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Slaughter in Guatemala

It is fair to ask what would have happened if this process had been allowed to continue. These agrarian committees were similar to the peasant sindicatos which were armed and organized in the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, and which have remained more or less intact since. Although the Bolivian peasants, newly freed from serfdom, were often exploited by their own sindicato leaders, their new organizations have proved to be effective instruments of grassroots pressure on the national government. Peasants tend to vote with their bodies and take great risks when life-and-death questions of land are involved, as shown by the Indian land invasions that have taken place in the Peruvian sierra in recent years.

In Guatemala, however, in May, 1954, a shipment of weapons from Poland intended to arm the peasant militias was seized by the army after being unloaded at the United Fruit Company dock in Puerto Barrios, the country’s only port facility for large ships. A month later Castillo Armas’s “Liberation Army,” backed by the CIA, crossed over from Honduras. It was stopped after a series of skirmishes near the town of Chiquemula in the Oriente. However, the regular army commanders refused to arm the peasant militias to defend the regime and the military command asked Arbenz to resign. They were prompted to do this by John Peurifoy, the US ambassador to Guatemala who was also working for the CIA and who had been sent to Guatemala to organize the 1954 coup. Arbenz was an army colonel himself. He exasperated his civilian followers by agreeing to resign, and a decade of social revolution in Guatemala thus came to an end.

One major consequence of the counterrevolution was the return to the old landowners of 1.5 million acres of land that in less than eighteen months of agrarian reform had been distributed to between 80,000 and 100,000 peasants. To my knowledge, this is the only occasion in Latin American history in which a major land redistribution was reversed. This fact is a key to the hatreds that have since poisoned Guatemalan society.

One can almost speak now of a condition of “structural violence” between irreconcilable elements of the right and left in which the United States has been implicated by supporting a backward landlord class that long ago would have been swept away by social revolution were it not for repeated US intervention. In 1954 the CIA plotted the overthrow of Arbenz, and in 1960 Cuban exile units training for the Bay of Pigs invasion intervened to help put down a barracks revolt against President Miguel Ydigoras by junior army officers. From this group the leaders of the guerrilla movement of the past decade emerged.

Respected members of the democratic opposition now charge that the death lists of “communists” published by right-wing terrorist groups carried names originally given to Guatemalan army intelligence by US Embassy sources, and that the apparatus of repression has been strengthened greatly under the AID public safety program. (Both procedures are normally part of US government operations in Latin America; it is not unusual for AID public safety officers to serve five years in a post, as compared with the normal diplomatic tour of two or three years. The AID men maintain offices in the national police headquarters and enjoy considerable influence because of the equipment, foreign travel, training, and technical advice offered by their agency, whose programs are similar to those of the US military aid missions.) The US ambassador to Guatemala, John Gordon Mein, and two US military advisers were assassinated by guerrillas in 1968 in response to the right-wing terror.

According to Adams, who is cautious in expressing his own political views:

…the changes that were actually accomplished during the revolutionary decade…include the learning that had taken place in the entire population, the “sociological awakening” that could not be forgotten within the generation, the fact that organizing had been learned, and the awareness that the United States had intervened at the international level to stop the organization process. This last could not be easily accepted even by nationalistic Guatemalans antagonistic to Arbenz, and it signaled the operation of legitimate cold war activities at the international level.

Would it have been less costly, in the long run, for the US to have allowed these social movements to run their course?

Recently the terror against opponents of the regime has been appalling. The Guatemalan press reported 103 political assassinations in the three months immediately following President Arana’s inauguration last July 1. These killings coincided with the appearance of a new right-wing vigilante group, Ojo por Ojo (“An Eye for an Eye”), to which were attributed twenty-seven killings between Ambassador von Spreti’s assassination and Arana’s presidential inauguration, and which has since become the most prominent vigilante group in Guatemala. Arana had barely completed his first hundred days in office when he delivered a surprise radio-television address declaring a state of siege, and paternally scolded the Guatemalan people as follows:

How difficult you are! How demanding and how intolerant of others! Each one has the solution, and wants his own way of thinking or acting to be followed by everyone. Otherwise, there is implacable criticism. You sacrificed a little money and one day to give your vote, and you elected Arana and Caceres Lenhoff [the vice-president], giving them a mandate: pacify the country and terminate the wave of criminality. You didn’t set conditions or say how…. The government that you elected made a promise which it will fulfill at all costs, even if it means resorting to drastic measures to save the country….5

The state of seige imposed a nightly curfew from 9 PM to 5 AM, during which time all traffic of vehicles and pedestrians—including ambulances, fire engines, and physicians—was forbidden throughout the national territory. Later, the MLN majority in Congress artificially declared a “state of civil war” in order to give unlimited powers to the government for an unlimited time. Newspapers and radio stations were prohibited from publishing news of crime and violence, except for the texts of bulletins issued by the public relations office of the army. Three journalists who violated this ban—Enrique Salazar Solorzano, Luis Perez Diaz, and Lorenzo Montufar Navas—were kidnapped some time between November 24 and 26, and have not been heard from since. According to a report from Guatemala published last February in the Venezuelan Jesuit magazine SIC:

These drastic measures have created a system of institutional terror…. The specific zone of terror embraces all opposition groups, democratic or not. There is a directorate composed of three cabinet ministers and the President of Congress (Sandoval Alarcón) who plan, initiate, control, define and justify the terror.

On an intermediate level are the “agents of violence,” two Congressional deputies who had directed the White Hand in 1967-68 and a military officer with a black personal record in past right-wing regimes who today is chief of immigration.

Finally, there are the “knives of the king,” the execution squads, drawn from various police forces, especially the secret police, and specially-trained groups recruited as politicians’ bodyguards, and from military police units in the interior.6

The list of the accomplishments of these terror forces is a dreadful one. Some examples:

—At 3:30 PM on November 26, 1970, a Communist law professor at the University of San Carlos, Julio Camey Herrera, was driving through a residential neighborhood of Guatemala City. While he waited for a red light to change, a small blue car drew up alongside and a young man got out and shot Camey through the windshield. The newspaper El Imparcial reported that “the attacker returned to his car, where other men waited, and escaped, taking advantage of the fact that the light had turned green.” The next day the public relations office of the army issued a communiqué saying, “The Government of the Republic laments the murder of Julio Camey Herrera. It informs the people that this shameful deed is another maneuver of the extremes to create problems for State institutions, sowing confusion and doubt.” 7

—On November 29 Humberto Gonzalez Juarez, a leftist radio station owner who at one time was said to have given funds to the guerrillas, disappeared while driving to the Pacific coast with an architect friend, Armando Braun Valle, and Braun’s secretary. On December 8 their corpses were found at the bottom of a 300-foot-deep sewage canal, when the waters had receded. The army’s public relations office announced that “according to the medical examiner’s report, these persons died as a result of bullet holes in various parts of the body…. The Government of the Republic laments what has happened and presents its condolences to their survivors and to the guild of radio announcers and owners to which señor Gonzalez Juarez belonged.”8

—At 8 PM on November 30 Alfonso Bauer Paiz, a well-known leftist writer, politician, and law professor, was shot four times and left for dead after leaving a cocktail party in downtown Guatemala City. Bauer was able to recognize one of his attackers as a congressional bodyguard; he is expected to be paralyzed for life.

—On the night of April 6 a young reporter for “Radio Guatemala Flash,” Ricardo Castro, was kidnapped while on his way home from work, shot in the neck, and left for dead on a road outside the capital. “I recovered consciousness,” he said, “and was taken back to town in a milk truck.” Both Bauer and Castro had been attacked by terrorists before.

—At the end of April, an execution squad came to the house of Diego Leon Pu, an Indian and a Christian Democrat who lived in the department of Quiché and had been organizing cooperatives among the Indians there. He was not at home. The terrorists kidnapped his wife, who was later found dead.

On November 25 the army’s chief of public relations, Col. Virgilio Villagrán Bracamonte, announced that in the two weeks since the state of siege and the all-night curfew were decreed roughly a thousand persons had been arrested. He dismissed higher published estimates as obviously based on conjecture.9 The terror is rationalized as a social as well as a political prophylaxis: the claim is that recidivist criminal offenders are hunted down and killed. In some cases prisoners were taken from jail and shot, their names appearing later on army bulletins as the casualties of clashes with guerrilla bands. As happened during the 1967-68 terror, peasants in the Oriente observed military planes at night flying out to sea to dump corpses. Within a three-day period in early March, sixteen corpses were discovered by workmen dredging the Río Montagua.

During the state of siege, in the hours in which Guatemalans were permitted to walk the streets, hundreds of persons desperately roamed among the jails and hospitals and courthouses and police stations in the capital in search of missing relatives. Each day, mutilated, unidentified corpses were displayed in the amphitheater of the General Hospital of Guatemala City before a gallery of people seeking members of their families.

Three weeks after the journalist Enrique Salazar Solorzano was kidnapped, his father went to the hospital amphitheater to see if his son was among the three bullet-ridden corpses just brought in. “My son is not there,” he said. “What should I do? Who should I talk to if the President says my son is not a prisoner? I would like to remain here and wait for the arrival of more cadavers.”10 A few days later thirteen corpses were discovered near the crater of the Pacaya volcano in the municipality of San Vicente Pacaya, near where the government ran a prison camp. When asked by journalists at the press conference if Salazar Solorzano’s was among them, Col. Villagrán Bracamonte, the chief of army public relations, answered curtly: “If it was, so what?”

On December 18, a week after the MLN-controlled Congress extended the thirty-day state of siege for an indefinite period as a consequence of the president’s decree of a state of “civil war,” the MLN deputy and labor leader, Arnoldo Otten Prado, was machine-gunned to death as he drove away from his house in the early morning.11 Five days later another veteran union official, Jaime Monge Donis, was killed in his car while delivering Christmas cards.12 Both labor leaders had incurred the hostility of right-wing extremists for their attempts to influence President Arana by organizing a pro-government labor confederation.

When the state of siege came up for extension by Congress on December 11, the only opposition to the government’s policy came from the Christian Democratic bloc of four deputies. By far the most vehement and persuasive of these was a short, paralytic lawyer and university professor, Dr. Adolfo Mijangos López, who argued on the floor of Congress:

…the majority of anti-communist sectors applaud the use of murder as a political weapon and as a system of repression, and their applause is published in the daily press. If their congratulations to the murderers is publishable, this is most serious. These congratulations are most alarming because they appear next to the Government’s expressions of condolences when these corpses are discovered….

We are slipping into the realm of arbitrary acts where there is no control at all. Only they can define what is subversion of public order, and from that point there is just a millimeter of distance to the dissolution of the city council or the university or the sindicatos. One thing is to enthusiastically support a program of pacification, and another thing is to approve hastily and without study [state of siege] decrees without even having copies distributed to members of Congress to read.13

At 7 PM on January 13, the night before congressional debate was to resume on the government’s emergency decrees, Adolfo Mijangos López was machine-gunned to death in his wheel chair as he left his law office after work. The government said in a communiqué: “The Public Relations Department of the army laments this cowardly deed that casts the family of Guatemalans into mourning.”14

  1. 5

    From “Mensaje del Presidente Arana a su pueblo,” in La Nación, Guatemala City, November 21, 1970.

  2. 6

    See “El Terror Institucionalizado en Guatemala,” in SIC, No. 332. Caracas, February, 1971, p. 57.

  3. 7

    El Imparcial, Guatemala City, November 27, 1970.

  4. 8

    Ibid., December 8, 1970.

  5. 9

    La Nación, Guatemala City, November 25, 1970.

  6. 10

    El Grafico, December 18, 1970. In the first three months of the state of siege, habeas corpus petitions had been filed on behalf of 483 persons who had disappeared (El Imparcial, January 16, 1971). A month later, leaders of the University Students Association handed President Arana a list of eighteen persons who were arrested and twenty-three others who had disappeared (El Grafico, February 28, 1971, p. 2).

  7. 11

    Prensa Libre, Guatemala City, December 18, 1970.

  8. 12

    El Imparcial, December 23, 1970.

  9. 13

    Diario de las Sesiones del Congreso de la Republica de Guatemala, December 11, 1970, p. 47.

  10. 14

    El Grafico, January 14, 1971.

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