Vernon Walters, a former deputy director of the CIA who served as President Ronald Reagan's ambassador-at-large in the early 1980s.
Over the next several years, the military assistance from the Reagan administration assisted the Guatemalan army in doing just that, engaging in the slaughter of some 100,000 people, including what a truth commission deemed genocide against the Mayan Indians in the northern highlands.
In 1983, national security aide Oliver North (who later became a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal) reported in a memo that Reagan's Deputy National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane (another key Iran-Contra figure) was approaching Israel over how to deliver 10 UH-1H helicopters to Guatemala to give the army greater mobility in its counterinsurgency war.
According to these documents that I found at the Reagan library -- and other records declassified in the late 1990s -- it's also clear that Reagan and his administration were well aware of the butchery underway in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America.
The relaxed attitude toward the Guatemalan regime's brutality took shape in spring 1981 as Reagan's State Department "advised our Central American embassies that it has been studying ways to restore a closer, cooperative relationship with Guatemala," according to a White House "Situation Room Checklist" dated April 8, 1981.
The document added: "State believes a number of changes have occurred which could make Guatemalan leaders more receptive to a new U.S. initiative: the Guatemalans view the new administration as more sympathetic to their problems [and] they are less suspect of the U.S. role in El Salvador," where the Reagan administration was expanding support for another right-wing regime infamous for slaughtering its political opponents, including Catholic clergy.
"State has concluded that any attempt to reestablish a dialogue would require some initial, condition-free demonstration of our goodwill. However, this could not include military sales which would provoke serious U.S. public and congressional criticism. State will undertake a series of confidence building measures, free of preconditions, which minimize potential conflict with existing legislation," which then barred military assistance to Guatemala because of its long record of human rights crimes.
The "checklist" added that the State Department...
"...has also decided that the administration should engage the Guatemalan government at the highest level in a dialogue on our bilateral relations and the initiatives we can take together to improve them. Secretary [of State Alexander] Haig has designated [retired] General Vernon Walters as his personal emissary to initiate this process with President [Fernando Romeo] Lucas [Garcia].
"If Lucas is prepared to give assurances that he will take steps to halt government involvement in the indiscriminate killing of political opponents and to foster a climate conducive to a viable electoral process, the U.S. will be prepared to approve some military sales immediately."
But the operative word in that paragraph was "indiscriminate." The Reagan administration expressed no problem with killing civilians if they were considered supporters of the guerrillas who had been fighting against the country's ruling oligarchs and generals since the 1950s when the CIA organized the overthrow of Guatemala's reformist President Jacobo Arbenz.
Sparing the "Non Politicized"
The distinction was spelled out in "Talking Points" for Walters to deliver in a face-to-face meeting with General Lucas and his senior advisers. As edited inside the White House in April 1981, the "Talking Points" read:
"The President and Secretary Haig have designated me as [their] personal emissary to discuss bilateral relations on an urgent basis.
"Both the President and the Secretary recognize that your country is engaged in a war with Marxist guerrillas. We are deeply concerned about externally supported Marxist subversion in Guatemala and other countries in the region. As you are aware, we have already taken steps to assist Honduras and El Salvador resist this aggression.
"The Secretary has sent me here to see if we can work out a way to provide material assistance to your government. ... We have minimized negative public statements by US officials on the situation in Guatemala.... We have arranged for the Commerce Department to take steps that will permit the sale of $3 million worth of military trucks and Jeeps to the Guatemalan army. ...
"With your concurrence, we propose to provide you and any officers you might designate an intelligence briefing on regional developments from our perspective. Our desire, however, is to go substantially beyond the steps I have just outlined. We wish to reestablish our traditional military supply and training relationship as soon as possible.
"As we are both aware, this has not yet been feasible because of our internal political and legal constraints relating to the use by some elements of your security forces of deliberate and indiscriminate killing of persons not involved with the guerrilla forces or their civilian support mechanisms. I am not referring here to the regrettable but inevitable death of innocents though error in combat situations, but to what appears to us a calculated use of terror to immobilize non politicized people or potential opponents. ...
"If you could give me your assurance that you will take steps to halt official involvement in the killing of persons not involved with the guerrilla forces or their civilian support mechanism ...we would be in a much stronger position to defend successfully with the Congress a decision to begin to resume our military supply relationship with your government."