“This is War”: How the CIA Justifies Torture

By Frank Smyth on December 10, 2014

Editor’s Note: This piece by Frank Smyth on the use of “negative incentive” methods in Central America was originally published in our August 1987 issue, under the title “El Salvador’s Forgotten War.” From Frank:

The Senate Intelligence Committee report released this week concluded that the CIA engaged in the torture of terrorist suspects in the years following 9/11 without obtaining any significant intelligence information, contrary to claims by former U.S. intelligence and Bush administration officials. The panel concluded that the CIA techniques included waterboarding or nearly drowning suspects, prolonged sleep deprivation, and other techniques including making suspects wear diapers, putting insects in their cells, and subjecting detainees to mock burials.

The revelations have cast the United States in a harsh light 25 years after the end of the Cold War. But such techniques have been employed by U.S. intelligence agencies, in fact, going back even longer. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration’s effort to repel Marxist guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Guatemala, and to ultimately help oust a leftist revolutionary government in Nicaragua, U.S. intelligence agencies agencies used similar tactics then against Marxist guerrilla suspects that they used two decades later against Islamist terrorist suspects.

U.S. intelligence officers coined such techniques as applying a “negative incentive,” using an Orwellian euphemism for torture that echoes that kind of double-speak like “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by U.S. officials in the 2000s.

Below is my 1987 story in The Progressive about the use of torture by U.S. intelligence agencies in Central America. It has a personal resonance for me. I interviewed many torture victims in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. In 1991, I found myself in an Iraqi prison run by intelligence agents from the regime led by President Saddam Hussein, and listened night after night as they tortured Iraqis suspected of having tried to overthrow his regime.

Torture knows no political bounds. No matter who the abuser is, it is employed more often for revenge and deterrence than to gather information. It is abhorrent in all forms. It must be called by its proper name. And it must be resisted always. Torture by U.S. officials has done much harm to many human beings. It has done irreparable harm to us.”

The U.S. Congress, like the American mass media, seem notoriously in­ capable of focusing on more than one international troublespot at a time. A few years ago, all eyes were on El Salvador, its infamous Death Squads, and the U.S. Government’s role in sustaining a brutally repressive regime. Today the spotlight is on Nicaragua and El Salvador is all but forgotten, despite a resurgence of political violence and new evidence of U.S. com­ plicity in assaults on human rights.

“The democratic revolution has just begun,” President Jose Napoleon Duarte told the Salvadoran people in his third an­nual state-of-the-union address on June 1. But one day earlier, labor leader Julio Portillo was shot at an anti-government dem­onstration near San Salvador. Three days before that, the offices of the Co-Madres (Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners Disappeared) were de­molished by a bomb. And earlier in May, the tortured, headless body of peasant leader Antonio Hernandez Martinez was found in San Miguel.

Hernandez, Portillo, and the Co-Madres were active participants in a labor-led op­position coalition that has been challeng­ing the Salvadoran government to pursue genuine reforms and negotiate an end to years of insurgent warfare. Instead, the Duarte government has chosen to dismiss the opposition as a subversive communist front.

The murdered Hernandez Martinez was last seen being led off by government sol­diers on April 16. He had been on his way to arrange for a loan to his peasant co­ operative.

Julio Portillo, who heads a high-school teachers’ union, was leading a peaceful anti-government protest outside Mariona prison when he was struck by one of the shots directed at the protesters from the direction of the Salvadoran army’s First Infantry Brigade.

Duarte ignored these developments when he traveled in a heavily armored eighty-car convoy to deliver his state-of-the-union address in the small northern town of Sensuntepeque. He unveiled fifty- four new proposals to rebuild El Salvador and promised to open a dialogue with left­ist guerrillas, provided they first laid down their arms.

The Salvadoran government maintains that the Farabundo Marti National Lib­eration Front (FMLN) is prolonging the conflict. But classified CIA documents re­veal that it is Duarte’s U.S.-backed government that has no interest in ending the civil war. In fact, these documents—pre­pared by the Office of African and Latin American Analysis in coordination with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations—dis­miss Duarte’s previous call for peace, is­ sued last year, as a meaningless “public-relations gesture.” Salvadoran govern­ment officials “see little to be gained in a dialogue with the rebels while the Salva­doran military has the initiative in the war,” says a CIA report dated September 2, 1986.

The Salvadoran military say they can win the war, and U.S. authorities believe the government has taken the upper hand. “Although they have not been decisively beaten,” the September CIA report states, “the guerrillas, in our view, no longer have the capacity to launch and sustain major offensives.”

Such assessments have often been made in the course of the eight-year-old conflict, and they have always turned out to be un­founded. Early this spring, at a time when the insurgents were believed to be in de­cline, the FMLN mounted a surprise at­tack on an army garrison at El Paraiso, killing sixty-nine government soldiers and one U.S. Army Special Forces adviser.

The FMLN has expanded its opera­tions to all fourteen provinces of El Sal­vador, increasing the likelihood that the struggle may continue for many years. The conflict has already claimed some 60,000 lives—more than 1 percent of the Salva­doran population.

Duarte, who has neither the will nor the power to oversee an end to the war, did offer two symbolic concessions in his June 1 speech: He said that he would allow sev­enty-eight wounded rebels to leave the country for medical treatment and that he might grant amnesty to 400 political pris­oners. At the same time, however, he re­jected out of hand a bold new FMLN peace initiative.

Three days before Duarte’s speech at Sensuntepeque, the FMLN had proposed to enter into direct negotiations with the government on July 15. Their offer in­cluded pledges to stop using land mines and to suspend their campaign of eco­nomic sabotage in exchange for an end to aerial bombing by the government and a halt of summary executions by both sides.

Guerrilla-planted mines cause up to 70 percent of government casualties and are, along with the economic-sabotage cam­paign, the insurgents’ most effective weap­ons. Government bombing missions are targeted on areas of high rebel activity, but most casualties are inflicted on civilians rather than FMLN fighters. The steps pro­posed by the FMLN would, therefore, go a long way toward reducing civilian cas­ualties.

But the Salvadoran government, backed by the United States, is interested only in a military solution. The Reagan Admin­istration has tried to make El Salvador a showcase for containment of communism in the Hemisphere, and has undertaken highly publicized steps to “professional­ize” the Salvadoran military.

In 1981, when unarmed civilians were being murdered at the rate of thirty-five a day, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff sent Brigadier General Fred Woerner to con­duct a survey of the Salvadoran armed forces. His report, which called for the ex­pansion, equipping, training, and modern­ization of the Salvadoran military, set the tone for Reagan Administration policy toward El Salvador.

However, State Department sources confirm there was considerable friction within the Administration over its indif­ference to human-rights considerations. Under mounting pressure from church and human-rights groups, the Administration began in 1983 to express concern over the operations of the Salvadoran Death Squads.

“The idea,” says a former State Department official, “was to play by their rules”—”their” meaning such human-rights organizations as Amnesty International and Americas Watch, which had long crit­icized U.S. policy. Congress, mindful of El Salvador’s blatant disregard for human rights, had blocked or reduced Adminis­tration requests for an escalation of mili­tary aid. However, the new training effort undertaken by the U.S. Government was directed less at restoring human rights than at developing more sophisticated forms of interrogation.

The first group of 470 Salvadoran of­ficer cadets received training in a three-month course at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1982. Another 600 arrived in 1983, fol­lowed by even more in 1984. Additional units, particularly elite battalions, were trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and smaller units received special instruction at the U.S. Southern Command in Pan­ama. In 1985, 250 Salvadoran military personnel were sent to the Pentagon’s Re­gional Training Center in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Last year, training shifted to a new center in La Union, El Salvador.

A Defense Department spokesman, Marine Captain Jay C. Farrar, said it is “highly doubtful” that these courses of­fered instruction in abusive interrogation techniques. But according to U.S. Army Special Forces advisers formerly stationed in the region, small courses for selected Salvadoran soldiers regularly included training in “negative-incentive” methods.

“Torture in El Salvador,” Americas Watch reported last year, “consists in­creasingly of physical abuse that does not leave physical marks, such as the capucha (hood to suffocate) and immersion in filthy water. . . . The most prevalent forms of abuse of detainees at present are sleep dep­rivation, food deprivation, and threats against family members. These practices, like the capucha and immersion, leave no physical marks.” State Department sources say abuse of this kind now occurs in about 20 percent of all prisoner interrogations.

A Pentagon intelligence officer who spoke on condition that his name not be published said such techniques “are ex­actly the kind of thing that the Special Forces are teaching in El Salvador.” He added that methods inappropriate for use by the police in the United States can be justified in El Salvador because “this is a war and a different situation.”

Even as the use of “negative-incentive” techniques has increased, blatant physical abuse continues. Few armed guerrillas have ever been taken prisoner, and it is gener­ally assumed that they are executed when captured in the field. According to former U.S. advisers, Salvadoran officers com­plain that they don’t have time for lengthy interrogations on patrol.

Military intelligence documents sent from El Salvador to Washington give an indication of how interrogations are con­ducted in the field. In mid-1985, three combatants of the FAL—a guerrilla group led by the Salvadoran Communist Party—were captured coming off the Guazapa Volcano near the capital. The interroga­tors were able to learn the pseudonyms of about thirty members of that guerrilla unit, their titles and functions, and the pseu­donyms of the three clandestine operatives who had recruited the prisoners.

The documents explain, in euphemistic terms, the interrogation of one combatant: “In the beginning he didn’t say much, due to his companeros who had told him that the FAL would beat or kill him [if he talked]. But once he saw that this was false, he opened up a little more.” The prisoner, it seems clear, was persuaded that his cap­tors would inflict greater harm if he didn’t talk than his comrades would if he did.

One goal of Reagan Administration policy is to avoid the kind of wholesale slaughter that used to lead to questions in Congress and public protests. But if the Duarte government’s current policy of selective repression were to fail to keep the domestic opposition un­der control, the military might resort to more obvious methods. Indeed, five un­armed alleged “FMLN collaborators” were murdered by the army’s Arce Battalion on May 22, their bodies thrown into a well.

CIA analysts fear the FMLN is trying to provoke violence between civilians and security forces, and have expressed con­cern that in the future the military may exercise less restraint: “Increasing violence will fuel the insurgency by alienating Duarte’s primary constituencies in the lower middle classes and the urban poor, or by provoking a coup and military crack­down.”

The extreme Right continues to play an active role in Salvadoran politics. Ultra-conservative parties, backed by the coun­try’s intransigent private sector, control El Salvador’s supreme court. For four months earlier this year, they boycotted the legis­lative assembly, which is dominated by Duarte’s Christian Democrats. A new rightist organization, the Movement for National Action, has entered the fray, call­ing for Duarte’s resignation and berating the military for failing to crush the insur­gents.

In the past, such rhetoric has preceded the unleashing of new Death Squad offen­sives. In fact, one of El Salvador’s notor­ious right-wing Death Squads resurfaced on June 16. The Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade accused fourteen teach­ers and students at the National Univer­sity of having guerrilla links, and gave them forty-eight hours to leave the country.

The ultraconservatives enjoy backing within the armed forces, especially among U.S.-trained oficiales de la guerra (war of­ ficers), including Colonel Sigfrido Ochoa, former commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade in Chalatenango, and Colonel Mauricio Staben of the Arce Battalion. For these officers, there is no distinction be­tween the insurgents and the domestic po­litical opposition.

That may explain why opposition po­litical figures have come under violent po­litical attack in recent months, and why Duarte’s effectiveness has been markedly reduced. In the past few months, the mil­itary has grown increasingly independent in El Salvador, and another round of po­litical violence may be in the offing. •

Frank Smyth, a freelance writer in Wash­ington, D.C., has reported from El Salva­dor.

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Will Justice Be Possible In Guatemala?

A partial retrial for 86-year-old ex-President Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity now seems likely after Guatemala’s top court this week overturned his historic May10 conviction on a technicality. Regardless of whether he is convicted again, other former military officers, who were even closer to the carnage against Ixil-speaking and other ethnic Mayans in Guatemala’s highland regions, remain at large.

One of them is Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general who, according to an ex-soldier testifying in Ríos Montt’s trial, ordered soldiers to burn and loot villages and “execute people.” But President Pérez Molina was not on trial and no corroborating evidence against him was heard. (Pérez Molina denies any wrongdoing, or even that genocide in Guatemala ever took place.)

Such evidence exists, however. And there is more evidence still against other officers, particularly the tight-knit group who filled the chains of command during the genocide in the early 1980s, between then-Major Pérez Molina and then-President and General Ríos Montt.

Ríos Montt may yet become the first former head-of-state successfully prosecuted in his own nation for genocide. But this story doesn’t end with one facing an odd genocide trial and another president implicated in war crimes from thirty-odd years ago. A third Guatemalan president, Alfonso Portillo, faces trial in Manhattan on US money laundering charges, which were filed in 2010. Although they each served decades apart, and only two of them are former military officers, these three presidents have stories that are tightly interwoven. Much like the threads of an olive green military dress uniform, pulling too hard, now, at any one loose string, could start unraveling the fabric to eventually bare what lies beneath. This would also include the role of the United States in the violence in Guatemala.

If he were ever brought here for trial, ex-President Portillo would become the first former head of state from any nation to be extradited to the United States. (Former Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega was brought in 1990 as a de facto prisoner of US military forces who captured him following an American invasion.) Portillo has denied charges that he embezzled tens of millions of dollars of Guatemalan funds, “converting the office of the Guatemalan presidency into his personal ATM,” as the indictment from the US Southern District Court of New York charges. He allegedly stole funds from Guatemala’s school libraries, defense ministry and a national bank, laundering the money through banks in the United States and Europe.

An elite group of former military intelligence officers are implicated in the same crimes. Back when General Ríos Montt assumed the presidency through a 1982 coup, these officers bonded and rose as an informal but powerful force. The same club of officers exists today—the place where genocide and organized crime meet.

A Defense Intelligence Agency cable from 1991 identifies this “intelligence club,” whose members called themselves the “Cofradía…the name given to the powerful organizations of village-church elders that exist today in the Indian highlands of Guatemala.” According to the once-classified cable, “This vertical column of intelligence officers, from captains to generals, represents the strongest internal network of loyalties within the institution.”

La Cofradía was formed during the peak of violence in the early 1980s by a group of Army Colonels, who, according to the cable, “must be given much of the credit for engineering” the military operations that both defeated the nation’s leftist guerrillas and resulted in genocide for 5.5 percent of the nation’s Ixil-speaking people.

“Under directors of intelligence such as then-Col. Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas back in the early 1980s, the intelligence directorate made dramatic gains in its capabilities, so much so that today it must be given much of the credit for engineering the military decline of the guerrillas from 1982 to the present,” reads the cable, which was obtained by George Washington University’s National Security Archive.

These Army colonels recruited “other capable officers” who were their juniors to serve in “key operations and troop command assignments.” The “Operators” developed their own “network of recognition, relationships and loyalties.” One of the operations officers, the cable goes on, was then-Major Otto Pérez Molina.


Ríos Montt took power in 1982 through a coup and later formed a political party called the Guatemalan Republican Front. Having always wanted to be a popularly elected president, he tried running for it three times, but Guatemalan courts kept ruling he was ineligible over his role in a past coup. So Ríos Montt handpicked a career politician named Alfonso Portillo to run on his party’s ticket in his place, and Portillo, after losing one election, won the next one to take office in 2000.

One of President Portillo’s most frequent guests at the National Palace was retired intelligence chief and Cofradía officer Ortega Menaldo, spotted so frequently, a spokesman felt compelled to tell reporters that he was just a close friend and not an official advisor.

In March 2002, the State Department revoked Menaldo’s US entry visa due to narco-trafficking allegations. Menaldo denied the allegations, telling reporters that he had previously collaborated with both the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration against drug trafficking. The same top Cofradía officer named in the DIA cable, now-ret. General Callejas y Callejas, also had his visa revoked on the same grounds, but never responded to the allegation.

The Bush administration eventually decertified Guatemala for failing to cooperate against drug trafficking.

“Narcotics trafficking, alien smuggling, car theft, money laundering, and organized crime in general are on the increase in Guatemala,” a State Department official, Paul Simons, testified to Congress. “Some of the leaders of these activities have very close ties to the president and regularly influence his decisions, especially with respect to personnel nominations in the military and ministry of government.”

US agencies have finally begun holding Guatemala accountable for criminal activity, after largely ignoring drug trafficking and other crimes by retired military officers and others for years. But the United States has yet to account for its own role in Guatemala’s genocide. To date the closest any U.S. official has come was then-President Bill Clinton saying in Guatemala City in 1999 that “support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong.”

Pérez Molina was in Washington serving as the Guatemala military liaison to the Inter-American Defense Board, when Portillo was elected president with Ríos Montt’s and his party’s backing. When the new government was inaugurated, Pérez Molina retired from military service, and within a year founded the Patriotic Party.

Soon both Ríos Montt and Pérez Molina were elected representatives on different sides of the Guatemalan legislature. (Ríos Montt’s daughter, Zury Rios, was an elected legislator, too. She married then-Illinois congressman Jerry Weller, who later left Congress over improprieties including undisclosed Nicaragua beachfront properties first documented in the Chicago Reader by this reporter.)

Pérez Molina ran for the presidency in 2007 and lost, and ran again in 2011 and won. He came to power promising to crack down on organized crime, especially Mexican drug cartels that in recent years have inundated Guatemala. But President Pérez Molina also allowed, in no small part due to international pressure, both a UN anti-crime task force, backed by the United States since the Bush administration, as well as Guatemalan’s own dogged attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, to continue gathering evidence and bringing cases to court.

One of the nation’s future defendants could conceivably be him. Using the nom de guerre of Major Tito Arias, then-Major Pérez Molina served in the Ixil region, where journalist Allan Nairn interviewed him on camera as part of a documentary made by the Finnish filmmaker Mikael Wahlforss. The documentary recorded Pérez Molina standing amid a row of adult male corpses, as soldiers kicked their remains. A soldier said on camera that they had brought the men to Pérez Molina for interrogation, but that they provided no information. The soldiers did not explain how the men were killed.

A City University of New York anthropologist, Victoria Sanford, recently wrote a New York Times op-d saying that the Obama administration should lead nations in the Organization of American States to demand President Pérez Molina’s resignation.


Anthropologists have long helped document abuses against Guatemala’s majority Mayan population. In 1990, anthropologist Myrna Mack was killed, stabbed twenty-seven times, by a military high command agent. Her sister, Helen Mack Chang, was a bank loan officer who has since emerged as the nation’s leading human rights advocate.

Helen Mack long ago compared the impunity surrounding the Guatemalan military and its crimes to a wall. With the trial of ex-President Ríos Montt the wall has finally began to crack, but not yet crumble. It remains unclear whether any legal or other action will be taken against the former military “Operator” under both Ríos Montt’s and the Cofradía’s commands, now-President Pérez Molina.

Ex-President Portillo, the politician handpicked by Ríos Montt, stands indicted in Manhattan. But his extradition has been stalled for three years. A related criminal case against him has remained open in Guatemala, even though few actual proceedings occurred. Last month the case was finally closed, perhaps now paving the way for Portillo’s extradition.

Even if his extradition were approved, his money-laundering case in New York is so potentially explosive that American diplomats wonder out loud whether he would be killed before he left. “A powerful group of former senior military officers known collectively as ‘The Brotherhood’ (‘La Cofradía,’ suspected of narcotrafficking and other crimes), who colluded with then-President Portillo to embezzle millions from the state, might seek to murder him in order to ensure he does not collaborate with Guatemalan or U.S. authorities,” reads a 2010 still classified State Department cable signed by Ambassador Stephen McFarland, a career diplomat and veteran Central America hand, and obtained and made available online by WikiLeaks.

The genocide and other crimes committed with impunity in Guatemala have long ripped the fabric of the nation. Stitching it back to together will require the same kind of hand-woven care it takes to embroider a detailed, colorful Ixil woman’s huipil.

May 23, 2013

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Gun Control and Genocide

You may also read the article at The Progressive where it first appeared.

Here’s why the NRA is dead wrong about gun control causing genocide. But at least they agree with human rights groups about the horrors of the military dictatorship in Guatemala.

What does America’s gun lobby have to do with the question of genocide in Guatemala? Plenty, although not for anything they did. But for the particular ideology they bring to this and almost every other case of genocide or similar violence in the twentieth century.

Today, in the United States, the gun lobby and gun manufacturers have a joint interest in both fighting gun control and encouraging Americans to buy more guns.

At the same time, gun manufacturing executives play a greater, hidden role inside the National Rifle Association that NRA leaders like to admit, as I helped established in a piece in January on this website.

The gun lobby also shares ideological ground with a small, but vocal group of gun rights activists who, like most NRA leaders and many gun industry executives, take an absolutist view of the American Second Amendment. Their ideology has two articles of faith, and each one reinforces the other. First, even the slightest form of control is likely, if not certain to result in government seizure of all firearms. And, second, gun control itself invariably leads to government tyranny, if not genocide.

That’s another reason why the gun lobby along with many gun rights activists oppose even modest gun control legislation.

And it’s also why the NRA is vehemently opposed to a U.N. Arms Trade Treaty that human rights groups like Amnesty International strongly support.

Two seemingly unconnected events recently unfolded in March more than 2,500 miles apart. On March 18, Guatemala began an historic trial against a former military dictator on charges of genocide. On March 20, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper signed landmark gun control measures in that state into law.

What does one have to do with the other? For Second Amendment absolutists, gun control and genocide, or at least the specter of government violence, are always tightly intertwined.

“This is how it starts. ==> Landmark gun bills signed in Colorado,”@Bobacheck tweeted in Wisconsin just hours after thy became Colorado law, adding hashtags including, “#NRA #2ndAmendment.”

Colorado’s new gun control laws require background checks on private gun sales, and limit magazines for semi-automatic weapons to a maximum of 15 rounds. (New York recently passed a law limiting magazines for semi-automatic weapons to seven rounds, although it may now modify the law to allow use of industry-standard 10-round magazines as long as they are not loaded with more than seven rounds; the District of Columbia limits magazines to 10 rounds.)

The Colorado legislature passed the law three months after this past December’s Newtown, Connecticut grade school tragedy, and in the wake of two more of America’s worst gun massacres over the past 13 years in the Denver suburbs at Columbine High School in 1999 and in an Aurora movie theater last summer. Many Colorado residents along with most Americans, as recent polls suggest, see such measures like background checks as an important step forward for public safety.

But for the gun lobby along with Second Amendment absolutists, the signing of Colorado’s new gun laws –which came only hours after the state’s Corrections director was shot and killed standing in the front door of his own home—is just the first sinister step toward government repression.

“#COLORADO How are they getting away with this crap? It’s coming to a town near you. We better stand, and fight this people,” tweeted @SanddraggerTees on the West Coast, one of countless gun rights absolutists who also rang the alarm just hours after the legislation became law, using the hashtags #2A for Second Amendment and #NRA.

YOUTUBE and the blogosphere have long been full of material alleging historical connections between gun control and genocide.The videos often use dramatic music, images and language, whilethe website prefer elaborate chart presentations to illustrate correlations and, thereby suggest causations between gun restrictions and genocidal violence.

A small group of legal scholars have also written essays, often for journals at small, accredited law schools, making similar but more substantive arguments. Two such scholars, David Hardy and David Kopel, each testified early this year before the Senate Judiciary Committee, not on genocide, but on guns and gun violence in America; the nationally televised audience watching them was not informed that some of their research has been funded by theNational Rifle Association’s Civil Rights Defense Fund, as Irecently reported on

Another pair of scholars, who, back in the 1990s, were among the first to assert a connection between gun control and genocide, began one of their first law review articles on the matter in a defensive tone. The language perhaps indicates how some of their peers view their arguments.

“This essay seeks to reclaim a serious argument from the lunatic fringe,” begin Daniel D. Polsby and Don B. Kates, Jr. in “Of Holocausts and Gun Control” in the Fall 1997 issue of Washington University Law Quarterly published by the law school of the same name in St. Louis. “We argue a connection exists between the restrictiveness of a country’s civilian weapons policy and its liability to commit genocide.”

One of the NRA-funded scholars who recently testified in the Senate, Kopel, teaches Advanced Constitutional Law as an adjunct professor at Denver University law school. Kopel lists a number of specific cases in his review of a book“Lethal Laws”, by Jay Simkin, Alan M. Rice and Aaron S. Zelman of the small but voluble gun rights organization, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

Cases where gun control led to genocide, according to the group, allegedly include Armenia under Turkish occupation, Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust led by Nazi Germany, the Cultural Revolution in China, the genocide carried out by the U.S.-backed military in Guatemala, atrocities in Uganda under Idi Amin, and the Killing Fields in Cambodia. The same group along with the NRA’s longest-standing African-American board member, Roy Innis, of the Congress for Racial Equality, also put the more recent genocide in Rwanda on the list.

In the case of Guatemala, the authors of Lethal Laws focus mainly on a time several decades before its genocidal acts occurred. Even Kopel takes issue with the authors’ claim whether repealing gun control laws in the early 1950’s might have made a difference, as most Guatemalans, he points out, were too poor to afford firearms anyway. The main thing the Lethal Laws authors seem to say about Guatemala’s genocidal acts in the early 1980s is that human rights advocacy groups like Amnesty International should have advocated for the arming of victimized populations.

Such an argument would of course violate Amnesty International’s mandate. More importantly, anyone who has ever been to, or spent any time even just reading up on Guatemala would know such an argument is patently absurd. It would have only put the nation’s surviving highlands civilians at risk of even more military reprisals.

The bloody history of Guatemala includes grotesque human-rights abuses—in spite of the fact that there were significant numbers of armed rebels. The insurgents had military weapons, but they were still not strong enough as a force to defend civilians including women and children from brigade-level and other large-unit attacks by the Army.

THE TRIAL of the former military dictator, retired General Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide is underway in Guatemala City. A U.N. Truth Commission previously documented the wholesale annihilation of men, women and children in hundreds of ethnic Mayan villages while he led the country, calling them “acts of genocide.” The abuses were carried out with CIA assistance, as was established in 1995 by journalist and author Tim Weiner in The New York Times.

In late 1990, in The Progressive, I reported how villagers in Santiago de Atitán finally broke through their own fear of military reprisals to place the photos of hundreds of loved ones who had disappeared over the previous decade on the windows and walls of the village’s town hall. It all began with one family’s photo, and soon became a silent, collective act of defiance of military authority.

Another five years passed before Guatemala’s civil war finally ended. By then, Guatemala’s civil war had been bloodier than all the other wars in Central America combined. More than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. Leftist guerrillas committed some abuses, but the U.N. Truth Commission found the Guatemalan military responsible for 93 percent of the nation’s wartime abuses.

Gun control had nothing to do with it. Instead it was the state’s concentration of power by the military as an institutional that facilitated the abuses. Even as the massacres were still being carried out, military authorities began organizing civilians in villages whom they deemed as being less tainted by rebel ideology into military-controlled “strategic hamlets” or population centers. In other villages, where surviving residents were not forcibly relocated, the Army organized the males into the civil defense patrols and armed them with M1 carbine rifles.

Unlike the claims of Second Amendment scholars and activists, the same phenomenon of military power being the primary factor leading to genocide or similar acts is characteristic of state violence committed by other governments in previous eras.

“The history of gun control in Germany from the post-World War I period to the inception of World War II seems to be a history of declining, rather than increasing, gun control,” wrote Bernard E. Harcourt in the Fordham Law Review in 2004. Debunking the arguments made explicitly by NRA activists and Second Amendment scholars point by point, Harcourt concludes their claims “are not about history, nor are they about truth. These are cultural arguments.”

Other scholars looking at the Holocaust and other genocidal acts seem to agree.

“Perhaps the greatest source of power in an oppressive society in times of war is the military establishment that is identified with the authorities in charge,” wrote scholar Vahakn N. Dadrian in “The Comparative Aspects of the Armenian and Jewish Cases of Genocide: A Sociohistorical Perspective,” in the 2008 edited volume, Is the Holocaust Unique?: Perspectives on Comparative Genocide.

Now in Guatemala prosecutors are alleging that General Montt presided over military counterinsurgency efforts that targeted not armed leftist guerrillas trying to overthrow the government, but explicitly unarmed civilians suspected of supporting or even being sympathetic to the rebel cause.

“A woman was found hiding in a ditch and realizing her presence, the point man fired, killing her and two ‘chocolates,’” according to one platoon report from mid-1982 called “Operation Sofia” and obtained by the National Security Archive of George Washington University. The “chocolates” referred to two children she was protecting.

One former Army sergeant operating in the Quiché region, where many abuses were concentrated, told me during the war how his commanders justified such brutality. “The innocent pay for the sins of the guilty,” he explained, saying the innocents referred to unarmed civilians and the guilty referred to the armed guerrillas.

When the military confronted unarmed civilians, there was “a clear indifference to their status as a non-combatant civilian population,”later concluded the U.N. Truth Commission. The level of carnage in Guatemala was extreme even when compared to other bloodied nations in the region like El Salvador.

“In the majority of massacres there is evidence of multiple acts of savagery, which preceded, accompanied or occurred after the deaths of victims,” concluded the U.N. Truth Commission. “Acts such as the killing of defenseless 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.”

BUT WHEN it comes to one thing, Second Amendments scholars are closer to human rights advocates than to many American conservatives about Guatemala. Back in late 1982, President Ronald Reagan, whom many conservative Republicans still revere, met General Montt and afterward told reporters that he thought the Guatemalan dictator was getting “a bum rap” over his alleged human rights abuses.

Today’s gun lobby scholars disagree. They and other gun rights absolutists fault President Reagan for supporting gun control measures including the Brady Bill mandating background checks after his press secretary, Jim Brady, was shot and Reagan was wounded, and for later speaking out against non-sporting, high-powered weapons.

But some of the same leading Second Amendment scholars also reject Reagan’s apologies for Guatemala’s human rights record under General Rios Montt.

“Perhaps the most overlooked genocide of the twentieth century has been the Guatemalan government’s campaign against its Indian population,” wrote Kopel in 1995. One reason “may be that the Guatemalan government has been friendly to the United States.”

He’s right about that.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist and MSNBC Contributor. He has been covering the gun lobby since the mid-1990s, writing for publications including The Village Voice, The Washington Post and Mother Jones. He’s been covering Guatemala since the late-1980s, writing for outlets including The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal and The Texas Observer. Smyth is the author of the 1994 Human Rights Watch report released on the eve of genocide, Arming Rwanda, and of the 2010 study, “Painting the Maya Red: Military Doctrine and Speech in Guatemala’s Genocidal Acts”, published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His clips are posted, and his Twitter handle is @SmythFrank .

Even Court-Approved Extraditions Have a Troubled, Bloody History in Guatemala

Original article can be found here.

Guatemala courts have recently approved sending major drug traffickers to face criminal charges in the US, but legal delays or violence could still jeopardize the extraditions. InSight Crime examines the bloody history of extradition in Guatemala.

US counter-drug officials set a trap. It was 2005 and the top three officers in Guatemala’s new, US-trained anti-narcotics force were themselves wanted in the United States for drug trafficking. But US officials knew Guatemalan courts were unreliable. So they invited the three top cops to travel to Virginia for special training, and arrested them after they landed on US soil.

The ruse was part of a policy in the 2000s, said US officials. US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agents worked to lure Guatemalans wanted on US drug charges out of Guatemala to other nations including El Salvador and Mexico where they could be more easily apprehended and extradited to US courts to face trial.

But times have changed. In recent months, for the first time in decades, Guatemalan courts have approved extraditions of several alleged kingpins. The trend began in February when courts approved the extraditions of two men, one of whom was Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale” (pictured above), whom the DEA identifies as Guatemala’s top drug trafficker. In June a court approved the extradition of another major suspect, Horst Walther Overdick, alias “the Tiger,” who is accused of collaborating with the Mexican Zetas drug cartel.

These are big steps for Guatemala, a nation that has among the worst records in the hemisphere for either prosecuting or extraditing major drug suspects. The last time Guatemala extradited one of its own drug lords was nearly 20 years ago. And the complications faced by US agencies back then have continued to plague US efforts through six administrations led by four different American presidents.

The recent extradition rulings could finally threaten Guatemalan traffickers, nearly all of whom have long enjoyed impunity as long as they have remained within Guatemala. At least one suspect, an ex-president, is tied to a powerful military clique. Both US and UN officials fear the extraditions could still be jeopardized through either legal delays or targeted violence.

Back in 2007 Guatemala extradited two of its own citizens wanted on drug charges for the first time in more than a decade. But they were only mid-level smugglers who, along with a Colombian extradited from Guatemala a year later, hid at least five kilograms of heroin in a car driven from Guatemala to New York City.

Before then, the last time a Guatemalan was extradited on drug charges was back in the early 1990s. Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, alias “Archie,” was the mayor of the eastern town of Zacapa when he was arrested in 1990 with DEA help. A US embassy cable at the time described Vargas as a “major league hood.” The cable, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the George Washington University-based National Security Archive, added: “It is important to get Vargas, who is apparently both wealthy and inclined to violence, out of Guatemala quickly.”

But the town mayor’s extradition was anything but quick. One judge ruled the evidence was insufficient, even though it included a then record for Guatemala of 4,000 pounds of seized cocaine (exceeded two years later by 2.8 metric tons of cocaine found in a house rented to a Colombian by a retired Guatemalan Air Force captain). It took US State Department attorneys three more years filing in various Guatemalan courts to finally extradite the town mayor and two others by 1993.

The three suspects were convicted in a New York federal court of trafficking cocaine. Prosecutors told jurors that Vargas was receiving small planes loaded with drugs at his private ranch in Zacapa. But dozens of local farmers, in a signed petition to the DEA, told a slightly different story. Vargas and local military commanders began displacing small farmers from a nearby rural area, torturing three men, one month before Vargas’ DEA-assisted arrest. After his arrest, the same local military commanders displaced hundreds of families, and murdered at least nine more people including a mother and son, to build what the farmers in the petition claimed were clandestine runways for planes carrying drugs.

One of the same men named by the farmers, Byron Berganza, was finally arrested more than a decade laterin El Salvador in 2004. By then the owner of a trucking business based in ZacapaOtto Herrera, was considered by US agencies to be one of Central America’s biggest drug traffickers. He arrested in Mexico the same year. (He later escaped and was captured again in Colombia in 2007.)

Back in 1990, in Guatemala, DEA special agents had another operation under surveillance. DEA later seized a half metric ton of cocaine inside a small plan near Tampa that had been tracked from Escuintla in western Guatemala. The alleged ringleader indicted with others in a Florida federal court was Army lieutenant Carlos Ochoa Ruiz, alias “Charlie.”

The case took even longer since he was a military officer. At one point, a military tribunal intervened to claim jurisdiction, ruling to dismiss all charges. But US attorneys fought to keep the case in Guatemalan civilian courts. It went all the way to the Constitutional Court, the nation’s top judicial body, led by Judge Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon, who was well-respected for his integrity.

On March 23, 1994, the Constitutional Court led by Judge Gonzalez Dubon quietly ruled in a closed session four-to-three to extradite Lt. Col. Ochoa. Nine days later, on April 1, gunmen shot and killed the chief justice in front of his surviving wife and child. On April 12, the same Constitutional Court with a new chief justice again quietly ruled seven-to-one not to extradite Ochoa. It took the State Department, prompted by the press, no less than four years to finally admit the facts in a few lines buried in a thick report to Congress.

Over the years since, several Guatemalans were extradited to the United States to face trial for individual crimes like rape that had no international connection. But no Guatemalans were extradited on any drug charges for 14 years.

The DEA began building another big case in 2003. Guatemalan agents assisted by US officials seized over$14 million in local currency from a house in Guatemala City leading to major suspects. One was Elio Lorenzano, the youngest son of a reputed organized crime family, who was arrested in Zacapa in November 2011. His extradition was among those recently approved. His family was allegedly working for the regional kingpin Herrera.

Today more than nine Guatemalan suspects wanted in the United States have US extradition cases pending against them in Guatemala. But most of their defense lawyers have wielded a seemingly interminable writ of “amparo” claiming that their clients’ constitutional rights are being somehow violated.

One suspect awaiting extradition is former President Alfonso Portillo who faces US money-laundering charges. He has ties to a powerful Guatemalan group of retired Army intelligence officers known as “The Brotherhood” or “La Cofradia.” At first, after his New York indictment was announced in January 2010, US officials also hoped to secure his extradition quickly.

“[Ex-]President Portillo has already demonstrated his ability to manipulate Guatemala’s courts, so we think his quick extradition to face money laundering charges in the US makes good sense,” reads one US embassy cable obtained through irregular channels by WikiLeaks. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court approved his extradition in August 2011. Yet ongoing legal proceedings in Guatemala continue to delay his transfer.

Violence remains another concern. “The powerful group of former military officers known as ‘La Cofradia’ will certainly feel threatened by Portillo’s arrest,” reads another US cable obtained by WikiLeaks. “We agree with [UN officials] that they might violently retaliate against a high-profile target or targets, such as the Guatemalan prosecutor handling the case (Eunice Mendizabal), or [UN] staff.”

Francisco Dall’Anese is the director of a UN anti-impunity commission in Guatemala. “Extradition orders are processed here like they were in the 19th century,” he said in June.

Guatemala’s Cycles of Crime

Original story found here.

Guatemala’s Cycles of Crime

January 13, 2012 – 6:06pm | World Policy Journal

By Frank Smyth

For Guatemala and its majority Mayan population time is repeating itself. A former military commander and intelligence chief with a bloody past promises to bring law and order to the Central American nation. Worried about rising crime and the increasingly violent penetration by Mexican drug cartels, voters elected Otto Pérez Molina as president.

The president-elect’s loyalties may be divided, however, between his promise to fight organized crime and the U.S.-backed institution to which he owes his career. His dilemma is rooted in the anti-communism shared by the two nations during the Cold War. Only by strengthening Guatemala’s long struggling civilian law enforcement and judicial institutions will the nation achieve stability. Unfortunately, Pérez Molina has already indicated his preference to rely instead on military force.

On January 14, Pérez Molina will become the first ex-military officer to assume Guatemala’s presidency since the end of military rule in 1986. But every elected government since has been marked by two trends. First, there’s the ongoing influence exercised by different and sometimes rival cliques of military intelligence officers. Second, there’s the endemic lawlessness that has given rise to violence and Guatemala’s increasing role as a transshipment and now also a production point for U.S.-bound illegal drugs.

With names like the “Brotherhood” (Cofradía) and the “Operators,” the intelligence cliques “developed their own vertical leader-subordinate network of recognition, relationships, and loyalties,” noted the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in a 1991 cable. The cable identified Pérez Molina as one of the “Operators,” and it credited the intelligence cliques for dramatic military successes during the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1980’s.

A U.N. truth commission later found the same military operations included “acts of genocide.” Concentrated in the Mayan highlands, these included targeting entire village populations suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas for annihilation. Internal Guatemalan Army documents show that Pérez Molina was an infantry commander in the Ixil triangle in 1982 during some of the most severe abuses. U.S. military documents from the mid-1990s, albeit with contradictory accounts, show him either disappearing or ordering the disappearance of Efraín Bámaca, the leftist guerrilla leader married to the Harvard-trained, U.S. lawyer Jennifer Harbury.  President-elect Molina, while declining to address specific allegations, denies any role in abuses.

The president-elect deserves some credit. He plans to keep, even if it is due to international pressure, the country’s current Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz. Unprecedentedly, and often working with international officials, she has arrested both military personnel for prior human rights crimes and suspected international drug bosses, including one alleged kingpin indicted in Tampa. She continues to investigate other abuses, too, including Bámaca’s disappearance after being captured. But more must be done to establish accountability and the rule of law.

Human rights groups fear the new government will usher in a new era of state-sponsored violence. The president-elect has named former Kaibil military commanders to lead the police and military. Kaibiles are elite military forces, who have been linked to some of the nation’s grisliest massacre, including the slaughter of over 200 civilians at Dos Erres in the remote, northern region of Petén in 1982. More recently ex-Kaibil soldiers have been linked to drug trafficking in collaboration with Mexico’s feared Zeta cartel, who themselves are former Mexican special forces soldiers turned drug lords. Leading Mexican analysts maintain it was the Guatemalan ex-Kabiles who taught the Zetas the use of decapitation as a terror tactic.

President-elect Molina and his cabinet say they will expand police and Kaibil operations in Guatemala, and lead a regional effort to share intelligence about organized crime. They might start with their own peers. Dozens of Guatemalan officers of all ranks have been formally accused of drug trafficking, according to U.S. government documents, dating back to before the end of Guatemala’s armed conflict.

Guatemala’s record of prosecuting its own drug kingpins lags far behind Mexico and Colombia. Not one Guatemalan was extradited on drug charges for well over a decade after the 1994 murder of Epaminondas González Dubón, the nation’s chief justice. The Clinton administration covered up the extradition case surrounding his murder.

His murder reveals the power of the intelligence cliques linked to the drug trade in Guatemala. Chief Justice Dubón led the nation’s Constitutional Court in a four-to-three vote in favor of extraditing Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz, according to court documents later cited by the Costa Rican daily La Nación. Nine days later, on April 1, as the family was returning from observing a Good Friday pageant, gunmen shot and killed Dubón near his home in his car in front of his wife and youngest son. On April 12, the same top court with a new chief justice quietly ruled not to extradite Ochoa. The State Department took four years before finally admitting in a few lines buried in a thick report to Congress that the chief justice’s assassination stopped the extradition of the Army lieutenant colonel over multi-ton level cocaine charges.

Since then, the nation’s importance to drug traffickers has only climbed.  The State Department reports that Guatemala is a midpoint for over 60 percent of all the South American cocaine reaching the United States, most of which then passes through Mexico. Guatemala is a transshipment point for heroin too. Recently, Mexican traffickers have started producing methamphetamine in Guatemala.

The Mexican cartels first moved into Guatemala to fight each other over who would emerge with the largest share of Guatemala’s huge cocaine export market. But Guatemala’s own cartels—who still primarily receive drugs from South America—have long been quieter than their Mexican counterparts. Classified U.S. cables obtained by WikiLeaks identify five major Guatemalan cartels that, for some reason, have rarely fought each other over territory or profits.

The U.S. has taken some action. The Bush Administration revoked the U.S. entry visas of two former Guatemalan intelligence chiefs over suspected drug trafficking. One, Francisco Ortega Menaldo, who publicly denied the accusation, is a longtime rival of Molina. But a decade ago, he was a frequent companion of then-President Alfonso Portillo, who is now facing extradition to New York to face money laundering charges.

However, the military intelligence cliques have hardly gone away. On 2010, a U.S. State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks read “A powerful group of former senior military officers known collectively as “The Brotherhood” (“La Cofradía,” suspected of narcotrafficking and other crimes), who colluded with then-President Portillo to embezzle millions from the state, might seek to murder him in order to ensure he does not collaborate with Guatemalan or U.S. authorities.”

Molina’s iron fist will no doubt drive out some Mexican traffickers. But only independent law enforcement will rescue Guatemala from its own powerful crime lords linked to the military intelligence cliques who have long enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Only by supporting civilian over military institutions could Molina move Guatemala forward. But, like many other retired intelligence officers, he has an interest in not exhuming the past.



Frank Smyth began his career reporting from El Salvador in the 1980s. He has covered Guatemala, Rwanda, Colombia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.  He has written for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Painting the Maya Red: Military Doctrine and Speech in Guatemala’s Genocidal Acts

Original story found here.


Military Doctrine and Speech in Guatemala’s Genocidal Acts

By Frank Smyth

The bloodshed woven through the fabric of Guatemalan society remains a rarely told story. One reason for the ongoing lack of attention is the impunity that has long seeped through the northern Central American nation. Senior military officers were the engineers of Guatemala’s worst abuses. But no more than a literal handful were ever brought to justice for any crimes, and many continue to operate above the law today. At the same time, human rights monitors who have tried to unravel the past have themselves been murdered, tortured or threatened one after another over decades in what appears to be an ongoing campaign of organized intimidation.

The timing and location of much of the violence is another factor that has helped keep the story in the dark. The largest massacres took place more than a quarter century ago in remote, highland regions among indigenous communities whose first language was not Guatemala’s national one of Spanish but different Mayan dialects. Not only were local and foreign journalists alike denied independent access to the war zones, but the United States, which was by then increasing involvement in El Salvador and other Central American nations, was not providing enough overt aid to Guatemala at the time to generate much interest in the foreign press.

The United States was one of several nations providing Guatemala with covert aid, however, as the nation’s military was carrying out major human rights violations. The complicity of foreign governments in assisting and training the Guatemalan Armed Forces may be an additional reason that Guatemala has still not drawn more international focus. Then-President Bill Clinton traveled to Guatemala City in 1999 to all but apologize for the roles played more than a decade before by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies in the nation’s Cold War-era carnage. But even this unprecedented act of contribution by a sitting U.S. President received relatively little attention.

Guatemala still receives scant press today even as credible observers wonder out loud if the nation is in danger of becoming a failed state.[1] In recent decades, Guatemala (not unlike Mexico just north of its border on the isthmus) has been an increasingly important hub for drug trafficking and other organized crimes. Some of Guatemala’s chief criminal suspects include retired military officers who helped plan operations leading to many of the nation’s most widespread human rights abuses back during the Cold War.

Genocide is a specific, legal term no one should use lightly. No genocide per se ever took place in Guatemala. But the Guatemalan military did commit “acts of genocide,” according to the U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification (of Violence that Caused Suffering to the Guatemalan People). The acts did not meet the threshold of genocide as they were not attempts to exterminate the nation’s indigenous Mayans, who comprise the majority of the nation’s population. But the acts did involve the wholesale annihilation of men, women and children in hundreds of ethnic Mayan communities.[2]

The military only targeted those specific villages which authorities deemed to be supportive, or potentially supportive of one or another of the nation’s Marxist insurgencies. But, within those villages, the military in many if not most cases targeted the village population en masse. According to the U.N. commission:

[T]he aim of the perpetrators was to kill the largest number of group members possible. Prior to practically all these killings, the Army carried out at least one of the following preparatory actions: carefully gathering the whole community together; surrounding the community; or utilizing situations in which the people were gathered together for celebrations or market days.[3]

The nation’s various leftist guerrilla groups, for their part, committed many serious atrocities against civilians including indigenous people, especially selective assassinations of suspected military informants in 1982. But the U.N. commission concluded that 93 percent of Guatemala’s wartime abuses were committed by the Guatemalan state or by military or paramilitary forces under direct military control. Both the U.N. commission report as well as another exhaustive study by the Guatemalan Catholic Church documented the role of the Guatemalan military intelligence services, in particular, in organizing systematic human rights violations.[4]

Hateful discourse including doctrine and speech each played a role in Guatemala, but perhaps in different ways from other cases of modern genocide or genocidal acts. In Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s, in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and 1990s, and in Rwanda in the early to mid-1990s, racist doctrine and speech was developed for dissemination among both loyal political cadre and the public at large. Whereas, in Guatemala, the doctrine and speech was not disseminated to reach the entire nation, but was instead directed either at different groups of military personnel, or at select groups of civilians, namely villagers, living under partial or full military control.

Scholars studying other cases have noted the primacy of military institutions in carrying out genocides or genocidal acts.

Perhaps the greatest source of power in an oppressive society in times of war is the military establishment that is identified with the authorities in charge. To the extent that the outcome of the war hinges on military performance, military authorities will require inordinate power and, accordingly, will be catapulted into relative predominance. Genocide not only requires opportunistic decision-making, its execution depends on functional efficiency. In addition to planning and administering the logistics involved, there has to be a command-and-control set up to ensure a reasonably smooth operation.[5]

The same scholar, Vahakn N. Dadrian, quoted above further noted the key roles played by ideology and its indoctrination among military forces in genocides including the Holocaust by Nazi Germany and the Armenian slaughter by Turkish forces.

In both cases of genocide, the military played a crucial role. Involved were not just regular officers but officers who were intensely committed to the respective ideologies and goals of the Nazis and Ittihadists. Within this framework of loyalty and dedication, they performed critical staff work, maintained secrecy and discipline, and participated in field operations as commanders of killer bands. Such terms as ‘Nazi officers’ and ‘Ittihadist officers’ are descriptive of the potentially lethal process of indoctrinating military officers with political party credos and teachings and, in general, of politicizing the military or segments of it.[6]

In Guatemala, the military officer corps developed different types of language to indoctrinate military personnel and other select groups. Commanding officers and others prepared a written doctrine for their own cadre of senior officers. The Army further developed colloquial speech to disseminate the same ideas down to non-commission officers and soldiers. Field officers and soldiers were then ordered to communicate similar language to individuals and communities among the civilian population.

The discourse at all levels served to justify violence against civilians. No matter the forum, the doctrine as well as speech shifted the onus of blame for atrocities from the military perpetrators to the civilian victims. The language in each case served to dehumanize civilians especially ethnic Mayans suspected of supporting the nation’s Marxist guerrillas. The rationalizations in the speech may have also helped field officers, soldiers as well as paramilitaries overcome their own moral and emotional reservations at either ordering, or carrying out orders to brutalize civilians including women and children.

Scholar Scott Straus (a contributor to this study) has documented the roles played by fear and, in particular, military-backed, intra-ethnic intimidation as a driving force behind Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.[7] Similarly, in Guatemala in the late 1970s and early 1980s, another purpose of the military discourse was to sow fear within ethnic Mayan communities among the majority indigenous population. The Army used violence and intimidation to divide indigenous people into two basic camps –either for co-optation or destruction– based on their perceived political loyalties. Moreover, during many violent Army campaigns against civilians, field officers regularly made speeches telling paramilitaries and surviving civilians alike that those who were killed or abused deserved their plight, and that anyone who failed to embrace the military would suffer the same fate.

The military discourse in Guatemala also played upon existing racism among society against ethnic Mayans and others. The nation has long suffered a hierarchy of prejudice. Most large landowners and their families are of European including notably German descent;[8] the nation’s traditional elite, as a class, has looked down at the country’s Ladinos as well as ethnic Mayans. (Ladino is a term specific to Guatemala that refers to people of either mixed race or indigenous descent who have abandoned Mayan dress for Western clothing.) Ladinos, in turn, have largely looked down at the nation’s majority Mayans, who have long worn traditional costumes.

The Army exploited the prejudice to not only facilitate violence, but to break down the cultural cohesion of Mayan communities to make them more amenable to military goals. Found the U.N. commission:

[I]n the majority of cases, the identification of Mayan communities with the insurgency was intentionally exaggerated by the State, which, based on traditional racist prejudices, used this identification to eliminate any present or future possibilities of the people providing help for, or joining, an insurgent project.

The consequence of this manipulation…was massive and indiscriminate aggression directed against communities independent of their actual involvement in the guerrilla movement and with a clear indifference to their status as a non-combatant civilian population. The massacres, scorched earth operations, forced disappearances and executions of Mayan authorities, leaders and spiritual guides, were not only an attempt to destroy the social base of the guerrillas, but above all, to destroy the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in Mayan communities.[9]

The Guatemalan Army was successful on its own terms. The scale of the violence remains staggering.

More than 200,000 people were killed or forcibly disappeared in Guatemala, largely back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to the U.N. commission. This is a toll about twice the size of the total number of people estimated to have died throughout the rest of Central America combined during the region’s war-torn 1980s.[10] The documented toll in Guatemala is about the same as the total number of people believed to have died throughout the 1990s in the Balkans wars.[11] And it is comparable to the overall number of people estimated to have died from the early- to mid-2000s in the Darfur region of Sudan from violence as well as the effects of displacement due to violent attacks including disease, hunger and exposure.[12]

Guatemala’s toll is far smaller, however, than the 800,000 people who died in Rwanda during that nation’s 1994 genocide over a much shorter period of time. (The two nation’s populations are of nearly comparable size.) Guatemala back in the early 1980s had about eight million people. (The nation has since grown to thirteen million.) Guatemala’s toll from the period would be the equivalent of killing more than seven million people today in the United States.

A remarkably large percentage of Guatemala’s victims were women and children.

“[A] large number of children” were among “the direct victims of arbitrary execution, forced disappearance, torture, rape and other violations,” reported the U.N. commission.[13] “[A] large number of children” were also “orphaned and abandoned, especially among the Mayan population, who saw their families destroyed and the possibility of living a normal childhood within the norms of their culture, lost.”

At the same time, “approximately a quarter of the direct victims of human rights violations and acts of violence were women,” reported the U.N. commission. “They were killed, tortured and raped, sometimes because of their ideals and political or social participation, sometimes in massacres or other indiscriminate acts.”[14]

The Human Rights Office of the Guatemalan Catholic Archdiocese produced its own exhaustive report of the nation’s wartime violence titled, Never Again! Recovery of the Historical Memory Project. “Half of the massacres recorded include the collective murder of children,” reported the Catholic church. “In keeping with the indiscriminate violence of massacres, descriptions of children’s deaths often contain atrocities (incineration, machete wounds, and drawing and quartering, and most frequently, severe head trauma). Many young girls were raped during massacres or while detained.”[15]

Civilian victims of Army abuses were systematically subjected to such cruelty. Found the U.N. commission:

In the majority of massacres there is evidence of multiple acts of savagery, which preceded, accompanied or occurred after the death of the victims. Acts such as the killing of defenseless 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.[16]

Nor was the violence gratuitous, at least not in the eyes of its military intelligence planners. “Human rights violations have been used as a strategy of social control in Guatemala,” found the Catholic Church historical memory report which is based on the testimony of survivors as well as perpetrators. “More than simply a byproduct of armed confrontation, terror has been the goal of a counterinsurgency policy that utilized different means at different times (fear is the effect most frequently reported in the testimonies).”[17]

Guatemala’s military struggle was nearly the last hot conflict of the Cold War, formally ending in 1996 seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nearly a century before the same small, tropical country is one of the Central American nations that helped give rise to the term “Banana Republic.”[18]

Guatemala’s civil war broke out in the early 1960s as Marxist guerrilla movements inspired, and to some degree supported by revolutionary Cuba were spreading throughout Latin America. In Guatemala, leftist insurgencies found fertile terrain in economic conditions marked by one of the most inequitable distributions of arable land ownership in Latin America along with widespread poverty for the overwhelming majority of Guatemalans. The guerrillas also took root not long after an unprecedented, ten-year-long period of elected democratic rule was replaced by a military dictatorship.

The end of World War II and wane of European fascism helped fuel demands for democratic and other reforms in many Latin American nations including Guatemala. Guatemalans eventually elected Jacobo Arbenz, a left-leaning, reform-minded leader who nationalized lands including those of the U.S.-firm United Fruit, and who also secretly received arms from then-communist Czechoslovakia. The CIA organized his overthrow in 1954 through a coup.[19]

One military regime after another occupied the National Palace in Guatemala City for more than thirty ensuing years. During this period from 1954 to 1986 the military’s main claim to legitimacy was its role in keeping at bay the nation’s various perceived and real subversives. The armed insurgents who emerged by the early 1960s were a mix of traditional communist and so-called “new left” guerrillas. Often operating through political front groups, the guerrillas organized students, workers and intellectuals in cities, and mainly landless, wage-earning farm workers in the countryside.[20]

The tide began turning against especially urban Guatemalan leftists in the late 1970s during the military government led by Gen. Romeo Lucas García. The methods used were so abusive that the U.S. administration led by President Jimmy Carter cut-off at least all overt U.S. military training and aid. The Guatemalan military strengthened ties with other partners and patrons in response. Taiwan and Israel provided political warfare and counter-terrorism training, respectively.[21] Israel provided weapons from state-of-the-art armored vehicles to Galil automatic rifles; [22] the Israeli Galil remains the Guatemalan Army’s signature small arm.

At the same time, a debate began to emerge within the ranks of the Guatemalan officer corps that had profound consequences for the nation. The Guatemalan military made the decision to pursue its own approach to the country’s various leftist insurgencies, choosing a strategy that turned concerns about the military’s human rights record on its head. Not only did the military choose to ignore the Carter administration’s human rights complaints. But the military officers who would soon emerge as the operational leaders of the institution chose to make human rights violations themselves the cornerstone of their counterinsurgency strategy.[23]

Anti-communism has roots as old as the 1930s in Guatemala interwoven with the nation’s traditional religious and conservative values. But the rhetoric only escalated after the CIA-organized coup in 1954, and again after the appearance in 1962 of the nation’s first Marxist guerrillas. By then the United States was beginning to train armed forces throughout Latin America to “control communism [and] subversion,” in the words of then-President John F. Kennedy, “and to teach them how to control mobs and fight guerrillas.”[24]

The Guatemalan military, which as an institution interchangeably refers to itself as the Guatemalan Armed Forces or the Guatemalan Army, later broadened the notion of subversion or “internal enemy” to include two types of targeted actors: armed guerrilla combatants along with the civilians suspected of supporting them.

“Those non-communists who still seek to disturb the internal order are equally enemies,” reads the Guatemalan Army’s 1978 Counterinsurgency War Manual. It was the first such document to call for the “physical elimination” of “people ideologically compromised even if they are not participating in terrorist acts or [guerrilla] war operations.” [25]

By then the Army was painting all its perceived enemies in the countryside and in the cities, from peasants to academics, from catechists to journalists, with a red brush. “The inclusion of all opponents under one banner, democratic or otherwise, pacifist or guerrilla, legal or illegal, communist or non-communist, served to justify numerous and serious crimes,” concluded the U.N. commission. “The State also tried to stigmatize and blame the victims and the country’s social organizations, making them into criminals in the public eye and thus into ‘legitimate’ targets for repression.”[26]

All kinds of Guatemalans were targeted. But 83 percent of the victims were ethnic Mayans and 17 percent were Ladinos, according to the U.N. commission.[27] One military officer, looking back at the late 1970s, recognized the dire socio-economic conditions that made the highland indigenous population vulnerable to insurgent influence. “The [indigenous] communities are living in the 18th century, and, because of it, it is possible to implant revolutionary ideas as a solution to their daily necessities,” wrote the officer in a Guatemalan military paper. “The social, economic, political and military isolation of the region is what makes the implantation of the Maoist theory ‘the fish is to water what the population is to the guerrilla.’”[28]

The metaphor paraphrases an often-quoted statement by the late Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong: the guerrilla must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea. The Guatemalan military inverted the notion first in theory and then in practice to drain the sea to kill the fish.

The nation’s highland Mayans had long been disenfranchised from the rest of the nation. Many were fluent in only one of 22 or so indigenous dialects instead of Spanish. At the same time, the concentration of land ownership, which was also increasingly geared toward export agriculture, left many indigenous campesinos without enough subsistence plots or steady income to support their families.

The military continued to recognize the impact of such factors. “The [guerrillas] base of social support is seated among the indigenous peasants and their flag is planted in their various dialects,” according to a 1982 Guatemalan military high command operations plan.[29] “The overwhelming majority of indigenous people in the nation’s Highlands have found their causes of land scarcity [and] immense poverty echoed in the proclamations of the subversion, and, after many years of indoctrination, they see the Army as an enemy invader.”[30]

But the acknowledgement in the end only led the military to favor nearly blanket extermination. “Our conduct in the military operations must be directed at negating the access of the guerrillas to the civilian population which nurtures them and in which they hide,” reads a military operations plan in 1982. [31] The same report goes on:

Subversion exists, because a small group of people supported it, and a large number of people tolerated it, either out of fear or because there are causes that give rise to it. The war has to be fought on all fronts…The mind of the population is the main objective.[32]

But trying to win over the civilian population’s so-called hearts and minds, as the United States attempted to do to some degree, for example, in Vietnam, was never Guatemala’s strategy. Instead its Army used the tools of violence and terror to either destroy or deter civilians from lending support to any group but the Armed Forces.

The CIA informed senior Reagan administration officials of the Guatemalan military’s intentions. One “Secret” 1982 CIA cable discusses the situation in the Ixil-speaking Mayan population of the Quiché highland department, which at the time was dominated by one particular guerrilla group, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor known by its acronym in Spanish EGP.

“The well documented belief by the Army that the entire Ixil is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the Army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”[33]

But one does not need to read contemporaneous U.S. intelligence cables to grasp the Guatemalan military’s thinking. In January 1982, Chief of Staff Gen. Benedicto Lucas García (who was the brother of the higher-ranking general leading Guatemala at the time) gave an interview to The Washington Post conducted in part with a correspondent on a rare, guided tour from inside a military helicopter flying over highland terrain. Chief of Staff Lucas explained not only how the EGP leftist guerrillas had gained support among Mayan communities, but how men, women and children were each playing different parts in the insurgent campaign.

“The EGP began to work in 1976, to indoctrinate the people and form what are called familial nuclei, where the husband acts as the combatant, the wife as the collaborator in all that the term implies –supply, preparation of food and everything—and the children from 8 to about 15 are agents of theirs who harass the Army with homemade grenades.” Gen. Lucas went on, “Then there are irregular local forces that also aid the guerrillas and warn them of the Army’s coming.”[34]

Gen. Lucas told The Washington Post what the military needed to do to regain control of these areas: “Of course, these people are difficult to distinguish from most of the rest of the population, but these organizational bases have to be won over or wiped out. Because of that, well, the population suffers.”

The violence only escalated two months later after a March 1982 coup by young intelligence officers who chose as their figurehead an older officer named Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. (Gen. Montt didn’t last, but the young intelligence officers who brought him to office remained in power.[35]) Army intelligence officers used four different colors of pins on a map in the high command headquarters and department garrisons, reported author George Black, to designate different levels of suspected subversive influence. Red pins marked those villages targeted for annihilation. Pink and yellow pins indicated greater and lesser levels of suspicion, respectively. Green pins showed villages considered friendly to the Army.[36]

Many red pins dotted the Ixil-speaking areas along with other parts of the department of Quiché. Besides being influenced by Marxist ideology, Catholic catechists inspired by liberation theology were active in Quiché in organizing so-called base Christian communities to collectively address social and economic issues.[37] Catholic clergy and catechists were among those targeted in Quiché, leading the church in 1982 to literally abandon the province.

Formerly secret Guatemalan Army platoon reports provide direct documentation about Army abuses in Quiché after the March 1982 coup; they were recently entered into evidence in a criminal case filed against former senior Guatemalan military leaders in a Spanish court in Madrid. “A woman was found hiding in a ditch and realizing her presence, the point man fired, killing her and two ‘chocolates,’” according to one platoon report from mid-1982. The “chocolates” referred to two children she was protecting.[38]

The Army also targeted entire villages. A July 1982 massacre in San Francisco in Huehuetenango province was later documented by the U.N. commission,[39] but it was first documented by a Guatemalan Jesuit priest and anthropologist named Ricardo Falla.

At about 1:00 p.m., the soldiers began to fire at the women inside the small church. The majority did not die there, but were separated from their children, taken to their homes in groups, and killed, the majority apparently with machetes. It seems that the purpose of this last parting of women from their children was to prevent even the children from witnessing any confession that might reveal the location of the guerrillas.

Then they returned to kill the children, whom they had left crying and screaming by themselves, without their mothers. Our informants, who were locked up in the courthouse, could see this through a hole in the window and through the doors carefully left open by a guard. The soldiers cut open the children’s stomachs with knives or they grabbed the children’s little legs and smashed their heads with heavy sticks.[40]

Throughout Guatemala, by 1984, no less than 440 highland Mayan villages were destroyed.[41] Overall, the military razed between 70 and 90 percent of villages in targeted areas, burning homes and fields and destroying property in addition to targeting inhabitants.[42] Hundreds of thousands of surviving ethnic Mayans went on the run. Some fled across the border into Mexico. Others migrated to Guatemalan’s northernmost jungle regions where they lived as displaced, wandering communities constantly trying to outpace the Guatemalan Army.

Their clothes gave them away. The region’s Mayans have long worn traditional costumes imbued with cultural symbolism, emotional resonance and spiritual beliefs. Women, especially, have long worn colorful, hand-embroidered outfits including huipils or smock-like shirts and matching skirts and sometimes a headdress. Each particular Mayan linguistic group wears its own easily identifiable color scheme. Every single village has its own signature embroidery pattern.

Many Mayans from targeted villages stopped wearing traditional clothes in the wake of Army attacks. Refugees had less money to buy thread and dyes and less time to hand weave. But the colors and patterns of the costumes themselves could be deadly to wear. “In light of the symbolism,” noted the Catholic Church report, “and sense of identity associated with traditional dress, particularly for women, its loss is more than a material one and must be understood in terms of personal dignity.”[43]

Guatemala’s genocidares, to borrow the term coined in French for Rwanda’s 1994 perpetrators, remain at large in Guatemala. They continue to enjoy impunity for not only past abuses but also for more recent alleged crimes including multi-ton level drug trafficking.[44]

The risks involved in trying to interview former Guatemalan military personnel and others make for challenging research. But the available evidence includes interviews by this author, testimonies included in the U.N. commission report and the Catholic Church historical memory report, as well as contemporaneous Guatemalan military documents. The evidence helps establish how military doctrine and speech was disseminated down through the ranks from officers to non-commissioned officers, and from non-commissioned officers to soldiers and paramilitaries as well as to civilians. The evidence further shows how the Army fully integrated the discourse into military operations involving abuses in targeted villages.

A classified Army report from the Ixil region of Quiché in 1982 shows how much importance the military placed on what it refers to as propaganda. “[I]t is of urgent necessity to mentally penetrate the ideological field,” reads the report by an operations commander in Quiché department during a period of massacres. “Likewise, it is necessary to establish a Psychological Operations team,” the operations report goes on. “Our military actions must be accompanied by much propaganda.” The operations commander further recommends in the report that “a photocopy machine, sufficient paper and ink” be brought to the Ixil-speaking village of Nebaj.[45]

The Army used psychological operations to try and turn the population away from the guerrillas, who by then had near total support in Quiché and other highland areas, according to contemporaneous Guatemalan Army reports.[46] The Army used doctrine and speech in villages as well as among displaced communities reorganized by the Army into so-called “strategic hamlets” or military-controlled camps. Testified one survivor:

One had to listen to speeches, that were always about the same things, what they wanted to put in our heads…You belong to communist organizations. But later, the real communists are going to kill all of you, their men are going bring in people from other nations and they are going to be with your daughters, your women, your plots of land and everything else that you have…but now we are protect you and now you are not going to accept anything from them, because if you go back to take anything from them, we will come again to kill you, your lives are in our hands.[47]

The Army further used discourse to recruit villagers to support or join paramilitary civil patrols. Nearly all civil patrol members were men. Most were also either ethnic Mayans or, to a lesser degree, Ladinos. Not unlike in Rwanda, military-induced fear operated on an intra-ethnic level, pitching ethnic Mayan civil patrol members against other Mayans. In highland areas, military-backed intimidation of civil patrol members often divided Mayans within the same language group or village. One civil patrol member told investigators for the Catholic Church report:

We did it out of fear. We cooperated because whoever didn’t cooperate would be punished. And besides that, they dug a huge ditch, there on the side of the road. We were afraid and had to do it, because where else [could we go]? And we were in their grasp, in their hands.[48]

But the military began by using doctrine and speech to indoctrinate their own officers. A former Army intelligence officer quoted in the Catholic Church report describes the training.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be conquered. Nothing to do with communism. Communism comes to take away lands and everything. It comes to exploit; it comes to do this and it comes to do that.” They brainwash you; they brainwash you good, to see how the movement is…So with a word they all become enemies of the people, of the whole country. And when you are in training, you say, “That’s true.”[49]

Moreover, the discourse was not deployed alone; the language was coupled with mechanisms to induce unwavering obedience by soldiers and paramilitaries alike. “Let’s say they told you to kill this person. You couldn’t say, ‘I won’t do it,’ because they had drilled into us that an order was to be obeyed without question,” testified an Army intelligence operative.[50]

Every military institution puts its soldiers through some ritual of incorporation or “bootcamp” that bonds its members to the institution and to one another. But in genocides and other cases involving egregious violations or war crimes, the indoctrination may well involve extreme if not dehumanizing rituals. One Guatemalan military recruit described the grisly conclusion of one Army training course.

We completed three months that they said were for study. They arrived at a firing range and sent us to grab about three hundred dogs. We grabbed them and they shut us in together. “Okay, listen, this is the meat that we are going to eat today.” They took us to a firing range located below the university among the gullies, and they set us to kill those dogs. They filled a cauldron with blood, like a barrel. Each one of us had a disposable cup filled with blood and had to down it. Whoever didn’t drink it was two-faced. They gave us each a cup of dog blood. They didn’t serve us lunch that day in order to get us to eat that; our lunch was a coup of blood. During the meal, they gave us dog stew.[51]

The training rituals were accompanied by another level of indoctrination that prepared field officers and soldiers alike for their own roles in the carnage to come. One colloquial phrase, in particular, became a mantra within the Army by the time of the most widespread massacres. “The innocent must pay for the sins of the guilty,” is how a former Guatemalan Army sergeant described it in an interview to this author.[52] A non-commissioned officer, the sergeant served as a liaison between commanding officers and mostly conscripted troops in the highlands of Quiché during the region’s peak of massacres in 1982. He said he was taught the phrase by his superior officers who instructed him and others to impart it on down the chain of command.

Field officers regularly used similar language in speeches to civilians, sometimes while the Army was carrying out abuses in the same area. The discourse underscored the view that the victims were being justly punished for their sins. Noted the U.N. commission:

Sometimes the Army spent days in a community, carrying out the most devious acts. Afterward, they would wait for news [of the atrocities] to reach nearby communities to make the example “clear,” reinforcing the point with speeches that tried to criminalize the victims, saying they were subjected to a just punishment and example corresponding to the “sins” committed.[53]

The same concept of just punishment was widely repeated by military personnel engaged in violence against civilians. Reported the U.N. commission:

During the massacres, the authorities also tried to inculcate the concept of “just” punishment in the population. Through discourses and speeches and by means of the selection of victims, they communicated the message that he who does not support the Army was a criminal worthy of the worst kind of death, without having the right to be properly buried. The criminalization and dehumanization of the victims was part of the operations. The practice of not burying the victims only added to the terror, especially since in many cases the corpses were left dumped and the people had to observe the animals eating them.[54]

Surviving villagers used the same kind of language in interviews with the Catholic Church. “The soldiers had begun to kill, without a word,” said one. “They weren’t asking whether anyone had sinned or not; they were killing that day.”[55] Of course the notion of sin is a common reference in a nation as traditionally Catholic and still overwhelmingly as Christian as Guatemala. But the word also appears in the context of the disdain with which the military tended to hold the nation’s indigenous population. Noted another survivor:

They really treated us with contempt. They would repeat their advice, the way you do with a baby. They still despise us; we have no dignity. They definitely despise the indigenous people there –all of the poor. Now we are below them, because we have sinned in their eyes, and they despise us. That’s how they are with us now.[56]

Finally, Guatemalan Army documents themselves underscore the importance of making survivors understand why they are being punished. One document written by an Army lieutenant indicates that people in the aforementioned Ixil-speaking village of Nebaj in Quiché department are so supportive of the guerrillas that, in order to turn them around, it may be necessary to use means on par with methods employed by totalitarian states. The lieutenant goes on to specify how propaganda and operations should work together.

Increase civic action throughout the area, as the struggle will not be won only militarily, but by tripling [the presence of] the Army and maintaining control over the area much like one might expect communist nations would do. And after having burned the homes and destroyed the quarters of the guerrillas or their collaborators, they must be spoken to and made to understand why they were victims of these attacks.[57]

It would be remiss to discuss the role of Guatemalan military discourse without also mentioning the role played by the United States in both deed and speech. In October 1982, as the massacres of highland Mayan villages were near their apogee, the U.S. administration led by President Ronald Reagan not only defended Guatemala’s military regime but accused its critics including Amnesty International of being part of a leftist conspiracy. “[A] concerted disinformation campaign is being waged in the U.S. against the Guatemalan government by groups supporting the communist insurgency,” reads one U.S. document later declassified by the Clinton administration. “[C]onscientious human rights and church groups,” the same Reagan administration report went on, “may not fully appreciate that they are being utilized.”[58]

Two months later President Reagan made a similar statement to reporters. After meeting with various Central American leaders in Honduras, President Reagan praised the Guatemalan President, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, as “a man of great personal integrity” who faces “a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala.” Later on Air Force One, when reporters pressed about Guatemala’s human rights record, President Reagan replied that Gen. Montt was getting “a bum rap.”[59] Gen. Montt was presiding at the time over literally the worst of the war’s abuses. The New York Times later established that the Reagan administration restored extensive covert ties with the Guatemalan military providing millions of dollars in CIA aid.[60]

Over a decade later President Bill Clinton went to Guatemala City and expressed regret for America’s role. “It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong,” said President Clinton in March 1999 just two weeks after the U.N. commission report was released.[61]

The military at the time operated above the law. “Impunity permeated the country to such an extent that it took control of the very structure of the State, and became both a means and an end,” found the U.N. commission. “As a means, it sheltered and protected the repressive acts of the State, as well as those acts committed by individuals who shared similar objectives; whilst as an end, it was a consequence of the methods used to repress and eliminate political and social opponents.”

One unfortunate legacy of the nation’s long civil conflict is that widespread lawlessness remains common. Guatemala has one of the highest per capita murder rates in Latin America, and the perpetrators get away with it in all but two percent of cases.[62] But the nation is now more notorious for another trend. In recent years, Guatemala has surpassed even northern Mexico as the site of literally thousands of cases of raped and murdered young women and girls (many of whose corpses have also shown signs of torture). Possible suspected perpetrators range from street gangs to better-funded groups associated with what observers have dubbed “the hidden powers” or criminal groups suspected of being linked to retired military intelligence officers.[63]

At the same time, Guatemala has become second perhaps only to its much larger, northern neighbor of Mexico as a conduit for illegal drugs led by cocaine passing from the Andean region of South America to the United States. The most well-known drug trafficking suspects identified (by U.S. agencies during the administration led by President George W. Bush) to date are two former, U.S.-trained intelligence commanders. [64] The same retired Army generals, Francisco Ortega Menaldo and Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, are identified in U.S. military documents obtained by the private National Security Archive,[65] as well as by the Catholic Church historical memory report as being among the principal architects of military intelligence operations in the early 1980s resulting in wholesale massacres.[66]

The impunity that Guatemalan military officers enjoyed for their roles in politically-motivated acts in the past has since extended to protect them for their alleged roles in profit-motivated crimes today. “Intelligence indicates that large amounts of cocaine are being transshipped through Guatemala with almost complete impunity,” former Reagan administration official Otto Reich testified to congress in 2002 –the same year that the aforementioned intelligence chiefs were (at first quietly) identified as drug suspects by the Bush administration. “Few high-level figures are ever charged or even formally investigated for corruption, and fewer go to trial.”[67]

Retired security officials are suspected of being interwoven not only into the leadership of the nation’s organized crime, but also into the shadowy forces responsible for Guatemala’s many, ongoing human rights abuses. So much so that earlier in this decade Guatemalan civilian investigators formed a task force called the Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Apparatus. The Bush administration approved the effort, and, once it stalled, the same administration –despite its often-stated criticism of international organizations— supported nothing less than a United Nations intervention to try and finally bring the nation’s suspected criminal leaders to justice.

The above task force was replaced by the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. The presence of a U.N. anti-crime task force with the power to investigative within the sovereign borders of a nation is rare elsewhere in the world apart from all but a few cases like a U.N. task force established in Lebanon to investigate the 2005 bombing of a former prime minister. The U.S. administration led by President Barack Obama is continuing to nominally support the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, whose original two-year mandate was extended in 2009 for another two years.[68]

Another legacy of Guatemala’s long record of unchecked military violence is that elected civilian Presidents have remained woefully weak despite the nominal restoration of democracy in the mid-1980s. President Vinicio Cerezo set the tone at his inauguration in 1986 when he admitted to reporters that he had no power to bring past perpetrators of human rights to justice.[69] President Cerezo also admitted that he only enjoyed a share of the nation’s real power in comparison to the Armed Forces.

Civilians elected President since have gained little if any more real power. Instead, the nation’s various civilian institutions have continued to operate in the shadow of more powerful actors including retired military officers enjoying apparent impunity above the law.[70] At the same time, many Guatemalans in and out of government who have pressed for accountability against these so-called “hidden powers” have not survived.

The anthropologist Myrna Mack documented the existence of refugee communities living on the run from the Army within Guatemala before she was stabbed to death in 1990 near her office in Guatemala City.[71] The country’s chief justice, Constitutional Court President Epaminondas González Dubón, had approved the first extradition of a Guatemalan military officer to the United States on drug trafficking charges shortly before he was gunned down in 1994 at close range in his car next to his surviving wife and child.[72] Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in 1998 in his parish house just two days after he presided over the release of the Catholic Church Nunca Más report cited in this article.[73]

Convictions were eventually handed down for both the 1990 Mack and 1998 Gerardi murders, although other credible suspects implicated in both murders remain at large. Moreover, these two high-profile assassinations are among the only violent crimes prosecuted at all in Guatemala. The State Department recently reported:

Human rights and societal problems included the government’s failure to investigate and punish unlawful killings committed by members of the security forces; widespread societal violence, including numerous killings; corruption and substantial inadequacies in the police and judicial sectors; police involvement in kidnappings; impunity for criminal activity; harsh and dangerous prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; failure of the judicial system to ensure full and timely investigations and fair trials; failure to protect judicial sector officials, witnesses, and civil society representatives from intimidation; threats and intimidation against and killings of journalists and trade unionists; discrimination and violence against women; trafficking in persons; discrimination against indigenous communities; discrimination and violence against gay, lesbian, transvestite, and transgender persons; and ineffective enforcement of labor laws and child labor provisions.[74]

Human rights monitors –or their families– are still attacked. In March 2009, the office of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman released a lengthy report based on recently discovered government archives documenting the role of the Guatemalan National Police in forcibly disappearing thousands of Guatemalans during the nation’s long civil war.[75] The next morning the Ombudsman’s wife, Gladys Monterroso, was forced into a car by three hooded men in front of a restaurant. The captors held her for 13 hours without demanding a ransom. They burned her with cigarettes, beat her and subjected her to sexual and psychological abuse, according to Human Rights First.[76] The Ombudsman is an agency of the Guatemalan congress that has the power to investigate but not prosecute alleged human rights violations.

MILITARY DOCTRINE and speech were instrumental in fomenting the bloodshed that continues to soak Guatemala’s national fabric. Moreover the impunity that protected suspects who massively abused civilians back during the Cold War has extended to protect suspects as they traffic to tons of illegal drugs today.[77] Establishing the rule of law in Guatemala will require, as a first step, acknowledging the past in a way that it cannot continue to be overlooked by leaders either in Guatemala or among the international community.

“Truth is the primary word, the serious and mature action that makes it possible for us to break the cycle of death and violence and to open ourselves to a future of hope and light for all,” said Monseñor Gerardi upon the release of the church’s historical memory report at a press conference at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Guatemala City two days before his own murder. “It is a truth that challenges each one of us to recognize our individual and collective responsibility and to commit ourselves to action so that those abominable acts never happen again.”

[1] “Guatemala: the next to fall?” by Mark Schneider,, April 16, 2009 ( See also the testimony by Mr. Schneider, Vice President of the International Crisis Group, before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, June 9, 2009.

[2] U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification, 1999, paragraphs 108 – 122. (Only portions of the report have been translated into English by the American Association for the Advancement of Science; see, and also Quiet Genocide: Guatemala 1981 – 1983, edited by Etelle Higonnet, Transactions Publishers, 2009. The original U.N. report in Spanish is titled La Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, and it is posted at

[3] Ibid., paragraph 113.

[4] The Catholic Church report went further than the U.N. report in identifying the forces responsible for the violence. See Chapter 7, “The Intelligence behind the Violence,” in Guatemala Never Again! Recovery of the Historical Memory Project, The Official Report of the Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1999, pp. 105 — 114. This is a condensed, English version of the original, four-volume report published in Spanish as, Guatemala: Nunca Más; Informe Proyecto Interdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, 1998 (; the Catholic Church study is also often referred to by the acronym of its subtitle in Spanish as the REMHI report.

[5] “The Comparative Aspects of the Armenian and Jewish Cases of Genocide: A Sociohistorical Perspective,” by Vahakn N. Dadrian, in Is the Holocaust Unique?: Perspectives on Comparative Genocide, edited by Alan S. Rosenbaum, Westview Press, 2008.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Order of Genocide: Race, Power and War in Rwanda, by Scott Straus, Cornell University Press, 2008, pp. 122 — 152.

[8] German landownership dates back to the 19th century; see the chapter “Coffee Republics,” in Central America: A Nation Divided, by Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 149 – 176.

[9] U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification, paragraph 31.

[10] Most estimates cite a death toll of 70,000 in El Salvador, 20,000 in Nicaragua, and hundreds in Honduras. See, for example, “Reagan and Guatemala’s Death Files,” by Robert Parry, (

[11] “Crime of Crimes: Does It Have to be Genocide for the World to Act?” by David Bosco, The Washington Post, March 6, 2006 ( See also the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum U.S. Committee on Conscience (the host of this study) website and figures that are also cited in the above article (

[12] “Overview: Darfur, Sudan,” part of “Preventing Genocide: Learn More & Take Action,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website (

[13] U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification, paragraph 28.

[14] Ibid., paragraph 29.

[15] Guatemala Never Again!, page 30.

[16] U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification, paragraph 87.

[17] Guatemala Never Again!, page 4.

[18] See the chapter “Banana Republics” in Central America: A Nation Divided, pp. 177 – 202.

[19] For a definitive account of the period see Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States 1944-1954, by Piero Gleijeses, Princeton University Press, 1991; a thorough treatment of the coup itself can also be found in Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, by Stephen Kinzer, Times Books, 2006, pp. 129 –147; see also Legacy of Ashes; The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner, Anchor Books, 2008, pp. 106 – 119.

[20] See The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads and U.S. Power, by Susanne Jonas, Westview Press, 1991 pp. 131 – 144; and Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala, by Jim Handy, South End Press, 1984, pp. 205 — 222.

[21] See “Taiwan’s Central American Links,” by Joel Millman, Jane’s Defence Weekly, November 26, 1988; and the interviews with former U.S. official and counterinsurgency expert César Sereseres and Guatemalan Army General Héctor Alejandro Gramajo Morales quoted in The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy, by Jennifer Schirmer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998, on pages 59 and 172, respectively. The book is the authoritative work on the Guatemalan military.

[22] See “Israelis Said to Step Up Role as Arms Suppliers to Latins,” by Leslie H. Gelb, The New York Times, December 17, 1982.

[23] See The Guatemalan Military Project chapters 1 “A Brief History of the Guatemalan Military’s Rise to Power” and 2 “Anatomy of the Counterinsurgency I: From Tactical to Strategic Pacification,” pp. 9 – 63.

[24] “National Security Action Memorandum, No. 88,” to Secretary of Defense (Robert McNamara) by President John F. Kennedy, September 5, 1961, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (

[25] Resumen, Manual de Guerra Contrasubversiva, Ejército de Guatemala, Marzo 1978, página 1.

[26] U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification, paragraph 49.

[27] U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification, Conclusions, I 1.

[28] “Medidas para Recuperar La Población en Resistencia,” Teniente Coronel Alvaro Rivas, 1990, página 28.

[29] “Plan de Campaña, ‘Victoria 82,’” Apéndice A al Anexo F OPSIC, párrafros 4.4 y 4.5, página 30.

[30] Ibid., Anexo F OPSIC, párrafro 2, página 29.

[31] Ibid., Annexo H (Ordeners Permanentes Para el Desarrolo de Operaciones Contra Subversivas), Sección G (Actitud Military en Operaciones Contrasubversivas), párrafro 2.

[32] Ibid., Apéndice H; also quoted in Guatemala Never Again!, page 229.

[33] “Counterinsurgency Operations in El Quiché,” CIA cable, February 1982, posted under “The Guatemalan Military: What the U.S. Files Reveal, Volume II: The Documents,” by the National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 32.

[34] “Escalating Violence Besieges Central America; Guatemalan War Grows Fiercer,” by Christopher Dickey, The Washington Post, January 22, 1982.

[35] See The Guatemalan Military Project, pp. 26 – 29.

[36] Garrison Guatemala, by George Black with Milton Jamail and Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, Monthly Review Press, 1984, pp. 134 – 136.

[37] See Quiché Rebelde: Religious Conversion, Politics, and Ethnic Identity in Guatemala, by Ricardo Falla, University of Texas Press, 2001.

[38] “Reporte de Patrulla,” Secreto, por El Subteniente de Infantería, Comandante de la Patrula Escocia IV, Victor Hugo Mazariegos. This is a six-page, hand-written report that appears as page 201 out of 359 pages of the full set of formerly secret documents pertaining to “Operation Sofía” in Quiché department in 1982; the document was obtained (like every other Guatemalan military document not otherwise attributed and cited in this article) by the National Security Archive of George Washington University (; the same platoon document was first quoted in “Court Papers Detail Killings by the Military in Guatemala,” by Elisabeth Malkin, The New York Times, December 3, 2009.

[39] La Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, párrafro 794.

[40] Ricardo Falla, account of the July 17, 1982 massacre at San Francisco, Nentón, Hueheutenango, quoted in The Battle for Guatemala, pp. 145 – 146; see also Falla’s Quiché Rebelde.

[41] The Guatemalan military itself admitted the destruction of 440 villages as part its counter-insurgency efforts. For a detailed, quantitative analysis of violence in Guatemala during this period and throughout the war see State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection, by Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert F. Spirer, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1999, also available online (

[42] U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification, paragraph 116.

[43] Guatemala Never Again!, p. 49.

[44] See “The Untouchable Narco-State: Guatemala’s Military Defies the DEA,” by Frank Smyth, The Texas Observer, November 18, 2005 (

[45] An untitled, one-page report by Colonel Francisco Angel Castellanos G., Commander of the Area of Operation Sofía, to the Chief of Staff of the Army High Command, July 22, 1982; page 99 out of 359 pages of the classified documents set pertaining to “Operation Sofía” obtained by the National Security Archive (

[46] See various “Operation Sofía” documents, (

[47] La Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, párrafro 649.

[48] Guatemala Never Again!, page 121.

[49] Ibid, pp. 128 – 129.

[50] Ibid., page 129.

[51] Ibid., page 128.

[52] Author interview, Sololá province, Guatemala, 1992.

[53] La Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, párrafro 794.

[54] Ibid., párrafro 781.

[55] Guatemala: Nunca Más: I Impactos de la Violencia, Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, página 11.

[56] Guatemala Never Again!, p. 116. The Maryknoll English translation reads, “because we have done wrong in their eyes”; but the original quote in Spanish in the online version of the report (the editing and wording is slightly different between the online and print versions in Spanish of Nunca Más: II Mechanismos del Horror; the print version does not include this quote) uses the term pecados or sins to read, “porque tenemos pecados ante ellos,” as translated here. For the original quote, see the online version of volume II at:

[57] A two-page report by Lieutenant Abner Isaac Monterroso Merida, Platoon Commander, Santa María Nebaj, July 30, 1982; pages 172 – 173 in the “Operation Sofía” document set (

[58] “Analysis of Human Rights Reports on Guatemala by Amnesty International, WOLA/NISGUA, and Guatemala Human Rights Commission,” Department of State, Confidential cable, October 22, 1982, U.S. Policy in Guatemala: 1966 – 1996, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 11 (

[59] “Reagan Praises Guatemalan Military Leader; Indicates He Will Support Resuming U.S. Arms Aid,” by Lou Cannon, The Washington Post, December 5, 1982.

[60] “Secret Guatemalan Military Unit, Linked to C.I.A., Dies and Is Born Again,” by Clifford Krauss and Tim Weiner, The New York Times, April 10, 1995.

[61] “Clinton: Support for Guatemala Was Wrong,” by Charles Babington, The Washington Post, March 11, 1999.

[62] About 6,300 people were murdered in Guatemala in 2008, giving the nation a per capita murder rate nine times greater than neighboring Mexico and nearly twice the hemisphere’s average; testimony by Mark Schneider, Vice President of the International Crisis Group, before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, June 9, 2009.

[63] Hidden Powers: Illegal Armed Groups in Post-Conflict Guatemala and the Forces Behind Them, by Susan C. Peacock and Adriana Beltrán, Washington Office on Latin America, December 4, 2006 (

[64] The administration led by President George W. Bush revoked the U.S. entry visas of both former intelligence commanders in 2002 over their suspected involvement in drug trafficking; see “The Untouchable Narco-State” (

[65] “Why the ‘Tanda’ Phenomenon Does Not Exist in the Guatemalan Military,” U..S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Secret cable, August 27, 1991, posted under “The Guatemalan Military: What the U.S. Files Reveal, Volume II: The Documents,” by the National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 32 (

[66] Guatemala Never Again!, pp. 228 – 242.

[67] Statement of Ambassador Otto J. Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, before the House International Relations Committee Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, October 10, 2002.

[68] See the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala’s website and description of its mandate (

[69] See The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads and U.S. Power, by Susanne Jonas, Westview Press, 1991 pp. 161 – 175; and The Guatemalan Military Project, pp. 186 – 205.

[70] See the Washington Office on Latin America report Hidden Powers by Peacock and Beltrán.

[71] “Who Killed Guatemala’s Leading Anthropologist?” by Frank Smyth, The Village Voice, September 3, 1991.

[72] “Has Guatemala Become the Cali Cartel’s Bodega?” by Frank Smyth, The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 1995.

[73] See The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop, by Francisco Goldman, Grove Press, New York, 2007.

[74] Guatemala, 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. Department of State, February 25, 2009 (

[75] “The Guatemalan Police Archives,” by Kate Doyle, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 170, November 21, 2005 (

[76] “Defender Alert: Demand Investigation into Kidnapping of Gladys Monterroso,” Human Rights First, April 3, 2009 (

[77] In 2007 Guatemala extradited two Guatemalan nationals suspected of drug trafficking for the first time in over a decade since Chief Justice González Dubón’s 1995 assassination; “Guatemala Extradites Drug Traffickers for the First Time in a Decade,” DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) News Release, New York, N.Y., March 28, 2007. The two extradited suspects were both, at most, mid-level heroin traffickers accused of smuggling heroin in the car batteries of vehicles driven one at a time into the United States. In 2008 Guatemala extradited a Colombian national wanted in the same case. Guatemalan nationals suspected of trafficking cocaine including one alleged kingpin have also faced either prosecution or extradition after being apprehended in other nations including the United States and Colombia. But Guatemala has not extradited any Guatemalan nationals suspected of cocaine trafficking since the mid-1990s before the chief justice’s murder.

Bush’s Brush with Latin America’s Drug Lords

Original story found here.

George W. Bush has embarked on the longest trip of his presidency to Latin America this week, a junket to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico that purports to advance social justice. His journey comes at a time when oil-rich Venezuela, under the radical populist President Hugo Chávez, has eclipsed the United States in bankrolling health and education programs to help the poor in Venezuela and other nations in the region.

But Bush’s trip also comes in the wake of evidence that organized crime has infiltrated the top law enforcement agencies of two nations on his travel itinerary. Each one, moreover, is playing a separate role in moving most of the cocaine reaching the United States. Last week the Bush Administration blamed Venezuela and Bolivia–another Andean country under another leftist president–for lacking the political will to combat drug traffickers. But the Administration has said little or nothing about the lack of political will to combat drug traffickers on the rightist side of the political spectrum in Colombia and, especially, Guatemala.

Fortunately, many drug suspects elsewhere in the region have already been held to account. Last month Mexico extradited fifteen fugitives, including one alleged kingpin, in what the US Drug Enforcement Administration said was an “unprecedented” and “priceless” step. Recently Colombia, too, has made what the DEA heralded as “record numbers” of extraditions, including that of a leftist guerrilla financier who was recently convicted of smuggling to our nation at least five kilograms of cocaine.

But Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has decided not to extradite rightist paramilitaries responsible for mass murders in Colombia and for trafficking tons of cocaine to the United States, saying he must offer the paramilitaries an amnesty to entice them to lay down their arms–even those belonging to what the State Department identifies as a paramilitary terrorist group. Why is Uribe so soft on paramilitaries? Last month two of his top officials fell from office over their alleged paramilitary ties, including the Colombian foreign minister, who resigned on February 19, and the nation’s top law enforcement intelligence director, who is now in jail.

The nation with the worst extradition record in the region, however, is Guatemala. This small republic just south of Mexico–“in our own backyard,” as the late President Ronald Reagan used to say–has recently become the trafficking conduit for between two-thirds and three-fourths of all the cocaine being trafficked to the United States from Colombia and other Andean nations, according to US agency estimates recently quoted in The New York Times and the Associated Press, respectively.

Guatemala has further failed to extradite even one Guatemalan on drug charges in more than a decade since the first Clinton Administration. Of course, no one would glean that from reading the State Department’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report to Congress. Somehow Foggy Bottom has failed to tell Capitol Hill that even though Guatemala has extradited several Guatemalans in recent years, the suspects in each case were wanted for isolated murder charges in different US states and not for international drug trafficking.

On March 7, I asked State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on camera if he could explain why the Bush Administration speaks so loudly about the good news on Mexican extraditions and not at all about the ongoing bad news on Guatemalan extraditions. A day later, in a lengthy statement, the State Department sidestepped the question, and then spun it, merely pointing out that last year one Guatemalan was extradited on “a narcotics-related murder.” Indeed, this suspect now faces a murder trial over a botched drug deal in California, US officials with knowledge of the case say, but this extradition has nothing to do with international trafficking.

The State Department’s misleading statement confirms an undeniable fact: The United States gave up trying to extradite Guatemalan drug suspects back in 1994 after the assassination of the Guatemalan chief justice. The State Department during the Clinton Administration inexplicably waited four years before finally acknowledging the motive behind his murder in a few lines buried in a thick report to Congress. DEA officials shamefully waited eleven years before finally acknowledging under pressure to The Texas Observer that “the judge deserves to be remembered and honored for trying to help establish democracy in Guatemala.”

Guatemalan Chief Justice Epaminondas González Dubon was gunned down in Guatemala City in front of his surviving wife and youngest child shortly after he stood up for DEA evidence in a US extradition case. The suspect was a Guatemalan Army lieutenant colonel accused of smuggling 500 kilograms of cocaine to Florida. On March 23, 1994, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, led by Judge Dubon, ruled to extradite the accused Army officer. Nine days later, the judge was murdered behind the wheel of his own car. Soon after the surviving justices, with a new court president, denied the extradition, changing the date and verdict but not the case number, as was first reported by the Costa Rican daily La Nacion to copy over the original ruling.

Since then drug trafficking through Guatemala has ballooned. In 2002, under pressure from its Republican allies in Congress, the Bush Administration finally told the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee the bad news. “Intelligence indicates that large amounts of cocaine are being transshipped through Guatemala with almost complete impunity,” former Reagan Administration official Otto Reich testified on behalf of the Bush Administration. “Few high-level figures are ever charged or even formally investigated for corruption, and fewer go to trial.”

The same year, the Bush Administration identified two suspects, Francisco Ortega Menaldo and Manual Antonio Callejas y Callejas. Each of these men is a former Guatemalan Army intelligence commander, and each one also briefly trained at the US School of the Americas, in 1976 and 1970, respectively. Both are credited in declassified US intelligence reports with “engineering” bloody counterinsurgency methods back in the early 1980s that a United Nations Truth Commission later said included “acts of genocide.” In 1996 a White House Intelligence Oversight Board report identified Ortega Menaldo as having a longstanding relationship with the CIA, although the Clinton Administration oversight board declined to say whether the Guatemalan general was merely an institutional liaison or a paid asset.

The State Department revoked the US entry visas of both these retired intelligence chiefs in 2002 over their suspected ties to drug trafficking. Ortega Menaldo publicly denied the accusations, while Callejas y Callejas never made any public comment. They are hardly Guatemala’s only drug suspects. Human rights groups maintain that a shadowy network of former intelligence operatives involved in various crimes has infiltrated the nation’s law enforcement institutions. In 2005, Guatemala’s top two US-trained antidrug police were arrested on drug charges after the DEA lured them to Virginia to get around the need to extradite them.

In February, Guatemalan authorities arrested the commander and three other officers from Guatemala’s top anti-organized crime agency over the brutal murders of three Salvadoran legislators and their driver in what Guatemalan President Oscar Berger said was a drug-related massacre. One week later the same four Guatemalan special policemen had their throats slit in their jail cells before each received a tiro de gracias–a final gunshot–to insure that they were dead. While midlevel Guatemalan authorities now say they suspect jailed youth gang members of having murdered the policemen, President Berger originally blamed organized crime hit men who somehow entered the prison.

It’s long been easy for US officials to blame drug trafficking on leftists of one kind or another. But both Colombia and Guatemala show organized crime is hardly exclusive to any particular Cold War-era ideology. Still, one may well argue that the so-called war on drugs is a futile effort bound to fail over time. But there is no doubt that organized crime, if left untouched, only continues to shred the fabric of its own nation. Murders per capita in Guatemala are now higher than in Colombia, according to the United Nations Development Program. Guatemala–flush with drug thugs–has also seen thousands of organized rapes and murders of young women in recent years, at a level higher than even northern Mexico.

President Bush is visiting Colombia and Guatemala at a time when drug corruption and corresponding violence in each nation is spilling over. If Bush wants to demonstrate the values of social justice that this nation purports to stand for, he can begin by demanding extradition for all suspects implicated in not only mass murders in their own nations but in running tons of drugs led by cocaine to ours. It’s also time for Congress, which purports to help oversee US drug control policies, to finally ask why rightist drug suspects in both Colombia and Guatemala were ignored for so long.