Reprinted from Consortium News
Efrain Rios Montt with Ronald Reagan, December 1982.
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Comedian-turned-politician Jimmy Morales, who was sworn in as Guatemala's president on Jan. 14, appears to have close ties to some of the country's most notorious death squad leaders responsible for killing thousands and uprooting tens of thousands of indigenous people from the Guatemalan highlands and the rest of the country in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 6, eight days before the Morales swearing in, Guatemalan police arrested some 18 former military officers for crimes committed during Guatemala's 36-year "death squad" war from 1960 to 1996 that is estimated to have killed a total of 200,000 people. Included in the sweeps were some of the key participants in the dirty war, including Manuel Benedicto Lucas Garcia, the brother of Guatemala's military dictator from 1978-1982, Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia.
I spoke about issues with Allan Nairn, the George Polk Award-winning investigative reporter and human rights activist who has done extensive reporting on the Central American death squads and the U.S. support for them. Nairn was scheduled to testify at the first trial of Rios Montt, but was prevented by the judge.
DB: Let's start with Rios Montt and work our way forward, to the present. Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, they were tried in 2013; Montt was convicted. What was he convicted of?
AN: Well, Rios Montt was convicted of genocide, and he was sentenced to 80 years in prison. His intelligence chief, Rodriguez Sanchez, was acquitted in that preceding. Rios Montt was placed under house arrest, and then immediately the oligarchs of Guatemala ... went on T.V. and they demanded that the Rios Montt conviction be annulled. So the high court of Guatemala set aside the conviction, suspended the case and only now has it come back again to retrial.
And it's a retrial of both Rios Montt and his intelligence chief. But it's being held under special circumstances. It's closed to the public. Only the judge, and the lawyers, and witnesses can watch the proceedings. And Rios Montt is participating from a distance. He has video link up because supposedly his health is not good enough to be present in the courtroom.
And, as you said, there have been innumerable delays. It's not clear what's going to happen with this retrial. But, in a sense, the blow has already been struck. The original genocide case against Rios Montt included a full hearing of testimony from victims of the slaughter, thousands of pages of internal Guatemalan army documents were introduced into evidence. The court issued a massive and detailed decision of about 900 pages, justifying the 80-year sentence for Rios Montt. And also, demanding that he and the armed forces pay compensation to the massacre victims.
And with that, the acknowledgement was made that this genocide took place, that is was a criminal act, that it was a high crime. And the fact that the sentence has been suspended for the moment is more of a legal technicality. In moral terms, and in political terms, the blow has already been struck against Rios Montt. And there's a pretty fair chance that he will eventually die under house arrest.
DB: Let's talk about how close the U.S. government was to these killers. What did the U.S. officials know about the genocide based on the documents?
AN: Well, they knew, essentially, everything. But, more than that, they were participating in it. Rios Montt and the Guatemalan army were clients of the United States. Reagan personally endorsed Rios Montt at the height of the terror. He said he was getting a bum rap on human rights. He said he was a man of great integrity.
Congress was trying to block U.S. weapons supply to Guatemala, but the administration did a series of end runs to supply weapons, the most important of which involved the government of Israel. The U.S. brought in Israel, which supplied Galils and Uzis and also advisers to the Guatemalan military.
There were actual U.S. military personnel in Guatemala, working with the army as they were doing the massacres. I interviewed one of them, a Green Beret captain, Jesse Garcia, and ... I actually went on a maneuver with him. And he described how his instruction included how to destroy towns.
The U.S. also had CIA personnel, U.S. North American CIA personnel, working directly inside the G2, the military intelligence service which coordinated the assassinations and disappearances. The CIA built a new operations center for the G2 near the Guatemala City airport.
The G2 directors, many of them were carried on the payroll of the CIA. And those included General Perez Molina, who was one of the officers who implemented the Rios Montt massacre policy in the countryside, and who later became president of Guatemala. And who just last year was overthrown by a popular uprising, and is now in jail for corruption.
And you mentioned that General Benedicto Lucas Garcia, the former army chief of staff, was one of those just arrested in this recent sweep by Guatemalan prosecutors. Really a very brave move on the part of those Guatemalan prosecutors, and on the part of the victims who came forward to give their testimony, and the human rights advocates in Guatemala, who are pushing these cases. General Benedicto was the favorite of the U.S. embassy. He was the brother, the right hand man, of the dictator who proceeded Rios Montt, General Lucas Garcia.