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The Historic Conviction of US-Supported Guatemalan Strongman Rios Montt, And What Comes Next

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Perez Molina is very fearful of what could happen. On the night after the verdict he gave an interview to Spanish language CNN and interviewer Fernando del Rincon pressed Perez Molina on the interviews he had with me in the middle of the massacres in the mid-1980's, and his own role in the massacres. As soon as Rincon began asking about that, the signal from the President in his palace to CNN suddenly went dead. Back at the CNN studio they were surprised. The line remained dead for several minutes.  By the time it came back on, and Perez Molina had gathered his wits, he started fiercely contesting the question, refusing to answer. In the end he said you've go to understand, the guerrillas had recruited entire families as collaborators -- they had women and children as collaborators.  It seemed he was giving a rationale for the killing of families. After the interview was over -- I was in Guatemala at the time -- I got to see the second half of the interview. The CNN access to the interview on the website was blocked in Guatemala, but some viewers managed to videotape it and put it up on YouTube. The confrontational interview with Perez Molina got more than 21,000 hits in a matter of hours, which is a huge amount for Guatemala. It was a sensation. Everybody was talking about it. Then those YouTube interviews were inexplicably taken down. Last night I did an interview on CNN en espanol on that same show. I know people in Guatemala have attempted to put that up on YouTube. We'll see how long those stay up there. Perez Molina is clearly very worried about this.

DBWhat kind of involvement and documentary evidence could come up about the US relationship with the Guatemalan slaughter machine at this time?

AN: It started at the top. Reagan personally backed Rios Montt. He met with him and called him a man of great integrity -- said he was getting a bum rap on human rights. The US had US personnel working inside the G2, the military intelligence agency that picked the targets for assassination and disappearance. The CIA carried much of the top Guatemalan army and leadership on their payroll. The US military attache in Guatemala was providing advice to the army. Colonel George Menas told me at the time that he helped develop the sweep strategy that sent the army into all these mountain villages. He said it was developed jointly with a General Benedicto Lucas Garcia, and that the attack had been part of the systematic strategy of Rios Montt. The US had a Green Beret there who I interviewed and who even took me out on a maneuver. He was training the Guatemalan military in, among other things, these are his words -- "how to destroy towns." The US had provided weapons, bombs, grenades, planes, helicopters -- you name it. The US had also arranged for Israel to step in and become the principle supplier of hardware to the Guatemalan army, in particular assault rifles, the kahlil automatic rifle. This was because the administration was running into problems with Congress, which wouldn't go along with a lot of their plans to aid the Guatemalan military, so they did an end run by using the government of Israel. That tactic started in the Carter administration. It was Prezinsky who helped set up that approach. The US was supporting the Guatemalan military in a multitude of ways as these crimes were going on. Those kinds of actions behind a crime are a crime in itself. It's similar to what President George W. Bush said about terrorists -- if you arm a terrorist, you are a terrorist. I think he's right about that. If you arm a genocidist, what does that make you? It certainly makes you subject to indictment. 

The US courts should move against these surviving US officials, including people like Elliot Abrams, one of Reagan's top policy makers on Central America. There were dozens upon dozens of other top policy makers in the US apparatus when these crimes were taking place. We don't know the full extent of US complicity because although there are some US documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, in censored form, there are a lot more that remain classified, including US national security agency intercepts of communications between Rios Montt and his army, and communications within the Guatemalan army. One interesting thing that came out in the trial as witness after witness testified, was a very substantial number of them talked about fleeing into the mountains and being bombed, attacked and machine gunned from US planes and helicopters. At the time this was going I was aware this was happening in some cases, but from the testimony of the witnesses, it sounded like these attacks from US planes and helicopters were more frequent than we realized at the time. That's an example of how we don't know the whole story yet -- how extensive the US complicity was in these crimes.  

DBYou worked on a related story about Hector Gramajo who was a general under Rios Montt and was a key player in the slaughter in the highlands. He got his masters at the Harvard Kennedy School. I called up the PR guy there and asked him if he understood that the students were going to classes with a mass murderer. The response was "I don't know about the mass murder, but the students seem to like him." It suggests a terrible closeness to what happened.  

AN: Yes. The web of collaboration between the US -- not just the US government, but also various other powerful institutions in the US -- and the mass murder in Guatemala, as in many other countries, is very extensive. General Gramajo was one of the top generals under Rios Montt and was one of those responsible for these massacres. He was brought up to Harvard, being groomed for the presidency, preparing to come back to Guatemala after Harvard and run for president. While he was there, in his graduation robes, he was served with a lawsuit. There were a number of us who worked for the Center for Constitutional Rights, and we were able to help mount a lawsuit against Gramajo under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a civil action, because in this country you can't bring a criminal action. It is possible to bring an action under this law, which recently has been drastically cut back under a ruling by the Roberts Supreme Court, so it's much harder to use this law now than it was back then in the 90's. Under this civil action, Gramajo had to stand trial in a US federal court for his role in these massacres as crimes against humanity. The court ordered him to pay money damages of about 11, 12 or 13 million dollars. He didn't show up, or pay the money, but fled the country and went back to Guatemala. The case damaged his presidential prospects. It's a good example that Harvard, completely knowing who he was, would have him there. But this happens all the time. Rios Montt personally worked with an evangelical church that had its origins in the US, called the Church of the Word. The first time I interviewed Rios Montt was in the palace a couple of months after he seized power, and he said, "I am going to get a billion dollars from Pat Robertson." I doubt Robertson told him that, but it's what Rios Montt said, and they did work very closely together. He got support from congressman Jack Kemp at that time. Today Rios Montt's main political spokesperson is his daughter, who is married to a former US republican congressman from Illinois, is a former member of congress in Guatemala, and was seen as a future presidential candidate in Guatemala. It's not like Rios Montt is an isolated monster who stands outside the US orbit. Some press accounts portray it this way -- the US is the virtuous observer, looking at what Rios Montt did and saying we are shocked these terrible things happen and we support the trial  No.  Rios Montt was Washington's man. They've now abandoned him as they've abandoned many others like Noriega, Khadafy, Saddam, Marcos and so many others. But he was unquestionably Washington's man -- and not just Washington -- a man of other elite institutions as well.  

DB: Allan Nairn, thank you so much for your work.  Whatever develops, this has already been a significant, precedent-setting case for human rights, and particularly for indigenous people. 

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)
 

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