« | Home | »

Reagan’s Favourite Genocidaire


In 1954, the elected, mildly progressive president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, was deposed in a coup orchestrated by the CIA. Arbenz planned modest land reforms that threatened the interests of the United Fruit Company. His successor reversed the reforms and put to the firing squad an estimated 8000 opponents. The coup launched 42 years of dictatorship and violent repression. By the time peace accords were signed between the government and leftist guerillas in 1996, at least 200,000 people had died violently, more than 90 per cent at the hands of government agents; 100,000 women and girls had been raped and one million people displaced. Even after the peace accords, political assassinations continued.

One president in the 1970s said that to eliminate the guerrillas he would ‘turn the country into a cemetery’. His prescription came closest to fulfilment during the short but bloody dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who on Friday was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison.
When Ríos Montt seized power in March 1982, the guerrillas were having some success. He believed they were drawing much of their strength from Mayan villages in the north-west of the country. About 400 villages were destroyed before Ríos Montt was toppled from power in August 1983.
Allan Nairn, a reporter who was due to have given evidence at the trial until the Guatemalan government stepped in to prevent him, has documented some of these massacres. There was nothing clandestine about them; they were designed to shock. Whole populations were marched into village squares and shot or strangled. Women and girls testified to being systematically raped by soldiers.

About 70 witnesses gave personal accounts to the trial. Pedro Chávez Brito, 41, told of the attack on his village on 4 November 1982. They killed his mother. He hid with his pregnant sister and two children, including a newborn baby, among the chickens, but the soldiers found them. His sister begged for their lives, but the military tied her up and set the house on the fire, killing about ten family members. Chávez survived only by hiding under some wood, ‘like an animal’, naked and without food, for eight days.
At the time, Ríos Montt defended what was going on in a way reminiscent of US justifications for attacks on Vietnamese villages: ‘Look, the problem of the war is not just a question of who is shooting. For each one who is shooting there are ten who are working behind him.’ Ríos Montt had the active support of President Reagan, whom he met in December 1982. Reagan saw Guatemala as a proxy battleground in the cold war. He said that Ríos Montt was ‘totally dedicated to democracy’ and had been given a ‘bum rap’ on human rights issues. Perhaps he’d been persuaded by the US ambassador, who earlier in the year said that the ‘killings have stopped’.
While the trial’s verdict means that the 86 year-old ex-dictator should spend the rest of his life in jail, it also has wider implications. It’s the first domestic conviction of a former head of state on genocide charges, and a milestone in Guatemala’s faltering progress towards cleaner politics. It provides a degree of justice to Mayan villagers, who nevertheless remain deeply impoverished and marginalised. 

More broadly, it was a trial of Guatemala’s political establishment. The current president, Otto Pérez Molina, at one point denied there had been genocide and tried to stop the trial, allowing it to continue only as long as he wouldn’t be drawn into it. Yet it was inevitable that he would, as he had been the commander in charge of army units who carried out some of the massacres. Will he face prosecution when his presidential immunity ends in 2016?

Comments on “Reagan’s Favourite Genocidaire”

  1. Much of the tragedy of this story of course happened on the ground in Guatemala itself. But to consider also is that like most countries opened up for the “Shock Doctrine” of American foreign policy, the immediate result was an exodus of children via adoption to the United States among other receiving countries. Some mothers of such children, such as Loyda Rodriguez, have successfully won cases for repatriation in the Guatemala court system, but the U.S. of course will not comply. The tragedy of this imposed dictator is also to be found in the thousands of displaced and dispossessed children declared “orphans” and sold abroad.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement