According to a State Department cable on Oct. 5, 1981, when Guatemalan leaders met again with Walters, they left no doubt about their plans. The cable said Gen. Lucas "made clear that his government will continue as before -- that the repression will continue. He reiterated his belief that the repression is working and that the guerrilla threat will be successfully routed."
Human rights groups saw the same picture. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report on Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government for "thousands of illegal executions." [Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1981]
But the Reagan administration was set on whitewashing the ugly scene. A State Department "white paper," released in December 1981, blamed the violence on leftist "extremist groups" and their "terrorist methods" prompted and supported by Cuba's Fidel Castro.
What the documents from the Reagan library now make clear is that the administration was not simply struggling ineffectively to rein in these massacres -- as the U.S. press corps typically reported -- but was fully onboard with the slaughter of people who were part of the guerrillas' "civilian support mechanisms."
U.S. intelligence agencies continued to pick up evidence of these government-sponsored massacres. One CIA report in February 1982 described an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El Quiche province.
"The commanding officers of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [the EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance," the report said. "Since the operation began, several villages have been burned to the ground, and a large number of guerrillas and collaborators have been killed."
The CIA report explained the army's modus operandi:
"When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed.... When the army encountered an empty village, it was "assumed to have been supporting the EGP, and it is destroyed. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of refugees in the hills with no homes to return to. "
"The army high command is highly pleased with the initial results of the sweep operation, and believes that it will be successful in destroying the major EGP support area and will be able to drive the EGP out of the Ixil Triangle. ... The well documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike."
On Feb. 2, 1982, Richard Childress, another of Reagan's national security aides, wrote a "secret" memo to his colleagues summing up this reality on the ground:
"As we move ahead on our approach to Latin America, we need to consciously address the unique problems posed by Guatemala. Possessed of some of the worst human rights records in the region, ... it presents a policy dilemma for us. The abysmal human rights record makes it, in its present form, unworthy of USG [U.S. government] support. ...
"Beset by a continuous insurgency for at least 15 years, the current leadership is completely committed to a ruthless and unyielding program of suppression. Hardly a soldier could be found that has not killed a 'guerrilla.'"
The Rise of Rios Montt
However, Reagan remained committed to supplying military hardware to Guatemala's brutal regime. So, the administration welcomed Gen. Efrain Rios Montt's March 1982 overthrow of the thoroughly bloodstained Gen. Lucas.
An avowed fundamentalist Christian, Rios Montt impressed Official Washington where the Reagan administration immediately revved up its propaganda machinery to hype the new dictator's "born-again" status as proof of his deep respect for human life. Reagan hailed Rios Montt as "a man of great personal integrity."
By July 1982, however, Rios Montt had begun a new scorched-earth campaign called his "rifles and beans" policy. The slogan meant that pacified Indians would get "beans," while all others could expect to be the target of army "rifles." In October, Rios Montt secretly gave carte blanche to the feared "Archivos" intelligence unit to expand "death squad" operations. Based at the Presidential Palace, the "Archivos" masterminded many of Guatemala's most notorious assassinations.
The U.S. embassy was soon hearing more accounts of the army conducting Indian massacres. On Oct, 21, 1982, one cable described how three embassy officers tried to check out some of these reports but ran into bad weather and canceled the inspection. Still, the cable put the best possible spin on the situation. Though unable to check out the massacre reports, the embassy officials did "reach the conclusion that the army is completely up front about allowing us to check alleged massacre sites and to speak with whomever we wish."