Crossfire: The War Behind the Closed Doors of the NRA

Minneapolis – For three days of its annual convention last month, the National Rifle Association (NRA) paraded its cheerful public face, showing off such varied supporters as actors Richard Roundtree and Paul Sorvino, baby-toting housewives, gospel singers, and an African American policewoman. And when that was done, the 123-year-old group convened its annual board of directors meeting in Ballroom D of the Hilton Hotel. Unbeknownst to the 74 directors, eight officers, and 25-odd NRA staff and VIP members assembled, the Voice was present, there to witness the inner workings of the most powerful single-issue lobby in the nation.

Most of the people in the room were beefy white men. And the atmosphere was tense. The NRA’s eight executive officers sat behind banquet tables on a raised platform, looking down on the assembled board. The printed agenda called for reports by each executive officer — but surprisingly, all but the treasurer claimed to be unprepared. Lack of preparation, however, had nothing to do with it. Everyone was anxiously awaiting the nominating committee’s report on its choice for the NRA presidency. Normally, this is matter of simple procedure, as the NRA rotates officers in an established order of succession. Tradition dictated that 1st Vice President Thomas L. Washington, a big-game hunter from Michigan, should be president next.

But this year was different, thanks to the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of NRA firebrand Neal Knox, who is far more powerful than his position as a board member would suggest. As the rumors swirling throughout the convention for days hinted, Knox had exercised his influence on the nominating panel. Instead of Washington, committee chair T.J. Johnston nominated 2nd Vice President Marion P. Hammer, a hard-nosed, 55-year-old grandmother who helped pass the law in Florida that allows modestly trained residents to carry loaded guns. The motion for Hammer was seconded and opened to discussion.

“This is nothing more than a total power struggle. It’s a palace coup,” Robert K. Brown protested to the board. As a hard-line gun advocate, and the editor and publisher of the mercenary magazine Soldier of Fortune, Brown should know.

The internecine conflict was further evidence of the growing crisis at the NRA, which has 3.3 million dues-paying members and assets of $160 million. Last year, it spent a whopping $22.4 million on lobbying alone. The NRA supports political candidates who abide by its views, and mercilessly tries to punish those who don’t. Its appetite for loyalty is insatiable: Republican senator Robert Dole, an NRA member and honored guest at its banquet in 1986, has been branded a traitor for softening on gun control.

Once considered the most powerful lobby in Washington, the NRA is on the defensive now. For decades, it has succeeded in crushing almost any form of gun control legislation, but the recent passage of the Brady law and the success of the “assault weapons” ban bill in both the House and Senate confront the NRA with its most severe challenge yet. The gun-owning community it purports to represent has split, with fissures between sport shooters and Second Amendment “fundamentalists” cracking visibly open for the first time. All major national law enforcement organizations have already withdrawn their support from the NRA. Dissent is also on the rise internally, with many of its, state associations directly challenging national leaders. Meanwhile, most dues-paying NRA members have little sense of how the organization is run.

The controversy centers on Neal Knox. The 58-year-old former [Texas; original story incorrectly said Oklahoma] national guardsman had a BB gun by the time he was five. Today, he believes in arming, it seems, everyone. Last fall, Knox suggested solving the Somalia crisis by distributing Kalashnikovs to mothers: “If [they] had been armed, what do you think would have happened if some old boys in a Jeep with a .50-caliber machine gun had pulled over the truck that was bringing a little bit of food to some mother’s starving baby?” he asked in The Wall Street Journal. “That mother would have blown away everybody on that truck, and that would have been that. THAT is an armed people.”

Knox is so aggressive that even those who endorse his zealotry — such as Soldier of Fortune’s Brown — complain about his ambition. Once fired from the organization over his bullying tactics, Knox came back even stronger in 1991 and soon engineered the promotion of Wayne R. LaPierre, Jr who now runs the NRA’s daily affairs as its executive vice president. Today, Knox controls up to seven of the eight executive officers, and possibly 56 of 75 board directors. “If you want to understand the NRA board,” Knox is quoted as saying in Under Fire, a 1993 book about the NRA by Osha Gray Davidson, “you study the Politburo.”

“I’ve known Neal Knox for probably 20-years,” says Dave Edmondson from Dallas, a longtime NRA member and former board member who now leads the movement of state affiliates against him. “He’s very ambitious personally. I think his ego has gotten the best of him.”

That arrogance helps explain the Knox regime’s affront to Washington, a genial, conservationist NRA veteran who had considerable support on the board. The NRA was once run by men like Washington. Founded in 1871 after the Civil War by former Union soldiers, the NRA originally aimed to improve the marksmanship of the New York National Guard. It remained a quasi-military organization until after the Second World War, when its ranks were swelled by millions of returning soldiers who had acquired an interest in firearms. Enjoying increasing income and leisure time, many became hunters. Eventually, the NRA evolved into an organization of sportsmen. “The old guard?” says Ernest Lissabet, a retired U.S. Army first lieutenant who opposes Knox. “Those are the guys that I’m watching on television now, from Normandy.”

In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy with a bolt-action rifle he bought through an ad in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine. And in 1968, when assassins shot and killed Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Congress passed its first significant gun control legislation. The Gun Control Act regulated the interstate sale of firearms and banned machine guns or fully automatic weapons. (An automatic reloads and fires to “spray” bullets for as long as the trigger is pulled; a semiautomatic also reloads automatically, but fires only one shot each time the trigger is pulled.) At the time, the NRA leadership supported the bill. Its then executive vice president, retired general Franklin Orth, told Congress, “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”

But a group of NRA men beneath him disagreed and began to plot their way to toward power. Harlon Carter was their leader, and Neal Knox was at his side. Nine years later, in 1977, they seized control of the NRA at its annual convention in Cincinnati: “Like the marines hitting the beach at Anzio, the group of hard-liners took over the meeting, using parliamentary procedure as their heavy artillery,” writes Davidson in Under Fire. The organization “became the Gun Lobby.”

Carter ran the NRA as executive vice president, while Knox took over as director of its recently formed lobbying wing, the institute for Legislative Action (ILA). But when Knox got too greedy and abrasive, the same Carter fired him in 1982. Rather than surrender, however, the resilient Knox began to plot his return. After Carter retired in 1985, the NRA floundered, its membership dropped, and it began to lose clout in Congress. Knox attacked Carter’s successor from outside the NRA, in columns in gun magazines like Shotgun News and Guns & Ammo, at the same time that rumors about the man’s alleged sexual improprieties began to spread. Knox also redbaited “moderates” on the board, insisting that compromise was the same as communism.

In the race for the NRA board of directors in 1991, Knox and his slate succeeded in winning 11 of 21 open seats, with nine more hard-liners led by Soldier of Fortune‘s Brown taking all but one that remained. Knox also enjoyed support among incumbents. Pugnacious and unapologetic, he was back.

Knox is still maneuvering to remake the entire NRA leadership in his image, and his immediate goal is to move all his field commanders into position. Besides LaPierre, there are two of primary importance, both women. Tanya K. Metaksa, an ex-director, was named earlier this year to direct ILA, the NRA’s lobbying wing, which Knox once ran. Metaksa is the first woman to hold an NRA command post. But anyone who thinks that this is a sign of political moderation is mistaken. In spelling her name for reporters, Metaksa says, “It’s AK, as in AK-47, and SA, as in semiautomatic.” Another is Hammer, four foot eleven with straight brown bangs, who prefers to be photographed with a steely-eyed, straight-lipped stare.

Wearing a ruffled blouse and a sky blue jacket, Hammer listened without expression as her nomination for the NRA presidency provoked an unprecedented outpouring from offended NRA traditionalists. The first of more than a dozen directors to step to a mike was James W. Porter, an attorney from Birmingham, Alabama, whose father is a past president of The NRA. “When you open my veins, NRA blood runs out,” he said with an educated drawl. But he was upset that the NRA leadership would permit Hammer to leapfrog over Washington, who had rightfully earned the post, and appalled that word of Hammer’s impending nomination had been leaked to USA Today. Worst of all were what he called the “scurrilous accusations” that had been spread over the weekend about Washington. Porter said he’d reported the gossip and infighting over his “good friend” to his 84-year-old mother [CORRECTION: The original story incorrectly reported grandmother.], a lifelong NRA member, who had replied: “That’s not the organization I know.”

Johnston, head of the nominating committee, insisted the group had paid no attention to unspecified rumors against Washington. He was “unacceptable,” Johnston flared, because he “made statements” against Knox appointee LaPierre.

There is little superficial difference between the rhetoric of Hammer and Washington, rivals for the presidency. Washington, from Michigan, is a conservationist who helped pass his state’s bottle bill and who hopes to promote the NRA as environment conscious. Along with his round, boyish face, and his courteous demeanor, Washington wants to use his moderate credentials to smooth the NRA’s image. But a nice guy is not what the Knox regime has in mind.

They want Hammer. Her appeal to Knox and his men is precisely her don’t-even-think-about-it attitude. She has launched fiery broadsides against the Clinton administration and Sarah Brady, whose lobbying group, Handgun Control, Inc., is the NRA’s toughest opponent. After speaker upon speaker had denounced the plot against Washington, director Wayne H. Stump — who, as an Arizona state legislator, tried to abolish the Federal Reserve Board — rose in defense of Hammer. “She has fire,” he said. “Marion can take on Hillary.” Several Knox supporters followed Stump, mentioning, repeatedly, the need to take on “Hillary and Sarah.”

The turning point in the debate seemed to come when Lee Purcell, a petite, auburn-haired actress from the TV miniseries Secret Sins of the Father, and one of seven women NRA directors, spoke. “We must remember we were put here by the membership,” Purcell said calmly, “and I think that is sometimes forgotten.” She did not believe that the membership wanted Hammer: “I’m a, woman, but I support Tom Washington.” The actress also pointed out that the press was aware of infighting within the leadership and suggested that if Hammer toppled Washington, word would get out.

This statement, finally, made Knox’s people nervous. Soon after, several asked the executive committee to close the ballroom door, although, by now, there were NRA staffers checking IDs at the door. Facing a rising number of enemies outside the organization, the NRA leadership has tried to downplay crossfire within. “Whatever we do, this jerkin’ around has got to end,” said Joe Foss, the ex-governor of South Dakota and a former NRA president, making a plea for consensus.

Shortly thereafter, a motion was made to go into executive session (something they might have done earlier, had they known that a reporter was present; although the board meeting, when not in executive session, is technically open to the public, a journalist who is an NRA Benefactor member was told he could not attend). Fearing this was only part of Knox’s plan to seize power, Washington and 17 of his supporters voted, in vain, against it. Everyone except directors and officers left the room. According to one report, those who remained discussed the “scurrilous accusations” made against Washington, as well as adding new ones about his alleged poor appearance. “They complained about his weight,” says one insider. “Petty things like that.” But if Washington were denied the position, the threat that his supporters might make Knox’s methods public remained real.

When the whole board reconvened and the secret ballot came, Washington, surprisingly to me, won. “By a wide margin,” said Jim Porter later in a telephone interview from Birmingham. His allies had apparently convinced a majority of the board that they would not be bullied into submission.

But this is only a small victory for Washington and his supporters. While the presidency could be used as a bully pulpit for a new image-making leader, it has little formal authority within the organization. Moreover, in Minneapolis, before the board went into executive session, outgoing president Robert K. Corbin reminded directors that while the president normally serves two years by tradition, the NRA’s bylaws state that he must be ratified after one year. Although a two-year term is normally a given, Corbin said, “We could vote again in one year.” NRA spokesperson Bill Powers says the directors will. Oh, and Director Knox. Powers denied that Knox enjoys any special power, and then said: “But you might wan to know Mr. Knox was just elected second Vice president.” In other words, when Washington leaves the pulpit post, Hammer will take over, then Knox.

It is a measure of Knox’s grip that, even in the midst of heated debate, not one elected director raised the substantive issues about his administration. Much of the criticism comes from other hard-line gun rights activists who believe that he is mismanaging, some say destroying, the NRA. This view is growing among state-affiliated NRA leaders, and even among veteran staff members of the organization.

The State Association Coordinating Committee, organized by activist Edmondson, made its case known at the rank-and-file meeting in Minneapolis through an eight-page, fluorescent-green pamphlet. It complained that “the LaPierre/Knox watch” had lost major legislative battles, at the same time that it had squandered members’ funds. Indeed, the NRA has outspent its incoming revenues by $59.2 million over the last two years. It has supported its lobbying by cutting back on popular members’ services like shooting competitions and reportedly plans to reduce the frequency of its main publication, American Rifleman. And although the Knox regime has successfully increased membership — it claims an astonishing 900,000 new members since 1991, or 1000 each day — Edmondson says that about half the new members drop out after one year.

The pamphlet claims that while Tanya Metaksa and her company have been handsomely paid — up to $194,000 for services in 1993 — the NRA is planning to slash a third of its lower-paid employees this year. (The NRA denies planning any large layoffs.) The pamphlet also says that Knox protégé LaPierre awarded contracts to two firms owned or controlled by Brad O’Leary — a longtime personal friend of LaPierre’s, according to Edmondson. Associated Press even reported that the NRA sold names and addresses of former members for profit, something that violates its own views about the Second Amendment. “After all,” the State Association pamphlet reads, “that list is a list of gun owners — and that’s exactly the kind of list required for gun confiscation.”

This discontent has even spread to executive officers. Firearms Business, a trade publication, reports that NRA secretary Warren Cheek just resigned “in apparent protest over the organization’s handling of veteran staff members and the ‘new NRA’s’ management policies … Cheek told NRA insiders that he considers the new management to be preoccupied with personal career goals rather than being dedicated to or even understanding the group’s mission or membership. (The NRA says Cheek retired).

But apart from mismanagement, much of the criticism also has to do with the NRA’s ardent defense of the Second Amendment. On this point, the gun-owning community that the NRA claims to represent is now split wide open. And some hunters, a potentially large group, believe that it’s time the NRA returned to its sporting purpose — promoting marksmanship, collecting, and other forms of gun-related recreation.

David E. Petzal, for one, thinks the present radicalization of the NRA is hurting the interests of gun owners. Petzal, who has given thousands of dollars to the NRA, writes the “Endangered Tradition” column in Field and Stream, another centenarian institution, many of whose 2 million readers are also in the NRA. This June, the magazine made a landmark decision to break with the NRA. “It took tremendous courage,” says executive editor Petzal.

“The bugle call known as reveille is a cheerful, energetic tune that, when I was in the Army, few soldiers actually got to hear,” he writes in an editorial. “Real-world reveille came for gun owners this February,” in the form of the assault weapons ban. Petzall like the NRA, believes that this legislation is too broad. This is partly because it would ban weapons like “the AR-15/M-16, and the MIA in modified [semiautomatic] form, which are highly accurate, and have a legitimate place in organized target competition.”

But assault weapons are also implicated in terrible acts of violence, like the Stockton, California, shooting in which a deranged man killed five children and wounded 29 others using a semiautomatic AK-47 clone. “Gun owners — all gun owners — pay a heavy price for having to defend the availability of these weapons,” writes Petzal. “The American public — and the gun-owning public; especially the gun-owning public — would be better off without the hardcore military arms, which puts the average sportsman in a real dilemma” Petzal concludes by advocating compromise, something that Knox and other members of his regime say they will never accept.

To the Knox regime, the hunters’ qualms are beside the point. “It’s not about Bambi, for God’s sake,” says Larry Pratt, of Gun Owners of America, who believes the NRA should stop pretending to be an organization of sport shooters and make it clear that its first priority is to defend the Second Amendment.

This position gradually emerged in April, when NRA witnesses testified in Congress before Brooklyn representative Charles Schumer, sponsor of the assault weapons legislation, and his committee. After listening to them, Schumer held up a Tec-9 semiautomatic, a highly inaccurate, short-range, high-capacity weapon. Shorter and more concealable than a Tommy gun, it is ideal for drive-by shootings. But when Schumer asked Tanya Metaksa if NRA members hunt with it, Knox’s lobbying chief scowled at having been asked the question, and then said, gruffly, “Some probably do.” (Indeed, the Tec-9 is the kind of weapon that dictator ldi Amin used on grazing wildlife in Uganda, wiping out all of its lions and most of its rhinos and elephants. But few self-respecting NRA members, who as a group take great pride in the quality of their firearms, would ever even own one.)

But when Schumer’s committee questioned NRA witness Suzanna Gratia, who watched a gunman kill her parents in the 1991 Luby’s massacre in Killeen, Texas, she said something else. “The Second Amendment is not about duck hunting…but it is about our right, all of our rights, to be able to protect ourselves,” she said, pointing to herself and other NRA witnesses, “from all you guys up there.” She pointed to the committee.

“They advocate a firearms fundamentalist viewpoint,” says Ernest Lissabet, the former NRA activist who founded a new group, the American Firearms Association, last year. “It’s a paranoid worldview.” From this perspective, any encroachment on the right to guns is an invitation to tyranny. That was certainly the note struck before the nominating began at the board meeting. The invited speaker, Aaron Zelman, of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, based in Milwaukee, declared that the 1968 Federal Gun Control Act was modeled after the 1938 Weapons Law in Nazi Germany. If recent gun control legislation is allowed to stand, he said, the federal government will be that much closer to perpetrating a holocaust in this country. “Charlie Schumer, who claims to be a Jew, should crawl back to the rock he came from,” Zelman said. His remarks were greeted by unanimous applause. Afterward, as many directors walked over to congratulate him, Zelman distributed posters of Adolf Hitler giving a

Sieg heil! Salute, with the caption: “Everyone in favor of gun control raise your right hand.” (Zelman also believes Rwanda’s government-led genocide proves his point “another hellhole where they have gun control,” he says by telephone from Milwaukee.)

This belief, today, is the foundation of the NRA’s opposition to gun control. The Second Amendment says: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” As interpreted by the NRA faithful, this means that individuals have the right to defend themselves against a despotic government, and so must have access to no less firepower than the police, national guard, or armed forces. This is why the NRA, opposes the banning of Teflon-coated bullets that can penetrate the body armor vests police wear, and likewise, in front of Schumer, Metaksa dodged all questions about whether the NRA supported the government’s ban on bazookas.

This is also why the NRA opposes almost any government regulation of the ownership or transfer of firearms, which is likely to be the next, most important battleground of the gun control debate. Both the Brady law, which makes gun purchasers wait five days, and the assault weapons ban bills are, at best, symbolic gestures, and partisans on both sides of the debate know it. The depth of the background check mandated by the Brady law is left largely to the discretion of local authorities, some of whom have already resisted compliance. And the pending bills would ban some of the deadliest semiautomatic weapons, but they would do almost nothing about handguns, which, in New York City, are used in 95 percent of all gun-related homicides.

The problem America faces is not necessarily the mechanism of the weapons used, but their proliferation and ready availability in our society. A new justice Department survey of high schools in crime-ridden neighborhoods in four states finds that more than one out of every five male students surveyed report owning a gun.

One solution might be a National Handgun Identification Card, recently advocated in an editorial by The New York Times. New Jersey has a similar card, which residents must present to purchase any firearm. To obtain a card, a resident must apply to the local police station, which fingerprints the applicant. Copies of the fingerprinted application are then sent to the state police as well as to the FBI. The process also includes a check of court records on mental health. It takes about eight weeks to complete. But once a resident has the card, he or she can purchase any long (or hunting) rifle or shotgun without waiting. With the same card, a resident may also purchase a handgun, but he or she must be fingerprinted by police prior to every handgun purchase and wait about six weeks for another background check to clear. (When meeting New Jersey gun owners, NRA members frequently offer condolences.)

If a similar system were established nationally, it would preclude gang-bangers from the Bronx, for example, from driving to West Virginia and, in “straw purchases” through local residents, buying an unlimited number of handguns, semiautomatic shotguns, and Tec-9s from a local gun shop. But the NRA opposes such a system because it would mean that gun owners and their guns would be on file with the federal government — information that the government could use against them when and if tyranny comes. But this argument “is ridiculous, on its face,” says Petzal. “When the Bill of Rights was framed, the average farmer had the same weapon, the smoothbore musket, as soldiers.” But today, Petzal writes, “an Uzi or an AKM or an AK-47 should be no more generally available than a Claymore mine or a block of C4 explosive.”

Petzal’s defection from the cause is yet another indication that the NRA is losing the war of public opinion on gun control. Moreover, although the writings of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson support it, the NRA’s argument on the Second Amendment has no basis in American case law. U.S. courts have ruled that the Second Amendment protects the right of states to maintain their own armed militias, but not necessarily the right of individuals to bear arms. “Contrary to some popularized notions,” reads a newly released study by the Lawyers’ Committee on Violence, one of whose principal authors is Thomas D. Barr from the Manhattan firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, “no court has ever declared that either the Second Amendment to the Federal Constitution or the New York Constitution is a barrier to laws which control or limit the sale, transfer or ownership of guns. The alleged ‘right’ of an individual to keep and bear arms is myth.”

The NRA is bleeding — but like any wounded beast, it is likely to be more dangerous now than before. Knox’s radicalism may not win him any friends in Congress, but incendiary rhetoric is still a force to reckon with — witness the influence Khalid Muhammad’s oratory brings him within the Nation of Islam. Under siege, the NRA may only become a more important player in local, state, and national politics. Rather than simply fighting gun control, it will turn its attention to fighting crime and targeting politicians who are unfriendly to guns. “We’re trying to build up files on people who run for office,” Metaksa explains to NRA legislative activists in Minneapolis. “Then we can pick out something from five years ago, and say, ‘Look what you said.'”

Such character assassinations will be part of organized state and national campaigns. Rather than limit its work to spreading the word about the Second Amendment, the NRA plans to prey on people’s fear of violent crime. As a result, the NRA has now turned its attention to the pending federal crime bill. One of its favorite slogans is, “if you do the crime, you should do the time.” By promoting it, the NRA has helped pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws that give the United States the highest rate of incarceration of any developed country in the world, while incidents of crime continue to rise.

Although the NRA’s primary public focus is on violent criminals, many of those punished under mandatory minimums are non-violent drug offenders who have already suffered the heat of the emotions whipped up by its campaign. The NRA can easily outspend its opponents — the lobbying group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, for example, worked from an operating budget of only $90,000 last year, while the NRA has so far spent over $2 million on “CrimeStrike,” a program responsible for disseminating Willie Horton-like ads throughout the heartland.

Interestingly, the most vocal opposition at the NRA’s rank-and-file meeting in Minneapolis was over drugs. Speaking from a laissez-faire point of view, several members objected from the floor to “the war on drugs,” saying that it had failed miserably, and that frequently “the feds kick down your door for both guns and drugs.” Recognizing the NRA’s contribution to this climate, one speaker asked the leadership merely to consider forming a subcommittee to explore the issue. But Knox’s executives don’t like such questions. Each time the matter was raised, it was quickly crushed through parliamentary procedure to terminate debate.

“We have to stop tearing ourselves apart from the inside,” Hammer told the board just before her defeat. “Rather than fight each other, this organization has to build its moat outside the castle wall.” By beating back dissent from within, Knox and his followers hope to maintain the fiction of a united front — to use the collective clout of millions of gun owners to advance a regressive crime agenda as effectively as the NRA once contained gun control. Listen to Metaksa. “Being tough on crime isn’t just good public policy, it’s the winning solution for your campaign,” she tells the faithful. “If you can start breeding young candidates and young people who know the politics of crime, we’re going to be very successful.”

Arms and Mandela: After the Honeymoon, He Faces the Deadly Dilemmas of South Africa’s Arms Industry

THE LITTLE-NOTICED role of South African-made arms in the catastrophe of Rwanda presents Nelson Mandela with an early test of his ability to reconcile realism and idealism. At least 3,000 of Rwanda’s soldiers and militiamen carry South African-made R-4 automatic rifles. Rwanda bought them in 1992 from Armscor — South Africa’s state-owned arms corporation — along with 10,000 hand grenades, 20,000 rifle grenades, 10,000 launching grenades and more than 1 million rounds of ammunition.

In Rwanda’s killing fields, such grenades and automatic rifles have been weapons of choice, after machetes. At the Christ Spirituality Center in Kigali, soldiers opened fire with automatic rifles, killing five diocesan priests, nine congregated women, three Jesuits and their cook. In Rukara, journalists came upon about 500 corpses inside a church. One supervisor said the people had died when militiamen threw dozens of grenades inside the people.

Will the new South Africa sell arms to countries like Rwanda? Mandela, with his international reputation as a peacemaker, may not want to. But the United Nations trade embargo against South Africa is expected to be lifted soon and new markets are already opening up for South Africa’s deadliest goods. Andre Buys, an executive for Armscor, told Defense News last month that “we expect that by 1996 [arms] exports will at least double, and possibly quadruple.”

Like Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia before him, Mandela may find that his humanitarian impulses are not strong enough to resist the financial attractions of the arms trade. When Havel became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he promised to end arms exports. But last year, after the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both renewed sales.

Before Mandela’s inauguration, ANC spokesman Madala Mthembu carefully suggested that the post-apartheid government would not abstain from the arms business. “Once the new government is up and running, we will welcome a complete lifting of all remaining sanctions and embargoes against South Africa,” Mthembu told Defense News. “We also wish to state the new government will be in full compliance with international standards governing exports of technologies and materials that would threaten world security.”

Such standards would preclude arms sales to states like Lybia, which is also currently subject to a U.N. embargo. But states like Rwanda before its present crisis would still be able to legally buy arms. Ethnic strife, which plagues much of the world, makes for a boom market in the weapons trade. And South African weapons are generally more reliable, accurate and durable than comparable arms made by Egypt, Russia, Romania, and even Israel in some categories. While the world rejoices in witnessing apartheid’s downfall, it will have the unexpected effect of adding to the glut of arms already flooding the places that least need them, such as Rwanda, Sudan and Cambodia.

No one expects Mandela to turn his back on what promises to become one of the new South Africa’s best earners of foreign exchange. But few would expect, either, a man who has devoted his life to his country’s struggle for justice, equality, and human rights to turn his back on future victims of other abusive regimes. He doesn’t necessarily have to.

South Africa can afford to forgo sales of guns and grenades because it actually makes most of its profits from the sale of expensive, high technology systems like laser-designated missiles, tactical radios, anti-radiation bombs and battlefield mobility systems. This sort of weaponry, while potentially deadly, is much less likely to be used in human rights abuses than small arms.

In anticipation of an end to the U.N. embargo, South Africa created the Denel Corp. in 1992. While Armscor has since served as the government’s defense procurement organization, Denel has operated as a private manufacturing consortium, representing 60 percent of the arms industry. Denel expects to lead export sales; such sales averaged $127.5 million in the early 1990s, and increased to $222.2 million in 1993. Rwanda’s purchase of $5.9 million of grenades, mortars and ammunition from Denel made only a tiny addition to South Africa’s balance sheet.

South Africa also has a technological edge in land mine detection and sweeping equipment especially needed by Cambodia and other countries. While South Africa has already begun to market this equipment, it announced in March that it would not sell land mines at the same time, and stopped exports. Although it could be argued that this announcement was motivated more by appearance than principle, it was a welcome sign.

But Mandela and the ANC’s stated policy isn’t good enough. Exporting minesweeping equipment is a legitimate way to earn foreign exchange; sales of any arms to human rights violators are not. The new South Africa should re-examine its export policy on such items. International prohibitions against arms sales to abusive regimes are at present nonexistent or weak. Rwanda, with its long-documented history of ethnic strife and its grisly record of human rights abuses, is a case in point. Rather than sink to this standard, Mandela should lead the world in raising it up.

Rwanda’s French Connection

“We have eight million people here,” an aid worker told me last June in Rwanda, “and all you Americans care about are those damn gorillas.”

I was in Rwanda investigating weapons trafficking for the Human Rights Watch/Arms Project, but I couldn’t argue with the man, a Tutsi. Almost the only news reaching the West last year from this small, landlocked Central Africa republic was the death of Mrithi, a male silverback gorilla shot by a frightened soldier. One of 325 mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Mrithi was mourned in a New York Times op-ed by Rutgers University anthropologist Dr. H. Dieter Steklis. He succeeded Dian Fossey, the champion of the apes portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist. Apart from his brave Rwandan staff, Steklis made no mention of the country’s people. At the time, one million of them were displaced from Northern Rwanda by the same fighting that killed Mrithi.

Last month, Rwanda’s people finally got the world’s attention, though accomplishing this took the fastest slaughter in memory, as many as 200,000 slain in a month. On April 27, Pope John Paul protested the killing as genocide. Most of the dead are Tutsi, a minority in a nation run by a small group of Hutu men. Government forces loyal to these Hutu men have also targeted and killed their Hutu political opponents, including spouses and children.

Since 1975, Rwanda’s Hutu regime has been a formal military ally of France, a relationship that has continued despite the April 6 apparent assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana. On Aril 27, the same day the Vatican issued its moral plea, two top officials from Rwanda’s newly declared government were received by the French foreign ministry. The next day, they were received at the Elysee, the presidential palace.

Rwanda’s dictators have long been welcome in Paris. One of President Habyarimana’s closest friends abroad was French president Francois Mitterrand, an interventionist throughout Francophone Africa. It has been reported from Kigali that their sons, Christophe Mitterrand and Jean-Pierre Habyarimana, have caroused together in discos on the Left Bank and in Rwanda at the Kigali Nightclub. At the Elysee, Christophe had been his father’s special assistant on African affairs.

While it is unknown if President Mitterrand actually met with Rwanda’s new leaders in the palace, he did receive a January 25 letter from the Human Rights Watch/Arms Project that identified France “as the major military supporter of the government of Rwanda…. providing combat assistance to a Rwandan army guilty of widespread human rights abuses, and failing to pressure the Rwandan government to curb human rights violations.” Mitterrand has yet to respond.

The letter details Rwanda’s purchase of $6 million in arms from Egypt, with the bill still unpaid. France guaranteed the payment for this March 1992 contract, which included 70 mortars, 16,200 mortar bombs, 2000 land mines, 2000 rocket-propelled grenades, plastic explosives, 450 automatic rifles, and more than one million rounds of ammunition. That’s merely a single transaction. In addition, France has provided troops, advisers, and other weapons.

Rwanda is one of 14 Francophone African nations, almost all of which have military pacts with France. With few resources and less industry, the country’s direct foreign investment is near zero. But like the United States allying with anticommunist states during the Cold War, France has allied with Francophone nations. Some, like Zaire, with 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt, are of economic value. But all of them, as a bloc, give France command of enough votes in the United Nations to enjoy the pretense of being a world power.

Like neighboring Burundi to the south, Rwanda was a Belgian protectorate until independence in 1962. Before then, the Tutsi dominated Rwanda from the 17th century until 1960. The king, nobles, military commanders, and, especially, cattle herders were predominantly Tutsi. Most people among the remainder were Hutu subsistence farmers. Although they have distinct characteristics, Tutsi and Hutu are about as hard to tell apart as northern and southern Italians. Similar to northerners there, Tutsi have generally considered themselves superior.

In 1990, Tutsi guerrillas of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), many of them English-speaking, invaded Rwanda from English-speaking Uganda to the north. Belgium stayed relatively neutral, providing only nonlethal military aid to Rwanda. But France rushed in to defend the French-speaking Hutu regime, led by President Habyarimana and a group of men known as the Akazu or “Little House.” Over the next, three years, militant Hutu forces loyal them murdered up to 2000 Tutsi civilians. Although these abuses were documented by an international commission composed of Human Rights Watch/Africa and three Francophone monitoring organizations, France continued to defend Rwanda’s regime.

“Are you saying that the providing of military assistance is a human rights violation?” asked Colonel Cussac, his palm slamming his desk for emphasis. (The colonel, interviewed last June, wouldn’t provide his first name.) Noting that I am an American, the Colonel added, “France and the United States have a common history, for example, in Vietnam.”

More recent cases of intervention are also similar. France formally supported negotiations between Rwanda’s Hutu government and Tutsi guerrillas in the 1990s, much as the United States allegedly backed negotiations in the 1980s between El Salvador’s government and the guerrillas. But representatives of all the non-French Western diplomatic missions in Kigali said that France sought a clear victory for President Habyarimana and the Little House. “Cussac is a man in favor of a military solution,” said one European chief-of-mission. “They continue to defend and sustain the regime.”

But on April 12, France closed its embassy in Kigali and its military assistance mission. Having armed the government and the party-led militias, who are most responsible for the massacres, France fled (as did most of the 2500 United Nations troops), leaving behind a bloodbath, which also renewed the war between the Hutu government and Tutsi rebels. Even more astonishing, the French government has hardly said a word about a country whose fate it largely shaped. While the U.S. State Department studies the historic outbreak of “savagery” in Rwanda and the Vatican charges genocide, France keeps silent.

Last year, French soldiers manned checkpoints around Kigali. While some were armed with WASP 58 shoulder-fired rocket launchers, others demanded passing Rwandans to present their apartheid-like identification cards. The IDs were stamped Hutu (85 percent of the population), Tutsi, or Twa (hunters and potters, about 1 per cent of the population).

Inside Kigali checkpoints were manned by Rwandan army soldiers. Aside from the capital’s few taxis, most vehicles on the streets were army jeeps, French armored vehicles, and Land Cruisers belonging to foreign relief organizations. Getting a job with one of them, becoming a military officer, or being a friend or collaborator of President Habyarimana or the Little House were the main paths of advancement.

Photos of Habyarimana, by law, had been posted everywhere, even in the relief organizations. But when I arrived last summer, many portraits had been taken down. Rwanda’s political space was finally opening to Hutu opposition parties, and the Tutsi guerrillas were respecting the ceasefire. Yet Hutu opposition leaders were also being assassinated. While French and Rwandan officials alike blamed the RPF for these political killings, and other diplomats and surviving Hutu opposition leaders suspected the Little House.

“Shadow groups are behind the violence,” said Dr. Dismas Nsengiyaremye, one of several opposition party leaders. “Take the example of the mafia. Their chief may recruit from churches, the government, or private companies, which allow him to conduct criminal activities without being seen. Here, the shadow groups are able to build connections to carry out criminal activities with impunity.”

Last June, Charles Nzabagerageza, a government minister who admitted to being a member of the Little House, denied any government responsibility for the Escadrons de la Mort (death squads), as they became known: “[The accusations are] the result of whimsical minds, fabricated by a newspaper, and inspired by certain political groups for purposes which are political.”

My month-long visit to Rwanda left me with images that recur in dreams. On a Sunday visit to a military hospital, for example, I saw two soldiers who had been wounded the week before. One suffered an open femur fracture and gangrene. The other’s blood was soaking through old gauze wrapped around his stomach. I asked a recovering one-legged soldier, “Why aren’t these men being treated?”

“Oh.” he said. “The doctors don’t work weekends.”

On another day, Colonel Deogratias Nsabimana, who died with President Habyarimana in the April 6 plane crash, waved a stack of letters from Amnesty International activists at me. He wanted to know why he kept getting all these letters, worrying about prisoners of conscience in Rwanda’s jails. Despite his bewilderment, Colonel Nsabimana struck me as a serious military professional. There were some moderate officers in the Rwandan army.

Regardless, soldiers under them have long been notorious for their banditry. An American relief organization director told me that he was uncomfortable placing Western staff women near bases. Consisting of 5000 soldiers in 1990, before France financed its expansion, the Rwandan army had grown to more than 30,000 men. While weakly trained, some troops were armed with Egyptian-made Kalashnikov AKM automatic rifles and superior South African R-4 automatic rifles.

Over the same period, the RPF grew from 7000 to perhaps 15,000 guerrillas. Many carry Romanian Kalashnikovs and wear East German rain-pattern-camouflage uniforms. While many weapons were bought on the open market, Uganda donated to the RPF most of its other arms, including Soviet-made Katyusha multiple rocket launchers; landing in succession about 10 yards apart in fewer than five seconds per volley, their rockets spread shrapnel over an area wider and longer than a football field.

At their base camp near Mulindi in northern Rwanda during last year’s cease-fire, I saw RPF guerrillas marching shirtless and singing Tutsi folk and war songs. They appeared to be a well-trained and highly motivated resistance movement. Some of their fighters and most of their leaders spoke English. Most came from refugee families who had fled Rwanda before its independence in 1962, when an earlier wave of Hutu attacks had killed 20,000 Tutsi and driven at least 150,000 to neighboring countries. Today, about 200,000 of them and their descendants live in Uganda. They have competed — sometimes violently — with its citizens, and suffered under both dictators Idi Amin and A. Milton Obote.

But in 1986, a guerrilla army led by a defected defense minister named Yoweri Museveni overthrew Uganda’s, government. About 2000 Rwandan Tutsi, including Paul Kagame, fought with him. Museveni later put Kagame in charge of Ugandan military intelligence. In October 1990, more than half of the RPF’s invasion force, most of its weapons, and nearly all its leaders came directly out of the Ugandan army. President Museveni claims — still — that the deserters “stole” all the weapons they took with them. Kagame is currently the RPF top commander. At the RPF in Mulindi, Toni (his nom de guerre), an educated 30-year-old man with high cheekbones and a very soft manner of speaking, was the intelligence officer appointed to debrief me. Although soldiers served and saluted him, he claimed to be just another faithful recruit: “[What we] want is not necessarily to go back to [Rwanda], but to have a sense of national identity, to have citizenship, and the protection of the Rwandan flag.” That may be true for Toni. But many RPF guerrillas told me that they and their families want immediate repatriation.

The renewal of Rwanda’s conflict came when the prospect for peace never seemed better: President Habyarimana had signed a peace accord with RPF leaders, and he had agreed to divide cabinet posts equally among them, the Hutu opposition, and the Little House. The Little House had never before shared power. Its members had created the Presidential Guard and ruling party militias.

Shortly after President Habyarimana was killed in his plane as it approached Kigali airport April 6, Little House officials declared themselves in charge. While some of them have said that Tutsi RPF guerrillas shot down the president’s plane, the RTLM radio station the Little House controls said Belgian peacekeepers fired a rocket that brought the plane down. The assassination provoked a popular uprising, the Little House maintains.

Belgium’s foreign minister, William Claes, however, said Hutu extremists assassinated the president in a palace coup. Belgian troops reported seeing a rocket fired from the direction of the Kanombe army base just east of the airport; further east are the headquarters of the Presidential Guard. Within minutes of the crash, armed militia loyal to the Little House set up roadblocks in Kigali. Hours later, officials from Belgium and elsewhere said, Presidential Guard units killed three opposition party cabinet members, including then interim prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. She was murdered with 10 Belgian peacekeepers who had tried to save her.

For months, RTLM announcers had been inciting Hutu militiamen against Tutsi: “The grave is only half-full. Who is going to fill it up?” Since the president’s assassination, RTLM has been “calling on militias to step up the killing of civilians,” according to UN spokesman Abdul Kabia in Kigali. Three weeks after the killings began, RTLM radio announced that Thursday, May 5 (when President Habyarimana was scheduled to be buried), would be the target date to finish “the clean-up” of Tutsi.

“When it comes to horror, this is one of the worst situations we have ever seen,” said Tony Burgener, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. (For diplomatic reasons, ICRC officials rarely comment on the record.) When the slaughter of the Hutu opposition and Tutsi families began, the main body of Rwandan army forces did not necessarily join in. Broadcast from Kigali, the army’s radio said that “angry soldiers” had engaged in “shameful criminal acts.” But expecting an RPF offensive, commanding officers failed to stop anyone from killing anybody.

When the bloodletting began, an RPF force of about 600 men was camped out in Kigali. The main body force of RPF fighters was still in and around Mulindi, 32 miles north. They began marching south. Destroying army positions along the way, they reached Kigali within five days. That day, April 11, French officials said they had no plans to leave. But the next day after the RPF began attacking Kigali, the French left.

Departing, French Legionnaire advisers predicted the government’s fall, as did American intelligence experts. But while Tutsi RPF guerrillas secured the north central corridor from Uganda to Kigali, Hutu militiamen and their mobs’ spread south, west, and east, killing more Tutsi families. Rather than then seizing control of a Kigali stacked with corpses, the RPF declared a cease-fire, albeit short-lived since it was contingent on the government stopping the killings. But in doing so, RPF commander Kagame wanted to show the world that his force was disciplined and obedient. Since then, some RPF guerrillas have fought the army, while the rest have pursued the militias.

The RPF now controls at least half the country, and the fighting is fiercer than ever, especially in and around Kigali.

Although I lived in Kigali for a month last year, I find it difficult to imagine the current violence. But I still can clearly picture certain people. One is journalist Sixbert Musangamfura, the editor of Isibo, a weekly newspaper. During an RPF offensive last year the Rwandan army confiscated a Mercedes-Benz truck with Ugandan license plates. Uganda denied, and still denies, supporting the RPF. Although a Tutsi, like the RPF rebels, Sixbert confirmed the Rwandan army’s account: By doing so, he helped France and Rwanda find a smoking gun, confirming their claim that Uganda supported the RPF. Nonetheless, after April 6, French-backed Hutu forces killed Sixbert, probably for being Tutsi. [CORRECTION: Sixbert Musangamfura, in fact, survived the genocide and has since relocated to Brussels.] Among the dozen Rwandans whose cards are in my Rolodex, only two are known to be alive.

© Copyright 1994 Frank Smyth

Blood Money and Geopolitics

The April 6 plane crash that killed the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi (they may have been shot down) is only the latest violent act for these neighboring Central African countries. As many as 100,000 people have died and more than a million have fled ethnic and politically based attacks in recent years. Elements of the Tutsi-dominated army in Burundi assassinated its prior President, a Hutu, in October. Similarly, Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated army is responsible for most abuses them according to Human Rights Watch/Africa. On top of that, one in eight people in Rwanda is on the verge of starving, according to a new report by aid agencies including Oxfam.

Rwanda’s renewed terror broke out as it was tentatively moving toward a peaceful settlement of a three-year civil war, which ended last August. The conflict was fueled by third-party governments supplying arms, which typifies the accelerated dumping of weapons into underdeveloped countries since the cold war ended.

In October 1990, guerrillas of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (R.P.F.), seeking to overthrow the government of President Juvenal Habyarimana, invaded the country from its northern border with Uganda. From around the world came a steady flow of weapons, including Kalashnikov AKM (AK-47) assault rifles, long-range 120-millimeter mortars, 122-millimeter howitzers and Soviet-made Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, which can cover with shrapnel an area wider and longer than a soccer field. Thousands died, both combatants and civilians, and one million people were uprooted from their homes. “I think in this type of market everybody wants to get in:” said James Gasana, Rwanda’s defense minister last year, adding that most countries and independent dealers that supplied the weapons were less interested in who won the war than in making money on it.

The government forces are made up primarily of Hutu; the guerrillas, of Tutsi. Their conflict dates back to the seventeenth century, when the Kingdom of Rwanda was established as a highly organized and stratified state. Most nobles, military commanders, local officials and cattle herders were Tutsi, who today are about 14 percent of the population; the rest of the people were Hutu, who were and remain predominantly subsistence farmers. Their differences are not tribal but ethnic and social, with the Tutsi historically regarding themselves as superior.

The Tutsi monarchy dominated Rwanda until it was overthrown by the Hutu in 1961, a year before the country’s independence from Belgium, which over the years had allied itself with the Tutsi but had shifted sides in the late 1950s. One of the new government’s first acts was to execute some twenty prominent Tutsi leaders; Hutu crowds killed up to 20,000 Tutsi citizens. By 1964, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that about 150,000 Rwandan Tutsi had fled to Tanzania, Burundi, Zaire and Uganda. Twenty-five years later, these people and their descendants, called Banyarwanda, had swollen to a population of some 500,000. Most lack citizenship or legal residence in the countries to which they escaped, which has left them vulnerable to deportation, displacement and harassment.

In 1973, Defense Minister Habyarimana, a Hutu, seized power. He promised to be fair to both Hutu and Tutsi; instead he distributed most of the resources and key positions to family, friends and associates from the region of his birthplace in northwestern Rwanda. Until recently, Habyarimana ruled the country as a one-party state, and most government ministers were related to him by either birth or marriage. After the guerrillas invaded, Habyarimana’s regime distributed at least 500 Kalashnikov assault rifles to municipal authorities, working in collaboration with militia from his ruling party. With government officials in the lead, these militia organized mobs of agitated Hutu that went to villages and fields in search of Tutsi.

They stole beans and slaughtered goats and cattle. They divided up the meat along with clothes before setting many bamboo huts on fire. About 2,000 people died, most of them hacked to death by machete. The Habyarimana regime arbitrarily arrested at least 8,000 others. Hundreds were beaten, raped and tortured. The guerrillas also committed abuses, executing hundreds of civilians suspected of collaborating with the Habyarimana regime, as well as military prisoners. They forcibly dislocated hundreds, if not thousands, more, and forced an unknown number of civilians into slave labor as porters for the troops. Although the abuses on both sides were documented by an international commission that included Human Rights Watch and three Francophone organizations, both the government and the guerrillas deny them.

Most of the countries and dealers facilitating the Rwanda slaughter are similarly closemouthed. The Russians and other former Warsaw Pact members are now prolific suppliers of small arms. The collapse of Moscow’s central control has given governments as well as the officials left in charge of existing stockpiles a free hand. Since these weapons are already paid for, they can be loosed on the world market at prices below cost. With the Russian ruble losing its value, and Eastern European nations also in need of hard currency, their governments are likely to sell even more arms in years to come. They are no longer constrained by the bounds of superpower loyalties; the only thing that counts now is cash.

Although exact numbers are unknown, Kalashnikov rifles have been flooding markets and wars throughout Africa and Asia. As late as March 1992 belligerents in Central Africa could pick them up in bulk for $220 each; prices have since dropped well below $200. In countries like Rwanda, Kalashnikovs were once more common than cars; now they are more common than bicycles. About 80 percent of the weapons used by the R.P.F. guerrillas were Kalashnikovs, many of Romanian manufacture. Among those fighters who had uniforms, most wore rain-pattem camouflage from the former East Germany; these are now also available through commercial military catalogues. African arms dealers living in Brussels appear to have facilitated the delivery of Warsaw Pact materiel to East Africa. The trend is global and not limited to guns and camouflage: In 1992 the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration confiscated Soviet-made AH-72 cargo jets that Colombia’s Cali cartel had used to smuggle cocaine.

In South Africa, the government-owned Armscor has for years manufactured high-quality weapons for its security and defense forces, which could not buy guns abroad because of a U.N. embargo. While this resolution was binding, another one, against buying arms from South Africa, was not; Rwanda has ignored it. According to Armscor invoices dated October 19, 1992, South Africa sold Rwanda at least $5.9 million worth of light arms, machine guns, mortars and ammunition. About 3,000 Rwanda troops are now equipped with the R-4 assault rifle, which is superior to the Kalashnikov. The status of Armscor and its subsidiaries in the new South Africa has yet to be determined, but it is likely to become a private industry. The lifting of stigma and sanctions against the former apartheid state will give Armscor the opportunity to market its products openly and aggressively for the first time.

A weapons contract signed on March 30, 1992, reads: “The BUYER and the SUPPLIER agree not to show the contents of this contract to third parties.” The buyer was Rwanda and the supplier was Egypt, in a $6 million transaction that included Egyptian-made Kalashnikov rifles, anti-personnel mines, plastic explosives, mortars and long-range artillery. Other documents indicate that the sale was financed by a “first-rate, international bank approved by” Egypt. Rwanda paid $1 million in cash up front and promised to pay another $1 million with the proceeds from 615 tons of harvested tea, and $1 million a year over the next four years. The “first-rate international bank” guaranteed Rwanda’s payment of the full $6 million. Few private commercial banks, operating on the profit motive, would take on such a risk. But Credit Lyonnais did. Although it may be privatized soon, in March 1992 it was still a nationalized bank of France. The sale was, in fact, a secret military assistance credit from France to Rwanda.

This credit has since become a subsidy. What Credit Lyonnais and Rwanda didn’t count on was that the R.P.F. guerrillas would launch a new offensive in February 1993 and take over the Mulindi tea plantation. The tea there spoiled and never made it to harvest. “Our economy was already ailing in 1990, and of course the war has not resolved anything,” President Habyarimana said last October. “Now we want to improve our macroeconomic outlook, but we have a serious shortage of currency.” As for Rwanda’s outstanding debt to Egypt, Credit Lyonnais, and by extension France, is obligated to pick up the tab.

The French government’s willingness to do so, and to keep propping up Habyarimana militarily, arose from its determination to maintain its credibility in French-speaking Africa. From Rwanda’s independence in 1962 until the war broke out in 1990, the nation’s main trading partner, political ally and military patron was Belgium. But once the war began, that role was assumed by France. Belgium is unique among NATO member states in that its laws explicitly prohibit it from selling or providing arms to a country at war. Shortly after the 1990 R.P.F. invasion, Belgium cut off all lethal aid. And last year, following the release of the international commission’s human rights report, Belgium recalled its ambassador for consultation. Accusations that Belgium has aided the R.P.F. are false, and stem from the Habyarimana regime’s resentment of Belgian neutrality.

French officials, however, have defended the record of the Habyarimana regime. “Civilians were killed as in any war,” said Colonel Cussac, the French military attaché in the capital of Kigali and head of the French military assistance mission. (In an apparent act of disdain for journalists and others who question France’s role, Colonel Cussac declined to give me his first name.) “Are you saying that the providing of military assistance is a human rights violation?” he asked, adding that officials in the U.S. Embassy in Kigali supported French policy. “France and the United States have a common history — for example, in Vietnam.” In fact, all non-French Western diplomats in Kigali are critical of France’s role.

Immediately after the war started, France deployed at least 300 combat troops in Rwanda, drawing them from its forces stationed in the Central African Republic. France also rushed in advisers, helicopter parts, mortars and munitions. After the R.P.F. launched its offensive last February, the number of French troops in Rwanda swelled to at least 680, comprising four companies, including paratroopers. “French military troops are here in Rwanda to protect French citizens and other foreigners,” Colonel Cussac told me. “They have never been given a mission against the R.P.F.” But Western diplomats, relief workers and Rwandan army officers all said these troops have provided artillery support for Rwandan infantry troops, and that French advisers have been attached to Rwandan combat commanders.

France’s Ambassador said the country’s presence is necessary to defend Rwanda against aggression from Uganda. It is true that Uganda has not sat on the sidelines during the conflict, although its government categorically denies this. Almost all of Uganda knew about the impending invasion in 1990, as Tutsi soldiers in the Ugandan army openly bid farewell to their families and friends. They traveled with their weapons, in plain view of Ugandan authorities, over two days, and then gathered in a soccer stadium in Kabale, about 200 miles southwest of Kampala and just north of the Rwandan border. Their weaponry included land mines, rocket-propelled grenades, 60-millimeter mortars, recoilless cannons and Katyusha rocket launchers. According to Western diplomats, international military observers, Ugandan army officers and eyewitnesses who saw soldiers unloading crates of Kalashnikovs, Uganda willingly provided more arms, food, gasoline, batteries and ammunition to the R.P.F. throughout the war. “We are committed to the R.P.F.” one Ugandan army operations officer boasted after a few beets in Kampala. “If they didn’t have our support, they wouldn’t be as successful as they are.”

Along with the Tutsi refugees who have served in the Ugandan army, about 200,000 other Tutsi have been living in Uganda. While President Yoweri Museveni tries to rebuild the country in the wake of its wholesale destruction under Idi Amin, these refugees have competed, sometimes violently, with Ugandans for water, land, and other resources. In supporting the guerrillas, President Museveni seems less interested in claiming Rwandan territory than in facilitating Tutsi repatriation. Many top R.P.F. leaders also fought alongside Museveni in Uganda with the expectation that some day he would help them invade Rwanda.

The R.P.F. and President Habyarimana signed a treaty last August, but his untimely death provoked Rwanda’s most severe wave of bloodshed since independence. Hours after his plane went down, the regime’s Presidential Guard began targeting political opponents and critics irrespective of ethnicity. They included the interim Hutu Prime Minister, 10 Belgian peacekeepers who tried to save her, many priests and nuns, and journalists and human rights monitors. While these victims, running into the thousands, were primarily Hutu like the regime itself, the ruling-party militia along with bands of soldiers and drunken armed Hutu men killed tens of thousands of Tutsi. Six days after the carnage started, the first of the main body of Tutsi R.P.F. guerrillas arrived in Kigali.

While Uganda harbored and largely armed the R.P.F., Egypt, South Africa and especially France armed the Habyarimana regime, which is most responsible for the recent bloodletting. Uganda denies it. Egypt and South Africa will not comment, and France has yet to fully disclose its role.

Bearing Witness

Monique Mujawamariya slapped her hand into mine and said “Ca va?” In Kigali a year ago, her smile was contagious, although the scars on three sides of her mouth were ugly. One of Rwanda’s most active human rights monitors, she was cut in an accident when someone tried to run her car off the road.

Monique, as she is generally known, couldn’t prove who did it. But she was later threatened by Capt. Pascal Simbikangwa in front of Western witnesses. Simbikangwa is a member of the Akazu (“the little house”), the clique of thugs and top ministers that kept President Juvenal Habyarimana in power for so long through its organization of the Presidential Guard and militia. Akazu members deny responsibility for any abuses.

Many of Rwanda’s opposition party leaders have been assassinated in recent years; Dissidents and West- ern diplomats suspect the Akazu. “Shadow groups are behind the violence. But nobody can provide concrete evidence,” said Dr. Dismas Nsengiyaremye, a former prime minister. “Take the example of the mafia: Their chief may recruit from churches, the government or private companies, which allow him to conduct criminal activities without being seen.”

This made for a dangerous climate. Because of it, Human Rights Watch/Africa arranged for Monique to meet with President Clinton last December in the Oval Office. “Your courage, Madame, is an inspiration to all of us, and we thank you:” the President told Monique. “I want to assure you that the United States will continue to be in the forefront of nations pushing the cause of human rights.”

After President Habyarimana was killed in Kigali on April 6, Monique felt she was in danger. She called United Nations peacekeepers in Kigali, but they were under siege and unable to help her. (Belgium says ten of its peacekeepers were tortured and murdered by the Presidential Guard.) Monique also appealed to U.S. Embassy officials, who were busy safeguarding Americans.

By then Monique was in touch with a friend in the United States, historian Alison DesForges. “Around 5 A.M. I called Monique and she said that she had seen two [member] of the Presidential Guard go into a house two removed from hers,” DesForges wrote. They brought out three people and shot them. “Around 6 when I called the soldiers had entered the house next door and had just killed someone. I told her to stay on the line with me, to open the door for them and to tell them that I was the White House.” Instead, Monique hid for six hours on the ground in the rain and then crawled into her ceiling space. They missed her, and she survived.

French Guns, Rwandan Blood

Read the original article here.

HAWTHORNE, N.J. — The horrendous violence that has seized the tiny African republic of Rwanda is not as random as it looks. For the members of the Akazu, the ruling clan around the late President Juvenal Habyarimana, the only way to retain a 21-year monopoly on power was to kill their enemies as fast as they could. And until yesterday, when anti-Government rebels overran the capital of Kigali, that brutal clique was getting help from an unlikely quarter: France.

Rwanda was a Belgian protectorate until it gained independence in 1962, and until recently it got most of its military aid from Belgium. But Belgian law prohibits any lethal aid to a country at war. In 1975, two years “after he seized power by deposing the President who had appointed him, Mr. Habyarimana signed a military cooperation agreement with France. When the rebel guerrillas of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (harbored and largely armed by neighboring Uganda) invaded in 1990 and again last year, it was France that rushed in combat troops, mortars and artillery to help the Government.

Why France? Rwanda is “nobody’s idea of a choice colonial prize,” as The Economist tartly put it. It has few resources, little industry and a lot of AIDS. Like its neighbor Burundi, it has been torn by decades of ethnic strife between the Hutu and the Tutsi. But French is an official language — even though one in six adults are fluent in it – and that counts for a great deal. France has invested heavily in Francophone Africa and provides military and financial aid to a network of its own former colonies. Mr. Habyarimana was a friend of President Francois Mitterrand.

France’s commitment to the Habyarimana regime was underscored by its recent subsidy of Rwanda’s purchase of $6 million in arms from Egypt. A contract signed in Kigali in 1992 includes a full arsenal of mortars, long-range artillery, plastic explosives and automatic rifles. Payment was guaranteed by the nationalized French bank Credit Lyonnais.

Nor has France had much to say about Rwanda’s atrocious record on human rights. Mr. Habyarimana — who died with the President of Burundi in a suspicious plane crash last week — was a classic despot, ruthless and corrupt. He installed relatives and cronies in key ministries, the army and a paramilitary militia. (This group is known as the Akazu.)

When the rebels, who are largely Tutsi, invaded in 1990, the Akazu incited a policy of ethnic cleansing. Carrying placards of Mr. Habyarimana above their heads, local officials and militiamen organized mobs of agitated Hutu. They killed thousands of Tutsi, while Tutsi killed hundreds of Hutu. Victims were hacked to death with machetes.

Last August, Rwanda and the rebels agreed to end their three-year war, and six months later the President agreed to a transitional government, dividing ministerial posts three ways among the Akazu, Hutu opposition parties led by Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and Tutsi representatives. Among these groups, the Akazu was the most reluctant to share power.

Hours after the President was killed last Wednesday, his Presidential Guard went on a rampage. They killed Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana, along with Belgian peacekeepers who had tried to save her; most other opposition party members; priests and nuns, journalists and human rights monitors. Militiamen and soldiers under irregular command randomly attacked Tutsi or anyone suspected of being one.

Now the Government forces are in retreat, killing and burning as they flee. If the rebels take control, they have said that they will share power with other parties; the world will have to wait to see.

For now, the horror in Rwanda should serve as a grisly lesson in the dangers of imperial reach. Of 21 French-speaking African regimes, most are dictatorships with scant respect for human rights. In January, when France devalued the currency used by 14 of these nations, it sent a welcome signal that it would cut back its subsidy of their economies. But its military policy lags behind its economic one; in propping up the Rwandan regime for so long, it bears part of the blame for the current bloodbath.

A New Kingdom Of Cocaine: For Colombia’s Powerful Cali Cartel, the Crucial Connection Is Guatemala

The ignominious end of cocaine baron Pablo Escobar obscured the fact that his Medellin cartel had long since been eclipsed by another network of cocaine traffickers based in the Colombian city of Cali. The Cali cartel, led by the Rodriguez Orejuela family, is now said to control up to 85 percent of the world trade in the illicit drug. Two reasons for Cali’s success are clear: It has a reputation for eschewing violence and for distributing its profits widely. A third less often noted reason is that the cartel has established operations in Guatemala, a new safe haven for large cocaine shipments headed north.

Guatemala has become the largest warehouse for cocaine in Central America, according to Colombian and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration experts. Analysts at the DEA and the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics Matters now estimate that Guatemala serves as the trans-shipment point for 50 to 75 tons of cocaine a year. That’s a substantial portion of the 300 to 400 tons that reach the United States every year.

“The vast majority of cocaine trafficking in Guatemala is Cali cartel-related,” Lee McCIenny, U.S. Embassy press attaché, says. In July 1992, authorities found 2.8 metric tons of cocaine in a house near the Guatemalan town of Antigua. (A metric ton is equivalent of 2,200 pounds.) Three months earlier, in April 1992, drug enforcement authorities in Miami had searched a load of frozen broccoli that had been shipped from Guatemala. They found 6.7 tons of cocaine, enough to supply every user in the United States for a week. It was one of the five largest drug seizures in U.S. history. The seizure resulted in the arrest of Francisco Guzman, the brother-in-law of one of the cartel’s top leaders, and Harold Ackerman, whom the DEA describes as “the Cali cartel’s ambassador to Miami” and the highest-ranking Cali member ever arrested.

The cartel is more violent than its reputation suggests. According to Siglo Veintiuno, Guatemala’s most respected daily newspaper, the cartel was also responsible for the recent assassination of Rony Sagastume, a Guatemalan national police detective. Sagastume had just been assigned to investigate the cartel’s activities in Guatemala in September 1992 when he was shot while he sat in a car with two other passengers. Siglo Veintiuno reported that sources close to the police said that Sagastume had been terminated by a death squad of the Cali cartel that had arrived in Guatemala one day before.

Members of the Guatemalan officer corps have been implicated in the cocaine trade. The 2.8 tons seized in Antigua were found in a house owned, but not occupied, by a retired Air Force captain. In December 1990 Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz was arrested by Guatemalan authorities working with the U.S. DEA. He was later indicted by prosecutors in Tampa, Fla., for smuggling half a ton of cocaine into that city. DEA agents say that Ochoa was working for the Cali cartel.

Guatemala’s officer corps is a relative newcomer to the drug business. The Guatemalan military was previously known, not just in Central America but also around the world, for its record of massacres, torture, disappearances and assassinations. The killing reached its peak in 1982 when a campaign of unprecedented savagery in the Guatemalan countryside effectively crushed the country’s left-wing insurgency. The resulting political stability was one feature that attracted the Colombian cocaine cartels. They chose Guatemala, according to a Latin American drug enforcement official, “because it is near Mexico, which its an obvious entrance point to the U.S., and because the Mexicans have a long-established mafia. It is also a better transit and storage country than El Salvador because it offers more stability and was easier to control.”

The signs of drug trafficking are visible in the Guatemalan economy. “The traffickers have begun to buy property and invest large sums of money for the construction of runways and warehouses for the storage of drugs,” according to an assessment of the Colombian activity in Guatemala done by one country in the region. In the capital, the construction industry has been growing at least four times faster than the rest of the economy.

Some Guatemalan officials suggest that stable policies and a healthy investment climate are behind the boom. But legitimate business leaders say the stampede of cocaine profits threatens either to crowd them out or draw them in. The problem became so pervasive that a year ago a group of exporters organized a conference around an unprecedented theme: how to detect whether their products were being used to run drugs.

Guatemalan newspapers have reported the presence of the Cali cartel in the country but have printed hardly a word about the cartel’s local confederates. A group of Mayan peasants say they had the misfortune to stumble across Guatemalan drug trafficking first-hand. The peasants were farmers living in the village of Los Amates in eastern Guatemala. They allege that, beginning in November 1990, soldiers from a local military base tried to drive them off their land. The soldiers took three men to the base where, the peasants claim, they were beaten and tortured. One of the men filed a complaint with the country’s human rights ombudsman, including a doctor’s medical report on his injuries and photos of a pencil-thin laceration around the entire base of his neck.

Five more peasants from Los Amates filed a second complaint in March 1992. It alleges that nine people from their community were murdered by the local soldiers and provides the dates, times, circumstances, names and titles or military ranks of those allegedly responsible. Some of the statements charge that the killers were protecting a drug trafficking operation.

“On April 18, 1991, they [the soldiers] assassinated Mr. Daniel Melgar, a tractor driver. Since this man had worked on [and knew about] the construction of the clandestine runway owned by Francisco Villafuerte, these narcotraffickers paid assassins to kill him. [When not in use] the runway is camouflaged with logs strewn over it.”

The surviving peasants claim the army has built so many runways in and around Los Amates that it has “converted its five hamlets into warehouses for drugs.” The complaint names a total of 67 individuals as being responsible. They include four army colonels, a major, a captain and 20 military-appointed civilian commissioners.

Local army officers denied any involvement; the country’s minister of defense also denied any knowledge of human rights violations or cocaine trafficking in the area.

How credible were the peasants’ complaints? One suspect named in their complaints was Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, one of the military commissioners who later became the mayor of the nearby town of Zacapa. Apparently unbeknownst to the peasant witnesses, Vargas had already been indicted on drug charges in New York in 1991. A joint DEA-Guatemalan police operation had confiscated 1.8 tons of cocaine in Guatemala which led to the arrest of Vargas and nine other people. The suspects were charged with smuggling several tons per month by tractor-trailer through Mexico to the United States. Vargas was extradited to Brooklyn in May 1992 and is expected to come to trial next year.

There is no known link between the U.S. indictment of Vargas and the peasants’ complaints against him and local army officers. Likewise, the murders of nine peasants in Los Amates remain unsolved. And Lt. Col. Ochoa, still under indictment in Tampa, is a free man. The military court that dishonorably discharged him from the army also ordered that no further action be taken against him, due to “insufficient evidence.”

The Cali cartel is in no danger of being driven out of Guatemala.

Guatemala’s Gross National Products: Cocadollars, Repression, and Disinformation

In the early 1980s, leftist guerrillas in Guatemala blew up bridges, ambushed army convoys, and attacked military outposts. A decade later, the fighting in Guatemala’s civil war is winding down. Combat between the government and the guerrillas now occurs in only a few departments and only a few times each year. But political violence, almost exclusively by the government, continues. Even the U.S. State Department reported in 1991 that the military, civil patrols and the police continued to commit a majority of the major human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances.

The Guatemalan counterinsurgency campaign was conceived with the support of U.S. counterinsurgency experts such as Caesar Sereseres and Colonel George Minas. Sereseres has served as both a consultant to the Rand Corporation and a Central America expert in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning. Today, Guatemalan army officers still describe him as someone who understands our situation. Minas served as a U.S. military attache in Guatemala in the early 1980s. Both encouraged Guatemala’s population control strategy, involving the use of Vietnam-style military-controlled strategic hamlets and civilian defense patrols.

The strategy of control was also characterized by a litany of human rights crimes that stand out not only in the region but in the world. The violence was so severe in the early 1980s in Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu’s home department of Quich, to cite but one example, that the entire Catholic archdiocese shut down and withdrew, with all its priests, nuns, catechists, and many parishioners. The situation there and in other departments by 1982 led Guatemala’s Conference of Catholic Bishops to conclude: Not even the lives of old people, pregnant women or innocent children were respected. Never in our history has it come to such grave extremes.


Not everyone suffered. Guatemalan army spokesmen openly point out that the carnage has given Guatemala a level of national stability it lacked earlier in the war, and made the country comparatively more stable than El Salvador, Honduras, or even Mexico. With the military firmly in charge, and the civilian government largely irrelevant, foreign investment has climbed. Low wages have attracted Asian firms wanting to set up sweatshops, as well as European and U.S. tourists.

It has also attracted the network of cocaine traffickers based in the Colombian city of Cali. The cartel picked Guatemala because it is near Mexico, which is an obvious entrance point to the U.S., and because the Mexicans have a long established and well organized mafia, said a Latin America drug enforcement expert. It is also a better transit and storage country than El Salvador because it offers more stability and was easier to control.


In the 1980s, Guatemala was an insignificant player in the cocaine trade. Today, however, Guatemala is the largest Central American bodega or warehouse for cocaine transshipments to the U.S., and ranks behind only Mexico and, perhaps, the Bahamas in transshipping cocaine to the U.S. Analysts at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics Matters (INM) now estimate that between 50 and 75 metric tons of cocaine are shipped through Guatemala each year. (In comparison, the same experts estimate that before the present embargo, between 6 and 12 metric tons a year passed through Haiti.) Mexico and Guatemala, which share a common frontier, together move at least two-thirds of the cocaine now reaching the U.S.

Guatemala’s booming cocaine trade now distorts the Guatemalan economy, drawing local businesses into a web of cocadollars and fostering corruption in both business and the military. The Cali cartel and its Guatemalan partners are trafficking cocaine that, at the wholesale price of $15,000 a kilogram, is worth as much as one billion dollars a year or one-tenth of Guatemala’s entire GNP.

Evidence of the cash flow generated by the cocaine trade is abundant: Real estate prices in Guatemala City, by conservative estimates, rose over 350 percent in just three years, while inflation dropped from 60 to 14 percent over the same period. Even more illicit funds appear to be channeled into the construction industry, which has grown steadily at a rate four times faster than the rest of the economy. While other Central American capital cities only seem to deteriorate, Guatemala City’s skyline continues to expand even though the newly constructed buildings still have ample vacant office space.

The situation became so unnerving by November 1992 that a group of local exporters organized an unprecedented conference: how to detect whether their export products are being used to run drugs. They held the conference seven months after 6.7 tons of cocaine enough to supply the total U.S. demand for a week was discovered in cases of frozen broccoli shipped to Miami. Even these business leaders concede that, in a sluggish global economy with many export markets depressed, the profits available from cocaine trafficking can be extremely tempting. Newspaper editors say that the cocaine trade in Guatemala has been able to buy out entire businesses as well as institutions. But although everybody in Guatemala seems to know about it, hardly anybody is willing, publicly, to say even a word.


Off the record, Western diplomats, leading entrepreneurs, church officials and others all charge that senior Guatemalan army officers are deeply involved in the cocaine traffic. Although not even one military official has yet to be prosecuted in either Guatemala or the U.S., 10 military officers and 20 paramilitaries under them have already been indicted or implicated. They include:

1) Ex-Lt. Colonel Carlos Ochoa Ruiz and two army captains, all of whom were caught in a DEA sting back in 1990, smuggling a half metric ton of cocaine, worth $7.5 million wholesale, to Tampa, Florida.
2) A retired Guatemalan Air Force captain who owned a safe house outside Antigua where the DEA found 2.8 metric tons of cocaine.
3) Four army colonels, a major, a captain and 20 army-appointed civilian commissioners in Los Amates in eastern Guatemala, who are accused in legal testimony by survivors of having ordered the separate murders of nine peasants, and the torture and abuse of many more.

The Los Amates survivors charge that the army drove them off their land to build runways to smuggle drugs. One of the military commissioners they name, Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, was later extradited to Brooklyn, New York, where he will be tried for smuggling several tons of cocaine a month by tractor trailers to the U.S.


The Guatemalan army’s office of Information and Dissemination, on the other hand, counters that leftist guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) are responsible. Not one guerrilla or political opponent of the Guatemalan government has been either charged or indicted. Yet the Guatemalan army maintains that they should be.

Its Department of Information and Dissemination has a manila envelope, marked with an official stamp SECRETO, which spokesmen are eager to show to journalists upon request. The documents describe an alleged anti-drug operation high up in Guatemala’s northern Peten jungle, where the URNG guerrillas were once strong. According to the documents, in July 1991 a Treasury Police unit engaged in combat with guerrillas discovered a small plane with Colombian registration. Included in the file is a photograph of a white male wearing a baseball cap with the letters, in place of a ball team, DEA. He is standing over the plane’s cargo stacked brown paper-wrapped packages and holding up a flag with the initials FAR the acronym for one of three wings of the URNG.

For reasons still unexplained, the Army waited 16 months until November 1992 to release the secret file, the color Polaroids, and an army-produced video of the alleged raid.

The video begins with members of the Treasury Police running single file up to a line of trees, and firing automatic weapons in sequence at an unseen enemy. Later, these armed soldiers are seen around a small plane and the brown packages. The film then zeros in on the Polaroid of the white male wearing the baseball cap with the letters DEA. When asked whether this man with the DEA baseball cap was a DEA agent, army spokesman Captain Yon Rivera said, Look at it. You can see for yourself. When asked why the DEA hasn’t said anything about the guerrillas running cocaine, spokesman Yon Rivera, commonly identified in local newspapers as The Voice of the Armed Forces said: The DEA has not accused the guerrillas for this. I don’t know why they don’t want to say it.

U.S. Embassy officials in Guatemala City declined comment. When asked about the raid, Joyce McDonald at DEA headquarters in Washington faxed a description of the raid, the video, and the man with the DEA baseball cap to the DEA Field Division in Guatemala City. That office faxed back a brief response: DEA is unfamiliar with the film or scenario described above.

Blaming the guerrillas is not without a certain irony. The same army spokesmen who claim the guerrillas are running tons of cocaine boast in the same breath how the guerrillas are militarily defeated. The army estimates that there are fewer than 500 full-time guerrilla combatants left.Yet, the army fails to explain how a mere 500 stragglers under pressure just to stay alive, let alone fight could be responsible for receiving, storing and transshipping the bulk of Guatemala’s flow of cocaine.


Although the charge that the guerrillas are behind the cocaine traffic is, on the face of it, without basis, it is regularly reported as fact throughout Guatemala. The Guatemalan army’s ability to manipulate the press is yet another violent legacy of its past. After seeing more of their colleagues killed or disappeared than in any other country in Central America (and that is saying a lot), Guatemalan journalists rarely challenge anything the military says. No matter how broad or baseless, the military’s allegations are still regularly reported in Guatemalan daily newspapers, radio, and television reports in most cases, without a word of qualification. And regionally based foreign journalists have simply ignored the military’s accusations, if they’ve bothered to report on Guatemala at all.

As a result, neither Guatemala’s nine million citizens (most of whom, like the peasants in Mexico’s Chiapas, are of Mayan descent), nor North American consumers of news about Guatemala are well served. Guatemalan citizens have been saturated with the view that their tiny country is the victim of a global communist conspiracy that endures despite the end of the Cold War. And countless Guatemalans, especially among the whiter, wealthier members of its population, very much do believe it. This is a war here, said one such businessman, between the country and those who want to destroy it, the guerrillas. Meanwhile, North American readers have been insulated from the most outlandish of Guatemalan officials’ accusations, and their by any post-Cold War standard extreme world view. The failure of the U.S. press to adequately report on Guatemala is one reason why the Clinton administration enjoys warm relations with Guatemala despite its authoritarian past and present.

The Guatemalan army maintains that the URNG guerrillas have compensated for their battlefield losses by shifting their resources to a political warfare campaign. While the guerrillas are poor military commanders, say Guatemalan army representatives, they are brilliant manipulators of world opinion. The army claims that the guerrillas’ propaganda campaign is not only successful but has managed to either manipulate or control individuals, organizations, publications, and even governments.

In August 1992, Newsweek ran a story, “Subtle Clues in Shallow Graves: Uncovering evidence of massacres in Guatemala”. In response, then Guatemalan Minister of Defense Jos Garcia Samayoa threatened to press charges against Newsweek and respected forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who conducted the investigation. The General said, “It worries us to see how foreign interference in this case has grown in dimension, injuring…the independence and sovereignty of Guatemalans.”

International authority Clyde Snow, who has examined cadavers in Kurdistan, Chile, Argentina, and most recently Mexico’s Chiapas, has harsh words for the Guatemalan army: The military guys who do this are like serial killers. They got away with it once, so they think they’ll always get away with it. If Jeffrey Dahmer had been in Guatemala, he would be a general by now. Around the same time, indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchu, from Guatemala’s most war-torn department of Quich, was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Then army spokesman Yon Rivera was not impressed: The only thing Miss Menchu has done abroad is create a very bad image of our country. After she won the prize, Rivera charged that Guatemala had been the victim of a global political warfare campaign, but he didn’t know whether it was a case of direct infiltration. At the very least, he charged, the Nobel committee itself had been, somehow, unduly influenced by the URNG.30

The Guatemalan army has accused the U.S. of participating in the political warfare as well. By 1991, congressional critics had helped persuade the Bush administration to cut military aid to Guatemala, which it did partly over the murder of an American innkeeper, Michael Devine. That led the Guatemalan army to claim that the U.S. government itself had been unduly influenced by the URNG. According to the army’s Department of Information and Dissemination, members of the U.S. Congress and the State Department have been, respectively, conspirators and dupes. There is a U.S. congressman who has on his staff a member of the URNG, spokesman Rivera said in an interview, although Rivera could remember neither the congressman nor his staff member’s name. But one name he could recall was that of Frank LaRue, whose activities Rivera said proves his point. According to Rivera, LaRue is a lobbyist for the URNG, who enjoys undue influence in the State Department. “He has an open door,” said Rivera, nodding his head. He has the key.

LaRue made the Guatemalan national stage over a decade ago when he defended Coca-Cola workers in a bitter strike in Guatemala City, after which he went into political exile until 1994, when he returned briefly to Guatemala. While in the U.S., LaRue was a well-known activist in the Guatemalan opposition movement, and continued to work on labor and human rights issues in Guatemala through the privately-funded Center for Human Rights Legal Action in Washington, D.C. It was in this capacity that he was invited to the State Department for meetings with Guatemalan army representatives to discuss issues of military justice and human rights.

U.S. journalists who criticize the military are also accused of being part of the conspiracy. After the Washington Post published an article by the author about the Cali cartel and the Guatemalan army on December 26, 1993, the Army’s Department of Information and Dissemination held a press conference the following day to respond: Members of the Department of Information and dissemination of the Guatemalan Army reiterated that `there exists a campaign against the prestige of the government and the armed forces on the part of groups that seek to satisfy their own interests by creating a negative image of the country and the democratic process that we live in.


Indeed, according to the Guatemalan army, this campaign against the prestige of the government and armed forces is one of the broadest in the history of the Cold War, which, it maintains, has yet to end. And, if the Guatemalan military is to be believed, the propaganda campaign has extended its tentacles to some very unlikely places. In January 1993, the army uncovered a conspiracy involving an entertainment establishment, a local television station and U.S. Secret Service agents attached to United Nations dignitaries visiting New York.

Guatemala’s then formal head of state, President Jorge Serrano (who last May failed to survive his own Fujimori-style self-coup), was on an official trip to the United Nations. Although the visit coincided with President Clinton’s inauguration, the Guatemalan leader was not invited. After Serrano spoke to the U.N. General Assembly, blaming Guatemala’s leftist guerrillas for much of his country’s problems, he went for a drink at Stringfellows of NY, Ltd. in the posh Gramercy Park neighborhood of lower Manhattan.

The Guatemalan leader found a table facing a stage with naked, dancing women. A local free-lance cameraman happened to be having a drink and watching the show too.

The next day at 6:00 p.m., WNBC-TV’s News 4 New York aired an exclusive report. It captured the Guatemalan leader trying to hide his face behind a white ski parka and hood, while exiting the club and entering the back seat of his waiting limousine. In addition to close-ups of the President’s face, viewers saw his armed U.S. Secret Service escorts as well as his entire diplomatic motorcade. After running the tape, the news anchor added that President Serrano is an outspoken born-again, evangelical Christian.

News 4 New York aired the report again at 11:00 p.m. But in the later broadcast, the anchor included President Serrano’s official response. He blamed his capture on film at the go go bar on manipulation by Guatemala’s leftist guerrillas.

Spokespersons for News 4 New York, Stringfellows of NY, Ltd., and the Secret Service were all, at first, incredulous and then offended. All deny the charge.

What the Guatemalan army fails to realize is that the more it blames leftist guerrillas for its problems, the more isolated it becomes. During the Cold War, Guatemala was already a pariah regime within the world community. But with changes and reforms now taking place or on the horizon in places as troubled as South Africa, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland, continuing Guatemalan political violence, cocaine trafficking, and military impunity leave that country more alone than ever.