Last week's grotesque revelation about American public health doctors infecting nearly 700 Guatemalans with venereal disease to test penicillin from 1946-48 marked just the start of the U.S. government's post-World War II abuse of that Central American country.
Indeed, as troubling as the VD experiments were, U.S. administrations from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan would do much worse, treating Guatemala as a test tube for Cold War counterinsurgency experiments that led to the slaughter of some 200,000 people, including genocide against Mayan Indian tribes.
Guatemala's special place as Washington's experimental lab for repression began in 1954 when President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to try out new psychological warfare strategies in destabilizing and removing Guatemala's democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz.
Arbenz had offended U.S. business and government leaders by implementing a land reform project that threatened the massive holdings of United Fruit and by letting leftists compete within the political process.
The CIA ousted Arbenz with a combination of clever propaganda and armed insurrection, leading to a series of repressive military dictatorships that further radicalized Guatemala's indigenous poor and urban intellectuals.
Washington grew more alarmed after Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution in 1959, his alliance with the Soviet Union and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. As the Cold War heated up with the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson's administration looked for new strategies to thwart the spread of leftist revolution elsewhere, especially in Latin America.
By the mid-1960s, the United States was assisting the Guatemalan military in developing more refined methods of repression. Guatemala's first "death squads" took shape under anti-terrorist training provided by a U.S. public safety adviser named John Longon, according to U.S. government documents released in the late 1990s.
In January 1966, Longon reported to his superiors about both overt and covert components of his anti-terrorist strategies. On the covert side, Longon pressed for "a safe house [to] be immediately set up" for coordination of security intelligence.
"A room was immediately prepared in the [Presidential] Palace for this purpose and " Guatemalans were immediately designated to put this operation into effect," according to Longon's report.
Longon's operation within the presidential compound became the starting point for the infamous "Archivos" intelligence unit that evolved into a clearinghouse for Guatemala's most notorious political assassinations.
Just two months after Longon's report, a secret CIA cable noted the clandestine execution of several Guatemalan "communists and terrorists" on the night of March 6, 1966.
By the end of the year, the Guatemalan government was bold enough to request U.S. help in establishing special kidnapping squads, according to a cable from the U.S. Southern Command that was forwarded to Washington on Dec. 3, 1966.
By 1967, the Guatemalan counterinsurgency terror had gained a fierce momentum. On Oct. 23, 1967, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research noted the "accumulating evidence that the [Guatemalan] counterinsurgency machine is out of control." The report noted that Guatemalan "counter-terror" units were carrying out abductions, bombings, torture and summary executions "of real and alleged communists."
A Diplomat's Complaint
The mounting death toll in Guatemala disturbed some American officials assigned to the country. The embassy's deputy chief of mission, Viron Vaky, expressed his concerns in a remarkably candid report that he submitted on March 29, 1968, after returning to Washington. Vaky framed his arguments in pragmatic terms, but his moral anguish broke through.
"The official squads are guilty of atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated," Vaky wrote.