Did Reagan Finance Genocide in Guatemala?

PHOTO: Ronald Reagan (left) was a close ally of Efrain Rios Montt (right), the former Guatemalan dictator who was recently convicted to 80 years in prison for the genocide of the Ixil people.

On Monday, a Guatemalan court ordered the country's government to apologize to the Ixil population for the crimes of José Efraín Ríos Montt, a dictator who was sentenced to 80 years in prison for his role in war crimes committed between 1982 and 1983.

The verdict concluded that the army, under the command of Ríos Montt, had engaged in a campaign of genocide against the Ixiles, a small Mayan ethnic group. In that sense, it finally offered an answer to the thousands of victims' families who had pleaded for justice since the 1980s.

The trial did not answer all questions, however. For example, it did not place much attention on the extent of U.S. involvement in Guatemala during the 17 months of Ríos Montt's regime. That's in spite of the fact that America reached out to the Central American country offering military aid to combat left-wing guerrillas.

"U.S. military and intelligence units worked closely with the Guatemalan army over the decades of Guatemala's civil war," said Geoff Thale, Central America Program Director at the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA). "Direct U.S. military aid was suspended during the Carter Administration, but then restored by the Reagan Administration, whose Cold War worldview clearly prioritized the fight against insurgents and their civilian supporters over respect for human rights."

Indeed, declassified documents and various reports by human rights organizations depict a story that was widely ignored during the trial, and that raises questions about U.S. foreign policy and the role the country played during the Ixil genocide.

A Bum Rap: Reagan and Guatemala

In 1966, the U.S. trained Guatemalan forces in counterinsurgency operations to fight the growing numbers of left-wing guerrillas that were slowly taking over rural areas of the country. Like many other South and Central American countries, Guatemala was in the midst of a civil war that pitted communist guerrillas against right wing governments helped by brutal armies. The origins of the conflict, which would ultimately total nearly 200,000 deaths, were in part caused by a CIA-backed coup that removed Jacobo Árbenz, a progressive president that intended to promote a full-fledged land reform.

Árbenz was replaced by a military junta led by Coronel Castillo Armas in 1954. The coronel was killed three years later, and replaced by a series of military officers who gradually continued to escalate the violence against guerrillas and indigenous populations.

In 1977, the U.S. State Department published a human rights report that ended military aid to Guatemala. The document detailed abuses and acts of violence that forced the Carter administration to cut direct security assistance. Previously pledged direct or indirect aid, however, was not forbidden, according to Memoria del silencio, a 1999 report written by Guatemala's truth commission. Despite mounting concerns about human rights abuses, between 1978 and 1980, the military received $7.9 million through the State Department's Military Assistance Program and Foreign Military Sales program.

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