The Upside of Genocide

The Upside of Genocide

The reputations of Reagan-era officials who enabled the Guatemalan genocide have not been tarnished.


Guatemala's ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt sits alone at his table after being abandoned by his lawyers during the 20th day of his trial in the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City, April 18, 2013.  Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez

Under the direction of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s then-dictator, the country’s military forces engaged in crimes against humanity—including genocide—against the indigenous people in the Ixil region of the department of Quiché, according to the findings of a three-judge panel. (A constitutional court later vacated the sentence on technical grounds but did not challenge the findings [see Kate Doyle, “Guatemala’s Genocide on Trial,” June 10/17].) Largely ignored during the trial, as a thoughtful piece by The New York Times’s Elisabeth Malkin observed, was the role of top Reagan administration officials—including Ronald Reagan himself—in helping to empower and then cover up the Guatemalan military’s crimes.

When Ríos Montt executed his coup in March 1982, US Ambassador Frederic Chapin—perhaps naïvely, perhaps cynically—welcomed the event with the words “The Guatemalan government has come out of the darkness and into the light.” Even after the killings increased in intensity, this remained the official US line. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliott Abrams credited Ríos Montt with having “brought considerable progress” on human rights issues and insisted that “the amount of killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step.” As if living in an Orwell novel, Abrams demanded that Congress provide the regime with advanced arms because its alleged “progress need[ed] to be rewarded and encouraged.”

This attitude remained consistent up the chain of command. Secretary of State George Shultz believed that the Ríos Montt regime “help[ed] prevent an extremist takeover.” Most enthusiastic of all, perhaps, was President Reagan: he judged Ríos Montt to be “totally dedicated to democracy” and “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.” Were they simply ignorant of the abuses? If they were, it may have been due to willful ignorance. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders wrote to Amnesty International disputing its reporting on the killings in Guatemala and insisted that the government was making “significant progress” on human rights while the genocide was taking place. What’s more, declassified documents reveal that just ten days before Reagan sang the dictator’s praises upon meeting him, the State Department had received reports of a “well-founded allegation of a large-scale killing of Indian men, women and children in a remote area by the [Guatemalan] army.”

Genocide or no, Guatemala was considered an important ally in the Reagan administration’s anticommunist crusade in Central America, which was focused on, but not limited to, Nicaragua and El Salvador. These officials were hoping to convince Congress to lift the arms embargo against Guatemala that had been put in place under the Carter presidency. Reagan wanted to equip the new regime with advanced helicopter parts to improve its ability to strafe and kill its opponents. Congress never agreed to this, but it did grant additional economic aid, while the Guatemalan military got its advanced weaponry from Israel and Taiwan. Moreover, as Allan Nairn reported in The Progressive in 1986, though the helicopter deal did not go through, “in late 1982, [the Reagan administration] quietly approved a pair of transactions worth $40 million to supply the Guatemalan air force with two transport jets and eight T-37 trainers.”

To be fair to the genocidal dictator, as Walter LaFeber notes in his history of US policy in the region, Inevitable Revolutions, what came after his regime was hardly an improvement. Following a 1983 coup in which Ríos Montt was deposed—and which the US may have encouraged—the military continued its genocidal rampage. As LaFeber writes, “In one village, the army herded the entire population into the courthouse, raped the women, beheaded the men, and took the children outside to smash them to death against rocks.”

In 1999, a UN investigative body known as the Historical Clarification Commission reported that Guatemala’s military and paramilitary forces were responsible for 93 percent of the 42,275 cases of people who, in the words of human rights activist Aryeh Neier, were “murdered, disappeared, raped, or tortured”—and that number covered little more than 20 percent of the estimated victims. President Clinton traveled there and apologized for the US role in these crimes. But what I find interesting is how little the act of helping to engender—and then justify—the genocide has mattered to the reputations of the former US officials who helped it along.

Thomas Enders was rewarded with an ambassadorship to Spain. Elliott Abrams was raked over the coals a bit during Iran-Contra for lying to Congress, but not for his role in helping to ensure that the Guatemalan military’s mass murder continued unimpeded. Following a high-level Middle East policy job in the second Bush administration, Abrams was welcomed by the Council on Foreign Relations and frequently gives paid speeches to synagogues and Jewish groups. George Shultz, meanwhile, is as respected a former statesman as anyone alive, and Ronald Reagan, of course, has been turned into an American icon.

Franklin Roosevelt’s reputation has suffered grievously for his relative inaction during the Nazi Holocaust. Henry Kissinger is considered a “war criminal” even in some polite company for his tangential role in the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s (as well as his role in the 1973 Chilean coup). And yet, for some reason, those who encouraged and apologized for the genocidal rampages of the Guatemalan regime have gotten off scot-free. This is itself a kind of crime. How about the next time that, say, Elliott Abrams speaks at a local synagogue, worshipers inquire as to which genocidal murders he condemns and which he not only supports, but actually helps to make possible?

Frank Smyth wrote about the Ríos Montt trial earlier this year, and asked if other Guatemalan military officers would ever face justice for their role in that country's genocide.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy