Let's Not Forget the Suffering the United States Has Inflicted on Guatemala
In July 1996, In These Times documented the CIA’s myriad abuses during the Guatemalan Civil War. It’s a history that Vice President Kamala Harris has conveniently ignored.
In These Times Editors
During her recent visit to Guatemala, Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a frank message to Central Americans hoping to find refuge in the United States.
“I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border,” she said at a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on June 7. “Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.”
Harris’s comments drew criticism from organizations advocating for asylum seekers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter that seeking asylum at the U.S. border is “100% legal” and called on the United States to “finally acknowledge its contributions to destabilization and regime change in the region.”
In June of 1996, the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) released a report on the CIA’s involvement in the Guatemalan Civil War that revealed myriad human rights abuses by the agency, confirming what many Guatemalan victims had already suspected. Lisa Haugaard, legislative coordinator for the Latin America Working Group, reviewed the IOB report for an article titled, “Admissions and Omissions: Declassified CIA Documents Shed Light on Shady Activities in Guatemala.”
In the July 1996 issue of In These Times, Haugaard wrote:
“We at last have in writing what the U.S. government has denied for years — we have been fighting the dirty war in Guatemala,” said Dianna Ortiz, a U.S. nun who was tortured by the Guatemalan military in 1989, and who has since sought to discover who was behind her torture. The president’s advisory Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) report on human rights cases and the CIA’s role in Guatemala, released on June 28, shows that the CIA knowingly hired paid informants who were involved in assassinations, kidnappings and torture. The report also asserts that U.S. support was “vital” to the Guatemalan intelligence services.
Buried on page 32 of the 67-page study is the revelation that from 1982-91, the School of the Americas and the U.S. Army’s Southern Command used instruction materials in training Latin American officers, including Guatemalans, that “appeared to condone practices … such as executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment.” The School of the Americas, under attack for the poor human rights record of its graduates, has long maintained that its instruction is above-board and that notorious graduates are “a few bad apples.”
According to the IOB, virtually the entire report was released to the public — an unusual occurrence due largely to intense public pressure on the Clinton administration. Some 400 CIA and Defense Department documents were declassified and released to the public at the same time, along with additional material from 450 of the 5,000 documents released by the State Department in May.
American lawyer Jennifer Harbury’s search for her husband, Guatemalan guerrilla leader Efrain Bamaca, who vanished March 12, 1992, after a skirmish with the Guatemalan army, led to last year’s revelations of CIA involvement with human rights violators in that country. By means of repeated protests and hunger strikes, Harbury sought to force the U.S. and Guatemalan governments to release information relating to her husband’s whereabouts. Finally, in March 1995, Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, disclosed that the CIA had known for years that one of its paid assets, Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, may have been involved in Bamaca’s killing as well as in the 1990 assassination of Michael DeVine. The connection to the DeVine case was particularly startling, since the U.S. government had suspended military aid to Guatemala because of its failure to fully investigate and prosecute the case against the killers of DeVine, a U.S. citizen who owned an inn in the Guatemalan countryside.
After these allegations became widely publicized, the White House ordered the IOB in March 1995 to conduct a government-wide review of the DeVine and Bamaca cases, as well as any intelligence bearing on the torture, disappearance or death of U.S. citizens in Guatemala since 1984. These cases include the 1984 killing of Peace Corps volunteer Peter Wolfe, the 1985 killings of journalists Griffith Davis and Nicholas Blake, the 1989 stabbing of human rights worker Meredith Larson, the 1990 assault on social worker Josh Zinner, and the 1992 death of archaeologist Peter Tiscione. Many of these victims and family members had joined an informal network called “Coalition Missing” to demand an accounting on their cases.
As the months stretched into a year of waiting for the lOB’s report, Sister Ortiz began a five-week vigil outside the White House in March. She was there all night as well as all but three hours of the day, sleeping fitfully in a sleeping bag, accompanied by members of religious and peace organizations. The vigil, which ended with a week’s fast, attracted considerable congressional and public support. One hundred and one members of the House of Representatives signed a letter calling on President Clinton to declassify documents on Guatemala.
Human rights advocates are disappointed by how little the long-awaited report reveals about specific cases. Dianna Ortiz’s case is barely touched upon, since the IOB decided to reserve judgment until the Justice Department’s separate investigation into her case is concluded. The IOB said it had no information about her claim that a man with an American accent, called Alejandro by her torturers, was present at her torture. According to Ortiz, her torturers appeared to report to Alejandro.
Citing conflicting information from intelligence sources, the report concludes that CIA paid asset Alpirez was not involved in the deaths of Bamaca and DeVine, although it asserts that he was involved in the interrogation of Bamaca and the cover-up of the DeVine case. Little new information is revealed in the cases of other U.S. citizens killed or wounded in Guatemala since 1984.
For Dianna Ortiz and other victims and relatives, the report provides little relief. “I know what few U.S. citizens know,” she stated at a July 1 press conference. “I know what it is to be an innocent civilian, and to be accused, interrogated and tortured. I know what it is to have my own government eschew my claims for justice because they cause political problems for a close ally. I know what it is to wait in the dark for torture, and what it is to wait in the dark for the truth. I am still waiting.”
The report, however, does provide a remarkable admission by the U.S. government of the extent of American involvement with the Guatemalan military and direct association with individuals implicated in serious misdeeds. While Alpirez is judged not to have participated in the DeVine and Bamaca killings — a judgment their widows still doubt — the report confirms that “several CIA assets were credibly alleged to have ordered, planned or participated in serious human rights violations such as assassination, extrajudicial execution, torture, or kidnapping while they were assets— and that the CIA’s Directorate of Operations headquarters was aware at the time of the allegations.” Moreover, “a number of the station’s liaison contacts — Guatemalan officials with whom the station worked in an official capacity— were also alleged to have been involved in human rights abuses or in covering them up.”
With the report, we now have the government’s own admission that the United States funded and supported the Guatemalan intelligence service as a partner in pursuit of mutual objectives as late as 1995. Publicly, the U.S. government had stressed a very different set of goals — U.S. support for democracy and human rights. “The funds the CIA provided to the Guatemalan liaison services were vital to the [Guatemalan intelligence service] D-2 and the [presidential guard] Archives,” the report says. “This funding was seen as necessary to make these services more capable partners with the station, particularly in pursuing anti-communist and counternarcotics objectives. The CIA, with the knowledge of ambassadors and other State Department and National Security Council officials, as well as the Congress, continued this aid after the termination” of U.S. military assistance to Guatemala in 1990.
While the report asserts that CIA funds were not increased to compensate for the cutoff of military aid, the $1 million to $3.5 million per year that flowed from FY 1989 to FY 1995 represented a significant sum. Direct military aid in 1990 before the cutoff was only $9 million.
The report paints a picture of a CIA station that closely identified with its counterparts in the Guatemalan intelligence services and military. The end of the Cold War “had only a limited effect upon the mechanics of how the CIA carried out its business and upon the mind-set of CIA officers dealing with Guatemala,” the report says. “Station officers continued to view the communist insurgents — who seemed to threaten a more democratic government — as the primary enemy, and they viewed the Guatemalan government and security services as partners in the fight against this common foe and against new threats such as narcotics and illegal alien smuggling.”
Although U.S. Embassy officials were aware of CIA funding for the Guatemalan intelligence services, the station failed until the end of 1994 to inform them that its assets and contacts were involved in human rights abuses. In its reports to Congress on how CIA programs in Guatemala furthered respect for human rights, the station consistently put a positive spin on the actions of the Guatemalan intelligence services and withheld information concerning their involvement in human rights abuses.
The IOB report, rich in these kinds of revelations, comes to a set of disappointing conclusions and recommendations. It fails to challenge the propriety of the basic policy: U.S. government association with the very forces most damaging to human rights in Guatemala. Instead, it says that occasional association with “unsavory” groups and individuals is necessary to further foreign policy goals. At a July 2 press conference, former CIA officer David MacMichael challenged the relative usefulness of such intelligence sources, and emphasized the damage this does to the United States. “If you lie down with dogs,” he pointed out, “you get up with fleas.”
The IOB recommends that U.S. intelligence agencies establish clear “guidance” on the recruiting and maintaining of assets with human rights or criminal allegations against them. As the report notes approvingly, the CIA has recently issued such guidance in response to this scandal. But it includes a loophole allowing senior officials to approve use of such assets where national security interests warrant. Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International challenges such a loophole, given its implication that national security interests can outweigh human rights imperatives. “How can anyone involved in human rights violations be considered an ‘asset’ to the U.S. government?” Salinas asks.
The IOB report itself judges the CIA leniently, since in most cases the agency broke no laws — there are only “guidelines” regarding reporting to Congress. This suggests the importance of establishing laws, not mere guidance, prohibiting the funding of individuals and institutions involved in gross human rights violations. Only the force of law would make lack of compliance a serious matter.
The IOB also admonished the State Department, the National Security Agency and other government agencies for failing to provide relevant information on cases to victims and relatives. In its recommendations, the IOB urges the State Department to provide information from intelligence reports where needed in briefings to such U.S. citizens.
Unfortunately, the report also comes down hard on administration officials and members of Congress who leak information to the public. This is a “backhanded slap” at Rep. Torricelli, says MacMichael. Without Torricelli’s leak, none of this debacle might have come to light.
The IOB report on Guatemala offers an insider’s peek at the shady underworld of CIA operatives. It shows that U.S. government support for foreign forces actively engaged in repressing their own people did not end with the Cold War. And as evidence about the U.S. role in Haiti and Honduras suggests, this practice is not limited to Guatemala.