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).
A Guatemalan court found Pedro Garcia Arredondo guilty of murder, attempted murder, and crimes against humanity Monday for the massacre of 37 people at the Spanish embassy in Guatemala 35 years ago, EFE reports.
Garcia Arredondo, 69, is responsible for burning the victims of the massacre to death on Jan. 31, 1980, found the court after four months of hearings.
The tribunal outcome confirmed the long-held suspicions in the country that the fire was the result of a “clandestine police operation” and that the participants “prevented the Red Cross, emergency services, and journalists from entering” the building.
The former police chief was still trying to declare his innocence, but Judge Sara Yoc Yoc ruled that he gave the orders to burn down the embassy. According to her ruling, Garcia Arredondo “used the media to confirm the deaths of those inside the embassy.”
The security forces of Guatemala’s military regime at the time attacked the Spanish embassy after rural workers and students occupied it in protest to the dictatorship.
Among the 37 burned to death was Spanish Consul Jaime Ruiz del Arbol Soler and Vicente Menchu and Francisco Tum, the father and cousin, respectively, of 1992 Nobel Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu. Menchu gave the first testimony against Garcia Arredondo in the case.
Just two people survived the fire, including the Spanish ambassador. The other, Guatemalan farmer Gregorio Yuja, subsequently disappeared and his body was found with evidence of torture three days after the fire in the rectory of the State University of San Carlos of Guatemala. Yuja has since become a symbol of the left-wing student movement.
Garcia Arredondo was first arrested in 2011 over the forced disappearance of a university student, also in 1980. He is three years into a 70 year sentence for that crime.
Communities lose out to oil palm plantations
Palm oil is not something you would associate with a Mexican kitchen. But go to any supermarket in the country, and you will find countless products containing it. The country’s food system has changed immensely since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect in 1994 and multinational companies moved in to take control of the country’s food supply. The alarming rate of obesity, now higher than that of the US, is one manifestation of Mexico’s changing food landscape, and tied to this is the escalating consumption of palm oil.
Palm oil consumption has increased by over four times since NAFTA was signed, and it now accounts for one quarter of the vegetable oil consumed by the average Mexican, up from 10% in 1996. Other countries in Latin America undergoing similar changes to their food systems have also increased their consumption of palm oil. Venezuelans have doubled their intake, and Brazilians are consuming 5 times what they did in 1996.
This growing consumption is matched by growing production, not in Mexico, but in those countries where oil palm can be most cheaply produced. A third of Latin America’s palm oil exports now go to Mexico.
Colombia, with about 450,000 ha under production, is the biggest palm oil producer in the Americas. Since the late 1990s, Colombia’s palm oil production has taken off for several overlapping reasons, including government incentives and a national biodiesel mandate. Oil palm has also been promoted as a substitute crop for coca as part of the US-backed “Plan Colombia” – a programme aimed at ending the country’s long-standing armed conflict and curbing cocaine production. Paradoxically, palm oil is also proving a useful way for drug cartels, paramilitaries and landlords to launder money and maintain control of the countryside.
The most notorious land grabs for palm oil in Colombia have occurred in the north west Chocó province, where businessmen and paramilitaries have colluded to force Afro-Colombian communities to cede their territories for palm oil plantations and contract farming. After dozens of Afro-Colombian leaders were killed resisting such land grabs, Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office brought forward charges against 19 palm oil businessmen for crimes of conspiracy, forced displacement, and the invasion of ecologically important land. Three of these businessmen have so far been convicted.
Disease outbreaks have limited palm oil’s expansion in Chocó Province and most of the expansion has instead happened on the pasture lands of the central and eastern parts of the country, where the oil palm industry claims there is little deforestation and displacement of peasants. But studies show that these pasture lands are in fact typically common areas vital to peasants for the production of their food crops and the grazing of their livestock. The “pasture lands” are often the only lands that peasants have access to, and palm oil companies routinely use force and coercion, including paramilitaries, to take control of these lands from them or to force them into oppressive contract production arrangements. Across Colombia, the expansion of palm oil and the presence of paramilitaries are tightly correlated.
Ecuador, Latin America’s second largest palm oil producer, has also seen a recent expansion in oil palm production. While much of its palm oil is produced on farms of less than 50 ha, new expansion is driven by private companies who have been moving into the territories of Afro-Ecuadorians and other indigenous peoples in the Northern part of the country, leading to severe deforestation and displacement and meeting with stiff local resistance.
Land conflicts over palm oil are also erupting in Central America. In Honduras, peasants in the Aguan Valley have been killed, jailed and terrorized for trying to defend their lands and small palm oil farms from powerful national businessmen who have been grabbing their lands to expand their palm oil plantations with the backing of foreign capital. Ironically, these peasant families first moved into the forests of the Aguan in the 1970s as part of a government land reform programme, and were encouraged to grow palm oil and establish their own cooperatives. The neoliberal policies of the 1990s and a coup d’état in 2009, opened the door for powerful local businessmen like Miguel Facussé, to destroy the peasant cooperatives, violently grab lands for plantations, and reorient the supply chain towards exports for biofuels and multinational food companies. Likewise in Guatemala, where production of palm oil has quadrupled over the past decade, the palm oil sector is now entirely controlled by just eight wealthy families who have been aggressively seizing lands from indigenous communities, such as the Q’eqchi,
Some industry insiders predict that an expansion of oil palm production in Brazil will soon dwarf all other production in the region. Brazil is a net importer, and production has so far been confined to a small area of Pará, in the North. But, unlike in other regional palm oil producing countries where production is dominated by national companies and wealthy landowning families, transnational corporations have recently made significant investments in Brazilian palm oil production, such as the mining company Vale, energy companies Petrobras and Galp, and ADM, one of the world’s largest grain traders and a major shareholder in the world’s largest palm oil processor Wilmar.
Tanya M. Kerssen, “Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras,” FoodFirst, 1 February 2013
Human Rights Everywhere, “The flow of palm oil Colombia- Belgium/Europe: A study from a human rights perspective,” 2006
The highest court in Guatemala has suspended the controversial ‘Monsanto Law,’ a provision of a US-Central American trade agreement, that would insulate transnational seed corporations considered to have “discovered” new plant varieties.
The Constitutional Court suspended on Friday the law – passed in June and due to go into effect on Sept. 26 – after a writ of amparo was filed by the Guatemalan Union, Indigenous and Peasant Movement, which argued the law would harm the nation, LaVoz reported.
The Court’s decision came after several Guatemalan parliamentarians from both the governing Patriotic Party and the opposition party Renewed Democratic Freedom said they would consider repealing the law after outcry from a diverse cross-section of Guatemalans.
The decision also offers interested parties 15 days to present their arguments pertaining to the law in front of the Constitutional Court. Members of both political parties said they would present motions to resist the law.
The ‘Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties,’ dubbed the ‘Monsanto Law’ by critics for its formidable seed-privatization provisions, is an obligation for all nations that signed the 2005 CAFTA-DR free trade agreement between Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. The agreement requires signatories to adhere to the International Convention for the Protection of New Plant Varieties.
The law offers producers of transgenic seeds, often corporate behemoths like Monsanto, strict property rights in the event of possession or exchange of original or harvested seeds of protected varieties without the breeder’s authorization. A breeder’s right extends to “varieties essentially derived from the protected variety,” thus, a hybrid of a protected and unprotected seed belongs to the protected seed’s producer.
The Rural Studies Collective (Cer-Ixim) warned that the law would monopolize agriculture processes, severely threaten food sovereignty – especially those of indigenous peoples – and would sacrifice national biodiversity “under the control of domestic and foreign companies.”
The National Alliance for Biodiversity Protection said in July that the law is unconstitutional “because it violates the rights of peoples. It will benefit transnational seed companies such as Monsanto, Duwest, Dupont, Syngenta, etc.”
“According to this law, the rights of plant breeders are superior to the rights of peoples to freely use seeds,” the Alliance said in a statement.
“It’s a direct attack on the traditional knowledge, biodiversity, life, culture, rural economy and worldview of Peoples, and food sovereignty,” the Alliance added.
Anyone who violates the law, wittingly or not, could face a prison term of one to four years, and fines of US$130 to $1,300.
It is unclear what options the Guatemalan government has given the obligations under CAFTA-DR. The US would likely put pressure on the nation to pass the law, part of a global effort using trade agreements to push further corporate control over trade sectors like agriculture in the name of modernization. Upon further refusal, the US could drop Guatemala from the trade agreement.
In ancient Rome, especially during the late Republic, oligarchs resorted to mob violence to block, intimidate, assassinate or drive from power the dominant faction in the Senate. While neither the ruling or opposing factions represented the interests of the plebeians, wage workers, small farmers or slaves, the use of the ‘mob’ against the elected Senate, the principle of representative government and the republican form of government laid the groundwork for the rise of authoritarian “Caesars” (military rulers) and the transformation of the Roman republic into an imperial state.
Demagogues, in the pay of aspiring emperors, aroused the passions of a motley array of disaffected slum dwellers, loafers and petty thieves (ladrones) with promises, pay-offs and positions in a New Order. Professional mob organizers cultivated their ties with the oligarchs ‘above’ and with professional demonstrators ‘below’. They voiced ‘popular grievances’ and articulated demands questioning the legitimacy of the incumbent rulers, while laying the groundwork for the rule by the few. Usually, when the pay-master oligarchs came to power on a wave of demagogue-led mob violence, they quickly suppressed the demonstrations, paid off the demagogues with patronage jobs in the new regime or resorted to a discrete assassination for ‘street leaders’ unwilling to recognize the new order’. The new rulers purged the old Senators into exile, expulsion and dispossession, rigged new elections and proclaimed themselves ‘saviors of the republic’. They proceeded to drive peasants from their land, renounce social obligations and stop food subsidies for poor urban families and funds for public works.
The use of mob violence and “mass revolts” to serve the interests of oligarchical and imperial powers against democratically-elected governments has been a common strategy in recent times.
Throughout the ages, the choreographed “mass revolt” played many roles: (1) it served to destabilize an electoral regime; (2) it provided a platform for its oligarch funders to depose an incumbent regime; (3) it disguised the fact that the oligarchic opposition had lost democratic elections; (4) it provided a political minority with a ‘fig-leaf of legitimacy’ when it was otherwise incapable of acting within a constitutional framework and (5) it allowed for the illegitimate seizure of power in the name of a pseudo ‘majority’, namely the “crowds in the central plaza”.
Some leftist commentators have argued two contradictory positions: On the one hand, some simply reduce the oligarchy’s power grab to an ‘inter-elite struggle’ which has nothing to do with the ‘interests of the working class’, while others maintain the ‘masses’ in the street are protesting against an “elitist regime”. A few even argue that with popular, democratic demands, these revolts are progressive, should be supported as “terrain for class struggle”. In other words, the ‘left’ should join the uprising and contest the oligarchs for leadership within the stage-managed revolts!
What progressives are unwilling to recognize is that the oligarchs orchestrating the mass revolt are authoritarians who completely reject democratic procedures and electoral processes. Their aim is to establish a ‘junta’, which will eliminate all democratic political and social institutions and freedoms and impose harsher, more repressive and regressive policies and institutions than those they replace. Some leftists support the ‘masses in revolt’ simply because of their ‘militancy’, their numbers and street courage, without examining the underlying leaders, their interests and links to the elite beneficiaries of a ‘regime change’.
All the color-coded “mass revolts” in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR featured popular leaders who exhorted the masses in the name of ‘independence and democracy’ but were pro-NATO, pro-(Western) imperialists and linked to neo-liberal elites. Upon the fall of communism, the new oligarchs privatized and sold off the most lucrative sectors of the economy throwing millions out of work, dismantled the welfare state and handed over their military bases to NATO for the stationing of foreign troops and the placement of missiles aimed at Russia.
The entire ‘anti-Stalinist’ left in the US and Western Europe, with a few notable exceptions, celebrated these oligarch-controlled revolts in Eastern Europe and some even participated as minor accomplices in the post-revolt neo-liberal regimes. One clear reason for the demise of “Western Marxism” arose from its inability to distinguish a genuine popular democratic revolt from a mass uprising funded and stage-managed by rival oligarchs!
One of the clearest recent examples of a manipulated ‘people’s power’ revolution in the streets to replace an elected representative of one sector of the elite with an even more brutal, authoritarian ‘president’ occurred in early 2001 in the Philippines. The more popular and independent (but notoriously corrupt) President Joseph Estrada, who had challenged sectors of the Philippine elite and current US foreign policy (infuriating Washington by embracing Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez), was replaced through street demonstrations of middle-class matrons with soldiers in civvies by Gloria Makapagal-Arroyo. Mrs. Makapagal-Arroyo, who had close links to the US and the Philippine military, unleashed a horrific wave of brutality dubbed the ‘death-squad democracy’. The overthrow of Estrada was actively supported by the left, including sectors of the revolutionary left, who quickly found themselves the target of an unprecedented campaign of assassinations, disappearances, torture and imprisonment by their newly empowered ‘Madame President’.
Past and Present Mass Revolts Against Democracy: Guatemala, Iran, and Chile
The use of mobs and mass uprisings by oligarchs and empire builders has a long and notorious history. Three of the bloodiest cases, which scarred their societies for decades, took place in Guatemala in 1954, Iran in 1953, and Chile in 1973.
Democratically-elected Jacobo Árbenz was the first Guatemalan President to initiate agrarian reform and legalize trade unions, especially among landless farm workers. Árbenz’s reforms included the expropriation of unused, fallow land owned by the United Fruit Company, a giant US agro-business conglomerate. The CIA used its ties to local oligarchs and right-wing generals and colonels to instigate and finance mass-protests against a phony ‘communist-takeover’ of Guatemala under President Arbenz. The military used the manipulated mob violence and the ‘threat’ of Guatemala becoming a “Soviet satellite”, to stage a bloody coup. The coup leaders received air support from the CIA and slaughtered thousands of Arbenz supporters and turned the countryside into ‘killing fields’. For the next 50 years political parties, trade unions and peasant organizations were banned, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were murdered and millions were displaced.
In 1952 Mohammed Mossadegh was elected president of Iran on a moderate nationalist platform, after the overthrow of the brutal monarch. Mossadegh announced the nationalization of the petroleum industry. The CIA, with the collaboration of the local oligarchs, monarchists and demagogues organized ‘anti-communist’ street mobs to stage violent demonstrations providing the pretext for a monarchist- military coup. The CIA-control Iranian generals brought Shah Reza Pahlavi back from Switzerland and for the next 26 years Iran was a monarchist-military dictatorship, whose population was terrorized by the Savak, the murderous secret police.
The US oil companies received the richest oil concessions; the Shah joined Israel and the US in an unholy alliance against progressive nationalist dissidents and worked hand-in-hand to undermine independent Arab states. Tens of thousands of Iranians were killed, tortured and driven into exile. In 1979, a mass popular uprising led by Islamic movements, nationalist and socialist parties and trade unions drove out the Shah-Savak dictatorship. The Islamists installed a radical nationalist clerical regime, which retains power to this day despite decades of a US-CIA-funded destabilization campaign which has funded both terrorist groups and dissident liberal movements.
Chile is the best-known case of CIA-financed mob violence leading to a military coup. In 1970, the democratic socialist Dr. Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile. Despite CIA efforts to buy votes to block Congressional approval of the electoral results and its manipulation of violent demonstrations and an assassination campaign to precipitate a military coup, Allende took office.
During Allende’s tenure as president the CIA financed a variety of “direct actions” –from paying the corrupt leaders of a copper workers union to stage strikes and the truck owners associations to refuse to transport goods to the cities, to manipulating right-wing terrorist groups like the Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Liberty) in their assassination campaigns. The CIA’s destabilization program was specifically designed to provoke economic instability through artificial shortages and rationing, in order to incite middle class discontent. This was made notorious by the street demonstrations of pot-banging housewives. The CIA sought to incite a military coup through economic chaos. Thousands of truck owners were paid not to drive their trucks leading to shortages in the cities, while right-wing terrorists blew up power stations plunging neighborhoods into darkness and shop owners who refused to join the ‘strike’ against Allende were vandalized. On September 11, 1973, to the chants of ‘Jakarta’ (in celebration of a 1964 CIA coup in Indonesia), a junta of US-backed Chilean generals grabbed power from an elected government. Tens of thousands of activists and government supporters were arrested, tortured, forced into exile or killed. The dictatorship denationalized and privatized its mining, banking and manufacturing sectors, following the free market dictates of Milton Friedman-trained economists (the so-call “Chicago Boys”). The dictatorship overturned 40 years of welfare, labor and land-reform legislation which had made Chile the most socially advanced country in Latin America. With the generals in power, Chile became the ‘neo-liberal model’ for Latin America. Mob violence and the so-called “middle class revolt”, led to the consolidation of oligarchic and imperial rule and a 17-year reign of terror under General Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. The whole society was brutalized and with the return of electoral politics, even former ‘leftist’ parties retained the dictatorship’s neo-liberal economic policies, its authoritarian constitution and the military high command. The ‘revolt of the middle class’ in Chile resulted in the greatest concentration of wealth in the hands of the oligarchs in Latin America to this day!
The Contemporary Use and Abuse of “Mass Revolts”: Egypt, Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, and Argentina
In recent years “mass revolt” has become the instrument of choice when oligarchs, generals and other empire builders seek ‘regime change’. By enlisting an assortment of nationalist demagogues and imperial-funded NGO ‘leaders’, they set the conditions for the overthrow of democratically elected governments and stage-manage the installment of their own “free market” regimes with dubious “democratic” credentials.
Not all the elected regimes under siege are progressive. Many ‘democracies’, like the Ukraine, are ruled by one set of oligarchs. In the Ukraine, the elite supporting President Viktor Yanukovich, decided that entering into a deep client-state relationship with the European Union was not in their interests, and sought to diversify their international trade partners while maintaining lucrative ties with Russia. Their opponents, who are currently behind the street demonstrations in Kiev, advocate a client relationship with the EU, stationing of NATO troops, and cutting ties with Russia. In Thailand, the democratically-elected Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, represents a section of the economic elite with ties and support in the rural areas, especially the North-East, as well as deep trade relations with China. The opponents are urban-based, closer to the military-monarchists and favor a straight neo-liberal agenda linked to the US against the rural patronage-populist agenda of Ms. Shinawatra.
Egypt’s democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi government pursued a moderate Islamist policy with some constraints on the military and a loosening of ties with Israel in support of the Palestinians in Gaza. In terms of the IMF, Morsi sought compromise. The Morsi regime was in flux when it was overthrown: not Islamist nor secular, not pro-worker but also not pro-military. Despite all of its different pressure groups and contradictions, the Morsi regime permitted labor strikes, demonstrations, opposition parties, freedom of the press and assembly. All of these democratic freedoms have disappeared after waves of ‘mass street revolts’, choreographed by the military, set the conditions for the generals to take power and establish their brutal dictatorship – jailing and torturing tens of thousands and outlawing all opposition parties.
Mass demonstrations and demagogue-led direct actions also actively target democratically elected progressive governments, like Venezuela and Argentina, in addition to the actions against conservative democracies cited above. Venezuela, under Presidents Hugo Chavez and Vicente Maduro advances an anti-imperialist, pro-socialist program. ‘Mob revolts’ are combined with waves of assassinations, sabotage of public utilities, artificial shortages of essential commodities, vicious media slander and opposition election campaigns funded from the outside. In 2002, Washington teamed up with its collaborator politicians, Miami and Caracas-based oligarchs and local armed gangs, to mount a “protest movement” as the pretext for a planned business-military coup. The generals and members of the elite seized power and deposed and arrested the democratically-elected President Chavez. All avenues of democratic expression and representation were closed and the constitution annulled. In response to the kidnapping of ‘their president’, over a million Venezuelans spontaneously mobilized and marched upon the Presidential palace to demand the restoration of democracy and Hugo Chavez to the presidency. Backed by the large pro-democracy and pro-constitution sectors of the Venezuelan armed forces, the mass protests led to the coup’s defeat and the return of Chavez and democracy. All democratic governments facing manipulated imperial-oligarchic financed mob revolts should study the example of Venezuela’s defeat of the US-oligarch-generals’ coup. The best defense for democracy is found in the organization, mobilization and political education of the electoral majority. It is not enough to participate in free elections; an educated and politicized majority must also know how to defend their democracy in the streets as well as at the ballot box.
The lessons of the 2002 coup-debacle were very slowly absorbed by the Venezuelan oligarchy and their US patrons who continued to destabilize the economy in an attempt to undermine democracy and seize power. Between December 2002 and February 2003, corrupt senior oil executives of the nominally ‘public’ oil company PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela) organized a ‘bosses’ lockout stopping production, export and local distribution of oil and refined petroleum products. Corrupt trade union officials, linked to the US National Endowment for Democracy, mobilized oil workers and other employees to support the lock-out, in their attempt to paralyze the economy. The government responded by mobilizing the other half of the oil workers who, together with a significant minority of middle management, engineers and technologists, called on the entire Venezuelan working class to take the oil fields and installations from the ‘bosses’. To counter the acute shortage of gasoline, President Chavez secured supplies from neighboring countries and overseas allies. The lockout was defeated. Several thousand supporters of the executive power grab were fired and replaced by pro-democracy managers and workers.
Having failed to overthrow the democratic government via “mass revolts”, the oligarchs turned toward a plebiscite on Chavez’ rule and later called for a nation-wide electoral boycott, both of which were defeated. These defeats served to strengthen Venezuela’s democratic institutions and decreased the presence of opposition legislators in the Congress. The repeated failures of the elite to grab power led to a new multi-pronged strategy using: (1) US-funded NGO’s to exploit local grievances and mobilize residents around community issues; (2) clandestine thugs to sabotage utilities, especially power, assassinate peasant recipients of land reform titles, as well as prominent officials and activists; (3) mass electoral campaign marches, and (4) economic destabilization via financial speculation, illegal foreign exchange trading, price gouging and hoarding of basic consumer commodities. The purpose of these measures is to incite mass discontent, using their control of the mass media to provoke another ‘mass revolt’ to set the stage for another US-backed ‘power grab’. Violent street protests by middle class students from the elite Central University were organized by oligarch-financed demagogues. ‘Demonstrations’ included sectors of the middle class and urban poor angered by the artificial shortages and power outages. The sources of popular discontent were rapidly and effectively addressed at the top by energetic government measures: business owners engaged in hoarding and price gouging were jailed; prices of essential staples were reduced; hoarded goods were seized from warehouses and distributed to the poor; the import of essential goods was increased and saboteurs were pursued. The Government’s effective intervention resonated with the mass of the working class, the lower-middle class and the rural and urban poor and restored their support. Government supporters took to the streets and lined up at the ballot box to defeat the campaign of destabilization. The government won a resounding electoral mandate allowing it to move decisively against the oligarchs and their backers in Washington.
The Venezuelan experience shows how energetic government counter-measures can restore support and deepen progressive social changes for the majority. This is because forceful progressive government intervention against anti-democratic oligarchs, combined with the organization, political education and mobilization of the majority of voters can decisively defeat these stage-managed mass revolts.
Argentina is an example of a weakened democratic regime trying to straddle the fence between the oligarchs and the workers, between the combined force of the agro-business and mining elites and working and middle class constituencies dependent on social policies. The elected-Kirchner-Fernandez government has faced “mass revolts” in the a series of street demonstrations whipped up by conservative agricultural exporters over taxes; the Buenos Aires upper-middle class angered at ‘crime, disorder and insecurity’, a nationwide strike by police officials over ‘salaries’ who ‘looked the other way’ while gangs of ‘lumpen’ street thugs pillaged and destroyed stores. Taken altogether, these waves of mob action in Argentina appear to be part of a politically-directed destabilization campaign by the authoritarian Right who have instigated or, at least, exploited these events. Apart from calling on the military to restore order and conceding to the ‘salary’ demands of the striking police, the Fernandez government has been unable or unwilling to mobilize the democratic electorate in defense of democracy. The democratic regime remains in power but it is under siege and vulnerable to attack by domestic and imperial opponents.
Mass revolts are two-edged swords: they can be a positive force when they occur against military dictatorships like Pinochet or Mubarak, against authoritarian absolutist monarchies like Saudi Arabia, a colonial-racist state like Israel, and imperial occupations like against the US in Afghanistan. But they have to be directed and controlled by popular local leaders seeking to restore democratic majority rule.
History, from ancient times to the present, teaches us that not all ‘mass revolts’ achieve, or are even motivated by, democratic objectives. Many have served oligarchs seeking to overthrow democratic governments, totalitarian leaders seeking to install fascist and pro-imperial regimes, demagogues and authoritarians seeking to weaken shaky democratic regimes and militarists seeking to start wars for imperial ambitions.
Today, “mass revolts” against democracy have become standard operational procedure for Western European and US rulers who seek to circumvent democratic procedures and install pro-imperial clients. The practice of democracy is denigrated while the mob is extolled in the imperial Western media. This is why armed Islamist terrorists and mercenaries are called “rebels” in Syria and the mobs in the streets of Kiev (Ukraine) attempting to forcibly depose a democratically-elected government are labeled “pro-Western democrats”.
The ideology informing the “mass revolts” varies from “anti-communist” and “anti-authoritarian” in democratic Venezuela, to “pro-democracy” in Libya (even as tribal bands and mercenaries slaughter whole communities), Egypt and the Ukraine.
Imperial strategists have systematized, codified and made operational “mass revolts” in favor of oligarchic rule. International experts, consultants, demagogues and NGO officials have carved out lucrative careers as they travel to ‘hot spots’ and organize ‘mass revolts’ dragging the target countries into deeper ‘colonization’ via European or US-centered ‘integration’. Most local leaders and demagogues accept the double agenda: ‘protest today and submit to new masters tomorrow’. The masses in the street are fooled and then sacrificed. They believe in a ‘New Dawn’ of Western consumerism, higher paid jobs and greater personal freedom … only to be disillusioned when their new rulers fill the jails with opponents and many former protestors, raise prices, cut salaries, privatize state companies, sell off the most lucrative firms to foreigners and double the unemployment rate.
When the oligarchs ‘stage-manage’ mass revolts and takeover the regime, the big losers include the democratic electorate and most of the protestors. Leftists and progressives, in the West or in exile, who had mindlessly supported the ‘mass revolts’ will publish their scholarly essays on ‘the revolution (sic) betrayed” without admitting to their own betrayal of democratic principles.
If and when the Ukraine enters into the European Union, the exuberant street demonstrators will join the millions of jobless workers in Greece, Portugal, and Spain, as well as millions of pensioners brutalized by “austerity programs” imposed by their new rulers, the ‘Troika’ in Brussels. If these former demonstrators take to the streets once more, in disillusionment at their leaders’ “betrayal”, they can enjoy their ‘victory’ under the batons of “NATO and European Union-trained police” while the Western mass media will have moved elsewhere in support of ‘democracy’.
Mythmaking in the Washington Post
Last Sunday’s Washington Post carried a front-page article by Dana Priest, in which she revealed “a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders.” Thanks to “a multibillion-dollar black budget”—“not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia”—as well as “substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency,” the initiative has been successful, in Priest’s assessment, decimating the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, as the country’s “vibrant economy” and “swanky Bogota social scene” flourish.
The lengthy piece offers a smorgasbord of propagandistic assertions, pertaining both to Washington’s Colombia policies, and to its foreign conduct in general. For a sampling of the latter, consider one of the core assumptions underlying Priest’s report—namely, that our noble leaders despise drugs. The FARC’s “links with the narcotics trade” and “drug trafficking” motivated U.S. officials to destroy their organization, we’re supposed to believe. True, CIA informants in Burma (1950s), Laos (1970s), and Afghanistan (1980s) exploited their Agency ties “to become major drug lords, expanding local opium production and shipping heroin to international markets, the United States included,” Alfred W. McCoy’s research demonstrates. True, a few decades ago the Office of the United States Trade Representative joined “with the Departments of Commerce and State as well as leaders in Congress” for the purpose of “promoting tobacco use abroad,” the New York Times reported in 1988, quoting health official Judith L. Mackay, who described the resulting “tobacco epidemic” devastating the Philippines, Malaysia, and other countries: “smoking-related illnesses, like cancer and heart disease” had surpassed “communicable diseases as the leading cause of death in parts of Asia.” True, the DEA shut down its Honduran office in June 1983, apparently because agent Thomas Zepeda was too scrupulous, amassing evidence implicating top-level military officials in drug smuggling—an inconvenient finding, given Honduras’ crucial role in Washington’s anti-Sandinista assault, underway at the time.
But these events are not part of History, as the subject has been constructed in U.S. schools. It’s common to read, every year or so, an article in one of the major papers lamenting the fact that “American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject,” as Sam Dillon wrote in a 2011 piece for the Times. The charge is no doubt true, as far as it goes: Dillon explained that only a “few high school seniors” tested were “able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War,” for example. But the accusation is usually leveled to highlight schools’ inadequacies, with little examination of the roles these institutions are meant to serve. And the indictments are hardly novel: in 1915, a Times story on New York City’s public schools complained their graduates “can not spell simple words,” were incapable of finding “cities and States” on a map, and so on. That piece explicitly critiqued graduates’ abilities to function as disciplined wage-earners, and so was more honest than the majority of today’s education coverage. The simple fact is “that the public schools are social institutions dedicated not to meeting the self-perceived needs of their students [e.g., by providing an understanding of how the world works] but to preserving social peace and prosperity within the context of private property and the governmental structures that safeguard it,” David Nasaw concludes in his fascinating history of the subject. Private schools, to be sure, are similar in essential respects. And one result of this schooling is that well-educated journalists can repeat myths about U.S. foreign policy, as their well-educated readers nod in blind assent.
The notion that U.S. officials have a coherent counterdrug policy is, again, one of these myths. In addition to the historical examples of U.S. support for drug traffickers cited above, we can note that the slur “narco-guerrilla,” which Washington uses to imply that the FARC is somehow unique for its involvement in the narcotics trade, ought to be at least supplemented by—if not abandoned in favor of—“narco-paramilitary.” Commentators tend to discuss the paramilitaries and the Colombian state separately, presupposing the former are “rogue” entities—another myth—when it would be better to view them, with Human Rights Watch, as the Colombian Army’s unofficial “Sixth Division,” acting in close conformity with governmental aims. Paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño admitted in March 2000 that some 70% of the armed groups’ funding came from drug trafficking, and U.S. intelligence agencies took no issue with his estimate—and “have consistently reported over a number of years that the paramilitaries are far more heavily involved than the FARC in drug cultivation, refinement and transshipment to the U.S.,” International Security specialist Doug Stokes emphasizes.
When these substances enter our country, they become a key pretext for the skyrocketing incarceration rate, which has more people imprisoned for drug offenses today than were incarcerated for all offenses in 1980, criminologist Randall Shelden has pointed out, with rates of arrest and sentencing durations especially severe for blacks. “Every criminal prohibition has that same touch to it, doesn’t it?” legal historian Charles Whitebread once asked. “It is enacted by US,” he stressed, “and it always regulates the conduct of THEM”—“you know, them criminals, them crazy people, them young people, them minority group members,” he added sardonically. Reviewing the history of marijuana prohibition, Whitebread noted that, at the Marihuana Tax Act hearings in 1937, two men spoke regarding the drug’s medical effects. One was Dr. William C. Woodward, Chief Counsel to the American Medical Association, who explained his organization had found “no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug.” “Doctor,” a Congressman complained, “if you can’t say something good about what we are trying to do, why don’t you go home?” The second was a Temple University pharmacologist, “who claimed that he had injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 dogs, and two of those dogs had died.” When one Congressman asked him whether he had experimented on dogs because of some similarity they bore to humans, the pharmacologist professed ignorance: “I wouldn’t know, I am not a dog psychologist.”
That was the extent of the medical basis for outlawing marijuana in the U.S., as threadbare as the anti-drug pretexts of Washington’s Colombia policies. Nearly four years after Plan Colombia’s 1999 announcement, for example, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that “the Departments of State and Defense [had] still not developed estimates of future program costs, defined their future roles in Colombia, identified a proposed end state, or determined how they plan[ned] to achieve it.” But while efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production were poorly articulated—and failed consistently—other endeavors met with great success. For example, aerial fumigation displaced some 17,000 people from the Putumayo Department, where the FARC had a major presence, in 2001 alone. The fumigation effectively converted the land from a means of subsistence into a profit source: journalist Garry Leech pointed out that, from 2003-2004, there was “a slew of new contracts signed between multinational companies and the Colombian government,” and the events in Putumayo and elsewhere suggest that Colombia’s herbicide-spraying campaign was never really aimed at illicit crops, typically described as the main target. It seems that if the point were to eradicate, say, coca, the solution would be relatively simple: let coca growers harvest something else. But Plan Colombia has consistently devoted only minimal funding for alternative development schemes, indicating the peasants’ sin isn’t growing coca, but living as subsistence farmers. That kind of activity is an inappropriate use of the land in an oil-rich region, where there are profits to be made.
A Guatemalan peasant made a similar point to author-activist Kevin Danaher, when he visited her country in 1984—shortly after School of the Americas alumnus Ríos Montt had completed his genocidal tear through the countryside. The woman, Danaher writes, “told us that soldiers had come to her home one night and hacked her husband to death, right in front of her and her three children;” the man “was a subversive,” in the military’s eyes, “because he was helping other peasants learn how to raise rabbits as a source of food and money.” Danaher struggled to understand the connection between this effort at self-sufficiency, and the brutal end its advocate met. “Look,” the widow explained, “the plantations down along the coast that grow export crops are owned by generals and rich men who control the government. A big part of their profit comes from the fact that we peasants are so poor we are forced to migrate to the plantations each year and work for miserable wages in order to survive.” Were she and other Guatemalan peasants to become self-reliant, they “would never work on the plantations again”—an indication of the severe threat rabbit-raising posed.
This woman’s remarks indicated who Washington’s real enemy was in Guatemala, and throughout the world. The U.S. government was not opposed merely to “Communists,” real or imagined, during the Cold War, and in Colombia its policies have helped ruin—or end—the lives of millions of destitute individuals beyond the FARC’s top officials. Of course, Sunday’s Post article ignores this fact, portraying the struggle as one between the U.S. government and its Colombian allies on one side, and aggressive guerrillas on the other. But we can expect little else from this mythmaker of record.
Recently the Latin American “dirty wars” of the 1960s through 1980s have resurfaced in mainstream media discussion. One reason is the trials in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Peru, and Uruguay against some of the late twentieth century’s most vicious criminals, who are collectively responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of political dissidents and their suspected sympathizers. Some of the highest-profile defendants are Guatemalan dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83), Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-86), and various officials from Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-83). Dozens of former Argentine military officials have been convicted since 2008, while prosecutions against Ríos Montt and other Guatemalan officials and Haiti’s Duvalier have been attempted since 2011.
Despite dedicating substantial coverage to these events, U.S. news outlets have usually ignored the role of the U.S. government in supporting these murderous right-wing regimes through military aid and diplomatic support. This pattern also applies to press coverage of current U.S.-backed “dirty wars,” in Honduras and elsewhere.
The documentary record leaves no doubt about U.S. support for state terror in Latin America’s dirty wars.1 Although historians debate whether U.S. support was decisive in particular cases, all serious scholars agree that Washington played at least an important enabling role. Argentina, Guatemala, and Haiti are good examples.
Argentina’s military regime murdered, tortured, and raped tens of thousands of people, mainly leftists, who criticized government policy. During the height of the repression, the U.S. government gave the junta over $35 million in military aid and sold it another $43 million in military supplies. It was well aware of the state terror it was supporting. Three months after the 1976 coup, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger privately told Argentine Foreign Minister César Guzzetti that, “we have followed events in Argentina closely” and “wish the new government well. We wish it will succeed . . . If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”2
In Guatemala, around 200,000 people were slaughtered by the U.S.-backed military regimes that followed the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup against elected President Jacobo Arbenz. The height of state violence was the genocidal “scorched earth” campaign of the early 1980s, carried out—largely with U.S. weapons—by General Ríos Montt and his predecessor Romeo Lucas García. The campaign specifically targeted indigenous Mayans, who were deemed likely to sympathize with the country’s leftist guerrillas. In December 1982, despite his administration’s private recognition of the military’s “large-scale killing of Indian men, women, and children,” Reagan visited Guatemala and publicly declared that Ríos Montt was getting “a bum rap” and was “totally dedicated to democracy.” The next day the Guatemalan army launched its worst single massacre of the decade, killing nearly 200 men, women, and children in the village of Las Dos Erres. U.S. military aid continued thereafter, though often secretly.3 Ríos Montt himself later noted the importance of U.S. military and diplomatic support, telling a journalist that, “he should be tried only if Americans,” including Ronald Reagan, “were tried too.” (On May 10 Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, but the conviction was annulled by the country’s Constitutional Court after intense lobbying by business and military elites. In April, former army officer and current Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina had tried to shut the trial down for fear that witnesses would implicate him in civilian massacres; one had already done so.)4
Turning to the Caribbean, Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier is no less notorious for his brutality. He and his father, François, murdered and tortured tens of thousands of Haitians. Yet for three decades the Duvalier dynasty enjoyed strong U.S. support, including military training and the sale of millions of dollars in weapons and military aircraft. The dictatorship was “a dependable, good friend of the U.S.” according to a U.S. Embassy official in 1973.5 U.S. support was only withdrawn when a popular uprising was on the verge of ousting Jean-Claude in 1986.
Argentina, Guatemala, and Haiti are just three examples of U.S. support for repression. Political scientist Lars Schoultz has quantified the relationship between U.S. aid and repression by Latin American governments for the years 1975-77, finding a clear pattern: “The correlations between the absolute level of U.S. assistance to Latin America and human rights violations by recipient governments” were “uniformly positive, indicating that aid has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens.”6 The logic is not a mystery: Washington has always preferred U.S.-friendly oligarchs and murderers when faced with the threats of substantive democracy, economic redistribution, and independent nationalism.
Yet the documentary record and scholarly consensus are not reflected in U.S. press coverage. As the table below shows, even the nation’s leading liberal media almost never acknowledge U.S. support for the dictatorships in Argentina, Guatemala, and Haiti. Only 13 times over the past five years did any allusion to that support appear in coverage by The New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio (NPR), despite 222 total news and opinion pieces that mentioned former dictatorship officials in those countries. In other words, these media outlets only acknowledged U.S. support 6% of the time.
Recently the U.S. press has strongly condemned the Argentine, Guatemalan, and Haitian dictatorships, decrying, for instance, Duvalier’s “squalid legacy of disappearance, torture and murder” and interviewing Argentine torture victims and children stolen from their parents at birth by the military.8 The problem is that the perpetrators appear simply as brutal criminals in far-off lands, with no connection whatsoever to the United States. … Full article
In a historic decision this May, Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice sentenced former dictator General Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for the genocidal massacres of indigenous people in the 1980s. Many Guatemalans hoped that the judicial process against the top criminals of the country’s “dirty war” would finally bring justice—but ten days after the decision, the Constitutional Court reversed the judgment.
While the Guatemalan people protest this violation of the rule of law, the processes of genocide initiated 30 years ago by Ríos Montt’s massacres continue today by other means.
In the last decade, the expansion of oil palm plantations and sugarcane production for ethanol in northern Guatemala has displaced hundreds of Maya-Q´eqchi´ peasant families, increasing poverty, hunger, unemployment and landlessness in the region, according to a new Food First report by Alberto Alfonso-Fradejas, “Sons and Daughters of the Earth: Indigenous Communities and Land Grabs in Guatemala.”
There is a major contradiction here: at the same time that the former General Ríos Montt is convicted for genocide, the Guatemalan government allows the oligarchy, allied with extractive industries, to displace entire populations without concern for the human cost. In many cases, these land grabs result in the murder and imprisonment of rural people who resist the assault.
Genocide against the indigenous peasant population in Guatemala no longer has the face of a military dictatorship supported by the United States. Now it is the corporations, the oligarchy and the World Bank who push peasants off their lands.
In today’s Guatemala, land and resource control is increasingly in the hands of a small oligarchy of powerful families allied with agri-food companies. At the center of this power are fourteen families who control the country’s sugarcane-producing companies (AZAZGUA); five companies controlling the national production of ethanol; eight families that control the production of palm oil (GREPALMA); and members of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF).
Together these powerbrokers are accumulating land and wealth with the support of investment from international institutions such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE). The convergence of multiple global crises—finance, energy, food and environment—has directed corporate investment into land-based resources such as agrofuels, minerals, pasture and food. The situation in Guatemala is extremely violent, part of a global trend where agrarian, financial and industrial interests are grabbing control of peasant lands and resources.
Can land grabs be considered genocide? In many ways, land grabbing is a new form of genocide. Ricardo Falla’s study “What Do You Mean There Was No Genocide?” analyzes the definition of genocide and its characteristics. According to Falla, of the five acts that define genocide, two were most prominent in Guatemala: “the massacre of the members of a group,” and “the intentional subjection of a group to living conditions which will lead to their total or partial physical destruction.”
The first genocide was against the Ixil peoples during the reign of Ríos Montt. The second genocide is enacted today through the privation of the Q´eqchi´ peoples’ means of survival through land grabs. Hundreds of families have been displaced. They do not have land on which to produce food or live, and they are denied their cultural and community identity. These conditions undermine their ability to survive, and lead to their displacement, and in many cases death.
The historic genocide trial this May came about through the peoples’ long struggle to defend their rights. The Ríos Montt conviction is a condemnation of impunity. The oligarchy did everything possible to impede the trial while continuing to displace the indigenous peasant population with the support of international investment and a legal system that favors land grabbing to the detriment of the people.
On May 20, the Constitutional Court overturned the conviction, with two of the five judges opposing the decision. Pablo de Greiff, UN Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence stated, “No legal decision is inconsequential, even if it is revoked.” The Inter-American Court of Justice issued a statement criticizing the verdict for violating international obligations assumed by the state and preventing the people from seeking justice. Multiple organizations and authorities have spoken out against the court’s decision, arguing that it overstepped its bounds, violated legal provisions, and endorsed the corrupt mechanisms upon which impunity is built in Guatemala. The decision bolsters evidence that Guatemala’s top court lacks political independence and is tied to the country’s economic and ruling elite.
On May 24, thousands of people demonstrated and delivered a letter with more than a thousand signatures to the Court demanding that the decision be reversed. In Argentina, Chile, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru, thousands more marched in solidarity to the Guatemala embassy demanding justice.
If we fail to judge and condemn the massacres committed thirty years ago, what hope is there for the Mayan Q’eqchi’, Xinka, Mam, Kaqchikel and other indigenous peoples currently being displaced and massacred by extractive corporations with the support of the state and international institutions? The people continue to courageously resist and defend their lives, lands and identities. How shall we express our solidarity?
Leonor Hurtado is a fellow at Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy. A native of Guatemala, she has spent decades defending human rights and indigenous rights, and supporting indigenous resistance to the expansion of extractive industries.
Photo: Caracol Producciones
- Survivors Reluctant to Testify in New Genocide Trial (ipsnews.net)
- Guatemalans protest annulment of dictator’s genocide conviction (workers.org)
- Israel’s Hand in Guatemala’s Genocide (phantomreport.com)
At the height of Guatemala’s mass slaughters in the 1980s, including genocide against the Ixil Indians, the Reagan administration worked with Israeli officials to provide helicopters that the Guatemalan army used to hunt down fleeing villagers, according to documentary and eyewitness evidence.
During testimony at the recent genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, one surprise was how often massacre survivors cited the Army’s use of helicopters in the scorched-earth offensives.
Journalist Allan Nairn, who covered the war in Guatemala and attended the Rios Montt trial, said in an interview, “one interesting thing that came out in the trial, as witness after witness testified, was a very substantial number of them talked about fleeing into the mountains and being bombed, attacked and machine gunned from U.S. planes and helicopters.
“At the time this was going on, I was aware this was happening in some cases, but from the testimony of the witnesses, it sounded like these attacks from U.S. planes and helicopters were more frequent than we realized at the time. That’s an example of how we don’t know the whole story yet – how extensive the U.S. complicity was in these crimes.”
Part of the mystery was where did Guatemala’s UH-1H “Huey” helicopters come from, since the U.S. Congress continued to resist military sales to Guatemala because of its wretched human rights record. The answer appears to be that some helicopters were arranged secretly by President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff through Israeli intelligence networks.
Rios Montt began pressing the United States for 10 UH-1H helicopters in June 1983, as his military campaign was ramping up. Since Guatemala lacked the U.S. Foreign Military Sales credits or the cash to buy the helicopters, Reagan’s national security team looked for unconventional ways to arrange the delivery of the equipment.
On Aug. 1, 1983, NSC aides Oliver North and Alfonso Sapia-Bosch reported to National Security Advisor William P. Clark that his deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane was planning to exploit his Israeli channels to secure the helicopters for Guatemala, according to a document that I discovered at Reagan’s presidential library.
“With regard to the loan of ten helicopters, it is [our] understanding that Bud will take this up with the Israelis,” wrote North and Sapia-Bosch. “There are expectations that they would be forthcoming. Another possibility is to have an exercise with the Guatemalans. We would then use US mechanics and Guatemalan parts to bring their helicopters up to snuff.”
By then, McFarlane had a long and intimate relationship with Israeli intelligence involving various backdoor deals. [For more on McFarlane’s Israeli channels, see Consortiumnews.com’s “How Neocons Messed Up the Mideast.”]
McFarlane’s approach to Israel for the helicopters was successful, according to former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe, who described some of the history behind Israel’s activities in Guatemala in his 1992 memoir, Profits of War.
Ben-Menashe traced the Israeli arms sales to Guatemala back to a private network established in the 1970s by Gen. Ariel Sharon during a gap when he was out of the government. Sharon’s key representative in Guatemala was a businessman named Pesach Ben-Or, and through that channel, Israel supplied military gear to Guatemala’s security services in the 1980s, Ben-Menashe wrote.
In an interview on Thursday, Ben-Menashe said the Israelis supplied a total of six helicopters to the Guatemalans along with computers and software to keep track of alleged subversives who could then be identified and executed. Ben-Menashe said he learned of the mass slaughters during his travels to Guatemala and reported back to his Israeli superiors about the atrocities involving the equipment that they had authorized. The response, he said, was concern but inaction.
“They weren’t for killing these people, not at all,” Ben-Menashe said. “But they thought their interest was to help the Reagan people. If the Reagan people wanted it [the equipment sent to Guatemala], they would do it. [They thought,] ‘this is bad, but is it any of our business? Our American friends are asking for our help, so we should help them.’”
After our phone interview had ended, Ben-Menashe called me back to stress that the Israelis were unaware of the genocidal nature of the Guatemalan military campaigns against the Ixil Indians, although the Israelis did recognize that they were assisting in mass murders of dark-skinned Guatemalans.
“As we saw it, they [Guatemalan military authorities] were targeting all non-white villagers who were sitting on fertile lands that the white Guatemalans wanted,” he said, adding that when he reported this information to his superiors, “the Israelis rolled their eyes [in dismay] but said, ‘this is what our friends in the Reagan administration want.’” [For more on Ben-Menashe’s work for Israeli intelligence, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and America’s Stolen Narrative.]
Besides the helicopters for hunting down villagers who fled into the jungles, the computer equipment and the sophisticated software made the Guatemalan killing machine vastly more efficient in the towns and cities. A former U.S. Green Beret operating in Guatemala once told me that he witnessed Guatemalan security forces stopping buses and inputting identification numbers of the passengers into a computer to select those who would be dragged off to the side of the road and summarily shot.
From first-hand reporting in Guatemala, journalist Nairn also observed the security advantages gained from detailed death lists. Nairn said soldiers under Gen. Otto Perez Molina, the current president, “described how they would go into town armed with death lists provided them by G2 military intelligence, death lists of people who were suspected of being collaborators of the guerrillas or critics of the army.
“They told how they would strangle people with lassos, slit women open with machetes, shoot people in the head in front of the neighbors, use U.S. planes, helicopters and 50 [kilo]gram bombs to attack people if they fled into the hills.”
Nairn said, “The U.S. had also arranged for Israel to step in and become the principal supplier of hardware to the Guatemalan army, in particular assault rifles, the Galil automatic rifle. This was because the administration was running into problems with Congress, which wouldn’t go along with a lot of their plans to aid the Guatemalan military, so they did an end run by using the government of Israel.”
Though the focus of the case against Rios Montt has been the genocide inflicted on Ixil villages in the northern highlands – where some 626 villages were eradicated by the Guatemalan military – those massacres were only part of the estimated 200,000 killings perpetrated by right-wing Guatemalan regimes since a CIA-sponsored coup ousted an elected government in 1954.
The bloodbath was at its worst in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency as he encouraged the anti-leftist slaughters that claimed the lives of some 100,000 Guatemalans. Reagan expanded his support for the Guatemalan security forces even though the CIA was keeping his administration informed of the systematic killings underway.
Another document that I discovered in the archives of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, revealed that Reagan and his national security team in 1981 agreed to supply military aid to Guatemala’s dictators so they could pursue the goal of exterminating not only “Marxist guerrillas” but people associated with their “civilian support mechanisms.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ronald Reagan: Accessory to Genocide.”]
As for Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala for 17 especially bloody months in 1982-83, the 86-year-old ex-general was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity by a criminal court on May 10 and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
But that conviction was overturned on Monday on a 3-2 vote by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court which is still dominated by allies of the military and the oligarchy. As for the Reagan administration officials and the Israelis who aided and abetted Rios Montt and his fellow generals, there is no indication that any accountability will be exacted.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s.
- Tales of Reagan’s Guatemala Genocide (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Israel’s Proxy War in Guatemala (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Genocide in Guatemala: The Conviction of Efrain Rios Montt (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Washington Insider Eduardo Stein Tries to Protect Ríos Montt from the Genocide Trial in Guatemala (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Guatemala’s top court has overturned the genocide conviction of the country’s former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, ordering his trial to restart.
The move came on Monday, about ten days after a three-judge panel convicted the 86-year-old of genocide and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to 80 years in prison.
The constitutional court’s secretary Martin Guzman said that the trial needed to go back to where it stood on April 19 in order to resolve several appeal issues.
The sentencing earlier this month was hailed by many Guatemalans, as it was the first time a former Latin American ruler was convicted of such crimes.
According to the panel, Rios Montt failed to prevent the killings of some 1,771 Ixil Mayans during Guatemala’s civil war.
Over 200,000 Guatemalan people were killed in the Guatemalan Civil War of 1960 to 1996, which pitted the right-wing government of Guatemala against various leftist rebel groups, mainly backed by Mayan indigenous people.
Most of the victims of the war were indigenous people.
In September 2011, Judge Carol Patricia Flores accused Rios Montt of genocide but could not prosecute him because he had immunity from prosecution as a congressman.
- Genocide in Guatemala: The Conviction of Efrain Rios Montt (alethonews.wordpress.com)
General Efrain Rios Montt has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He has already begun his “irrevocable” sentence of 80 years in prison.
The court that convicted Rios Montt has also ordered the attorney general to launch an immediate investigation of “all others” connected to the crimes.
This important and unexpected aspect of the verdict means that there now exists a formal legal mandate for a criminal investigation of the President of Guatemala, General Otto Perez Molina.
As President, Perez Molina enjoys temporary legal immunity, but that immunity does not block the prosecutors from starting their investigation.
At that time, Perez Molina, operating under the alias “Major Tito Arias,” commanded troops who described to me how, under orders, they killed civilians.
At first, Perez Molina refused to answer, then CNN’s satellite link to him was cut off, then, after it was restored minutes later, Perez Molina replied that women, children and “complete families” had in fact aided guerrillas.
Offering what appears to be a rationale for killing families may not be a sufficient defense. But that is up to Perez Molina.
He too deserves his day in court.
- Genocide in Guatemala: The Conviction of Efrain Rios Montt (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Guatemala: Ríos Montt Trial Implicates Current President (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Washington Insider Eduardo Stein Tries to Protect Ríos Montt from the Genocide Trial in Guatemala (alethonews.wordpress.com)
It has been hailed as the first conviction for genocide of a former head of state in his own country, and certainly the first of a former Latin American strongman. Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was convicted by a Guatemalan court on Friday for his participation in crimes against the Mayans during his rule in 1982 and 1983. His sentences were steep: 50 years for genocide and 30 for crimes against humanity.
As ever with genocide, evidence of an intentioned plan to destroy a race had to be shown. The three-judge panel led by Yassmin Barrios was satisfied that the definition had been made out, finding that there had been a clear and systematic plan to exterminate the Ixil people. Prosecutors allege that up to 1,700 of the Ixil Maya were killed, in addition to torture, rape and the destruction of villages. The acts had occurred as part of a policy of clearing the countryside of Marxist guerrillas and sympathisers.
The heart of the defence by Rios Montt was that, as a political leader, he could not be held accountable for military matters conducted in a rural province some few hours northwest of the Guatemalan capital. “I never authorised it, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered that race, ethnicity or religion to be attacked. I never did it!” In this, he was echoing the sentiments of the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was found constructively guilty for having not stopped the massacres that took place in the Philippines.
Yamashita did have a point, and one picked up by the dissenting judges of the U.S. Supreme Court. To hold such a figure to account in circumstances of military emergency, when contact lines were severed, and the army was fighting for its survival, was a tall order. There was little evidence that those troops had acted under his orders. But Rios Montt could hardly claim to have been Yamashita and, according to the judges, “was aware of everything that was happening, and did not stop it, despite having the power to stop it.”
The trial proved a thorough affair, featuring extensive use of forensics, the examination of mass graves and the DNA of skeletons therein. It was grim but important work, and constituted but a small part of what was a civil war of mass murder. Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala saw conflict that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people. Prior to that, a U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz Guzman ensured that the country would be doomed to decades of bloody instability.
It is often argued that trials do not provide a means of genuine restorative healing to parties or societies. Rios Montt will not be seen as a criminal by conservatives who feel he performed a sterling job in ensuring that the country did not fall into the clutches of left wing revolutionaries. The Cold War subtext here was that he was, if anything, heroic in holding the fort.
Besides, the current Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina, refuses to accept that genocide ever took place. This may not be surprising given that Molina’s name came up in trial testimony, in which a former soldier claimed he had ordered executions while serving in the military of the Rios Montt regime. “When I say that Guatemala has seen no genocide, I repeat it now after this ruling. Today’s ruling is not final… the decision will not be final until the moment they run out of appeals.”
There will also be consternation that the atrocities of the government, rather than those of the rebels, have featured prominently. That the former feature, however, is due to the sheer disproportionate role played by the rulers and paramilitary allies. The 1999 report by the country’s truth and reconciliation commission claimed that the government’s role in the atrocities, along with its allies, was a hefty 93 per cent.
The soiled hands of this incident are many. They did not start or stop with Rios Montt. Will the individuals who also cast money and material the way of such regimes be held to account? A case against the higher-ups, and those complicit beyond the borders of the country may well be in the offing, though that will take time. The edifice of accountability is gradually being built. International law, as ever, takes steps not so much in strides as in awkward stumbles, but when it does reach important junctions, effects are felt. What happens with the appeal will be telling.
Binoy Kampmark can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Guatemala: Former Dictator Ríos Montt Guilty of Genocide (alethonews.wordpress.com)