Former members of a U.S.-trained death squad in El Salvador may finally face justice after massacring 6 priests and two women 26 years ago.
In El Salvador, the beginning of a new year brings with it the opportunity to heal old wounds.
In the first weeks of January, nearly 20 retired military officers accused of human rights violations during the country’s civil war have been called to answer for their crimes. While the great bulk of the charges being leveled against the former soldiers relate to a single massacre carried out in San Salvador, at least one of the former commanders is known to have directed multiple atrocities during the 12-year conflict. In all, some 75,000 were killed during the war, while thousands more were disappeared in a rampage of human rights atrocities largely perpetrated by the U.S.-backed, right-wing government’s forces.
The importance of these developments cannot be underscored enough.
In addition to the closure that may be offered to victims of civil war-era human rights abuses and their families, the apprehension and trial of accused war criminals in El Salvador signals the end of impunity enjoyed by members of the old guard—some of whom were responsible for brutal campaigns of violence, like the massacre of six priests and two others at a university in San Salvador.
On Nov. 16, 1989, a small band of soldiers stormed the campus grounds of the Central American University (UCA). Members of El Salvador’s elite Atlacatl Brigade—a death squad armed and trained by the United States—murdered a group of Jesuit priests, a campus housekeeper, and the woman’s teenage daughter. Among the dead was Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the university, prominent proponent of liberation theology, and a critic of the conservative ruling regime governing El Salvador during the war. The other five priests were Spanish nationals.
The military initially tried pinning the blame on FMLN rebels. The Actlacatl Brigade used weapons that had been captured from guerilla fighters and, after murdering those inside the compound, staged a phony assault on the campus to make it appear as if rebels had carried out the slaughter. In order to ensure that no one would question who was responsible for the UCA massacre, the troops placed a cardboard sign near their victims which read: “The FMLN has executed the spies who informed on them. Victory or death. FMLN.”
Despite the fact that few believed the military’s deception, justice in this case—as it was for countless other victims of human rights violations during the civil war—has proved elusive. In 1991, a group of the officers involved were put on trial. Two soldiers were found guilty, and sentenced to prison. Shortly after, however, all of the accused were relieved of responsibility for the killings. An amnesty law approved by the legislative assembly following the 1992 peace accords offered the shelter of impunity to everyone implicated in war crimes over the previous decade.
On Jan. 5, a Spanish court asked that arrest warrants be issued for the 17 retired military men connected to the slaughter at the university. The following day the Salvadoran government signaled its willingness to cooperate. Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales, speaking at a press conference, told reporters that “there is an obligation to prosecute these acts and, in the absence of domestic justice, there is an obligation to collaborate with the legal process that the Spanish National Court is leading in this case.”
Spanish authorities have tried to have the officers arrested in the past, but to no avail. In 2011, Spain pushed for their apprehension but was rebuffed by the Salvadoran high court. The court found that the warrants issued by Interpol for the 17 soldiers mandated that Salvadoran authorities locate the men in question, not apprehend them, and that the officers were protected under the old amnesty law governing civil war crimes. This changed last year in a welcome reversal by the court, which has opened the door to their arrest and extradition.
The impending arrests aren’t the only sign that the limits of impunity for past crimes may have been reached in El Salvador. A week after the 17 military officers were identified for arrest, a former minister of defense, Jose Guillermo Garcia Merino, was deported from the United States—where he had been residing since the late 1980s—to El Salvador for war crimes committed on his watch. Among other incidents, Garcia has been tied to the murder of four American nuns, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, as well as the Rio Sumpul and El Mozote massacres.
In expert testimony included in the case of Garcia-Merino, Terry Lynn Karl, professor of political science at Stanford University, argued that El Salvador’s armed forces “engaged in a widespread pattern and practice of massacres, torture, and arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, and other gross violations of human rights” under Garcia’s command. “General Garcia presided over the worst period of repression in modern Salvadoran history,” Karl wrote. “At least 75 percent of reported violence in El Salvador occurred during General Garcia’s tenure as Defense Minister.”
These developments mirror a similar push for justice underway in the region more broadly. Most prominently, a series of actions have been taken against military officers in Guatemala accused of human rights violations in that country’s civil war. While the trial of former strongman Efrain Rios Montt has been subject to a lengthening series of delays, prosecutions of other alleged war criminals appear to be advancing successfully. And on the same day that El Salvador agreed to take action against those involved in the UCA massacre, Guatemala arrested 18 of its own retired soldiers for war crimes.
Even as Guatemala appears poised to make steady advances to ensure transitional justice, El Salvador faces many obstacles in following suit. Foreign courts were responsible for kickstarting these latest proceedings against Salvadoran war criminals while, to date, domestic courts themselves have not taken up the mantle of pursuing cases related to crimes committed during the war. Indeed, while government officials have promised to extradite the seventeen officers to Spain, none have yet been brought into custody. Nor is it clear what legal fate awaits Garcia following his deportation from the United States.
And there are still serious concerns about the selective nature of accountability in the country. The constitutional court’s recent ruling on “terror,” for example, came back into focus recently when Chief Inspector Joaquin Hernandez demanded that El Diario de Hoy be investigated for instigating “fear and terror” in its coverage of the gangs. Repugnant as El Diario’s politics may be, claims that the paper is abetting terror raise alarming questions about press freedom in El Salvador, and could set an ugly precedent in the government’s war against the gangs, and political opposition.
Nevertheless, the fact that government officials appear ready to play their part in the apprehension and prosecution of those charged with war crimes suggests an important shift has taken place in El Salvador. The ruling establishment has historically been wary of broaching issues of transitional justice leftover from the war. To his credit, former president Mauricio Funes took courageous steps by acknowledging the state’s role in wartime atrocities, but nothing came of it. Over the past several weeks, however, official reluctance to redress past wrongs seems to be dissipating.
Whatever the cause—domestic or international pressure, successful internal maneuvering by brave judges and lawyers within the country’s judicial system, or something else—an opportunity to begin striking down the impunity haunting El Salvador for decades has presented itself. Will the government shy away due to the very real political risks involved in dredging up the past? Hopefully not. Will it honestly reckon with the country’s recent history, and those responsible for its bloodiest episodes, to ensure that justice for those victimized by a ruthless war is no longer denied, even after all these years?
Better late than never.
U.S. Alliance for Prosperity plan aims to stem Central American migration, but critics say the plan falls far short of addressing underlying causes
The United States’ plan to more than double its aid package to Central America in the name of increasing security and boosting development is likely to open up the region to U.S. corporate interests without tackling underlying problems of poverty and inequality, CISPES Executive Director Alexis Stoumbelis told teleSUR on Wednesday.
U.S. Congress approved over US$750 million at the end of December to roll out President Barack Obama’s strategy for Central America. The package supports the controversial Alliance for Prosperity, a plan touted as a strategy to stem the massive wave of undocumented migrants from the Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, but slammed by critics for exacerbating key drivers of the crisis.
According to Stoumbelis, the new increased funding plan continues the same development model based on White House priorities of free trade and foreign direct investment that the U.S. has long promoted in the region.
“The U.S. has had an aggressive neoliberal agenda in Central America for the last 20 years, so this doesn’t really come as a surprise,” Stoumbelis told teleSUR by phone, citing the Central America Free Trade Agreement as an example of the U.S.-backed free trade model that has proven to worsen insecurity and inequality in Central American countries.
“The plan continues to push an agenda much more in line with neoliberal economics than programs proven to improve quality of life,” said Stoumbelis.
While the new aid package has been promoted as a bid to address longstanding issues of poverty, insecurity, and violence, the main pillars of the plan pave the way for increased foreign investment, natural resource extraction, privatization, and militarization while raising serious concerns about human rights and inequality, Stoumbelis added.
“The funding provides backing for governments that have proven time and time against putting human rights at the top of the agenda,” said Stoumbelis, adding that the plan ignores calls from many social movements and advocacy groups to cut security aid to the region instead of rewarding human rights-abusing administrations with more funding.
Although the U.S. funding for Central America includes conditions aimed at addressing human rights concerns raised by social movements and advocates, many remain skeptical that the measures will do enough to counteract dismal human rights records and rampant corruption, especially in Honduras and Guatemala.
“It was a victory to condition the aid … and to convince (U.S.) Congress that its support for human rights-abusing governments needs to be addressed,” said Stoumbelis. He went on to say that even if the aid is subject to human rights guarantees, it is ultimately up to the State Department to sign off on whether Central American countries fulfill the conditions.
Many expect that the new plan will uphold the State Department’s historically inadequate standard on human rights, which in the past has seen human rights approval issued despite evidence of systematic and chronic human rights abuses on the ground in Central America.
The US$750-million aid package will spike funding levels from US$120 million to US$300 million for development, from US$160 million to US$405 million for security, and from US$33 million to over US$66 million for the war on drugs. Funds will be administered by the State Department and by USAID, which have proven to support privatization and the interests of U.S. corporations in the region.
The security funding includes doubling the budget for the Central American Security Initiative, a regional plan that has dramatically increased militarization of security forces in the region and in turn raised concerns about increasing human rights abuses, impunity, and corruption without fulfilling its state’s objectives of tackling insecurity.
According to Stoumbelis, militarization in the name of the war on drugs has largely been a “war on the people,” as poor people are the most vulnerable in the face of insecurity and have largely been the victims of rising levels of violence under CARSI and the security initiative for Mexico, Plan Merida.
The plan is expected to pave the way for increased militarization in the name of “stabilization” and border security, which critics fear will result in increased human rights violations and exacerbate the problems underlying social and economic inequality.
Militarization also tends to result in criminalization of protest movements against neoliberal mega-projects that displace communities, rob indigenous peoples of land, destroy the environment, and undermine food security—a development strategy only set to ramp up under the new regional aid plan.
Despite the challenges, Stoumbelis predicts that such resistance movements will redouble their fight against the model the U.S. aid package proposes to push harder.
“There has been a tremendous challenge to the model,” said Stoumbelis, emphasizing the role of cross-border resistance in the region and the importance of international solidarity.
For Stoumbelis, in the face of increased U.S. aid, solidarity with Central American movements is now more than ever key to resisting the “U.S.-backed corporate onslaught in the region.”
Salvadoran ex-President Francisco Flores was transferred from prison to a state of house arrest Monday while awaiting trial for allegedly embezzling US$15 million from a Taiwanese aid fund to his personal and political bank accounts.
The former head of state, who governed from 1999 to 2004, was relocated from a high-security prison to a luxury residential area, after an appeals court judge dropped charges of money laundering against him.
In response, the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party issued a press release expressing “indignation” over the ruling.
Several local NGO’s including the Social Initiative for Democracy and the Foundation for Legal Studies criticized the court decision, saying the resolution contained “incongruities and irregularities that should be the subject of an investigation”.
Flores was accused earlier this year by the attorney general’s office of allocating a US$15 million Taiwanese donation, intended for earthquake relief and social programs, to fund his Arena electoral campaign.
Flores’s trial on charges of illicit enrichment and embezzlement will begin on Jan. 18, 2016. He denies the charges.
In recent years, the ruling FMLN party has taken several steps to curb political corruption through the establishment of the Anti-corruption and Complex Crimes Unit, which handles cases involving corruption by public officials and administrators. The Constitution has also established a Court of Accounts charged with investigating public officials and bodies.
A right-wing rally on Sept. 5 in San Salvador (Contrapunto/ Jessica Orellana)
Over the summer, news out of Central America seemed to take a positive turn. According to reports worldwide, the streets and plazas in several countries had filled with empowered citizens, united under the banner of “anti-corruption.” In Guatemala, a president notorious for the genocidal atrocities he helped wage against indigenous communities during the U.S.-backed civil war was toppled and disgraced. In Honduras, thousands marched against a repressive regime with a dubious mandate, stained by a 2009 coup d’état against democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. In neighboring El Salvador, strategists of the political opposition looked on longingly as pundits enthusiastically heralded a “Central American Spring.”
Unlike in Honduras and Guatemala, in El Salvador, the political Left has governed the country since 2009, placing the Salvadoran Right in the unfamiliar role of the opposition. Hoping to capitalize on the trending currents next door, El Salvador’s elites are now hastily hoisting the banner of anti-corruption politics. Theirs is a cynical, if clumsy, effort to foment a tide of popular opposition against the current FMLN administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén. The conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party is leading this charge, desperate to recover executive power and, with it, unbridled access to the state coffers it once ransacked. This movement is acting through a handful of small but well-funded right-wing civil society organizations, such as the Movimiento de 5 en 5, Grupo 300, and Democracia Limpia, as well as powerful economic groups like the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP) and the right-wing think tank FUSADES, ARENA, and its private sector allies. They are convening marches, filling headlines with empty accusations against the FMLN, and flooding social media with snappy civic hashtags like #YoTambiénEstoyIndignado (“I’m Outraged, Too”) and #NoALaCorrupción (#NoToCorruption).
The hypocrisy of this tactic is hard to overstate. From 1989 to 2009, the ARENA party oversaw the disappearance of more than $3.9 billion in public funds. The extent of such corruption only came to light after ARENA lost the presidency. Former president Francisco Flores (1999-2004), the poster boy for the ARENA party’s legacy of corruption, is now on trial for misappropriating at least $15 million in Taiwanese aid for earthquake victims. Even the U.S. State Department, historically a loyal supporter of ARENA politicians, admitted in a cable released by Wikileaks that the Salvadoran party’s finances were dependent on its ability to “hand out” government “patronage.”
Since unseating ARENA in 2009, the FMLN administrations of Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén have made unprecedented efforts to investigate and prosecute many high-ranking former officials, like Flores, for acts of corruption. At the same time, the Salvadoran government, under the FMLN’s leadership, has completed several important public works projects, such as major highway constructions and hospital repairs, that languished unfinished, in part due to the rampant theft and embezzlement that occurred under ARENA. In addition, the FMLN has enacted new policies aimed at improving government transparency, such as the Access to Public Information Law; the establishment of a Secretary for Citizen Participation, Transparency and Anti-Corruption; the creation of a digital open government platform; and the establishment of a new policy forcing government institutions to present and publish annual reports of their activities. The Foundation for the Study of the Application of the Law (FESPAD) has observed that since the election of a leftist government in El Salvador there have been “important advances oriented towards honest and transparent public administration based on accountability, access to public information as well as the prevention and investigation of State corruption.”
For months now, the Salvadoran opposition has recklessly thrown corruption allegations at the FMLN administration. Thus far, however, they have been unsuccessful in making such allegations stick. As a result, conservative efforts to rally the public against the government have floundered. In a country accustomed to large protests, the Salvadoran Right has failed to bring more than a few hundred people into the streets – despite significant efforts on social media. The demonstrations have consistently featured an elite “who’s who” of ARENA party leaders and allies. Even government detractors have dismissed these events as partisan political theater.
This is not to say ARENA’s efforts have been wholly unsuccessful. While street mobilizations have faltered, ARENA’s diplomatic maneuvering has gotten significantly more traction. Its latest instrument of choice is the so-called CICIES, or International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador. And it’s here that ARENA has encountered its old ally: the United States.
The CICIES proposal is modeled on the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the United Nations-run body whose investigations recently toppled President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president, Roxanna Baldetti. The CICIG was founded at the behest of human rights organizations to address the activities of paramilitary security groups that undermined the fragile achievements of Guatemala’s peace accords. Today, these groups defend the CICIG as the only feasible means of imposing justice in an utterly compromised judicial system.
At the same time, significant U.S. financial backing for the CICIG has also served to justify ongoing U.S. assistance to abusive Guatemalan security forces and neoliberal economic agreements with corrupt Guatemalan administrations. As the U.S. promotes the Alliance for Prosperity in the Central American Northern Triangle, a controversial economic and security strategy modeled on Plan Colombia, the CICIG has emerged as a key player. During a March visit to Guatemala, Vice President Joe Biden himself stressed that “the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala should be extended” as a condition of the Alliance.
In 2011, then Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes considered the implementation of a commission similar to the CICIG. The ARENA party, however, strongly opposed the proposal. At that time, former ARENA presidential candidate Rodrigo Ávila declared that in El Salvador there were sufficiently capable police, jurists, and lawyers. “To come and say that we need foreign attorneys […] who do not know the reality of the country” was, Ávila argued, “a blow to the capabilities of Salvadorans.”
The idea of creating an anti-corruption commission in El Salvador did not resurface again until this year – this time as a suggestion from the U.S. State Department. During a visit to the country in July, State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon hailed the CICIG, and recommended the implementation of a similar model throughout the region. “It would be intelligent for El Salvador and Honduras to seek the support of the international community” in combating impunity and corruption, Shannon told a group of Salvadoran reporters.
ARENA, in a sudden change of heart, quickly echoed Shannon’s call. “The scourge of corruption and high levels of impunity are affecting our country and democracy,” ARENA legislator David Reyes told the media in late August. “With this type of independent international body, many of the problems can be solved, and [it will] help recoup trust in our institutions.” On October 12, ARENA party representatives held a press conference announcing the delivery of a letter to the president calling for the establishment of CICIES. The conservative organization Allies for Democracy, a USAID-supported group whose membership includes the powerful National Association of Private Enterprise, has also since come out in favor of CICIES.
The fact that the U.S.’s statements regarding the CICIES come at the same moment that the U.S. is pushing the Alliance for Prosperity suggests that State Department concerns about corruption in the region are less than altruistic. While recognizing the gains of Guatemala’s U.N.-backed anti-impunity commission, historian Greg Grandin noted in The Nation that under other circumstances, CICIG might “easily be dismissed as a neocolonial imposition meant to press order on a country so that it could continue to participate in the ‘international community’ as a ‘responsible’ free-trade partner.” The fact that the U.S.’s statements regarding the CICIES come at the same moment that the U.S. is pushing the Alliance for Prosperity suggests that State Department concerns about corruption in the region are less than altruistic. As Thomas Shannon told Salvadoran media, “It is strategically important for us to have a successful Northern Triangle in terms of our regional policy.” If the State Department has its own interests in mind as it pushes for an International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador, its recommendations have played nicely into the hands of El Salvador’s right-wing opposition.
To be sure, the Salvadoran Left is not blind to ARENA’s opportunism. Despite the rampant corruption during two decades of ARENA governance, the U.S. never pushed for an International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador until the election of a left-leaning administration. Most former ARENA officials have little to fear today; the ten-year statute of limitations for crimes of corruption in El Salvador now protects most ARENA officials from prosecution, leaving only former President Tony Saca (2004-2009), who since defected from the party and is therefore of small concern to his former colleagues, and, of course, the FMLN.
The Salvadoran government and other transparency advocates contend that unlike in Guatemala, the very institutions created by the 1992 Peace Accords would fight corruption and impunity. “After the armed conflict, the intervention of international institutions like ONUSAL [the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador] was justified because there wasn’t institutionality in the country […] The Truth Commission report even said that the judicial system was complicit in systematic human rights violations,” explained Abram Abrego, director of the respected legal aid non-profit FESPAD. “The judicial branch was questioned, and an international organization was necessary to verify its conduct […] But after more than 20 years, institutionality has developed in other ways. There’s more to do,” Abrego says, “but the country now has better laws than after the Peace Accords; it has better guarantees.”
Because of this history, Salvadoran progressives have thus far dismissed the need for an international commission to investigate corruption and impunity, calling instead for judicial reform to ensure justice within the country’s existing institutions. “The bourgeoisie is asking for it, not the people,” says Margarita Posada of the National Healthcare Forum, in reference to the proposed Commission. “What our people want is justice, and for the judicial system to work.”
In a recent editorial, Luis Cruz of the youth organization Progre expressed similar sentiments. “Salvadoran institutionality is still weak,” Cruz notes, “and the response should be to solve our problems by strengthening ourselves without appealing to foreign institutions.” In a rally outside the Supreme Court, Francisco Garcia of the Popular Coalition for a Peaceful Country without Hunger (CONPHAS) declared that, “The issue of purging the judicial system is an urgent necessity in order to guarantee the democratic transformations in this country.” Groups like CONPHAS, the National Healthcare Forum, and Progre have rejected the proposed Commission as a political smokescreen. Instead, they are focusing on critical measures like the election of a new Attorney General, the creation of an internal body to investigate corruption within the judicial system, and the dismissal of compromised judges from the bench.
The fact that ARENA’s calls for an international anti-corruption commission have no resonance with the country’s popular movement organizations has not deterred El Salvador’s elites in their crusade. Indeed, the U.S. State Department has bolstered their message. In this respect, their charade reveals the disturbing underside of the anti-impunity movements that have taken hold in other parts of Central America, often unseen to the international community.
There is much work to be done in El Salvador, and all of Central America for that matter, to claim victory in the battle against corruption and impunity. That is precisely why it is imperative to see this right-wing anti-corruption discourse in El Salvador for what it is: a cynical strategy to return to the status quo at a time when the powerful interests who have historically run the country are being challenged.
Hilary Goodfriend is a researcher in El Salvador. A graduate of New York University in Latin American Studies, she is currently completing a master’s thesis at the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador.
Just over two weeks after the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit in federal court against the CIA for the intelligence agency’s refusal to release declassified documents, the office of the center’s director was broken into, with data and equipment stolen.
Sensitive documents, including personal details about ongoing investigations in El Salvador, pertaining to a lawsuit filed by the University of Washington against the the CIA were stolen from the office of Professor Angelina Godoy, University officials reported on Wednesday.
The robbery has been described by university officials as a “possible act of retaliation” by individuals interested in compromising the university’s case against the CIA due to circumstances that suggest this wasn’t just a common burglary.
“We are concerned because it is also possible this was an act of retaliation for our work. There are a few elements that make this an unusual incident,” the Center for Human Rights said in a statement.
Following the incident, Center for Human Rights Director Dr. Angelina Godoy reported that her desktop computer was stolen along with a hard drive containing about 90 percent of the information relating to the center’s research in El Salvador. However, according to the center, what was peculiar about the circumstances is that her office was the only one targeted and that the stolen hard drive has no real monetary value; what was valuable was the data on the drive.
“Lastly, the timing of this incident — in the wake of the recent publicity around our freedom of information lawsuit against the CIA regarding information on a suspected perpetrator of grave human rights violations in El Salvador — invites doubt as to potential motives,” added the press statement.
On Oct. 2 the center filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act alleging that the CIA is illegally withholding information on retired Salvadoran Army officer, Col. Sigifredo Ochoa, who is currently under criminal investigation for complicity in the 1981 Santa Cruz massacre in El Salvador.
The lawsuit hopes to support justice-seeking survivors of the U.S-backed counterinsurgency against left-wing rebels that left more than 75,000 people dead and over 30,000 disappeared between 1980 and 1992.
“Access to the documents … could facilitate justice proceedings in these and other cases of grave rights abuses,” the lawsuit claims.
The refugee chaos that is now pushing deep into Europe – dramatized by gut-wrenching photos of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey – started with the cavalier ambitions of American neocons and their liberal-interventionist sidekicks who planned to remake the Middle East and other parts of the world through “regime change.”
Instead of the promised wonders of “democracy promotion” and “human rights,” what these “anti-realists” have accomplished is to spread death, destruction and destabilization across the Middle East and parts of Africa and now into Ukraine and the heart of Europe. Yet, since these neocon forces still control the Official Narrative, their explanations get top billing – such as that there hasn’t been enough “regime change.”
For instance, The Washington Post’s neocon editorial page editor Fred Hiatt on Monday blamed “realists” for the cascading catastrophes. Hiatt castigated them and President Barack Obama for not intervening more aggressively in Syria to depose President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime neocon target for “regime change.” But the truth is that this accelerating spread of human suffering can be traced back directly to the unchecked influence of the neocons and their liberal fellow-travelers who have resisted political compromise and, in the case of Syria, blocked any realistic efforts to work out a power-sharing agreement between Assad and his political opponents, those who are not terrorists.
In early 2014, the neocons and liberal hawks sabotaged Syrian peace talks in Geneva by blocking Iran’s participation and turning the peace conference into a one-sided shouting match where U.S.-funded opposition leaders yelled at Assad’s representatives who then went home. All the while, the Post’s editors and their friends kept egging Obama to start bombing Assad’s forces.
The madness of this neocon approach grew more obvious in the summer of 2014 when the Islamic State, an Al Qaeda spin-off which had been slaughtering suspected pro-government people in Syria, expanded its bloody campaign of beheadings back into Iraq where this hyper-brutal movement first emerged as “Al Qaeda in Iraq” in response to the 2003 U.S. invasion.
It should have been clear by mid-2014 that if the neocons had gotten their way and Obama had conducted a massive U.S. bombing campaign to devastate Assad’s military, the black flag of Sunni terrorism might well be flying above the Syrian capital of Damascus while its streets would run red with blood.
But now a year later, the likes of Hiatt still have not absorbed that lesson — and the spreading chaos from neocon strategies is destabilizing Europe. As shocking and disturbing as that is, none of it should have come as much of a surprise, since the neocons have always brought chaos and dislocations in their wake.
When I first encountered the neocons in the 1980s, they had been given Central America to play with. President Ronald Reagan had credentialed many of them, bringing into the U.S. government neocon luminaries such as Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan. But Reagan mostly kept them out of the big-power realms: the Mideast and Europe.
Those strategic areas went to the “adults,” people like James Baker, George Shultz, Philip Habib and Brent Scowcroft. The poor Central Americans, as they tried to shed generations of repression and backwardness imposed by brutal right-wing oligarchies, faced U.S. neocon ideologues who unleashed death squads and even genocide against peasants, students and workers.
The result – not surprisingly – was a flood of refugees, especially from El Salvador and Guatemala, northward to the United States. The neocon “success” in the 1980s, crushing progressive social movements and reinforcing the oligarchic controls, left most countries of Central America in the grip of corrupt regimes and crime syndicates, periodically driving more waves of what Reagan called “feet people” through Mexico to the southern U.S. border.
Messing Up the Mideast
But the neocons weren’t satisfied sitting at the kids’ table. Even during the Reagan administration, they tried to squeeze themselves among the “adults” at the grown-ups’ table. For instance, neocons, such as Robert McFarlane and Paul Wolfowitz, pushed Israel-friendly policies toward Iran, which the Israelis then saw as a counterweight to Iraq. That strategy led eventually to the Iran-Contra Affair, the worst scandal of the Reagan administration. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “When Israel /Neocons Favored Iran.”]
However, the right-wing and mainstream U.S. media never liked the complex Iran-Contra story and thus exposure of the many levels of the scandal’s criminality was avoided. Democrats also preferred compromise to confrontation. So, most of the key neocons survived the Iran-Contra fallout, leaving their ranks still firmly in place for the next phase of their rise to power.
In the 1990s, the neocons built up a well-funded infrastructure of think tanks and media outlets, benefiting from both the largesse of military contractors donating to think tanks and government-funded operations like the National Endowment for Democracy, headed by neocon Carl Gershman.
The neocons gained more political momentum from the U.S. military might displayed during the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. Many Americans began to see war as fun, almost like a video game in which “enemy” forces get obliterated from afar. On TV news shows, tough-talking pundits were all the rage. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you couldn’t go wrong taking the most macho position, what I sometimes call the “er-er-er” growling effect.
Combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the notion that U.S. military supremacy was unmatched and unchallengeable gave rise to neocon theories about turning “diplomacy” into nothing more than the delivery of U.S. ultimatums. In the Middle East, that was a view shared by Israeli hardliners, who had grown tired of negotiating with the Palestinians and other Arabs.
Instead of talk, there would be “regime change” for any government that would not fall into line. This strategy was articulated in 1996 when a group of American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in Israel and compiled a strategy paper, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.”
Iraq was first on the neocon hit list, but next came Syria and Iran. The overriding idea was that once the regimes assisting the Palestinians and Hezbollah were removed or neutralized, then Israel could dictate peace terms to the Palestinians who would have no choice but to accept what was on the table.
In 1998, the neocon Project for the New American Century, founded by neocons Robert Kagan and William Kristol, called for a U.S. invasion of Iraq, but President Bill Clinton balked at something that extreme. The situation changed, however, when President George W. Bush took office and the 9/11 attacks terrified and infuriated the American public.
Suddenly, the neocons had a Commander-in-Chief who agreed with the need to eliminate Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – and Americans were easily persuaded although Iraq and Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War.”]
The Death of ‘Realism’
The 2003 Iraq invasion sounded the death knell for foreign policy “realism” in Official Washington. Aging or dead, the old adult voices were silent or ignored. From Congress and the Executive Branch to the think tanks and the mainstream news media, almost all the “opinion leaders” were neocons and many liberals fell into line behind Bush’s case for war.
And, even though the Iraq War “group think” was almost entirely wrong, both on the WMD justifications for war and the “cakewalk” expectations for remaking Iraq, almost no one who promoted the fiasco suffered punishment for either the illegality of the invasion or the absence of sanity in promoting such a harebrained scheme.
Instead of negative repercussions, the Iraq War backers – the neocons and their liberal-hawk accomplices – essentially solidified their control over U.S. foreign policy and the major news media. From The New York Times and The Washington Post to the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, the “regime change” agenda continued to hold sway.
It didn’t even matter when the sectarian warfare unleashed in Iraq left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced millions and gave rise to Al Qaeda’s ruthless Iraq affiliate. Not even the 2008 election of Barack Obama, an Iraq War opponent, changed this overall dynamic.
Rather than standing up to this new foreign policy establishment, Obama bowed to it, retaining key players from President Bush’s national security team, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus, and by hiring hawkish Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, who became Secretary of State, and Samantha Power at the National Security Council.
Thus, the cult of “regime change” did not just survive the Iraq disaster; it thrived. Whenever a difficult foreign problem emerged, the go-to solution was still “regime change,” accompanied by the usual demonizing of a targeted leader, support for the “democratic opposition” and calls for military intervention. President Obama, arguably a “closet realist,” found himself as the foot-dragger-in-chief as he reluctantly was pulled along on one “regime change” crusade after another.
In 2011, for instance, Secretary of State Clinton and National Security Council aide Power persuaded Obama to join with some hot-for-war European leaders to achieve “regime change” in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi had gone on the offensive against groups in eastern Libya that he identified as Islamic terrorists.
But Clinton and Power saw the case as a test for their theories of “humanitarian warfare” – or “regime change” to remove a “bad guy” like Gaddafi from power. Obama soon signed on and, with the U.S. military providing crucial technological support, a devastating bombing campaign destroyed Gaddafi’s army, drove him from Tripoli, and ultimately led to his torture-murder.
‘We Came, We Saw, He Died’
Secretary Clinton scurried to secure credit for this “regime change.” According to one email chain in August 2011, her longtime friend and personal adviser Sidney Blumenthal praised the bombing campaign to destroy Gaddafi’s army and hailed the dictator’s impending ouster.
“First, brava! This is a historic moment and you will be credited for realizing it,” Blumenthal wrote on Aug. 22, 2011. “When Qaddafi himself is finally removed, you should of course make a public statement before the cameras wherever you are, even in the driveway of your vacation home. … You must go on camera. You must establish yourself in the historical record at this moment. … The most important phrase is: ‘successful strategy.’”
Clinton forwarded Blumenthal’s advice to Jake Sullivan, a close State Department aide. “Pls read below,” she wrote. “Sid makes a good case for what I should say, but it’s premised on being said after Q[addafi] goes, which will make it more dramatic. That’s my hesitancy, since I’m not sure how many chances I’ll get.”
Sullivan responded, saying “it might make sense for you to do an op-ed to run right after he falls, making this point. … You can reinforce the op-ed in all your appearances, but it makes sense to lay down something definitive, almost like the Clinton Doctrine.”
However, when Gaddafi abandoned Tripoli that day, President Obama seized the moment to make a triumphant announcement. Clinton’s opportunity to highlight her joy at the Libyan “regime change” had to wait until Oct. 20, 2011, when Gaddafi was captured, tortured and murdered.
In a TV interview, Clinton celebrated the news when it appeared on her cell phone and paraphrased Julius Caesar’s famous line after Roman forces achieved a resounding victory in 46 B.C. and he declared, “veni, vidi, vici” – “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Clinton’s reprise of Caesar’s boast went: “We came; we saw; he died.” She then laughed and clapped her hands.
Presumably, the “Clinton Doctrine” would have been a policy of “liberal interventionism” to achieve “regime change” in countries where there is some crisis in which the leader seeks to put down an internal security threat and where the United States objects to the action.
But the problem with Clinton’s boasting about the “Clinton Doctrine” was that the Libyan adventure quickly turned sour with the Islamic terrorists, whom Gaddafi had warned about, seizing wide swaths of territory and turning it into another Iraq-like badlands.
On Sept. 11, 2012, this reality hit home when the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was overrun and U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomatic personnel were killed. It turned out that Gaddafi wasn’t entirely wrong about the nature of his opposition.
Eventually, the extremist violence in Libya grew so out of control that the United States and European countries abandoned their embassies in Tripoli. Since then, Islamic State terrorists have begun decapitating Coptic Christians on Libyan beaches and slaughtering other “heretics.” Amid the anarchy, Libya has become a route for desperate migrants seeking passage across the Mediterranean to Europe.
A War on Assad
Parallel to the “regime change” in Libya was a similar enterprise in Syria in which the neocons and liberal interventionists pressed for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad, whose government in 2011 cracked down on what had quickly become a violent rebellion led by extremist elements, though the Western propaganda portrayed the opposition as “moderate” and “peaceful.”
For the first years of the Syrian civil war, the pretense remained that these “moderate” rebels were facing unjustified repression and the only answer was “regime change” in Damascus. Assad’s claim that the opposition included many Islamic extremists was largely dismissed as were Gaddafi’s alarms in Libya.
On Aug. 21, 2013, a sarin gas attack outside Damascus killed hundreds of civilians and the U.S. State Department and the mainstream news media immediately blamed Assad’s forces amid demands for military retaliation against the Syrian army.
Despite doubts within the U.S. intelligence community about Assad’s responsibility for the sarin attack, which some analysts saw instead as a provocation by anti-Assad terrorists, the clamor from Official Washington’s neocons and liberal interventionists for war was intense and any doubts were brushed aside.
But President Obama, aware of the uncertainty within the U.S. intelligence community, held back from a military strike and eventually worked out a deal, brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Assad agreed to surrender his entire chemical-weapons arsenal while still denying any role in the sarin attack.
Though the case pinning the sarin attack on the Syrian government eventually fell apart – with evidence pointing to a “false flag” operation by Sunni radicals to trick the United States into intervening on their side – Official Washington’s “group think” refused to reconsider the initial rush to judgment. In Monday’s column, Hiatt still references Assad’s “savagery of chemical weapons.”
Any suggestion that the only realistic option in Syria is a power-sharing compromise that would include Assad – who is viewed as the protector of Syria’s Christian, Shiite and Alawite minorities – is rejected out of hand with the slogan, “Assad must go!”
The neocons have created a conventional wisdom which holds that the Syrian crisis would have been prevented if only Obama had followed the neocons’ 2011 prescription of another U.S. intervention to force another “regime change.” Yet, the far more likely outcome would have been either another indefinite and bloody U.S. military occupation of Syria or the black flag of Islamic terrorism flying over Damascus.
Another villain who emerged from the 2013 failure to bomb Syria was Russian President Putin, who infuriated the neocons by his work with Obama on Syria’s surrender of its chemical weapons and who further annoyed the neocons by helping to get the Iranians to negotiate seriously on constraining their nuclear program. Despite the “regime change” disasters in Iraq and Libya, the neocons wanted to wave the “regime change” wand again over Syria and Iran.
Putin got his comeuppance when U.S. neocons, including NED President Carl Gershman and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland (Robert Kagan’s wife), helped orchestrate a “regime change” in Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2014, overthrowing elected President Viktor Yanukovych and putting in a fiercely anti-Russian regime on Russia’s border.
As thrilled as the neocons were with their “victory” in Kiev and their success in demonizing Putin in the mainstream U.S. news media, Ukraine followed the now-predictable post-regime-change descent into a vicious civil war. Western Ukrainians waged a brutal “anti-terrorist operation” against ethnic Russians in the east who resisted the U.S.-backed coup.
Thousands of Ukrainians died and millions were displaced as Ukraine’s national economy teetered toward collapse. Yet, the neocons and their liberal-hawk friends again showed their propaganda skills by pinning the blame for everything on “Russian aggression” and Putin.
Though Obama was apparently caught off-guard by the Ukrainian “regime change,” he soon joined in denouncing Putin and Russia. The European Union also got behind U.S.-demanded sanctions against Russia despite the harm those sanctions also inflicted on Europe’s already shaky economy. Europe’s stability is now under additional strain because of the flows of refugees from the war zones of the Middle East.
A Dozen Years of Chaos
So, we can now look at the consequences and costs of the past dozen years under the spell of neocon/liberal-hawk “regime change” strategies. According to many estimates, the death toll in Iraq, Syria and Libya has exceeded one million with several million more refugees flooding into – and stretching the resources – of fragile Mideast countries.
Hundreds of thousands of other refugees and migrants have fled to Europe, putting major strains on the Continent’s social structures already stressed by the severe recession that followed the 2008 Wall Street crash. Even without the refugee crisis, Greece and other southern European countries would be struggling to meet their citizens’ needs.
Stepping back for a moment and assessing the full impact of neoconservative policies, you might be amazed at how widely they have spread chaos across a large swath of the globe. Who would have thought that the neocons would have succeeded in destabilizing not only the Mideast but Europe as well.
And, as Europe struggles, the export markets of China are squeezed, spreading economic instability to that crucial economy and, with its market shocks, the reverberations rumbling back to the United States, too.
We now see the human tragedies of neocon/liberal-hawk ideologies captured in the suffering of the Syrians and other refugees flooding Europe and the death of children drowning as their desperate families flee the chaos created by “regime change.” But will the neocon/liberal-hawk grip on Official Washington finally be broken? Will a debate even be allowed about the dangers of “regime change” prescriptions in the future?
Not if the likes of The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt have anything to say about it. The truth is that Hiatt and other neocons retain their dominance of the mainstream U.S. news media, so all that one can expect from the various MSM outlets is more neocon propaganda, blaming the chaos not on their policy of “regime change” but on the failure to undertake even more “regime change.”
The one hope is that many Americans will not be fooled this time and that a belated “realism” will finally return to U.S. geopolitical strategies that will look for obtainable compromises to restore some political order to places such as Syria, Libya and Ukraine. Rather than more and more tough-guy/gal confrontations, maybe there will finally be some serious efforts at reconciliation.
But the other reality is that the interventionist forces have rooted themselves deeply in Official Washington, inside NATO, within the mainstream news media and even in European institutions. It will not be easy to rid the world of the grave dangers created by neocon policies.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
The 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report, released in August 2009, referenced as “background” to the Bush-era abuses the spy agency’s “intermittent involvement in the interrogation of individuals whose interests are opposed to those of the United States.” The report noted “a resurgence in interest” in teaching those techniques in the early 1980s “to foster foreign liaison relationships.”
The report said, “because of political sensitivities,” the CIA’s top brass in the 1980s “forbade Agency officers from using the word ‘interrogation” and substituted the phrase “human resources exploitation” [HRE] in training programs for allied intelligence agencies.
The euphemism aside, the reality of these interrogation techniques remained brutal, with the CIA Inspector General conducting a 1984 investigation of alleged “misconduct on the part of two Agency officers who were involved in interrogations and the death of one individual,” the report said (although the details were redacted in the version released to the public).
In 1984, the CIA also was hit with a scandal over what became known as an “assassination manual” prepared by agency personnel for the Nicaraguan Contras, a rebel group sponsored by the Reagan administration with the goal of ousting Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
Despite those two problems, the questionable training programs apparently continued for another two years. The 2004 IG report states that “in 1986, the Agency ended the HRE training program because of allegations of human rights abuses in Latin America.”
While the report’s references to this earlier era of torture are brief – and the abuses are little-remembered features of Ronald Reagan’s glorified presidency – there have been other glimpses into how Reagan unleashed this earlier “dark side” on the peasants, workers and students of Central America.
A sketchy history of the U.S. intelligence community’s participation in torture and other abuses surfaced in the mid-1990s with the release of a Pentagon report on what was known as “Project X,” a training program in harsh and anti-democratic practices which got its start in 1965 as the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam was underway.
The U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Holabird, Maryland, began pulling together experiences from past counterinsurgency campaigns for the development of lesson plans which would “provide intelligence training to friendly foreign countries,” according to a brief history of Project X, which was prepared in 1991. Called “a guide for the conduct of clandestine operations,” Project X “was first used by the U.S. Intelligence School on Okinawa to train Vietnamese and, presumably, other foreign nationals,” the history stated. Linda Matthews of the Pentagon’s Counterintelligence Division recalled that in 1967-68, some of the Project X training material was prepared by officers connected to the so-called Phoenix program in Vietnam, an operation that involved targeting, interrogating and assassinating suspected Viet Cong.
“She suggested the possibility that some offending material from the Phoenix program may have found its way into the Project X materials at that time,” according to the Pentagon report. In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School moved to Fort Huachuca in Arizona and began exporting Project X material to U.S. military assistance groups working with “friendly foreign countries.” By the mid-1970s, the Project X material was going to military forces all over the world.
But Reagan’s election in 1980 – and his determination to crush leftist movements in Central America – expanded the role of Project X.
In 1982, the Pentagon’s Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence ordered the Fort Huachuca center to supply lesson plans to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which human rights activists dubbed the School of the Assassins because it trained some of Latin America’s most notorious military officers.
“The working group decided to use Project X material because it had previously been cleared for foreign disclosure,” the Pentagon history stated. According to surviving documents released in the mid-1990s under a Freedom of Information Act request, the Project X lessons contained a full range of intelligence techniques. A 1972 listing of Project X lesson plans included electronic eavesdropping, interrogation, counterintelligence, break-ins and censorship. Citizens of a country were put on “‘black, gray or white lists’ for the purpose of identifying and prioritizing adversary targets.” The lessons suggested creation of inventories of families and their assets to keep tabs on the population.
The manuals suggested coercive methods for recruiting counterintelligence operatives, including arresting a target’s parents or beating him until he agreed to infiltrate a guerrilla organization. To undermine guerrilla forces, the training manuals countenanced “executions” and operations “to eliminate a potential rival among the guerrillas.”
The internal U.S. government review of Project X began in 1991 when the Pentagon discovered that the Spanish-language manuals were advising Latin American trainees on assassinations, torture and other “objectionable” counter-insurgency techniques.
By summer 1991, the investigation of Project X was raising concerns inside George H.W. Bush’s administration about an adverse public reaction to evidence that the U.S. government had long sanctioned – and even encouraged – brutal methods of repression.
But the PR problem was contained when the office of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered that all relevant Project X material be collected and brought to the Pentagon under a recommendation that most of it be destroyed.
The recommendation received approval from senior Pentagon officials, presumably with Cheney’s blessings. Some of the more innocuous Project X lesson plans – and the historical summary – were spared, but the Project X manuals that dealt with the sensitive human rights violations were destroyed in 1992, the Pentagon reported. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Even after the Cold War ended, the United States refused to examine this ugly history in any systematic way. Though Democrat Bill Clinton was the first President elected after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he ignored calls for serious examinations of that historical era out of a desire to look forward, not backward.
However, public complaints about the mass slaughter of Guatemalan peasants by a Reagan-backed regime in the 1980s did prompt an examination by the President Intelligence Oversight Board, which issued a “Report on the Guatemala Review” in mid-1996.
The review found that CIA funding – ranging from $1 million to $3.5 million – was “vital” to the operations of the Guatemalan intelligence services including D-2 military intelligence and the “Archivos” unit, which was infamous for political torture and assassinations.
As the Oversight Board noted, the human rights records of the Guatemalan intelligence agencies “were generally known to have been reprehensible by all who were familiar with Guatemala.” The reported added:
“We learned that in the period since 1984, several CIA assets were credibly alleged to have ordered, planned, or participated in serious human rights violations such as assassination, extrajudicial execution, torture, or kidnapping while they were assets – and that the CIA was contemporaneously aware of many of the allegations.”
History of Slaughter
The Clinton administration also released documents in the late 1990s revealing the grim history of U.S. complicity in Guatemala’s dirty wars that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives from the 1960s through the 1980s.
According to those documents, the original Guatemalan death squads took shape in the mid-1960s under anti-terrorist training provided by a U.S. public safety adviser named John Longon. Longon’s operation within the Guatemalan presidential compound was the starting point for the “Archivos” intelligence unit.
Within weeks, the CIA was sending cables back to headquarters in Langley, Virginia, about the clandestine execution of several Guatemalan “communists and terrorists” on the night of March 6, 1966.
By the end of the year, the Guatemalan government was bold enough to request U.S. help in establishing special kidnapping squads, according to a cable from the U.S. Southern Command that was sent to Washington on Dec. 3, 1966.
By 1967, the Guatemalan counterinsurgency terror had gained a fierce momentum. On Oct. 23, 1967, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research noted the “accumulating evidence that the [Guatemalan] counterinsurgency machine is out of control.”
The report noted that Guatemalan “counter-terror” units were carrying out abductions, bombings, torture and summary executions “of real and alleged communists.”
The mounting death toll in Guatemala disturbed some American officials assigned to the country. The embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Viron Vaky, expressed his concerns in a remarkably candid report that he submitted on March 29, 1968, after returning to Washington.
“The official squads are guilty of atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated,” Vaky wrote. “In the minds of many in Latin America, and, tragically, especially in the sensitive, articulate youth, we are believed to have condoned these tactics, if not actually encouraged them. Therefore our image is being tarnished and the credibility of our claims to want a better and more just world are increasingly placed in doubt.”
Vaky also noted the deceptions within the U.S. government that resulted from its complicity in state-sponsored terror.
“This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all – that we have not been honest with ourselves,” Vaky said. “We have condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged or blessed it. We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalized away our qualms and uneasiness.
“This is not only because we have concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as Communists are being killed it is alright. Murder, torture and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists.
“After all hasn’t man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people.”
Though kept secret from the American public for three decades, the Vaky memo obliterated any claim that Washington simply didn’t know the reality in Guatemala. Still, with Vaky’s memo squirreled away in State Department files, the killing went on.
The repression was noted almost routinely in reports from the field. On Jan. 12, 1971, for instance, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that Guatemalan forces had “quietly eliminated” hundreds of “terrorists and bandits” in the countryside. On Feb. 4, 1974, a State Department cable reported resumption of “death squad” activities.
On Dec. 17, 1974, a DIA biography of one U.S.-trained Guatemalan officer gave an insight into how U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine had imbued the Guatemalan strategies.
According to the biography, Lt. Col. Elias Osmundo Ramirez Cervantes, chief of security section for Guatemala’s president, had trained at the U.S. Army School of Intelligence at Fort Holabird in Maryland. Back in Guatemala, Ramirez Cervantes was put in charge of plotting raids on suspected subversives as well as their interrogations.
The Reagan Bloodbath
As brutal as the Guatemalan security forces were in the 1960s and 1970s, the worst was yet to come. In the 1980s, the Guatemalan army escalated its slaughter of political dissidents and their suspected supporters to unprecedented levels.
Ronald Reagan’s election in November 1980 set off celebrations in the well-to-do communities of Central America. After four years of President Jimmy Carter’s human rights nagging, the region’s hard-liners were thrilled that they had someone in the White House who understood their problems.
The oligarchs and the generals had good reason for optimism. For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender of right-wing regimes that engaged in bloody counterinsurgency against leftist enemies.
In the late 1970s, when Carter’s human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, criticized the Argentine military for its “dirty war” – tens of thousands of “disappearances,” tortures and murders – then-political commentator Reagan joshed that she should “walk a mile in the moccasins” of the Argentine generals before criticizing them. [For details, see Martin Edwin Andersen’s Dossier Secreto.]
After his election in 1980, Reagan pushed to overturn an arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by Carter. Yet as Reagan was moving to loosen up the military aid ban, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were confirming new Guatemalan government massacres.
In April 1981, a secret CIA cable described a massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory. On April 17, 1981, government troops attacked the area believed to support leftist guerrillas, the cable said.
According to a CIA source, “the social population appeared to fully support the guerrillas” and “the soldiers were forced to fire at anything that moved.” The CIA cable added that “the Guatemalan authorities admitted that ‘many civilians’ were killed in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were non-combatants.”
Despite the CIA account and other similar reports, Reagan permitted Guatemala’s army to buy $3.2 million in military trucks and jeeps in June 1981. To permit the sale, Reagan removed the vehicles from a list of military equipment that was covered by the human rights embargo.
Apparently confident of Reagan’s sympathies, the Guatemalan government continued its political repression without apology.
According to a State Department cable on Oct. 5, 1981, Guatemalan leaders met with Reagan’s roving ambassador, retired Gen. Vernon Walters, and left no doubt about their plans. Guatemala’s military leader, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, “made clear that his government will continue as before – that the repression will continue.”
Human rights groups saw the same picture. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report on Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government for “thousands of illegal executions.” [Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1981]
But the Reagan administration was set on whitewashing the ugly scene. A State Department “white paper,” released in December 1981, blamed the violence on leftist “extremist groups” and their “terrorist methods,” inspired and supported by Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Yet, even as these rationalizations were pitched to the American people, U.S. intelligence agencies in Guatemala continued to learn of government-sponsored massacres.
One CIA report in February 1982 described an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El Quiche province.
“The commanding officers of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance,” the report stated. “Since the operation began, several villages have been burned to the ground, and a large number of guerrillas and collaborators have been killed.”
The CIA report explained the army’s modus operandi: “When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed.”
When the army encountered an empty village, it was “assumed to have been supporting the EGP, and it is destroyed. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of refugees in the hills with no homes to return to. …
“The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”
In March 1982, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt seized power in a coup d’etat. An avowed fundamentalist Christian, he immediately impressed Official Washington, where Reagan hailed Rios Montt as “a man of great personal integrity.”
By July 1982, however, Rios Montt had begun a new scorched-earth campaign called his “rifles and beans” policy. The slogan meant that pacified Indians would get “beans,” while all others could expect to be the target of army “rifles.”
In October 1982, Rios Montt secretly gave carte blanche to the feared “Archivos” intelligence unit to expand “death squad” operations, internal U.S. government cables revealed.
Despite the widespread evidence of Guatemalan government atrocities cited in the internal U.S. government cables, political operatives for the Reagan administration sought to conceal the crimes. On Oct. 22, 1982, for instance, the U.S. Embassy claimed the Guatemalan government was the victim of a communist-inspired “disinformation campaign.”
Reagan personally took that position in December 1982 when he met with Rios Montt and claimed that his regime was getting a “bum rap” on human rights.
On Jan. 7, 1983, Reagan lifted the ban on military aid to Guatemala and authorized the sale of $6 million in military hardware. Approval covered spare parts for UH-1H helicopters and A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency operations.
State Department spokesman John Hughes said the sales were justified because political violence in the cities had “declined dramatically” and that rural conditions had improved too.
In February 1983, however, a secret CIA cable noted a rise in “suspect right-wing violence” with kidnappings of students and teachers. Bodies of victims were appearing in ditches and gullies.
CIA sources traced these political murders to Rios Montt’s order to the “Archivos” in October to “apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they saw fit.”
Despite these grisly facts on the ground, the annual State Department human rights survey sugarcoated the facts for the American public and praised the supposedly improved human rights situation in Guatemala.
“The overall conduct of the armed forces had improved by late in the year” 1982, the report stated.
A different picture – far closer to the secret information held by the U.S. government – was coming from independent human rights investigators. On March 17, 1983, Americas Watch representatives condemned the Guatemalan army for human rights atrocities against the Indian population.
New York attorney Stephen L. Kass said these findings included proof that the government carried out “virtually indiscriminate murder of men, women and children of any farm regarded by the army as possibly supportive of guerrilla insurgents.”
Rural women suspected of guerrilla sympathies were raped before execution, Kass said. Children were “thrown into burning homes. They are thrown in the air and speared with bayonets. We heard many, many stories of children being picked up by the ankles and swung against poles so their heads are destroyed.” [AP, March 17, 1983]
Publicly, however, senior Reagan officials continued to put on a happy face.
On June 12, 1983, special envoy Richard B. Stone praised “positive changes” in Rios Montt’s government. But Rios Montt’s vengeful Christian fundamentalism was hurtling out of control, even by Guatemalan standards. In August 1983, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in another coup.
Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued to kill those who were deemed subversives or terrorists.
When three Guatemalans working for the U.S. Agency for International Development were slain in November 1983, U.S. Ambassador Frederic Chapin suspected that “Archivos” hit squads were sending a message to the United States to back off even the mild pressure for human rights improvements.
In late November 1983, in a brief show of displeasure, the administration postponed the sale of $2 million in helicopter spare parts. The next month, however, Reagan sent the spare parts anyway. In 1984, Reagan succeeded, too, in pressuring Congress to approve $300,000 in military training for the Guatemalan army.
By mid-1984, Chapin, who had grown bitter about the army’s stubborn brutality, was gone, replaced by a far-right political appointee named Alberto Piedra, who was all for increased military assistance to Guatemala.
In January 1985, Americas Watch issued a report observing that Reagan’s State Department “is apparently more concerned with improving Guatemala’s image than in improving its human rights.”
Other examples of Guatemala’s “death squad” strategy came to light later. For example, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency cable in 1994 reported that the Guatemalan military had used an air base in Retalhuleu during the mid-1980s as a center for coordinating the counterinsurgency campaign in southwest Guatemala – and for torturing and burying prisoners.
At the base, pits were filled with water to hold captured suspects. “Reportedly there were cages over the pits and the water level was such that the individuals held within them were forced to hold on to the bars in order to keep their heads above water and avoid drowning,” the DIA report stated.
The Guatemalan military used the Pacific Ocean as another dumping spot for political victims, according to the DIA report.
Bodies of insurgents tortured to death and live prisoners marked for “disappearance” were loaded onto planes that flew out over the ocean where the soldiers would shove the victims into the water to drown, a tactic that had been a favorite disposal technique of the Argentine military in the 1970s.
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by accident in the early 1990s when a Guatemalan officer wanted to let soldiers cultivate their own vegetables on a corner of the base. But the officer was taken aside and told to drop the request “because the locations he had wanted to cultivate were burial sites that had been used by the D-2 [military intelligence] during the mid-eighties,” the DIA report said.
Guatemala, of course, was not the only Central American country where Reagan and his administration supported brutal counterinsurgency operations and then sought to cover up the bloody facts.
Deception of the American public – a strategy that the administration internally called “perception management” – was as much a part of the Central American story as the Bush administration’s lies and distortions about weapons of mass destruction were to the lead-up to the war in Iraq.
Reagan’s falsification of the historical record became a hallmark of the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua as well as Guatemala. In one case, Reagan personally lashed out at a human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York lawyer who had collected affidavits from more than 100 witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported Contras in Nicaragua.
Angered by the revelations about his Contra “freedom-fighters,” Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985, calling him “one of dictator [Daniel] Ortega’s supporters, a sympathizer who has openly embraced Sandinismo.”
Privately, Reagan had a far more accurate understanding of the true nature of the Contras. At one point in the Contra war, Reagan turned to CIA official Duane Clarridge and demanded that the Contras be used to destroy some Soviet-supplied helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua.
Clarridge recalled that “President Reagan pulled me aside and asked, ‘Dewey, can’t you get those vandals of yours to do this job.’” [See Clarridge’s A Spy for All Seasons.]
On Feb. 25, 1999, a Guatemalan truth commission issued a report on the staggering human rights crimes that Reagan and his administration had aided, abetted and concealed. The Historical Clarification Commission, an independent human rights body, estimated that the Guatemalan conflict claimed the lives of some 200,000 people with the most savage bloodletting occurring in the 1980s.
Based on a review of about 20 percent of the dead, the panel blamed the army for 93 percent of the killings and leftist guerrillas for three percent. Four percent were listed as unresolved.
The report documented that in the 1980s, the army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. “The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages … are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala’s history,” the commission concluded.
The army “completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops,” the report said. In the northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter “genocide.”
Besides carrying out murder and “disappearances,” the army routinely engaged in torture and rape. “The rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice” by the military and paramilitary forces, the report found.
The report added that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some [of these] state operations.” The report concluded that the U.S. government also gave money and training to a Guatemalan military that committed “acts of genocide” against the Mayans.
“Believing that the ends justified everything, the military and the state security forces blindly pursued the anticommunist struggle, without respect for any legal principles or the most elemental ethical and religious values, and in this way, completely lost any semblance of human morals,” said the commission chairman, Christian Tomuschat, a German jurist.
“Within the framework of the counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, in certain regions of the country agents of the Guatemalan state committed acts of genocide against groups of the Mayan people,” Tomuschat said.
Admitting a ‘Mistake’
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, 1999, President Bill Clinton apologized for the past U.S. support of right-wing regimes in Guatemala.
“For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake,” Clinton said.
Though Clinton did admit that U.S. policy in Guatemala was “wrong” — and the evidence of a U.S.-backed “genocide” might have been considered startling — the news was treated mostly as a one-day story in the U.S. press.
By the late 1990s, Ronald Reagan had been transformed into a national icon, with the Republican-controlled Congress attaching his name to public buildings around the country and to National Airport in Washington.
Democrats mostly approached this deification of Reagan as harmless, an easy concession to the Republicans in the name of bipartisanship. Some Democrats would even try to cite Reagan as supportive of some of their positions as a way to protect themselves from attacks launched by the increasingly powerful right-wing news media.
The Democratic goal of looking to the future, not the past, had negative consequences, however. With Reagan and his brutal policies put beyond serious criticism, the path was left open for President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to return to the “dark side” after the 9/11 attacks, authorizing torture and extra-judicial killings.
Now, President Obama is reprising toward Bush and Cheney the conflict-avoidance strategy that President Clinton took toward Reagan, looking forward as much as possible and backward as little as can be justified.
In 2009, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed — and Obama signed at a special White House ceremony with Nancy Reagan — a resolution to create a commission to plan a centennial celebration in 2011 of Ronald Reagan’s birth.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
The Yellow Book (Libro amarillo) is a 270 page document from 1987 that the National Security Archive in Washington DC made public on September 28th, 2014. The Yellow Book includes 1,975 photographs that the Salvadoran Armed Forces and the State Department of Intelligence of El Salvador used to catalogue people as “terrorists” and “enemies” of the state. The Yellow Book is the only military document that has been made public to this day.
At first glance the document seems to reiterate many of the cases that were made public through the work of the Truth Commission in El Salvador in the early 1990s. However, upon closer inspection, important clues begin to emerge about the nature of military surveillance of Salvadoran citizens and how disappearances and deaths were covered up. For example, in the document, names are encoded with letters and the codes matched with photographs that strip citizens of the very identities that stitched them into Salvadoran society. In the first few pages the book lays out a system for referencing “terrorist delinquents” so that names would not be spoken by radio or telephone. In effect, this code facilitated the process of making detainees disappear without a trace. The pictures themselves provide further clues about state surveillance; some photographs look as though they were part of the state ID card photographs and yet other photographs show individuals in much more haggard condition. Were these photographs taken during a given moment of detainment? Yet other photographs look as though they were taken during moments shared between friends or families. Were these photographs stolen from people’s homes during raids? There are other photographs that seem to have been taken without the person knowing that they were being photographed. These types of photographs suggest the work of a secret police that was trailing marked individuals. Additionally, the fact that the book was a photo-album to be photocopied means that it was likely a work in progress. As photographs were obtained they were added and information could shift and change without displacing the logic of the entire text.
The code also reveals the nature of state surveillance of Salvadoran citizens in the 1980s. The document identifies Salvadorans as leaders of militant groups, militants, and union organizers and specifies which particular group or political party the person is associated with. Salvadoran state authorities also recorded additional information about individuals such as pseudonyms and noted any trips abroad to Nicaragua, Cuba, Russia or China. Dozens of individuals are marked as “collaborators,” which leads the viewer to wonder about the torture mechanisms that broke the will of militants. The fact that there were so many collaborators muddies the public memory of a clearly divided left and right. What was the nature of the collaboration? Does “collaboration” mean naming people during torture sessions or does it imply a much deeper involvement as in the Chilean cases of Luz Arce and Alejandra Merino? Does the title of “collaborator” mean that the individual survived their involvement with the Salvadoran Armed Forces? Other individuals are listed as “pardoned” and this category of individuals also leaves many questions.
On the cover page just above the title of the book, a penned note serves as a prologue: “That this may be used. Make photocopies of the photographs and print them in bulletins, so that their enemies will be known.” This is part of a secondary “code” at work in the document in which some photographs are starred in pen and other names are crossed out. The stars mark names that are well known today including El Salvador’s current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
Recently, organizations such as the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University (IDHUCA) and the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda presented a legal challenge to the Supreme Court to revisit the legality of the general amnesty passed in 1993. The publication of the Yellow Book may become a cornerstone in the case against impunity in El Salvador.
Evelyn Galindo-Doucette is a Kohler Fellow at the University of Wisconsin.
Chile, El Salvador and Peru have announced they are recalling their ambassadors in Tel Aviv in consultation to protest the Israeli assault on the besieged strip of Gaza.
The moves come on the heels of Brazil and Ecuador, who announced last week that they were recalling their envoys.
“Given the escalation of Israeli military operations in Gaza, the Government of Chile, in coordination with others in our region, has decided to call in consultation Santiago Ambassador of Chile in Tel Aviv, Jorge Montero,” the Chilean foreign ministry in Santiago said in a statement.
“Chile notes with great concern and dismay that such military operations, which at this stage of development are subject to a collective punishment against the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza do not respect fundamental rules of international humanitarian law.”
The Chilean foreign ministry emphasized the more than 1,000 Palestinians killed, including women and children during Operation Protective Edge, which continued for a 22nd day on Tuesday. The statement also noted Israel’s attacks “on schools and hospitals.”
“The scale and intensity of Israeli operations in Gaza violate the principle of proportionality in the use of force, an essential requirement to justify self-defense,” the statement added, referring to rocket fire by the resistance movements in the coastal territory.
El Salvador Ambassador in the Zionist entity Susana Edith Gun was also recalled for “urgent consultations” on Tuesday. The Foreign Ministry of the Central American country said that El Salvador President Sanchez Ceren gave these instructions “over serious escalation of violence and Israel’s bombings in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.”
A similar statement was also published by the Peruvian Foreign Ministry, condemning Israel’s operation in Gaza.
Venezuela and Bolivia that cut their ties with Tel Aviv over Israel’s 2009 war on Gaza have also strongly condemned Israel’s actions.
Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela were among the 29 countries that voted in favor of a probe by the UN Human Rights Council into Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.
A US immigration judge has ruled that former Salvadoran defense minister José Guillermo García Merino (1979-1983) is eligible for deportation from the US because of “clear and convincing evidence” that he “assisted or otherwise participated” in 11 acts of violence during the 1980s, including the March 1980 murder of San Salvador archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Gen. García also helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who raped and killed four US churchwomen in December1980 and “knew or should have known” about the military’s December 1981 massacre of more than 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote, according to the 66-page decision by Immigration Judge Michael Horn in Miami. The judge ruled against García on Feb. 26, but the decision was only made public on Apr. 11 as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the New York Times. García’s lawyer said the general would appeal.
The decision against García comes after repeated efforts to bring him to justice in the US for war crimes committed in El Salvador. He came to the US in 1989 and was granted political asylum a year later. In May 1999 the families of the four murdered US churchwomen filed a suit (Ford et al. v. García, Vides Casanova) against García and former defense minister Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova (1983-1989) in Florida, where both generals have lived since moving to the US. A jury cleared the generals. Also in 1999 the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) brought a suit (Ramagoza Arce v. Garcia and Vides Casanova) against the generals on behalf of Salvadoran torture victims; the jury awarded the victims $54.6 million in 2002. US prosecutors began seeking the generals’ deportation in 2009, and an immigration judge cleared the way for Gen. Vides Casanova’s removal in February 2013 [see World War 4 Report 2/24/13].
Like many Salvadoran military officers, García and Vides Casanova received training at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), which was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in 2001 [see Update #1200]. García completed a counterinsurgency course in 1962, when the SOA was located in Panama; it is now in Fort Benning, Georgia. García and Vides Casanova were both recipients of the US Legion of Merit, an award from the US Armed Forces for meritorious service, during the 1980s. (NYT 4/12/14; SOA Watch press release 4/15/14; National Catholic Reporter 4/17/14)
The war crimes with which García and Vides Casanova are charged took place during a bloody counterinsurgency against the rebel Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN); the fighting left 70,000 people dead. The FMLN later became a legal political party under a 1992 peace accord, and it backed current president Mauricio Funes, an independent, in his 2009 campaign. A leader of the FMLN, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, won the presidency in a runoff on Mar. 9 this year and is to take office on June 1. (BBC News 3/17/14)
CISPES | February 3 2014
San Salvador —With 99% of votes counted, candidate for the governing Farabundo Martí national Liberation Front (FMLN) party, Salvador Sanchez Cerén, has won the first round of El Salvador’s 2014 presidential election, with ten-point lead over Norman Quijano of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Both candidates will head to a run-off on March 9.
According to the CISPES electoral observation mission, which included delegates from the National Lawyers Guild, the American Association of Jurists and various U.S. universities, the electoral proceedings were calm and peaceful.
As Laura Embree-Lowry reported for CISPES’ mission, “This has been a much more transparent and peaceful process than we’ve observed in the past.” Observers noted the positive impact of several steps taken by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal over the past four years to increase both voter access and transparency, especially the new neighborhood voting system, which was carried out throughout the entire country for the first time on February 2.
The mission reported several denouncements made to them throughout the day, primarily concerning voting centers that did not open to the public at 7:00 am as scheduled due to the lack of sufficient numbers of poll workers, but these incidents were characterized as minor anomalies.
Embree-Lowry noted, “CISPES has observed every election since the Peace Accords. Today’s election shows that the process of democratization in the country continues to advance.”
Supreme Electoral Tribunal president Eugenio Chicas announced that the final vote count will be formally announced on Tuesday, February 4th. None of the candidates have challenged the preliminary results; both Sánchez-Cerén and Quijano gave press conferences in San Salvador on Sunday night expressing satisfaction and hope for a victory on March 9.
The 70-person CISPES observer mission, together with the SHARE Foundation, U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities, and other international organizations will issue their report on the election at a press conference on Tuesday in San Salvador.
Since the beginning of the New Year and with the February 2nd presidential elections less than two weeks away, El Salvador has seen a dramatic increase in homicides. In the month of January, El Salvador has seen an average of 9.4 violent deaths per day, a shocking increase from months past, many of them carried out en masse and reminiscent of death squad-style murders.
The Foundation for the Study of the Application of Law (FESPAD), a Salvadoran legal aid clinic and research group, reports that the murders are being carried out by “extermination groups.” Nelson Flores of FESPAD notes that these types of murders often occur prior to electoral periods, and that the “extermination groups” are trying to generate terror in the population and make the government look like it cannot stop this phenomenon.
The type of group that FESPAD describes have been operating in El Salvador since during the armed conflict; many of the groups take their names from “historic figures tied to the worst state violence, including General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, Domingo Monterrosa, Roberto D´Aubuisson.” This is not the first time that FESPAD has publicized the continued operation of social cleansing groups in El Salvador (For more background, download a report in Spanish here).
Even before FESPAD’s recent announcement, many prominent voices in El Salvador had been questioning whether the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party was behind the recent rise in homicides.
President Mauricio Funes expressed concern about a possible link between the increased violence and ARENA’s electoral campaign, while FMLN spokesperson Roberto Lorenzana described ARENA, wracked by internal crises and an unpopular candidate, as being driven to desperate measures, including the use of confrontation and violence as part of a last ditch effort at a “black campaign.”
ARENA’s new campaign manager, the infamous right-wing Venezuelan campaign manager J.J. Rendón, is renowned for his use of “rumorology” and smear tactics. At the very least, ARENA is taking advantage of the increase in murders in their campaign, which has in recent weeks turned more vitriolic, with a focus on violence and insecurity. Some ads use slogans like “My money will no longer go to gangs” and “Children will play safely in the streets again” while others directly attack the Funes administration’s public security policies. In a recent presidential debate, ARENA candidate Norman Quijano, who was the only candidate to directly attack the administration, proposed militarizing public security as a solution to the insecurity problems, a measure that would directly violate El Salvador’s Constitution.