Ríos Montt on Trial in Guatemala

A Censored Massacre Made in USA

May 1, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


"In the afternoon, the raiders gathered about 50 women and children from the church and marched them toward the hills. Hernández positioned himself in the front of the line. He knew they were being taken to their deaths. So did the others.

"'We're not dogs for you to kill us in the field,' a woman declared. 'We know that you are going to kill us, why don't you kill us right here?' A soldier near the front charged among the prisoners to grab the woman by the hair. Hernández saw his chance and bolted off the path, gunfire echoing behind him. The boy hid in the vegetation and listened.

"One by one, the soldiers killed the prisoners. Hernández heard the groans of the dying, a boy crying for his mother. The soldiers executed them with single shots from their rifles, one after another, 40 or 50 shots in total.

"By nightfall, only corpses, animals and commandos inhabited the village. The squad bunked for the night in looted homes. Rain fell. Hernández crept back into town through the dark and mud. He passed the cadavers of his neighbors lying in streets and clearings. Huddled in tall grass, the boy heard the soldiers laughing.

"'We finished them off, bro,' a commando said. 'And we are going to keep hunting.'"

From an account by Salome Armando Hernández of the slaughter of 250 people in the Guatemalan village of Dos Erres in December 1982.

A Mass Murderer Brought to Court

Efrain Ríos Montt was president of Guatemala during the years 1982-1983—the bloodiest years in Guatemalan history. Ríos Montt, a Christian fundamentalist, claimed he had been told by god to be president. In fact he was fully and openly backed by the U.S. and its then president, Ronald Reagan.

In March, Ríos Montt went on trial in Guatemala City, charged with genocide. He was specifically charged with the murders of 1,771 Ixil Indians. Allan Nairn, a journalist who traveled to Guatemala in 1982, said Ríos Montt was charged with these murders "because the prosecutors have the names of each of these victims. They've been able to dig up the bones of most of them."

This was the first time in history that a former head of state has been formally charged with genocide by a court in his own nation. The charges against Ríos Montt came after decades of courageous protests and demands that he be brought to justice by people in Guatemala, in particular the Indians who suffered so severely.

The trial of Ríos Montt was heavily contested. Dozens of Mayan people who had, as children, survived the massacres Ríos Montt orchestrated, risked their lives to testify against him. Death threats from people associated with Guatemala's military were sent to judges and lawyers charged with prosecuting Ríos Montt.

Towards the end of Ríos Montt's trial, a taped interview from 1982 with Otto Perez Molina, the current president of Guatemala, surfaced. Perez, using the code name of "Major Tito," was then an officer in the Guatemalan army. The interview indicates, as Nairn said on Democracy Now!, that "he [Perez] is the one who was the local implementer of the program of genocide which Ríos Montt is accused of carrying out."

Then, on April 18, as the trial neared closing arguments, Ríos Montt's lawyers stormed out of the courtroom and declared the proceedings "illegal." Carol Flores, the presiding judge, then ruled that all matters in the case since November 2011 were null and void, and that the legal proceedings against Ríos Montt were suspended. Protesters in the court room screamed that Flores is a "sold-out judge."

At this writing, it is unclear whether the proceeding against Ríos Montt will resume.

U.S.-Sponsored Bloodbath

For decades, monstrous spasms of state-sponsored violence had engulfed Guatemala. It was directed at peasant farmers in general and specifically at Indians. Over 200,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians, were murdered by the government in this small, impoverished country in the years stretching from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. The crimes perpetrated on the people of Guatemala reached a crescendo of genocidal savagery in the early 1980s.

More than 600 villages in the highlands of Guatemala, populated by Mayan Indian peoples, were systematically destroyed by the Guatemalan army. Tens of thousands of people were killed. The slaughter in the mountain villages of Guatemala was one of the most concentrated and horrific bloodbaths in human history.

Allan Nairn recently described on the radio show Democracy Now! how the Guatemalan forces under Ríos Montt carried out their atrocities.

"The army swept through the northwest highlands. And according to soldiers who I interviewed at the time, as they were carrying out the sweeps, they would go into villages, surround them, pull people out of their homes, line them up, execute them. A forensic witness testified ... that 80 percent of the remains they've recovered had gunshot wounds to the head. Witnesses have—witnesses and survivors have described Ríos Montt's troops beheading people. One talked about an old woman who was beheaded, and then they kicked her head around the floor. They ripped the hearts out of children as their bodies were still warm, and they piled them on a table for their parents to see.

"The soldiers I interviewed would describe their interrogation techniques, which they had been taught at the army general staff. And they said they would ask people, 'Who in the town are the guerrillas?' And if the people would respond 'We don't know,' then they would strangle them to death. These sweeps were intense. The soldiers said that often they would kill about a third of a town's population. Another third they would capture and resettle in army camps. And the rest would flee into the mountains. There, in the mountains, the military would pursue them using U.S.-supplied helicopters, U.S.- and Israeli-supplied planes. They would drop U.S. 50 kilogram bombs on them, and they would machine gun them from U.S. Huey and Bell helicopters, using U.S.-supplied heavy caliber machine guns."

In July 1982, Ríos Montt initiated a "rifles and beans" policy. This meant that civilians who were deemed to be "pacified" would receive beans—for everyone else it would be rifles. A CIA document in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California explains both how this genocidal approach set the stage for wholesale slaughter and destruction of entire villages and entire peoples, and how the blood-soaked enterprise was viewed by the U.S.

"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." If the army encountered an empty village, "it was assumed to have been supporting the EGP [Guerrilla Army of the Poor] and it is destroyed. ... 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."

Women and girls were brutally and repeatedly raped before they were killed. One woman from the Ixil village of Santa Maria Nebaj testified at Ríos Montt's trial that when the army came to her home she "was 12 years old. They took me with the other women and they tied my feet and hands. They put a rag in my mouth and they started raping me. I don't know how many times. I lost consciousness. The blood kept running. Later I couldn't even stand or urinate."

Stephen L. Kass, a lawyer from New York who was part of a team investigating atrocities in Guatemala, wrote 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." He said that 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."

Journalists Sebastian Rotella and Ana Arana described some of the atrocities in the village of Dos Erres. "The commandos brought the villagers one by one to the center of the hamlet, near a dry well about 40 feet deep. Favio Pinzón Jerez, the squad's cook, and other soldiers reassured the captives that everything would be all right. They were going to be vaccinated. It was a routine health precaution, nothing to worry about.

"Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well."

During this period, a pastor with the California-based church of Christian fundamentalists to which Ríos Montt belonged explained to a group investigating the atrocities, "The army doesn't massacre Indians. It massacres demons, and Indians are demon possessed; they are communists."

A Long, Bloody History

U.S. imperialism has a long and bloody history in Guatemala, from 1906, when United Fruit Company grabbed 170,000 acres of the country's best farmland, down to today—in August 2012 the Obama administration sent 200 U.S. Marines to patrol Guatemala's coast as part of the "war on drugs."

In 1954 the U.S. engineered a coup to overthrow the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz. The U.S. replaced him with Carlos Castillos Armas, a colonel trained at the U.S. Command and General Staff School in Fort Leavenworth. The CIA coup began a wave of reactionary violence—thousands of people were arrested and many were tortured. Large unused tracts of land that had been nationalized by the Arbenz government were given back to United Fruit and other big landowners.

After the coup, anti-government guerrillas began operating in the mountains. The Pentagon set up a counterinsurgency base, and U.S. Green Berets trained Guatemalan officers. By the late 1960s as many as 1,000 U.S. Special Forces were taking part in a massive counterinsurgency. The Guatemalan military carried out "search and destroy" missions, rounding up villagers and sending them to concentration camps. These and other tactics were borrowed directly from the war that the U.S. was carrying out at the same time against liberation forces in Vietnam.

The infamous "White Hand" and other death squads first appeared around this time. The U.S. had a clear hand in this development. The head of the U.S. military mission in Guatemala said that he had urged the Guatemalan military to adopt "the technique of counter-terror." The death squads were a key part of this "counter-terror." Agents working out of the U.S. embassy advised and trained a Guatemalan army unit known as G-2, which carried out torture and assassinations and dumped bodies in secret graves.

Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio, the man hand-picked by the U.S. to head the vicious counterinsurgency in the late 1960s, became known as the "Butcher of Zacapa." In 1970 he became the president of Guatemala. Arana said, "If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so."

The counter-revolutionary violence the U.S. waged against the people of Guatemala in the late 1950s and through the 1960s was part of a global series of wars to impose the economic and political domination of U.S. imperialism—grotesquely distorting economies, crushing resistance and dissent, and installing "strongman" rulers around the world—in Vietnam, in the Middle East, in Central and South America, in the Congo, and in countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

By the mid-1970s the U.S. was reeling from the defeat it had been dealt in Vietnam, and also was locked in an increasingly intense confrontation with a rival imperialist bloc that emerged after the restoration of capitalism in the formerly socialist Soviet Union. Many forces that had been fighting for national liberation allied with the Soviet bloc to different degrees. The Soviets, acting out of their own imperialist interests, were attempting to utilize these struggles to weaken the U.S., and the aid they offered was designed to draw these forces more closely under Soviet influence, thereby in fact weakening these struggles.

None of these factors in any way justify the U.S. attempts to drown these struggles in blood. Reagan and the U.S. ruling class portrayed their own imperialist domination as opposing the Soviet "evil empire." But while the dynamics of global conflict were going through changes in the 1970s, the nature of U.S. imperialist domination remained the same, and in many ways became more vicious and bloody in the face of what they perceived to be a strategic challenge to what they saw as their "right" to exploit and oppress the people of the world.

During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, much of the U.S. support and training for Guatemala's military and death squads was funneled through the reactionary Zionist state of Israel. As a recent article in the journal of the North American Congress on Latin America said, from "the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Israel assisted every facet of attack on the Guatemalan people. Largely taking over for the United States on the ground in Guatemala (with Washington retaining its role as paymaster, while also maintaining a crucial presence in the country), Israel had become the successive governments' main provider of counterinsurgency training, light and heavy arsenals of weaponry, aircraft, state-of-the-art intelligence technology and infrastructure, and other vital assistance."

Ronald Reagan—Grotesque Criminal, Icon of Imperialism

But when Ronald Reagan became president, U.S. involvement in the growing genocide in Guatemala became more direct and more overt. Shortly after coming to power, Reagan's administration issued a national security document authorizing military aid to the Guatemalan regime to exterminate "Marxist guerrillas" and, as journalist Benjy Hansen-Bundy reported, " their civilian support mechanisms."

Soon after Reagan took office, he sent Vernon Walters, a retired general, to meet top Guatemalan officials. Walters told them that the U.S. was ready to supply the Guatemalan army with millions of dollars worth of supplies, and with "intelligence briefings on regional developments from our perspective. Our desire, however, is to go beyond the steps I have just outlined. We wish to reestablish our traditional military supply and training relationship as soon as possible."

Soon Walters was cabling the State Department that the Guatemalan military leader he met with "made clear that his government will continue as before—that the repression will continue. He reiterated his belief that the repression is working and that the guerrilla threat will be successfully routed."

During his trial, Ríos Montt was confronted with a Guatemalan army training manual that acknowledged the challenge of getting soldiers to carry out "repressive actions" against civilians, especially women, children, and sick people. But, the document continued, with proper training, they can do so. Ríos Montt told the court, "That training document which we used is an almost literal translation of a U.S. training document."

Reagan enthusiastically embraced Ríos Montt, personally and publicly. Reagan said Ríos Montt was a man of "great personal integrity," who was "getting a bum rap" from human rights activists.

In December 1982, Reagan and Ríos Montt met at a conference in Honduras. After the conference, a reporter asked Ríos Montt about his "scorched earth" policies; he "quipped" that he had a "policy of scorched communists."

While these two monsters were chortling over their sick little "joke," killers in the elite Kaibil Unit of the Guatemalan army were on their way to the village of Dos Erres. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission reported on what happened when they got there a few days later:

"Approximately 300 residents of Dos Erres, Libertad, Peten, were surrounded by the military's special Kaibil Unit. Of those killed 113 were children under the age of 14. The soldiers began with babies, throwing them down wells. Next, the women and children were gathered in the town's churches, where the women were raped and the children were beaten. The children were eventually thrown, some of them still alive, into the wells. After the women and children, the men were beaten to death and their bodies were thrown into a well."

Efrain Ríos Montt, a mass murderer, was justly put on trial for genocidal crimes against humanity. It is an infuriating outrage that his trial has been disrupted and postponed.

But what about Ríos Montt's godfather, Ronald Reagan? Shouldn't he be on trial posthumously for genocide, for war crimes and crimes against humanity?

Here is a question, and a challenge: Can anyone name any leading figure in the ruling circles of the U.S.—including Obama, or any other leader of the political power structure, the media, the military, the corporations—who does not uphold Ronald Reagan as an icon and praise him as a great leader of this country, and for the world? Does Obama or any other leading figure denounce Reagan for what he really was: someone who, as the head of the U.S. empire, carried out truly monstrous crimes against humanity—the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Guatemala, including children, and the savage rape of countless women being just one of the many crimes of this icon of imperialism, Ronald Reagan?


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