Papers Show U.S. Role in Guatemalan Abuses
By Douglas Farah
During the 1960s, the United States was intimately involved in equipping and training Guatemalan security forces that murdered thousands of civilians in the nation's civil war, according to newly declassified U.S. intelligence documents.
The documents show, moreover, that the CIA retained close ties to the Guatemalan army in the 1980s, when the army and its paramilitary allies were massacring Indian villagers, and that U.S. officials were aware of the killings at the time. The documents were obtained by the National Security Archive, a private nonprofit group in Washington.
Some of the documents were made available to an independent commission formed to investigate human rights abuses during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which killed an estimated 200,000 people. The report by the Historical Clarification Commission, which grew out of the U.N.-brokered peace agreement that ended the conflict in 1996, was released last month in Guatemala and blamed government forces for the overwhelming majority of human rights violations during the conflict.
But some of the documents were not released until yesterday. One was a Jan. 4, 1966 memo from a U.S. State Department security official describing how he set up a "safe house" in the presidential palace for use by Guatemalan security agents and their U.S. contacts. The safe house became the headquarters for Guatemala's "dirty war" against leftist insurgents and suspected allies.
"I have never seen anything like it," said Kate Doyle, Guatemala project director at the archives, expressing amazement at "the description of our intimacy with the Guatemalan security forces."
Three months after the cable about the safe house, on March 6, 1966, security forces arrested 32 people suspected of aiding Marxist guerrillas; those arrested subsequently disappeared. While the Guatemalan government denied any involvement in the case, a CIA cable sent later that year identifies three of those missing, saying, "The following Guatemalan Communists and terrorists were executed secretly by Guatemalan authorities on the night of March 6."
The CIA has a long history of involvement in Guatemala, having helped to orchestrate the army's overthrow of a democratically elected government in 1954. Nevertheless, largely because of human rights concerns, the United States never provided Guatemalan security forces with the same level of support it gave anti-communist forces in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador during fighting in the 1980s.
In 1977 the Guatemalan government rejected $2.1 million in U.S. military aid because it was conditioned on improved performance on human rights. But in the early 1980s, under the Reagan administration, the relationship warmed up again despite occasional clashes over the military's brutal tactics.
As the Cold War raged in the 1960s and '70s, the United States gave the Guatemalan military $33 million in aid even though U.S. officials were aware of the army's dismal track record on human rights, the documents show.
On Oct. 23, 1967, for example, a secret State Department cable reported that covert Guatemalan security operations included "kidnapping, torture and summary executions." The cable said that "in the past year . . . approximately 500-600 persons have been killed; with the addition of the 'missing' persons this figure might double to 1,000-2,000." It also described the government's Special Commando Unit, which used civilians as well as military personnel and carried out "abductions, bombings, street assassinations and executions of real or alleged communists."
A 1992 CIA cable confirmed that indigenous villages were targeted for destruction because of the army's belief that the Indians supported the guerrillas.
In describing one episode, which occurred shortly before it was written, the cable reported that "several villages have been burned to the ground." It continued, "The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is [pro-guerrilla] has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and noncombatants alike."
An April 1994 Defense Intelligence Agency report outlined how, in the 1980s, as U.S. aid grew, Guatemalan military intelligence agents dumped suspected guerrillas – dead and alive – out of airplanes into the ocean.
"In this way they have been able to remove the majority of the evidence showing that the prisoners were tortured and killed," the memo said.
But as grim a picture as the documents portray, said Doyle, the project director, the Clinton administration was to be commended for making them public.
"The commission asked for documents from Argentina, Israel and Taiwan," Doyle said. "Only the United States responded.
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