May 14, 2013 -- 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.
"The main way that Guatemala used to obtain dual use military equipment and technology (for military and non-military purposes) during the period of 1978 to 1982 was though the United States," the report concludes.
Ríos Montt became the country's leader after a bloody military coup in March 1982. He set up a military junta, suspended the constitution, and began a crackdown on violence that was initially praised by the United States. U.S. State department officials highlighted the end of the feared death squads that roamed Guatemala City, and said that the general was doing a good job handling the country.
Meanwhile, journalists, human rights activists, and opposition leaders warned international observers about massacres and war crimes in the mountainous regions of Quiché and Chimaltenango. The army was targeting the Ixil and other indigenous groups, killing them indiscriminately, whether they had helped the guerrillas or not.
Ríos Montt, an evangelical Christian known for his supposed piety, repeatedly denied the accusations, labeling the reports as acts of propaganda from left-wing groups. "There is no repression by the army," he told documentary filmmaker Pamela Yates in 1982. "Our strength lies in our capacity to make command decisions. That's the most important thing, because if I can't control the Army, then what am I doing here?"
In the meantime, the Reagan administration had tried to improve its ties with Guatemala. In various news shows, officials proclaimed the possible arrival of a new era for the country. By November, Reagan's administration proposed renewed arms aid, citing an improvement in the human rights situation.
The following month, Reagan met with Ríos Montt, "a man of great personal integrity and commitment," according to the president. When Reagan was asked about human rights violations in Guatemala he said, ''I am inclined to believe they've been getting a bum rap.''
Several months before the meeting, the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency had already concluded otherwise, according to declassified documents compiled by the George Washington University's National Security Archive. And, according to forensic archivist Kate Doyle, by that October, the U.S. embassy was investigating credible reports of numerous massacres involving the Guatemalan military.
Reagan's administration ultimately decided to ignore the warnings, and indirect assistance was secretly resumed through the CIA. "Overall, U.S. intelligence, training, political support and assistance to the Guatemalan government and military in the early and mid-1980s uncritically supported counter-insurgency strategies that targeted civilians, in the cities and in rural areas like the Ixil Triangle," Geoff Thale said. "U.S. policy makers of that era bear some responsibility for the human rights abuses that took place."
Ríos Montt was overthrown in August 1983 in yet another military coup. Nevertheless, he maintained an active public life. He founded a political party called the Guatemalan Republican Front in 1989 and ran for the presidency, despite a constitutional ban. He also served as a congressman from 1995 to 2004, and then from 2008 to 2012. While he was in Congress, his office gave him immunity from prosecution. In January 2013, when the immunity finally expired, a Guatemalan judge charged him with genocide and war crimes (a Spanish court had done the same years earlier).
In the past few months, 96 witnesses testified against him in court and his conviction raised hopes of similar proceedings in Guatemala and across the globe.
"The trial of General Rios Montt is a victory for human rights activists in Guatemala and internationally," Thale said. "It shows that societies that have been deeply scarred by massive human rights abuses do not have to simply bury the past."