Military sales to Guatemala?

Current congressional scrutiny of United States military aid to Guatemala is well warranted. This would have been so even if it had not been dramatized by this week's murder of a US citizen there after he had heard he might be on a military assassination list. Other recent victims have been Italian, Spanish, and Honduran, as well as Guatemalan. The Amnesty International human rights organization reported earlier this year that many thousands of people -- 3,000 in the first 10 months of 1980 alone -- have been murdered by government security forces.

At this writing the murder of the US citizen had not been solved. United States military aid unquestionably must await investigation of the crime. The fundamental issue is whether such aid should be resumed whatever the outcome of this investigation.

It is not sufficient for the administration simply to shift the items it wants to sell -- military trucks and jeeps -- to a list of things a president can send wherever he chooses. They had long been on the list of equipment that, under US law, cannot be sold to countries with a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights. A basic question is whether the State Department did in effect violate the law by permitting a sale to Guatemala in this manner without the congressional approval that would otherwise have been required.

The State Department has argued that military aid could be linked to a commitment by the Guatemalan regime to restrain political violence by its security forces. This regime is confronted by guerrilla violence -- believed to be supported by Cuba -- which cannot be condoned by the US. Yet, as Amnesty International says, guerrilla violence cannot justify murder by a government. If any military aid to Guatemala is found to be legal, it would seem that the US should tie it to advancem evidence of a Guatemalan commitment to curbing the security forces' excesses.

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