Guatemalan syphilis victims lose hope in legal battle against US

Thousands of Guatemalans were intentionally infected with STDs in the 1940s by US public health researchers. An appeal on their case against the US government was dismissed this week.

 As a nine-year-old child, Marta recalled seeing her name on a list to go to the doctor’s office. An orphan, she had been living in the National Education Center since the age of six.

Before long, she would be prodded and poked every week for a year, receiving shots in her hip and shoulder, and having blood drawn.

“My mother tells us that she would ask over and over again, 'why are you doing this if I am not even sick?'" says Luis Estuardo Vasquez Orellana, one of Marta Lidia Orellana Guerra’s five children. His mother, who is still alive today, also underwent unnecessary back surgery and was left to rest hanging upside down on and off in post-surgery recovery for months.

It was 1946, and Ms. Orellana was one of thousands of Guatemalans who were unwittingly subjected to secret human experiments led by US doctors.

The experiments were brought to light by a US researcher in 2009, and a legal battle on behalf of victims and their families ensued. But now, nearly three years after beginning the legal battle in US courts, attorneys representing an estimated 5,000 Guatemalan victims used as guinea pigs and infected with sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940s by US public health researchers withdrew their appeal earlier this week, virtually ending the case against the US government.

The dismissal comes a year after a US District Court ruled the United States was protected under two immunity laws, the Federal Tort Claims Act and the International Organization Immunities Act.

“We pulled out rather than prolong litigation,” says Christian Levesque, an attorney with DC-based Conrad & Scherer LLP who is working on the case. “At this time it is more appropriate to pursue political redress.” Pursuing justice for these victims in the US could include reparations through lobbying Congress.

The alleged victims include soldiers, inmates, sex workers, mental health patients, and schoolchildren. Of these, some 1,300 were deliberately infected with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Tuskegee in Guatemala

Dr. John Cutler, a junior scientist at the US Public Health Service, led the experiments in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. Under a grant by the National Institute of Health, Dr. Cutler and US researchers gave antibiotic penicillin to test its ability to cure and prevent syphilis.

But, his team also infected test subjects without their consent.

Researchers would expose inmates to infected prostitutes brought into jails. At the time, prostitution was legal in the Central American country as was bringing sex workers into prisoners’ cells.

In other cases, they would first infect patients in mental hospitals before testing the effects of the medication. US lawyers say the American team studied and performed experiments on more than 5,000 subjects – including orphans as young as 6 years old. The team sought out vulnerable populations and convinced Guatemalan officials in prisons and orphanages to cooperate by giving them supplies and hard-to-find medications for malaria and epilepsy. Only a small percentage received treatment post-infection.

Archived records of medical notes taken by the American team describe how subjects had scrapes made on their genitals, arms, or faces to directly infect them.

“There are some pretty graphic explanations and diagrams,” says Wellesley College medical historian Susan Reverby, describing highly invasive practices. She uncovered the records in 2009 after years of research into a similar study in Tuskegee, Ala., that left hundreds of African American men deliberately untreated for syphilis until the study ended in 1972. After a class-action lawsuit was filed by participants and their families, a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached in 1974.

Ms. Reverby explains these physicians did not see themselves as part of a eugenics movement but rather as generals on a war against disease. And as such, they would decide who could be sacrificed. Reverby sees it as a reflection of the time’s teachings: “the scientific racism in textbooks that informed the kinds of hypotheses that would take place at the time.”

Although much has since come out about the experiments Cutler’s team led in Guatemala, a lot of what potentially happened to these victims later in life is unknown due to poor documentation.

Syphilis is an infection that causes genital sores. If left untreated, latter stages can cause paralysis, blindness, or death.

A different US role

In October 2010, President Obama apologized to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom (2008-2012) and called on a special commission to look into the medical experiments.

In that report the Bioethics Commission found that “many of the actions of the researchers were morally wrong and the individual researchers and institutional officials were morally blameworthy.”

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, also followed up the apology calling the experiments “reprehensible.”

The closing of the case has prompted some questions over the stance of the US on human rights violations at a time when it supported the first genocide trial against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. The US hailed this year’s conviction a victory for judicial independence in the region.

“The US has acknowledged that they were in violation of international law but are not willing to take measures to redress the wrong beyond public apology,” says Ms. Levesque, which she says she finds difficult to understand when the US has taken such a position on the Rios Montt trial.

However, Anita Isaacs, professor of political science at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and longtime Guatemala scholar, says the US sees the medical experiment case as a closed chapter in its history and has redefined its role in Guatemala. “The pursuit of the genocide case is about sustained judicial reform and how the new United States stands on the side of the law. It’s a before and after picture,” Ms. Isaacs says.

For now, Mr. Vasquez and other survivors continue to look for avenues to bring justice to their plight. He says he hopes to take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.

“Perhaps looking towards the US was never the right option. We need to look to the Guatemalan state and for an international court to determine who was really responsible,” Vasquez says. “After all, they let it happen to us.”

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