpane has written:

I went alone to visit the head of the Mano Blanca and asked him why he was going to kill this lad.  At first he denied sending the letter, but after a bit of discussion with him and his first assistant, the assistant said, “Well, I know he’s a Communist and so we’re going to kill him.” “How do you know?” I asked. He said, “I know he’s a Communist because I heard him say he would give his life for the poor.” 18

Mano Blanca distributed leaflets in residential areas suggesting that doors of left-wingers be marked with a black cross. 19

In November 1967, when the American ambassador, John Gordon Mein, presented the Guatemalan armed forces with new armored vehicles, grenade launchers, training and radio equipment, and several HU-1B jet powered helicopters, he publicly stated:

These articles, especially the helicopters, are not easy to obtain at this time since they are being utilized by our forces in defense of the cause of liberty in other parts of the world [i.e., southeast Asia].  But liberty must be defended wherever it is threatened and that liberty is now being threatened in Guatemala. 20

In August 1968, a young French woman, Michele Kirk, shot herself in Guatemala City as the police came to her room to make “inquiries”.  In her notebook Michele had written:

It is hard to find the words to express the state of putrefaction that exists in Guatemala, and the permanent terror in which the inhabitants live.  Every day bodies are pulled out of the Motagua River, riddled with bullets and partially eaten by fish. Every day men are kidnapped right in the street by unidentified people in cars, armed to the teeth, with no intervention by the police patrols. 21

The US Agency for International Development (AID), its Office of Public Safety (OPS), and the Alliance for Progress were all there to lend a helping hand.  These organizations with their reassuring names all contributed to a program to greatly expand the size of Guatemala’s national police force and develop it into a professionalized body skilled at counteracting urban disorder. Senior police officers and technicians were sent for training at the Inter-American Police Academy in Panama, replaced in 1964 by the International Police Academy in Washington, at a Federal School in Los Fresnos, Texas (where they were taught how to construct and use a variety of explosive devices - see Uruguay chapter), and other educational establishments, their instructors often being CIA officers operating under OPS cover.  This was also the case with OPS officers stationed in Guatemala to advise local police commands and provide in-country training for rank-and-file policemen.  At times, these American officers participated directly in interrogating political prisoners, took part in polygraph operations, and accompanied the police on anti-drug patrols.

Additionally, the Guatemala City police force was completely supplied with radio patrol cars and a radio communications network, and funds were provided to build a national police academy and pay for salaries, uniforms, weapons, and riot-control equipment.

The glue which held this package together was the standard OPS classroom tutelage, similar to that given the military, which imparted the insight that “communists”, primarily of the Cuban variety, were behind all the unrest in Guatemala; the students were further advised to “stay out of politics”; that is, support whatever pro-US regime happens to be in power.

Also standard was the advice to use “minimum force” and to cultivate good community relations.  But the behavior of the police and military students in practice was so far removed from this that continued American involvement with these forces over a period of decades makes this advice appear to be little more than a self-serving statement for the record, the familiar bureaucratic maxim: Cover your ass. 22

According to AID, by 1970, over 30,000 Guatemalan police personnel had received OPS training in Guatemala alone, one of the largest OPS programs in Latin America. 23

“At one time, many AID field offices were infiltrated from top to bottom with CIA people,” disclosed John Gilligan, Director of AID during the Carter administration.  ”The idea was to plant operatives in every kind of activity we had overseas, government, volunteer, religious, every kind.” 24

By the end of 1968, the counter-insurgency campaign had all but wiped out the guerrilla movement by thwarting the rebels’ ability to operate openly and casually in rural areas as they had been accustomed to, and, through sheer terrorization of villagers, isolating the guerrillas from their bases of support in the countryside.

It had been an unequal match.  By Pentagon standards it had been a “limited” war, due to the absence of a large and overt US combat force.  At the same time, this had provided the American media and public with the illusion of their country’s non-involvement.  However, as one observer has noted: “In the lexicon of counterrevolutionaries, these wars are “limited” only in their consequences for the intervening power.  For the people and country under assault, they are total.” 25

Not until 1976 did another serious guerrilla movement arise, the Guatemalan Army of the Poor (EGP) by name.  Meanwhile, others vented their frustration through urban warfare in the face of government violence, which reached a new high during 1970 and 1971 under a “state of siege” imposed by the president, Col. Carlos Arana Osorio.  Arana, who had been close to the US military since serving as Guatemalan military attachç in Washington, and then as commander of the counter-insurgency operation in Zacapa (where his commitment to his work earned him the title of “the butcher of Zacapa”), decreed to himself virtually unlimited power to curb opposition of any stripe. 26

Amnesty International later stated that Guatemalan sources, including the Committee of the Relatives of Disappeared Persons, claimed that over 7,000 persons disappeared or were found dead in these two years.  ”Foreign diplomats in Guatemala City,” reported Le Monde in 1971, “believe that for every political assassination by left-wing revolutionaries fifteen murders are committed by right-wing fanatics.” 27

During a curfew so draconian that even ambulances, doctors and fire engines reportedly were forbidden outside … as American police cars and paddy wagons patrolled the streets day and night … and American helicopters buzzed overhead … the United States saw fit to provide further technical assistance and equipment to initiate a reorganization of Arana’s police forces to make them yet more efficient. 28

“In response to a question [from a congressional investigator in 1971] as to what he conceived his job to be, a member of the US Military Group (MILGP) in Guatemala replied instantly that it was to make the Guatemalan Armed Forces as efficient as possible. The next question as to why this was in the interest of the United States was followed by a long silence while he reflected on a point which had apparently never occurred to him.” 29 As for the wretched of Guatemala’s earth … in 1976 a major earthquake shook the land, taking over 20,000 lives, largely of the poor whose houses were the first to crumble … the story was reported of the American church relief worker who arrived to help the victims; he was shocked at their appearance and their living conditions; then he was informed that he was not in the earthquake area, that what he was seeing was normal. 30

“The level of pesticide spraying is the highest in the world,” reported the New York Times in 1977, “and little concern is shown for the people who live near the cotton fields” … 30 or 40 people a day are treated for pesticide poisoning in season, death can come within hours, or a longer lasting liver malfunction … the amounts of DDT in mothers’ milk in Guatemala are the highest in the Western world.  ”It’s very simple,” explained a cotton planter, “more insecticide means more cotton, fewer insects mean higher profits.”  In an attack, guerrillas destroyed 22 crop-duster planes; the planes were quickly replaced thanks to the genius of American industry 31 … and all the pesticide you could ever want, from Monsanto Chemical Company of St. Louis and Guatemala City.

During the Carter presidency, in response to human-rights abuses in Guatemala and other countries, several pieces of congressional legislation were passed which attempted to curtail military and economic aid to those nations.  In the years preceding, similar prohibitions regarding aid to Guatemala had been enacted into law.  The efficacy of these laws can be measured by their number.  In any event, the embargoes were never meant to be more than partial, and Guatemala also received weapons and military equipment from Israel, at least part of which was covertly underwritten by Washington.  32  As further camouflage, some of the training of Guatemala’s security forces was reportedly maintained by transferring it to clandestine sites in Chile and Argentina. 33

Testimony of an Indian woman:

My name is Rigoberta Menchú Tum.  I am a representative of the “Vincente Menchú” [her father] Revolutionary Christians … On 9 December 1979, my 16-year-old brother Patrocino was captured and tortured for several days and then taken with twenty other young men to the square in Chajul … An officer of [President] Lucas Garcia’s army of murderers ordered the prisoners to be paraded in a line.  Then he started to insult and threaten the inhabitants of the village, who were forced to come out of their houses to witness the event.  I was with my mother, and we saw Patrocino; he had had his tongue cut out and his toes cut off.  The officer jackal made a speech.  Every time he paused the soldiers beat the Indian prisoners.

When he finished his ranting, the bodies of my brother and the other prisoners were swollen, bloody, unrecognizable.  It was monstrous, but they were still alive.

They were thrown on the ground and drenched with gasoline. The soldiers set fire to the wretched bodies with torches and the captain laughed like a hyena and forced the inhabitants of Chajul to watch.  This was his objective – that they should be terrified and witness the punishment given to the “guerrillas”. 34

In 1992, Rigoberta Menchú Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Testimony of Fred Sherwood (CIA pilot during the overthrow of the Arbenz government in 1954 who settled in Guatemala and became president of the American Chamber of Commerce), speaking in Guatemala, September 1980:

Why should we be worried about the death squads?  They’re bumping off the commies, our enemies.  I’d give them more power.  Hell, I’d get some cartridges if I could, and everyone else would too … Why should we criticize them? The death squad – I’m for it … Shit!  There’s no question, we can’t wait ‘til Reagan gets in.  We hope Carter falls in the ocean real quick … We all feel that he [Reagan] is our saviour. 35

The Movement for National Liberation (MLN) was a prominent political party.  It was the principal party in the Arana regime. An excerpt from a radio broadcast in 1980 by the head of the party, Mario Sandoval Alarcon …

I admit that the MLN is the party of organized violence. Organized violence is vigor, just as organized color is scenery and organized sound is harmony.  There is nothing wrong with organized violence; it is vigor, and the MLN is a vigorous movement. 36

Mario Sandoval Alarcon and former president Arana (“the butcher of Zacapa”) “spent inaugural week mingling with the stars of the Reagan inner circle”, reported syndicated columnist Jack Anderson.  Sandoval, who had worked closely with the CIA in the overthrow of Arbenz, announced that he had met with Reagan defense and foreign-policy advisers even before the election. Right-wing Guatemalan leaders were elated by Reagan’s victory. They looked forward to a resumption of the hand-in-glove relationship between American and Guatemalan security teams and businessmen which had existed before Carter took office. 37

Before that could take place, however, the Reagan administration first had to soften the attitude of Congress about this thing called human rights.  In March 1981, two months after Reagan’s inaugural, Secretary of State Alexander Haig told a congressional committee that there was a Soviet “hit list … for the ultimate takeover of Central America”.  It was a “four phased operation” of which the first part had been the “seizure of Nicaragua”.  ”Next,” warned Haig, “is El Salvador, to be followed by Honduras and Guatemala.” 38

This was the kind of intelligence information which one would expect to derive from a captured secret document or KGB defector.  But neither one of these was produced or mentioned, nor did any of the assembled congressmen presume to raise the matter.

Two months later, General Vernon Walters, former Deputy Director of the CIA, on a visit to Guatemala as Haig’s special emissary, was moved to proclaim that the United States hoped to help the Guatemalan government defend “peace and liberty”. 39

During this period, Guatemalan security forces, official and unofficial, massacred at least 2,000 peasants (accompanied by the usual syndrome of torture, mutilation and decapitation), destroyed several villages, assassinated 76 officials of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, scores of trade unionists, and at least six catholic priests. 40

19 August 1981 … unidentified gunmen occupy the town of San Miguel Acatan, force the Mayor to give them a list of all those who had contributed funds for the building of a school, pick out 15 from the list (including three of the Mayor’s children), make them dig their own graves and shoot them. 41

In December, Ronald Reagan finally spoke out against government repression.  He denounced Poland for crushing by “brute force, the stirrings of liberty … Our Government and those of our allies, have expressed moral revulsion at the police-state tactics of Poland’s oppressors.” 42

Using the loopholes in the congressional legislation, both real and loosely interpreted, the Reagan administration, in its first two years, chipped away at the spirit of the embargo: $3.1 million of jeeps and trucks, $4 million of helicopter spare parts, $6.3 million of other military supplies. 43  These were amongst the publicly announced aid shipments; what was transpiring covertly can only be guessed at in light of certain disclosures: Jack Anderson revealed in August 1981 that the United States was using Cuban exiles to train security forces in Guatemala; in this operation, Anderson wrote, the CIA had arranged “for secret training in the finer points of assassination”. 44  The following year, it was reported that the Green Berets had been instructing Guatemalan Army officers for over two years in the finer points of warfare. 45  And in 1983, we learned that in the previous two years Guatemala’s Air Force helicopter fleet had somehow increased from eight to 27, all of them American made, and that Guatemalan officers were once again being trained at the US School of the Americas in Panama. 46

In March 1982, a coup put General Efraín Ríos Montt, a “born-again Christian” in power.  A month later, the Reagan administration announced that it perceived signs of an improvement in the state of human rights in the country and took the occasion to justify a shipment of military aid. 47  On the first of July, Ríos Montt announced a state of siege.  It was to last more than eight months.  In his first six months in power, 2,600 Indians and peasants were massacred, while during his 17-month reign, more than 400 villages were brutally wiped off the map. 48  In December 1982, Ronald Reagan, also a Christian, went to see for himself.  After meeting with Ríos Montt, Reagan, referring to the allegations of extensive human-rights abuses, declared that the Guatemalan leader was receiving “a bad deal.” 49

Statement by the Guatemalan Army of the Poor, made in 1981 (by which time the toll of people murdered by the government since 1954 had reached at least the 60,000 mark, and the sons of one-time death-squad members were now killing the sons of the Indians killed by their fathers):

The Guatemalan revolution is entering its third decade. Ever since the government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in 1954, the majority of the Guatemalan people have been seeking a way to move the country towards solving the same problems which were present then and have only worsened over time.

The counterrevolution, put in motion by the U.S. Government and those domestic sectors committed to retaining every single one of their privileges, dispersed and disorganized the popular and democratic forces.  However, it did not resolve any of the problems which had first given rise to demands for economic, social and political change.  These demands have been raised again and again in the last quarter century, by any means that seemed appropriate at the time, and have received each time the same repressive response as in 1954. 50

Statement by Father Thomas Melville, 1968:

Having come to the conclusion that the actual state of violence, composed of the malnutrition, ignorance, sickness and hunger of the vast majority of the Guatemalan population, is the direct result of a capitalist system that makes the defenseless Indian compete against the powerful and well-armed landowner, my brother [Father Arthur Melville] and I decided not to be silent accomplices of the mass murder that this system generates.

We began teaching the Indians that no one will defend their rights, if they do not defend themselves.  If the government and oligarchy are using arms to maintain them in their position of misery, then they have the obligation to take up arms and defend their God-given right to be men.  We were accused of being communists along with the people who listened to us, and were asked to leave the country by our religious superiors and the U.S. ambassador [John Gordon Mein].  We did so.

But I say here that I am a communist only if Christ was a communist.  I did  what I did and will continue to do so because of the teachings of Christ and  not because of Marx or Lenin. And I say here too, that we are many more than the hierarchy and the U.S. government think. When the fight breaks out more in the open, let the world know that we do it  not for Russia, not for China, nor any other country, but for Guatemala.  Our response to the present situation is not because we have read either Marx or Lenin, but because we have read the New Testament. 51


A small sample.

The details of the events and issues touched upon in this chapter through 1968 were derived primarily from the following sources:

  1. Thomas and Marjorie Melville, “Guatemala – Another Vietnam?” (Great Britain, 1971) Chapters 9 to 16; particularly for the conditions of the poor, and US activities in Guatemala. Published in the United States the same year in a slightly different form as “Guatemala: The Politics of Land Ownership”.

  2. Eduardo Galeano, “Guatemala, Occupied Country” (Mexico, 1967; English translation: New York, 1969) passim; for the politics of the guerrillas and the nature of the right-wing terror; Galeano was a Uruguayan journalist who spent some time with the guerrillas.

  3. Susanne Jonas and David Tobis, editors, “Guatemala” (Berkeley, California, 1974) passim; particularly “The Vietnamization of Guatemala: U.S. Counter-insurgency Programs” pp. 193-203, by Howard Sharckman; published by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA, New York and Berkeley).

  4. Amnesty International, “Guatemala” (London, 1976) passim; for statistics about the victims of the terror.  Other AI reports issued in the 1970s about Guatemala contain comparable information. e)  Richard Gott, Rural Guerrillas in Latin America (Great Britain, 1973, revised edition) Chapters 2 to 8; for the politics of the guerrillas.


  1. The Guardian (London), 22 December 1983, p. 5.
  2. The plight of the poor: a montage compiled from the sources cited herein.
  3. New York Times Magazine, 26 June 1966, p. 8.
  4. US counter-insurgency base: El Imparcial (Guatemala City conservative newspaper) 17 May 1962 and 4 January 1963, cited in Melville, pp. 163-4.
  5. Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala” (New York, 1982), p. 242.
  6. Georgie Anne Geyer: Miami Herald, 24 December 1966.  Also see: New York Herald Tribune, 7 April 1963, article by Bert Quint, section 2, p. 1; Schlesinger and Kinzer, pp. 236-44.
  7. Galeano, p. 55.
  8. Ibid., pp. 55-6.
  9. Time, 26 January 1968, p. 23.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Atrocities and torture: compiled from the sources cited herein; also see A.J. Langguth, “Hidden Terrors” (New York, 1978) pp. 139, 193 for US involvement with the use of the field telephones for torture in Brazil.
  12. Melville, p. 292.
  13. Ibid., p. 291.
  14. Washington Post, 27 January 1968, p. A4, testimony of Rev. Blase Bonpane, an American Maryknoll priest in Guatemala at the time.
  15. Panama: revealed in September 1967 by Guatemalan Vice-President Clemente Marroquin Rojas in an interview with the international news agency Interpress Service (IPS), reported in Latin America, 15 September 1967, p. 159, a weekly published in London.  Eduardo Galeano, p. 70, reports a personal conversation he had with Marroquin Rojas in which the vice-president related the same story. Marroquin Rojas was strongly anti-communist, but he apparently resented the casual way in which the American planes violated Guatemalan sovereignty.
  16. Norman Diamond, “Why They Shoot Americans”, The Nation (New York), 5 February 1968.  The title of the article refers to the shooting of John Webber.
  17. Opening quotation: Clyde Snow, forensic anthropologist, cited in Covert Action Quarterly, spring 1994, No. 48, p. 32. Right-wing terrorism: compiled from the sources cited herein.
  18. *Washington Post, *4 February 1968, p. B1. The historic dialogue in Latin America between Christianity and Marxism, begun in the 1970s, can be traced in large measure to priests and nuns like Bonpane and the Melvilles and their experiences in Guatemala in the 1950s and 60s.
  19. Galeano, p. 63.
  20. El Imparcial (Guatemala City), 10 November 1967, cited in Melville, p. 289.
  21. Richard Gott, in the Foreword to the Melvilles’ book, p. 8.
  22. AID, OPS, Alliance for Progress: a)  ”Guatemala and the Dominican Republic”, a Staff Memorandum prepared for the US Senate Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, Committee on Foreign Relations, 30 December 1971, p. 6; b)  Jonas and Tobis, pp. 199-200; c)  Galeano, pp. 72-3; d)  Michael Klare, “War Without End” (Random House, New York, 1972) pp. 241-69, for discussion of the OPS curriculum and philosophy; e)  Langguth, pp. 242-3 and elsewhere, for discussion of OPS practices, including its involvement with torture; the author confines his study primarily to Brazil and Uruguay, but it applies to Guatemala as well; f)  CounterSpy magazine (Washington), November 1980-January 1981, pp. 54-5, lists the names of almost 300 Guatemalan police officers who received training in the United States from 1963 to 1974; g)  Michael Klare and Nancy Stein, “Police Terrorism in Latin America”, NACLA’s Latin America and Empire Report (North American Congress on Latin America, New York), January 1974, pp. 19-23, based on State Department documents obtained by Senator James Abourezk in 1973; h)  Jack Anderson, Washington Post, 8 October 1973, p. C33.
  23. AID figure cited in Jenny Pearce, “Under the Eagle: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean” (Latin American Bureau, London, updated edition 1982) p. 67.
  24. George Cotter, “Spies, strings and missionaries”, The Christian Century (Chicago), 25 March 1981, p. 321.
  25. Eqbal Ahmad, “The Theory and Fallacies of Counter-insurgency”, The Nation (New York), 2 August 1972, p. 73.
  26. Relationship of Arana to US military: Joseph Goulden, “A Real Good Relationship”, The Nation (New York), 1 June 1970, p. 646; Norman Gall, “Guatemalan Slaughter”, N.Y. Review of Books, 20 May 1971, pp. 13-17.
  27. Le Monde Weekly (English edition), 17 February 1971, p. 3.
  28. New York Times, 27 December 1970, p. 2; New York Times Magazine, 13 June 1971, p. 72.
  29. US Senate Staff Memorandum, op. cit.
  30. New York Times, 18 February 1976.
  31. Ibid., 9 November 1977, p. 2.
  32. Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, Jane Hunter, “The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era” (South End Press, Boston, 1987), chapter V, passim; The Guardian (London), 9 December 1983; CounterSpy, op. cit., p. 53, citing Elias Barahona y Barahona, former press secretary at the Guatemalan Ministry of the Interior who had infiltrated the government for the EGP.
  33. CounterSpy, op. cit. (Barahona) p. 53.
  34. Pearce, p. 278; a book was published later which transcribed Menchú’s own account of her life, in which she recounts many more atrocities of the Guatemalan military: Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, ed., “I … Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala” (London, 1984, English translation).
  35. Pearce, p. 176; Sherwood’s role in 1954: Schlesinger and Kinzer, pp. 116, 122, 128.  His statement is partially quoted in Penny Lernoux, “In Banks We Trust” (Doubleday, New York, 1984), p. 238, citing CBS News Special, 20 March 1982: “Update: Central America in Revolt”.
  36. Washington Post, 22 February 1981, p. C7, column by Jack Anderson; Anderson refers only to an “official spokesman” of the MLN; the identity of the speaker as Sandoval comes from other places – see, e.g., The Guardian (London), 2 March 1984.
  37. Washington Post, ibid.  For a discussion of the many ties between American conservatives and the Guatemalan power structure, see the report of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (Washington), by Allan Nairn in 1981.
  38. New York Times, 19 March 1981, p. 10.
  39. Washington Post, 14 May 1981, p. A16.
  40. Ibid.; New York Times, 18 May 1981, p. 18; Report issued by the Washington Office on Latin America (a respected human-rights lobby which has worked in liaison with the State Department’s human-rights section), 4 September 1981.
  41. Washington Office on Latin America report, op. cit. Presumably it was the traditional right-wing fear of the poor being educated which lay behind this incident.
  42. New York Times, 28 December 1981.
  43. Ibid., 21 June 1981; 25 April 1982; The Guardian (London), 10 January 1983.
  44. San Francisco Chronicle, 27 August 1981, p. 57.
  45. Washington Post, 21 October 1982, p. A1.
  46. The Guardian (London), 10 January 1983; 17 May 1983.
  47. New York Times, 25 April 1982. p. 1.
  48. Ibid., 12 October 1982, p. 3 (deaths, citing Amnesty International); Los Angeles Times, 20 July 1994, p. 11 (villages, citing “human rights organizations”).  For the gruesome details of death squads, disappearances, and torture in Guatemala during the early 1980s, see Guatemala: A Government Program of Political Murder (Amnesty International, London, 1981) and Massive Extrajudicial Executions in Rural Areas Under the Government of General Efraín Ríos Montt (AI, July 1982).
  49. New York Times, 6 December 1982, p. 14.
  50. Contemporary Marxism (San Francisco), No. 3, Summer 1981.
  51. The National Catholic Reporter (Kansas City, Missouri weekly), 31 January 1968.
  52. Los Angeles Times, 25 December 1988.
  53. Occurred on 2 December 1990; Report, Summer 1991, from Witness for Peace, Washington, a religious-oriented human-rights organization concerned with Central America.
  54. Los Angeles Times, 7 May 1990.
  55. DeVine and Bamaca cases:  New York Times, 23 March 1995, p. 1; 24 March, p. 3; 30 March, p. 1; Los Angeles Times, 23 March 1995, p. 7; 24 March, p. 4; 31 March, p. 4; 2 April, p. M2; Time magazine, 10 April 1995, p. 43.

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