In other words, though the "talking points" were framed as an appeal to reduce the "indiscriminate" slaughter of "non politicized people," they amounted to an acceptance of scorched-earth tactics against people involved with the guerrillas and "their civilian support mechanism." The way that played out in Guatemala -- as in nearby El Salvador -- was the massacring of peasants in regions considered sympathetic to leftist insurgents.
Cables on Killings
As reflected in the "Talking Points" and as confirmed by other U.S. government documents from that time period, the Reagan administration was well aware that the Guatemalan military was engaged in mass killings of Guatemalan civilians.
According to one "secret" cable also from April 1981 -- and declassified in the 1990s -- the CIA was confirming Guatemalan government massacres even as Reagan was moving to loosen the military aid ban. On April 17, 1981, a CIA cable described an army massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory, because the population was believed to support leftist guerrillas.
A CIA source reported that "the social population appeared to fully support the guerrillas" and "the soldiers were forced to fire at anything that moved." The CIA cable added that "the Guatemalan authorities admitted that 'many civilians' were killed in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were non-combatants." [Many of the Guatemalan documents declassified in the 1990s can be found at the National Security Archive's Web site.]
In May 1981, despite these ongoing atrocities, Reagan dispatched Walters to tell the Guatemalan leaders that the new U.S. administration wanted to lift the human rights embargoes on military equipment that former President Jimmy Carter and Congress had imposed.
In essence, Walters was giving a green light to Guatemala to continue the practice of slaughtering guerrillas and their civilian supporters, a counterinsurgency strategy that was practiced during some of the darkest days of the Vietnam War in such infamous incidents as the My Lai massacre.
The "Talking Points" also put the Reagan administration in line with the fiercely anti-communist regimes elsewhere in Latin America, where right-wing "death squads" operated with impunity liquidating not only armed guerrillas but civilians who were judged sympathetic to left-wing causes like demanding greater economic equality and social justice.
In the 1970s, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and other South American countries even banded together in a cross-border assassination program that hunted down leftist and other political opponents around the world, including inside the United States.
Called "Operation Condor," the wave of assassinations reached Washington D.C. on Sept. 21, 1976, when Chilean intelligence assets exploded a car bomb killing former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and American co-worker Ronni Moffitt as they drove down Massachusetts Avenue through an area known as Embassy Row.
The original cover story for the assassination plot had been a meeting at the CIA with Vernon Walters, who was then deputy CIA director under CIA Director George H.W. Bush. Walters also had served as U.S. military attache to Brazil at the time of a right-wing military coup in 1964.
Reagan again turned to Walters in 1981 to serve as the President's ambassador-at-large. One of his key roles was coordinating with right-wing governments across Latin America in their escalating wars against leftist insurgencies.
Despite his aw-shucks style, Reagan found virtually every anti-communist action justified, no matter how brutal. From his eight years in the White House, there is no historical indication that he was morally troubled by the bloodbath and even genocide that occurred in Central America while he was shipping hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the implicated forces.
The death toll was staggering -- an estimated 70,000 or more political killings in El Salvador, possibly 20,000 slain from the Contra war in Nicaragua, about 200 political "disappearances" in Honduras and some 100,000 people eliminated during a resurgence of political violence in Guatemala. The one consistent element in these slaughters was the overarching Cold War rationalization, emanating in large part from Ronald Reagan's White House.
Despite their frequent claims to the contrary, the evidence is now overwhelming that Reagan and his advisers had a clear understanding of the extraordinary brutality going on in Guatemala and elsewhere, based on their own internal documents. As they prepared to ship military equipment to Guatemala, White House officials knew that the Guatemalan military was engaged in massacres of the Mayans and other perceived enemies.