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.”