The initial trial of Guatemala’s ex-president Efraín Ríos Montt concluded on Friday with a conviction on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and an 80-year prison sentence. Hailed as “the first time any nation [has] been able to use its domestic criminal courts to try a former head of state for genocide,” the ruling has many people looking back at the history while wondering what will happen next. After a CIA-planned coup in 1954 to defend the interests of the United Fruit Company, Guatemala was ruled for 42 years by right-wing dictatorships. For 36 of those years a civil war was fought between the government and a leftist insurgency, with the government also targeting hundreds of thousands of indigenous villagers and other civilians as part of a scorched-earth campaign. In this, the Guatemalan government was supported politically and equipped with weapons by the United States, with full knowledge that they were used in a campaign of genocide, torture and war crimes.
One of the important justifications for the Reagan administration’s support of Ríos Montt may sound eerily familiar. In a memorandum prepared by the State Department for President Reagan on the occasion of his upcoming meeting with Ríos Montt, Secretary of State George P. Shultz gives the following account of the situation:
Key Congressmen continue to react negatively to numerous reports, many of them fabricated, others true, of government atrocities against noncombatants. Ignoring the likelihood that Rios Montt will be overthrown and replaced by a repressive government if we fail to provide politically meaningful support to him, they argue that Guatemala’s human rights record must be substantially improved beyond the present situation before moving ahead with security and, in some cases, economic assistance.
From: Your Meeting with Guatemalan President Rios Montt on December 4. [Includes Talking Points], Secret, Memorandum, November 20, 1982, 4 pp.
As was pointed out in the Pan-American Post this week, similar justifications are being used for militarized U.S. support for the coup government in Honduras:
The Honduran national police are inefficient, corrupt, resistant to reform, and may be conducting extrajudicial killings in an organized capacity, but they’re the only reliable force in the country in the fight against transnational crime. At least, according to the United States [government].
Of course, the U.S. was not forced into supporting the Ríos Montt dictatorship by circumstances. The U.S. supported it because Ríos Montt was an important ally. His crimes – similar to those of Indonesian dictator Suharto and many other U.S. allies before and during this period – targeted campesino organizations, labor activists, social movements and entire indigenous villages in a bloody offensive that left more than 200,000 killed or disappeared, and left a cowed civil society. But this was not important to U.S. policy makers, so long as the end result was control of the country by a U.S. ally.
Records from the U.S. Department of State demonstrate knowledge of the Guatemalan government’s tactics: “Our Embassy recently informed us of a new, apparently well-founded allegation of a large-scale killing of Indian men, women and children in a remote area by the Guatemalan Army.” Despite the mention of this “well-founded allegation” of what would be the basis for charges in Ríos Montt’s trial 30 years later, the U.S. nevertheless proceeded to aid the Ríos Montt regime with arms. The quote above comes from a State Department memorandum written to brief Secretary Shultz, and it continues:
A decision in principle was reached in May 1982 to take advantage of human rights progress under Rios Montt to try to achieve a major breakthrough in our relations with Guatemala by approving military cash sales. Guatemala had long been requesting approval for the sale of badly needed helicopter spare parts and other military supplies.
From: U.S.-Guatemala Relations: Arms Sales. [Attachments Not Included], Confidential, Action Memorandum, c. November 26, 1982, 6 pp.
Within the U.S. government, there was no apparent struggle to reconcile the notion that the Guatemalan government “badly needed” arms with its horrific crimes. There was only a struggle to determine preconditions (which were never met) in order to gain minimal support from Congress so as to circumvent protections against abetting war criminals, which were put into place by the Carter administration. While the scale of the crimes in 1980s Guatemala may be on a much larger scale than in present-day Honduras, again, there are parallels. As we noted this week, the U.S. Department of State is side-stepping congressional prohibitions in order to support the Honduran police, even though there is evidence of the police director and other officers’ involvement in death squads.
Given all the U.S. support for the Ríos Montt government– international political support, military equipment and training and willful false reporting of the situation as part of an “anticommunist” political strategy – will U.S. officials and institutions also one day be held responsible? Investigative journalist Allan Nairn – who documented crimes by the Ríos Montt regime (including those of Guatemala’s current president Otto Pérez Molina), and the U.S. government’s supportive role – suggested next steps for prosecutors in a Democracy Now interview:
Well, all of the crimes that Rigoberta Menchú just described were crimes not just of General Ríos Montt, but also of the U.S. government. The U.S. prosecutors in Washington should immediately convene a grand jury with two missions: first, coming to the aid of the Guatemalan attorney general, who has just been ordered by the court to investigate all others involved in Ríos Montt’s crimes, by releasing all classified U.S. documents about what happened during the slaughter, which U.S. personnel were involved, providing to the Guatemalan attorney general a list of all Guatemalan army officials and security force officials who were on the payroll of the American CIA, and then proceeding to issue indictments against U.S. officials who acted in the role of accessory or accomplice to the crimes for which Ríos Montt has already been convicted.
Nairn named specific individuals, among others:
The top officials of the Reagan administration who made the policy—President Reagan is deceased, but his top aides, including Elliott Abrams and many others, are still alive; the U.S. CIA personnel on the ground who worked within the G2, the military intelligence unit that coordinated the assassinations and disappearances; the U.S. military attachés who worked with the Guatemalan generals to develop this sweep-and-massacre strategy in the mountains. There would be hundreds of U.S. officials who were complicit in this and should be subpoenaed, called before a grand jury and subjected to indictment.
And in another interview earlier this week, Nairn described how U.S. military officials were also responsible for the scorched-earth campaign against indigenous villages:
And it wasn’t an armed confrontation, because the villagers were unarmed. The soldiers were armed with American and Israeli weapons. The villagers were not. It was straight-up murder. It was part of a strategy that had been developed in conjunction with the U.S. In fact, the U.S. military attaché in Guatemala at the time, Colonel George Maynes, told me that this village—that he, himself, had helped develop this village sweep tactic. There was a U.S. trainer there, American Green Beret, who was training the military, and this is, in his words, how to destroy towns. And that’s what they did. And now Ríos Montt has been convicted for it.