Ronald Reagan’s arrival to office in 1981 was accompanied by a sentiment that the prior U.S. President’s policies should be rolled back, regardless of what they were.
One of the policies ended was the arms embargo on Guatemala, put in place by Jimmy Carter due to human rights abuses by that regime.
We know today that the CIA in late April 1981 was sending memos that rolled up to the White House describing the massacre of civilians within Mayan Indian territory. CIA memos documented how social support for guerrillas was high enough that soldiers said they were “forced” to fire indiscriminately into non-combatants.
Two months after news of the massacre Reagan un-blocked $3.2 million in military support to Guatemala’s army. The unblocking method used was crafty, as Reagan reclassified trucks and jeeps to transport Guatemalan soldiers to commit massacres. Military vehicles known to be used in the massacres no longer were under the human rights embargo.
One might be tempted here to ask “ok, but they’re just trucks and jeeps, so general use, right?” History helps a little, as it reminds us America has made this mistake before, facilitating genocide for profits:
GM’s president, Alfred P. Sloan, knew what was happening in Germany. Sloan and GM officials knew also that Hitler’s regime was expected to wage war from the outset. Headlines, radio broadcasts and newsreels made that fact apparent. America, it was feared, would once again be pulled in.
Nonetheless, GM and Germany began a strategic business relationship. Opel became an essential element of the German rearmament and modernization Hitler required to subjugate Europe. To accomplish that, Germany needed to rise above the horse-drawn divisions it deployed in World War I. It needed to motorize, to blitz — that is, to attack with lightning speed. Germany would later unleash a blitzkrieg, a lightning war. Opel built the 3-ton truck named Blitz to support the German military. The Blitz truck and its numerous specialized models became the mainstay of the Blitzkrieg.
In 1935, GM agreed to locate a new factory at Brandenburg, where it would be geographically less vulnerable to feared aerial bombardment by allied forces. In 1937, almost 17 percent of Opel’s Blitz trucks were sold directly to the Nazi military.
The Guatemalan government was emboldened by the new U.S. President’s support of their killing plans. Thus by early October 1981 the U.S. State Department was talking about Reagan’s ambassador General Vernon Walters meeting with Guatemalan leaders to discuss repression measures. Guatemalan General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia “made clear that his government will continue as before that the repression will continue.”
This wasn’t really any kind of secret. Word of violations were published by groups like the Inter-American Human Rights Commission who in October 1981 openly called out the Guatemalan government for “thousands of illegal executions.” The Reagan Administration engaged in whataboutism and deception to avoid addressing why they would sell military aid linked to mass human rights violations; falsely claiming Guatemalan human rights violations were a guerrilla strategy (as I’ve explained elsewhere).
Things escalated quickly after the U.S. government support shifted from embargo to support. The Guatemalan army issued instructions in 1982 that any resistance or incoming fire from a town or village meant everyone in the town is hostile and would be destroyed.
This might sound similar if you heard recently the current U.S. regime call to troops that they treat rocks and bottles as rifles.
In fact, Reagan’s support led to a fundamentalist Christian taking control of Guatemala in a March 1982 coup d’etat. General Efrain Ríos Montt seized power and announced a policy of “rifles and beans” — either eat beans quietly in obedience to dictatorship or be killed by rifles. In response Reagan described him as “a man of great personal integrity”.
…more than 600 Indian villages in the Guatemalan highlands were eradicated or occupied by the military. The slogan “rifles and beans” meant that pacified communities would get “beans,” while all others would be the target of army “rifles.”
In March 1983, Americas Watch condemned the Guatemalan army for human rights atrocities against the Indian population.
New York attorney Stephen L. Kass said there was proof that the Guatemalan government carried out “virtually indiscriminate murder of men, women and children of any farm regarded by the army as possibly supportive of guerrilla insurgents.”
Three months after the coup was applauded by Reagan, government death squads were unleashed on civilians. And Reagan then increased military aid in 1983 to $6 million despite evidence of civilian massacres increasing at the hands of American-trained soldiers riding in American vehicles, again reported in memos to the White House.
Such memos might sound strange to fans of Reagan, so consider the kind of writing found in his official documents
During the height of Montt’s genocidal counterinsurgency campaign, a CONFIDENTIAL cable from Secretary of State George Shultz praised his “impressive progress in human rights”.
(click that document link if you want to help disclose more strange truths from primary source materials)
In effect, the Reagan administration worked to reverse Carter’s human rights policy, centralizing power in U.S. presidency through deception and tricks in order to expedite military support to violent dictators killing democracy.
Within the U.S. government, there was no apparent struggle to reconcile the notion that the Guatemalan government “badly needed” arms with its horrific crimes. There was only a struggle to determine preconditions (which were never met) in order to gain minimal support from Congress so as to circumvent protections against abetting war criminals, which were put into place by the Carter administration.
Ríos Montt wasn’t an isolated case, either. Look into Regan’s support for genocide by Indonesian dictator Suharto, or why Chadian dictator Habre (another recipient of President Reagan’s “product shipments”) was sentenced to life for war crimes.
So there is our backdrop to news today from Guatemala, about prosecution of Reagan’s “special unit” for their attrocities:
A Guatemalan former soldier has been sentenced to more than 5,000 years in prison for his role in a massacre during the country’s civil war.
More than 200 people were killed in the village of Dos Erres in 1982, one of the most violent episodes in Guatemala’s brutal 36-year conflict.
Santos López was found responsible for 171 of the deaths.
He was a member of the Kaibiles, a US-trained counter-insurgency force fighting left-wing guerrillas.
López was sentenced to 30 years for each of the 171 killings committed in the village and to an additional 30 years for his role in the murder of a girl who had originally survived.
The massacre happened during the brief rule of military strongman Efraín Ríos Montt, who was accused of ordering the killing of more than 1,700 ethnic Mayans during a civil war.
He died in April aged 91 while on trial on charges of genocide.
Montt was the first military dictator in Latin America to be charged with genocide in his own country. Ronald Reagan was never charged for his role.
Some may be tempted to believe propaganda of the Reagan administration that fueling the mass murder of civilians somehow was meant to be about the U.S. fighting Communism. However, recent genocide trials have uncovered facts of Reagan’s “special units” that prove they engaged in genocidal practices, brutally murdering children by hand and terrorizing anyone within earshot of someone speaking about democracy.
The soldiers shot, strangled and bludgeoned the villagers to death with sledgehammers, and one admitted to throwing a baby into the village well.
In 1994, forensic anthropologists found the remains of 162 bodies in the well, including 67 children less than 12 years old.
The above should be serious food for thought when people now talk about news of migrants walking all the way from Guatemala to the U.S seeking aylum from violence. Imagine what they think when finding out they will be greeted with rifles instead.
It appears to this historian that the current U.S. regime has replaced the “beans and rifle” decision tree of Reagan’s Guatemalan death squads with…just rifles.