Latin American Report


Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II

Killing Hope (

Jennifer Harbury Web Page

Report on the Guatemala Review Intelligence Oversight Board

Guatemala and Human Rights

Amnesty International in Guatemala

Bride of Courage


Regional : Politics : X Military : X
Environment : Rights : X Education :
NZ Links : Aid/Relief : Economics :
Indigenous : Health :

22 March 1999

Guatemalan Truth and American "Apologies"

When the Guatemalan government signed a peace agreement with the Guatemalan rebels in late 1996 [see NW v1, #1], one of the tenets of the treaty was to establish the "Historical Clarification Commission" to investigate what had really happened all those years. The Commission recently released the results of their study. Of the roughly 150,000 people killed and 50,000 disappeared (and perhaps should be presumed dead) since the coup in 1954, the commission estimates that the Guatemalan government was responsible for 93% of the murders (either by the army, by paramilitary forces, or both) the rebels were responsible for 3%, and the remaining 4% are still unaccounted for. The mainstream press has always referred to the strife as a "civil war," but the proportions look more like a massacre.

A similar report was issued by the Roman Catholic Church last April. The bishop responsible was killed two days later, presumably by government forces.

The report explicitly mentioned the role of the US in the war. President Clinton, while visiting Guatemala recently, admitted that US "support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression ... was wrong." While it is implied that Clinton means "wrong" as "immoral," it is not stated explicitly. Clinton could also mean "support for the military dictatorships was wrong because things did not work out the way we wanted them to."

Clinton's admission is perhaps the greatest understatement this year.  Let's look at examples of the "violent and widespread repression." For this I am borrowing liberal from William Blum's "Killing Hope" (to my knowledge the most authoritative history of CIA covert operations) and the Commission's report itself While mainstream press coverage focuses on the Guatemalan "civil war," starting in the early 60s, US "support" began in the early 50s, when the US instigated a coup against reformist president Jacobo Arbenz and replaced him with military dictator Castillo Armas. Upon taking office, Armas arrested thousands on suspicion of "communist activity" (many of whom were killed and/or tortured, put tens of thousands of others on a list of communists (who were then deprived of all kinds of rights), disenfranchised the three-quarters of the country that was illiterate, outlawed political parties and labor unions, closed down opposition newspapers and burned subversive books.

The "civil war" again began with a US-instigated coup. When it looked as though president General Ydigoras would step down, allowing reform candidate Juan Jose Arevalo to be elected, the CIA "instigated and supported" a coup by Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia. To quote "Killing Hope:" "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." Peralta led way to civilian president Montenegro, who's power was minimal compared to the military.

In the following years, the military and paramilitary "death squads" killed, tortured, raped and disappeared thousands. The victims were often buried in mass graves, dropped into the ocean from planes, left in rivers or by roadsides. There were supposedly some rivers in which Guatemalans would no longer fish, because too many corpses would get caught in the nets.

It went on. The US sold the Guatemalan government modified fighter planes to fight those who dared to fight back against these oppressive regimes. These planes would drop napalm on villages, fields of crops, and forests in which guerrillas might be hiding. American Green Berets taught Guatemalan soldiers "interrogation techniques," and may have participated in some "interrogation" themselves. Guatemalan police were trained by CIA operatives at the Inter-American Police Academy in Panama.

The Historical Reconciliation Project also talks of the explicit racist angle of much of the government violence. Four-fifths of those killed were Mayans. Many Mayan villages were razed to the ground, their crops burned, and the inhabitants exterminated. The Council reported 626 massacres of this type. And even if every Mayan Indian in Guatemala happened to be a threat to the Guatemalan government, deserving of execution (which doesn't even cross my mind as a possibility), the Council's report makes note of the deliberate cruelty of the violence towards the Mayans: "the killing of defenceless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts."

I'm not going into detail for sensationalist effect here, but to point out the extent to which the United States participated in barbarism, and the extent to which saying that "it was wrong" is galling in its timidity.

And if extermination wasn't enough, Guatemalan forces were responsible for attempts to obstruct and destroy the Mayans abilities to follow the precepts of their culture, practice their religion or follow their own norms.

With great care, the report concludes that Guatemalan government policy from 1981 to 1983 was genocide towards the Mayans, using the terms defined in the UN's "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide."

The Guatemalan government had been out to crush all potential opposition, and as the Mayans were the most repressed group in the nation, the government assumed that the Mayans would be natural allies of government opposition. The report says that of the many aspects of genocide, that the Guatemalan government "set out to destroy in whole or in part ... groups identified by their common ethnicity" via killing, the infliction of serious mental or bodily harm, and deliberately subjecting them "to living conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."

Many of these decisions can be traced back to the highest levels of military and government.  The report finds that "the excuse that lower ranking Army commanders were acting with a wide margin of autonomy and decentralisation without orders from superiors, as a way of explaining that 'excesses' and 'errors' were committed, is an unsubstantiated argument."

But the creation of the Historical Clarification Commission was not the only tenet of the peace treaty. The treaty also declared an amnesty for all military personnel who may have been involved human rights abuses. So despite this evidence of deliberate violence and cruelty, not a damn thing can be done about it.


AP Feb 26 99, CNN Mar 10 99, "Guatemala: Memory of Silence" by the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification, "Killing Hope" by William Blum,

Reuters Feb 25 99

Jake Sexton
NEWS WATCH "Reading between the lies"
Volume 3, Issue 2
March 18, 1999