Reagan Administration Knew of Guatemalan Atrocities, Documents Reveal

3-20-09, 12:42 am

Upon entering office in 1981, Ronald Reagan overturned a Carter administration embargo against the military dictatorships that governed Guatemala with terror and violence. Reagan then side-stepped Congress and changed rules overseeing foreign aid and handed the dictators millions in military aid.

In December 1982, Reagan met with Efrain Ríos Montt, who had just seized power along with a junta of military officers, and described him as 'totally dedicated to democracy.' Reagan dismissed reports that his regime ruthlessly violated human rights as a 'bum rap.' Reagan continued to back successive dictators in that country.

Reagan's support for Rios and the country's subsequent dictators made human rights another casualty in his ideologically motivated Cold War against the Soviet Union, which Reagan insisted was backing the military regime's political opposition.

Over the course of the past several years, declassified documents from CIA and other US government sources revealed that Reagan's claims were lies and that the US government knew that the right-wing Guatemalan dictatorships systemically massacred political opponents. International and US sanctions against the right-wing Guatemalan dictators had been justified.

Newly declassified documents from the US State Department compiled and publicized this week by the National Security Archive gave further credence to claims that the Reagan administration understood and tried to hide the truth about the Guatemalan regime's human rights atrocities.

While attempting to blame guerilla groups that fought the military dictatorship for the bulk of the violence, a State Department report in February of 1984 noted, 'Government security services have employed assassination to eliminate persons suspected of involvement with the guerrillas or who are otherwise left-wing in orientation.'

The report indicated also 'army commanders traditionally have fought the insurgents by kidnapping and murdering Indians and campesinos suspected of collaborating with them.' It also described the use of violence by the right-wing parties that supported Rios and his successors as 'traditional.' The report also linked this type of politically violence directly to Rios who had been removed from power in a coup that may have been orchestrated by US intelligence agents just months before the report was made.

By 1986, another report from the State Department, labeled 'secret,' admitted that 'there is a gap between the rhetoric of justice and the reality of violence in Guatemalan society.' That report catalogued several thousand politically motivated kidnappings – often of students, labor leaders or political activists who opposed the US-backed dictatorship – and hundreds of extra-judicial murders carried out by military and security personnel.

The State Department further admitted that it had previously under-reported the extent of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the dictatorship. Still, the US Embassy in Guatemala had continued to provide Washington with accounts of a large number of atrocities the entire time Reagan held office up to that point.

According to the Guatemala's own Historical Clarification Commission, which uncovered enormous amounts of evidence about atrocities committed in the country's 36-year long civil war from 1960-1996. That commission found that some 200,000 unarmed civilians had died in the war, and 40,000 were estimated to have 'disappeared.'

In 2003, Rios Montt attempted a political comeback by running for president. His candidacy received the backing of US President George W. Bush.