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The Guatemalan Cold War Horror Show and the United States Government.
Statement by Franklin, vocalist for the band BLOWBACK
Congressional Human Rights Caucus
U.S. House of Representatives
Briefing on Guatemala
12 April 2002

The record of the United States government in Guatemala is a sad one. Due to misguided analysis and a wrongheaded belief that the ends justify the means, US policy turned Guatemala into one of the worst of the Cold War horror shows. As we face the confluence of similar justifications for disregarding human rights being bandied about that were once used for the Cold War, with the human rights meltdown in Guatemala, the possibility of re-living this nightmare is very real. Indeed, when one of the chief architects of horror, Retired General and former dictator Efraín Rios Montt, is one of the most important political leaders, there is plenty to be concerned about. The current events of Guatemala have been discussed by the panelists; I will look at key aspects of the U.S. record.

Indeed, it is a matter of record, of recorded history, bolstered by documentation. This is not a matter of propaganda promulgated by the enemies of the United States, but rather, a matter of the public record, often of the documents written by U.S. policymakers. But first, the record as established by the Commission for Historical Clarification, established by the Accord of Oslo in 1994 and supported by the United Nations. (1) The findings of their report are stark. Since the outbreak of the war in 1962, the Commission registered 42,275 men, women, and children victimized, of which 23,671 were extrajudicially executed and 6,159 were "disappeared." Of the 42,000 victims, 83% were identified as indigenous, Mayan people. The Commission thus estimated that the number of persons that were killed or "disappeared" is more than 200,000. (2) One could estimate that the number of indigenous persons physically eliminated at 160,000.

The Commission concluded that "agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people which lived in" four regions analyzed and believed that similar acts occurred in other regions of the country. (3)

Other key findings:
· "Estimates of the number of displaced persons vary from 500,000 to a million and a half people in the most intense period from 1981 to 1983…" (4)
· "[D]isappearance" was a systematic practice in which in nearly all cases was the result of intelligence operations." (5)
· "The Army designed and implemented a strategy to provoke terror in the population…" (6)
· The Army demonstrated "an aggressive racist component of extreme cruelty that led to the extermination en masse, of defenseless Mayan communities…" and "resulted in the complete extermination of many Mayan communities…The [Commission] registered 626 massacres attributable to these forces." (7)
· "[T]he rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice… The majority of rape victims were Mayan women." (8)

Finally, when the Commission talks about terror and brutality, the atrocities in Guatemala committed by the Army, what is it talking about? It is talking about "killing of defenseless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women…" (9)

As early as 1968, dissent within the US government had been expressed formally about the tacit support for counter-terror, the explicit use of terror as a tool, by a State Department official who had been the Deputy Chief of Mission in the US Embassy in Guatemala, Viron Vaky. In an internal memo, he wrote that "we have condoned counter-terror; we may have 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. … [W]e 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." (10)

Indeed, according to Michael McClintock in Instruments of Statecraft (11), 1960's U.S. military journals were "replete with arguments for a "special" response to the new threat of insurgency," including counter-terror.(12) "A 1966 Military Review article outlining the theoretical framework of "counterterror" was reprinted in the Guatemalan Army's own Revista Militar de Guatemala…just as a state of siege was declared and the army launched the first of its (since ceaseless) waves of political killings. Military commentators called the 1966-1967 Guatemala campaign "el contra terror": Some 8,000 people were slaughtered in two provinces alone over the next six months." (13)

This encouragement for terror was not restricted of course to the journals. McClintock cites "Concepts for U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Activities," a 1962 Special Warfare School text outlined training for overseas allies that would include "guerrilla warfare, propaganda, subversion, intelligence and counter-intelligence, terrorist activities, civic action, and conventional combat operations." (14) This is one of many manuals that explicitly advocated the use of terror, as counter-terror, and was taught by the U.S. Special Forces to their allies, which included the Guatemalans.

Special Forces were not the only U.S institution involved in Guatemala; the CIA had long-standing involvement, which had truly begun in earnest with the 1954 operation PBSuccess which overthrew the democratically-elected government of President Jacobo Arbenz (15) and begun Guatemala's rapid descent into the current nightmare. Even when, in later years, U.S. aid was officially cut to Guatemala, the CIA maintained its aid and support to the Guatemalan intelligence services, the same services cited by the Commission for their use of terror as an explicit tool.

When in 1995, then Congressman Torricelli revealed to Jennifer Harbury that her husband, guerrilla commander Efraín Bámaca Velasquez had been killed by a Guatemalan army officer on the CIA's payroll, the ensuing uproar led President Clinton to task the Intelligence Oversight Board to conduct an investigation into this and other cases of American citizens whose loved ones had fallen victims during this nightmare - or who themselves, like Sister Dianna Ortiz or Meredith Larson has been subjected to vicious and horrific attacks. (16) Sister Dianna was subjected to extreme cruelty in an orgy of torture that included being raped; being forced to kill another person; being kept in a pit full of corpses, agonizing people, and rats; and being burned more than 100 times in an interrogation that was clearly only meant to be an excuse for further torment.

The government has yet to come clean with Sister Dianna who has credibly claimed that her rescuer was an American citizen and the IOB obfuscated her case, claiming that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was investigating. (17) However the DOJ investigation appears to have been another revictimization of Sister Dianna and when the investigation was concluded, the results were classified! Sister Dianna cannot learn what the government learned about her horrific ordeal.

Some may say, when confronted with the mysterious American who rescued Sister Dianna, that no good deed goes unpunished, after all he did stop her torment and took her away from that location. However the question that needs to be answered is who is this American who has authority over Guatemalan torturers, who knows the location of a clandestine torture center, and who clearly knows what is happening? As Sister Dianna painfully asked, what about the others? Her details will be coming out shortly in a new book she is authoring and I encourage you all to take a close look at what she has to say.

Her case and that of several other American citizens is an example of blowback: unintended consequences of intelligence operations. We can all assume that when Eisenhower was signing up to destroy democracy in Guatemala, he did not think that among the consequences would be the brutal torture of an American nun or a vicious knife attack against a young American with the courage to live her ideals. (18) Another unintended consequence is that Guatemala has never recovered and is currently in a downward spiral, in large part due to the fact that the rapists and torturers and killers, walk freely and feel they even have the right to come to the United States and terrorize an American citizen, as they have Barbara Bocek, an Amnesty International volunteer expert on Guatemala. (19) Why this case has not provoked the outrage of Congress is a mystery as is why the FBI seems unable to do anything to stem the death threats and attacks directed against her.

Despite its very real shortcomings, some bordering on cover-up, the IOB report was valuable. It stated: we found 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's …headquarters was aware at the time of the allegations…" (20) Further it states that it found "no evidence that Guatemala station was a "rogue" station operating independently of control by its headquarters." (21) Indeed, the CIA was doing what it had been doing all along, with the knowledge of most key policymakers.

A long history of supporting the military, of supporting the intelligence services, despite the atrocities, despite knowing the extent of the horror, despite our own citizens subjected to this nightmare, lays culpability on our doorsteps. And this history, based on documentary evidence much of which came out during the course of its own investigation and with the help of brilliant researchers like Kate Doyle of the National Security Archives(22) , was not lost on the Commission.

It concluded that "the movement of Guatemala towards polarization, militarization and civil war was not just the result of national history. The cold war also played an important role. Whilst anti-communism, promoted by the United States within the framework of its foreign policy, received firm support from right-wing political parties and from various other powerful actors in Guatemala, the United States demonstrated that it was willing to provide support for strong military regimes in it strategic backyard. In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation." (23)

As we reflect on this and the human rights meltdown in Guatemala, as Amnesty international calls the current situation, we should also reflect on what we are being told must be the methods of this "new" war on terror. Actually, there is nothing "new" about it; it's the same old counter-terror, ends-justifies-the-means methods, cloaked in anew coat. In closing, we should reflect on the words of Ambassador Vaky, written as an officer in the State Department, trying to right the wrongs of U.S. policy in Guatemala. He asked:

I know that primitive violence has gone on along time in Guatemala and elsewhere. Do we just throw up our hands and accept all of its wrongness as long as it is also "effective"…? (24)

He then concluded:

If the U.S. cannot come up with any better suggestion on how to fight insurgency in Guatemala than to condone counter-terror, we are in a bad way indeed. But most of all, even if we cannot dissuade them, we owe it to ourselves to come to terms with our values and judgments and take a clear ethical stand." (25)

This reflection could not be more pertinent today.

(1) This was the Guatemalan truth commission created as part of the peace process formally ending hostilities between the Guatemalan Government and the armed opposition group URNG, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unión Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca).
(2) Guatemala: Memory of Silence. Tz'inil Na'tab'al. Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification: Conclusions and Recommendations. Paragraphs 1 and 2, pg. 17.
(3) Ibid. Paragraphs 122 and 123, pg. 41.
(4) Ibid. Paragraph 66, pg. 30.
(5) Ibid. Paragraph 89, pg. 35.
(6) Ibid. Paragraph 44, pg. 26.
(7) Ibid. Paragraph 85 and 86, pg. 34.
(8) Ibid. Paragraph 91, pg. 35.
(9) Ibid. Paragraph 87, pg. 34.
(10) Memorandum from Mr. Vaky to Mr. Oliver, 29 March 1968, subject: Guatemala and Counter-terror. Declassified document from the Department of State. Pg. 3.
(11) For more information, please see the site-in-progress,
(12) McClintock, Michael. Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counter-insurgency, and Counter-terrorism, 1940-1990. Pantheon Books, N.Y. © 1992, pg. 233.
(13) Ibid, pg. 234.
(14) Ibid, pg. 236.
(15) Ibid, pg. 139-142.
(16) Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB). Report on the Guatemala Review. 28 June 1996. Pg. 1. "The IOB's charter is to review and report to the President [of the United States] on intelligence activities that we believe may be unlawful or contrary to Executive order or Presidential directive. The Board has previously conducted its investigations and provided reports in a confidential manner. The Guatemala review is unprecedented as a publicly announced inquiry."
(17) Ibid, pp. 1, 44.
(18) Ibid, pg. 48. "Meredith Larson, a US citizen, was working as a member of Peace Brigades International, an international human rights organization."
(19) Urgent action appeal issued by the Guatemala Human Rights Commission USA, 8 May 2002.
(20) Ibid, pg. 3.
(21) Ibid, pg. 4.
(22) Much of the documentary trail on Guatemala was brought to light thanks to the National Security Archives. They have an extensive collection of declassified documents. http//
(23) Commission, paragraph 13, pg. 19.
(24) Vaky memorandum, pg. 5. Full text available at
(25) Idem.