Indecent Liasons: The US And Guatemala's Army

Since 1954 the US has maintained close ties with Guatemala's vicious military. Now Washington has a chance to make amends.

AS the sordid details about CIA activities in Guatemala emerge into public view, we are getting an extraordinary glimpse of secrets closely guarded for decades. But the case of Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez and the Central Intelligence Agency is literally the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself is a complex web of relations between multiple agencies of the United States government and the brutal Guatemalan Army during the last 40 years -- a long history of indecent liaisons.

The scope of those relations goes far beyond a criminal CIA agent or even a CIA ''out of control.'' It implicates virtually every agency of the US foreign-policy apparatus and every administration since the 1950s in training, financing, and supporting a counterinsurgency army that has killed or ''disappeared'' nearly 200,000 Guatemalans, mainly unarmed highlands Indians.

Training counterinsurgents

Ironically, the last high-level public official to tell the truth about US-Guatemalan relations was President Eisenhower, who openly and proudly acknowledged the CIA's role in overthrowing the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. That US intervention ended the only experiment with democracy in Guatemala's history -- what Guatemalans call their ''10 years of Springtime'' (1944-54).

After the end of that experiment in 1954, many Guatemalans came to believe that moderate change was not possible. Some took up arms after 1960 to bring about radical change. The US became decisively reinvolved in Guatemala in 1966-68 -- this time in a major counterinsurgency operation that included the presence of up to 1,000 Green Berets. The US transformed the previously inefficient Guatemalan Army into a modern, ''professional'' counterinsurgency force. This is the origin and nucleus of the killing machine that still operates today. US military advisers also acknowledged helping form Guatemala's death squads, the first in Latin America.

By the second round of Guatemala's civil war, in the indigenous highlands during the late 1970s and early 1980s, human rights sentiment in the US, combined with the Guatemalan Army's reputation as the most brutal in Latin America, made it politically unfeasible for Washington to openly support the Army's scorched-earth campaign. This gave rise to a ''double game'' or two-track policy that has characterized US-Guatemala relations ever since.

Publicly, US policymakers had to pay lip service to human rights and support a return to civilian rule. But at the same time, the Reagan administration privately signaled approval to the Guatemalan Army for winning the war and lobbied Congress to restore overt aid. And as we now know, the CIA worked hand-in-glove with Guatemalan security forces all the time.

'Double game' continues

The mixed-message policy toward Guatemala intensified after the restoration of formal civilian rule in 1986, with the Army remaining the power behind the throne. Washington immediately renewed all forms of US assistance, arguing that Guatemala was now a ''consolidated democracy.'' Meanwhile, congressional Democrats actually increased Reagan administration military aid requests and approved increased direct US military activity in Guatemala. More important than military aid were Economic Support Funds (ESF), which amount to general budget support for friendly but embarrassing governments. In essence, this is disguised security assistance. In 1987, ESF reached $115.5 million and remained high through 1990.

After the end of the cold war, the Bush administration played a new version of the double game. On the one hand, it cut military aid at the end of 1990 and criticized the most extreme human rights violations. On the other, it sent CIA funds and strengthened ties with the military, including units (like G-2 intelligence) closely linked to human rights abuses. Behind a new diplomatic discourse, the strategic alliance with the Army continued.

Since 1991, when the Guatemalan government was finally forced to undertake peace negotiations with the insurgents, Washington has been part of a group of ''friends'' of the United Nations-moderated peace process. In reality, it has been primarily a friend of the Guatemalan government and Army, supporting their attempt to reach a cease-fire quickly without making any substantive changes -- and, above all, without thoroughly demilitarizing the country. The US stands alone in the international community in not demanding dissolution of the paramilitary ''civilian self-defense patrols,'' called PACs.

To this day, US officials excuse their complicity by arguing that they do not have much leverage in Guatemala. But they are perfectly aware of the pressures they can exert. In fact, we have seen such leverage on the one occasion where the US did act decisively, during the 1993 ''self-coup'' by President Jorge Serrano Elias and sectors of the Army. The Clinton administration's threats to cut off trade with Guatemala convinced the private sector (which in turn convinced the Army) to return to constitutional rule.

Relief for the people

Today, with the Guatemalan Army in the glare of public scrutiny in the US, the administration has a historic opportunity to help get the counterinsurgency machine off the backs of the Guatemalan people.

The Guatemalan government and the rebels will soon begin discussing an accord on demilitarization, which could place internationally binding and verifiable limits on the Army, removing it from internal security functions and abolishing the PACs. Here lies the key to truly democratic politics in Guatemala.

The US can contribute to this process if, rather than engaging in a ''damage control'' operation about CIA activities, it takes this opportunity to end its indecent relationship with the Guatemalan Army.

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