Workers Vanguard No. 1026

14 June 2013


Reagan’s Guatemalan Death Squad Dictator

Ríos Montt: Mass Murderer

Efraín Ríos Montt came to power as Guatemala’s strongman in a military coup in March 1982, overthrowing another bloody dictator, and was in turn overthrown in a similar coup in August 1983. During that brief period, he presided over some of the most gruesome crimes against workers and peasants, especially indigenous Maya-Ixil people, that took place during a 36-year civil war that pitted U.S.-backed dictators against a left-wing guerrilla insurgency. Officially, over 200,000 were killed and 45,000 more “disappeared” during the civil war, out of a population of some eight to ten million. As we noted last month, a Guatemalan court found Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and other crimes against humanity (see “U.S. Imperialism’s Machinery of Torture,” WV No. 1024, 17 May). Subsequently, however, a higher Constitutional Court quashed the verdict on a technicality, and a new trial may not begin until April 2014, if in fact there will be a new trial.

The slaughter in Guatemala was fully supported by the U.S. rulers as they launched Cold War II in the late 1970s and early ’80s against the Soviet Union. Washington also backed El Salvador’s death squad regime as it was battling a leftist insurgency and armed and trained the contra reactionaries fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of Ríos Montt’s trial, what compels the verdict of history was the litany of horror recounted by the survivors of the slaughter he oversaw. The New York Times (27 March) reported: “The witnesses included a man testifying about how the Guatemalan Army under Mr. Ríos Montt killed his wife and two children, slashing his 5-year-old son’s face with a machete and smashing his toddler’s head. Another described how his pregnant sister was tied to a stake and burned alive, along with her child and six additional children. One witness, Nicolas Brito, told of seeing soldiers cut out and stack victims’ hearts on a table.” A number of women testified to the mass rapes that they endured. One reported being raped—she was 12 years old at the time—after being forced to watch the rape of her mother, who died. Many witnesses spoke in the Ixil language, as they had no Spanish capacity.

The New Yorker (“The Maya Genocide Trial,” 3 May) reported:

“There were wrenching accounts of military assaults on Ixil towns with names like Xesayi, Chel, and Tu B’aj Sujsiban; of old people slain when they were too old to flee; of infants tossed into the flames of burning houses; of unborn children being cut out of pregnant women’s uteruses; of captives being held in holes in the ground, raped in churches.... A former soldier testified that, as far as he could tell, his orders were simple: Indio visto, Indio muerte. (‘Indian seen, Indian dead.’)”

Outside the court, supporters of Ríos Montt and his ilk protested with military music and signs reading: “Communism Finances the Destruction of National Unity.” Judges and prosecutors involved in the case received death threats. Strong opposition to the guilty verdict came particularly from Guatemala’s powerful business federation known as Cacif.

During the proceedings, a witness for the prosecution—a mechanic in the military during the Ríos Montt regime—implicated current Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina’s participation in massacres when he was the commander in the Ixil region. Investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who is well-versed in Guatemalan affairs, met Pérez Molina in 1982, when his troops described executing and torturing villagers. In an interview conducted at the time, which has been posted on YouTube, Pérez Molina tells Nairn: “The truth is that there is a very real saying: that the civilian population is to the guerrilla what water is to fish. In this case, the guerrilla could not survive if he does not have the support and cooperation of the population.”

In wiping out entire villages in order to combat leftist insurgents, Pérez Molina & Co. carried out on their local turf the types of atrocities that U.S. forces committed on a much wider scale in seeking to crush social revolutions in Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s and ’60s. During Ríos Montt’s trial, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala and the State Department’s top official for human rights sat in the audience. Two weeks after the conviction was overturned, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Pérez Molina in Antigua, Guatemala, the site of a General Assembly of the Organization of American States. Kerry stated: “Let me begin by congratulating you, Mr. President, on the enormous progress that you have made with respect to your justice system, the strengthening of your justice system, the independence of that system” (U.S. Department of State, 4 June).

U.S. Imperialism’s Bloody Hand

That the U.S. placed in power and/or supported military strongmen to keep Latin American and Caribbean countries “free” for United Fruit and other such interests has been amply documented. Also well known is Washington’s drive to “roll back Communism,” from the CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 to the efforts to crush leftist insurgents in Central America in the 1980s. That one of the U.S.-supported despots was tried for crimes against humanity in his own country is, however, a first. Those crimes took a particularly racist and bloody form in Guatemala, particularly during the Ríos Montt regime. Aryeh Neier, a founder and former executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote that Guatemala is “the only country in Latin America for which it would be appropriate to use the word ‘genocide’ to describe the crimes committed since World War II” (New York Review of Books, 20 June). Now the author of those crimes remains a free man.

Conspicuously absent from the dock in the genocide trial was the U.S. government, its military and secret police. As we wrote in “Guatemala: CIA’s Mass Murder Inc.” (WV No. 621, 21 April 1995):

“The truth is that for 40 years, Washington did far more than simply ‘aid’ Guatemala’s brutal military gang in enforcing the rule of the local latifundistas, capitalists and their Wall Street masters. Left to their own devices, these butchers would have been plenty barbaric.... But it was the United States government which purposely and deliberately planned, financed, supplied, trained and directed the transformation of a monstrous but inefficient gang of thugs into a modern, scientifically organized machine of systematic mass murder, torture and terror. U.S. imperialism inflicted on the desperately poor and exploited working people and the Mayan Indian majority of this small country horrors with few parallels in history.”

Ríos Montt’s reign of mass murder coincided with the early years of Ronald Reagan’s administration, which oversaw the ramping up of Cold War II against the Soviet Union. The groundwork for that campaign was prepared by Democratic president and professional hypocrite Jimmy Carter, who wielded the “human rights” card in an effort to refurbish U.S. imperialism’s credentials after its stunning defeat in Vietnam. Carter made a show of cutting off aid to the Guatemalan officers in protest of their abuses. But this was a cynical maneuver. Close U.S. allies, such as apartheid South Africa, Taiwan and South Korea, increasingly stepped in with support. Most important was Israel, which provided financial aid, arms and training for Washington’s reactionary killers.

Reagan avidly embraced Ríos Montt, a fundamentalist Protestant who received counterinsurgency training at Fort Bragg and also served as a department head at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C. Ríos Montt’s main qualification was that he had the stomach for the dirty work. When he launched his “scorched earth” offensive against highland Mayan villagers, among whom leftist guerrillas had won support, the main question for Washington was how to speed up, beef up and further legitimize U.S. support to that effort.

In a memo to President Reagan shortly before Reagan met Ríos Montt for the first time, Secretary of State George Shultz wrote that the coup that installed him “presents us with an opportunity to break the long freeze in our relations with Guatemala and to help prevent an extremist takeover.” Reagan trumpeted that Ríos Montt was a man “totally dedicated to democracy,” with “great personal integrity and commitment” (“Guatemala’s Genocide on Trial,” the Nation, 22 May). Elliott Abrams, Reagan’s top human rights official in the State Department, not only peddled the administration line that Ríos Montt was a reformer but also helped sell Washington’s plan to lift the (much abrogated) embargo on military aid.

Writing in the Nation (17 April 1995), Allan Nairn listed half a dozen top Guatemalan officers paid by the CIA, including at least three chiefs of the country’s military intelligence unit, a former army chief of staff and General Hector Gramajo, a former defense minister. Nairn quoted the former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency chief in Guatemala, Colonel George Hooker: “It would be an embarrassing situation if you ever had a roll call of everybody in the Guatemalan Army who ever collected a C.I.A. paycheck.” That roll call would have to reach back to the 1950s Cold War against the Soviet Union, the workers state that issued from the Bolshevik-led October Revolution of 1917. Despite its subsequent Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration, the Soviet Union stood as an impediment to Washington’s ability to project power at will throughout the world. Up until the counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR in 1991-92, the U.S. imperialists were intent on destroying the Soviet workers state and anyone they saw as furthering its interests.

In 1954, the U.S. engineered the overthrow of bourgeois-populist Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz, who had attempted to institute such reforms as nationalizing some of United Fruit’s land. Arbenz ordered that unused land, which included 85 percent of the company’s holdings, be purchased at its declared value and distributed to landless peasants. This did not sit at all well in Washington; Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA chief Allen Dulles, were connected to United Fruit’s law firm, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., was a big stockholder. More to the point, it was the Cold War that underlay the anti-Communist frenzy over Arbenz’s modest agrarian reforms. Minor participation in his government by the tiny Stalinist Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT) was seized upon to launch a red-scare propaganda campaign and direct backing for reactionary cutthroats.

An example of news coverage at the time was a New York Times (8 November 1953) article on the arrival in Guatemala of John E. Peurifoy as the new U.S. ambassador. It read in part: “It is generally expected in Guatemala that his advent means a change in the asserted passivity with which the United States has watched the growth of the Communists’ influence to the point where, at least to the outsider, they seem to be masters of the country in all but name.” As the CIA worked to oust Arbenz from within, a ragtag army of a few hundred was organized in Honduras under the exiled Carlos Castillo Armas, who had received training at Fort Leavenworth.

Key to the invasion’s success was the bombing and strafing of Guatemala City by U.S. airplanes flown by U.S. pilots. CIA honcho Howard Hunt (later of Watergate infamy) described the mission in the CNN documentary series Cold War: “What we wanted to do was have a terror campaign, to terrify Arbenz particularly, terrify his troops.” Abandoned by his army, Arbenz resigned, ceding power to Colonel Carlos Enrique Díaz. Ambassador Peurifoy presented Díaz with a list of alleged Communists to be killed. Díaz, however, intended to release all political prisoners, including PGT members. So Peurifoy ordered the bombing to continue, Díaz was removed from office at gunpoint and a U.S. embassy plane flew in with Guatemala’s new leader, Castillo Armas. Waves of bloody repression duly ensued. PGT members and peasant and labor leaders were rounded up, incarcerated or executed, while land was returned to United Fruit and domestic oligarchs. Three years later, Castillo Armas was shot dead, one of a series of “regime changes” that would become commonplace in Guatemala.

U.S. imperialism’s labor lieutenants were active in anti-Communist intrigues in Guatemala. American Federation of Labor operatives undermined PGT influence in the unions and recruited right-wing unionists for the invasion force. Guatemala was in fact a training ground for the role that the AFL-CIO bureaucracy would play in Central and South America through its notorious American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), which worked with the CIA to destroy militant, left-led unions. The “AFL-CIA” can take some credit for the fact that, as of July 2009, the International Trade Union Confederation found that Guatemala was the second most dangerous country in Latin America for trade unionists.

Imperialism and the Class Struggle

Ríos Montt is a psychopathic mass murderer. Justice would require a trial by workers and peasants who survived his rule. It is simply nauseating to observe the feigned shock at the atrocities of their puppets on the part of the U.S. rulers, who continue to spawn and back the likes of President Pérez Molina. No matter which capitalist party is in power at any given time in Washington, grisly repression is a fundamental feature of U.S. imperialism. Tentacles of the octopus (as United Fruit was known throughout Central America) can be cut off, as the Cuban Revolution did, but Yankee imperialism will continue to strangle the hemisphere until it is struck in the heart.

The genocide trial provided a stark view of the barbarity that the imperialists and their local henchmen inflict on working people in semicolonial countries. But exposure will not suffice to eliminate this system of oppression. It is up to the U.S. working class to smash the American capitalist-imperialist system from within and come to the aid of their class brothers and sisters in Mexico and further south, fighting to throw off their own shackles.

The labor movement north of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo is enriched by immigrant workers from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere who bring to the U.S. proletariat direct experience of the murderous repression and brutal exploitation enforced by the likes of Ríos Montt on behalf of the U.S. capitalist rulers. Only when the working class, led by its internationalist vanguard party, takes power through a socialist revolution, expropriating the expropriators and destroying their state machinery root and branch, will justice be served on such hit men and their imperialist paymasters. We in the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, are dedicated to the task of forging such a party in the belly of the imperialist beast.