(The complete Amnesty International report on Guatemala, a part of which follows, includes case histories and testimony from those involved in detention and torture. It was released on February 18.* )

The human rights issue that dominates all others in the Republic of Guatemala is that people who oppose or are imagined to oppose the government are systematically seized without warrant, tortured, and murdered, and that these tortures and murders are part of a deliberate and long-standing program of the Guatemalan government.

This report contains information, published for the first time, which shows how the selection of targets for detention and murder, and the deployment of official forces for extra-legal operations, can be pinpointed to secret offices in an annex of Guatemala’s National Palace, under the direct control of the president of the republic.

The report also includes transcripts of two unique interviews: the first is with a peasant who, as far as Amnesty International knows, is the sole survivor of political imprisonment in Guatemala in 1980; the second is with a former conscript soldier who served as a member of a plainclothes army unit and who described the abduction of civilians who were later tortured and murdered.

Between January and November in 1980 alone some 3,000 people described by government representatives as “subversives” and “criminals” were either shot on the spot in political assassinations or seized and murdered later; at least 364 others seized in this period have not yet been accounted for.

The government of Guatemala denies having made a single political arrest or holding a single political prisoner since President Romco Lucas García took office in July 1978. All abuses are attributed to “independent” paramilitary groups beyond official control. This report adds to previously available evidence that these actions are carried out by units of the’ regular security services. No convincing evidence has been produced that the groups described by the authorities do in fact exist.

In the final section of the report, Amnesty International reproduces the interviews, transcribed from tape recordings, with two Guatemalans who have had personal experience with the torture and murder of political suspects by the Guatemalan army.

The former prisoner was abducted on February 15, 1980, by a plainclothes army squad in a village in northern Guatemala. He escaped from Huehuetenango army base in western Guatemala after being held for eleven days.

He gives details of his place of detention—in the base slaughterhouse—and of how he was interrogated under torture by Guatemalan army officers.

He describes the execution of three other prisoners in his presence, strangled with a garrote—a technique cited as the cause of death in hundreds of killings in 1980, including those of thirty-seven people found in a mass grave in San Juan Comalapa, near Guatemala City, in March 1980.

The former conscript soldier, of Kekchi Indian origin, gives an account of his second year of military service, when he served as a member of a plainclothes army unit in Guatemala City. He describes the surveillance of civilians under political suspicion, and the abduction of civilians for interrogation under torture, and then murder, at the Guatemalan army base of the Brigada Militar Mariscal Zavala on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

His testimony is of particular significance as a document of record. Political killings and “disappearances” involving government forces are not new in Guatemala: in 1976 Amnesty International estimated that about 20,000 people had been victims of these abuses since 1966, when they first began to occur regularly. But although in the past other members of the security services have told of their participation in abductions and killings—for instance, Lauro Alvarado y Alvarado, a National Police officer, who was later killed in 1975—this former conscript’s testimony is the most extensive and detailed of its kind and the first by a conscript soldier describing the routine extralegal security measures of regular army units….

The interviews were conducted in February 1980. The transcripts have been edited for length and the names of those involved removed. Their publication was decided only after their authenticity and accuracy had been determined by exhaustive analysis of the two tapes and extensive cross-checking of information. Only indirect communication was possible with the interviewer of the escaped prisoner but the former soldier was interviewed by a journalist from Europe now in close contact with Amnesty International.

The interviewers agreed to the tape transcripts being published by Amnesty International provided that they were edited so that no one could be endangered by their release. Although the escaped prisoner, whose identity is known to the government of Guatemala, and the former soldier are now reported to be safe outside Guatemala, there is still fear of reprisals by the government of Guatemala if their identities are publicized.

A number of antigovernment guerrilla groups have been operating in Guatemala since 1966 and Amnesty International is aware that there continue to be armed confrontations between government and guerrilla forces, with lives lost on both sides. However, Amnesty International does not accept government assertions that all or most killings of the sort described in this report are the result of armed conflict or are the work of agents operating independently and out of the government’s control.


Amnesty International opposes the torture and execution of prisoners in all cases, whether by government forces or opposition groups. It believes that confrontation between government and violent opposition groups cannot be held to justify these human rights violations.


Nearly 5,000 Guatemalans have been seized without warrant and killed since General Lucas García became president of Guatemala in 1978. The bodies of the victims have been found piled up in ravines, dumped at roadsides, or buried in mass graves. Thousands bore the scars of torture, and death had come to most by strangling with a garrote, by being suffocated in rubber hoods, or by being shot in the head.

In the same three-year period several hundred other Guatemalans have been assassinated after being denounced as “subversives.” At least 615 people who are reported to have been seized by the security services remain unaccounted for.

In spite of these murders and “disappearances” the government of Guatemala has denied making a single political arrest or holding a single political prisoner. (But in February 1980 Vice-President Francisco Villagran Kramer put the position like this: “There are no political prisoners in Guatemala—only political murders.” He has since resigned and gone into exile.)

The government does not deny that people it considers to be “subversives” or “criminals” are seized and murdered daily in Guatemala—but it lays the whole blame on independent, anti-communist “death squads.”

According to a distinction drawn by the government under President Lucas García, “criminals” are those people who have been seized and killed by what the authorities call the Escuadrón de la Muerte (Death Squad) and “subversives” those killed by the Ejército Secreto Anticomunista (ESA)—Secret Anticommunist army. The authorities have issued regular statistics on the killings and on occasion have come out with death tolls higher than those independently recorded by Amnesty International.

What the government of Guatemala says

National Police spokesmen told the local press in 1979 that the Escuadrón de la Muerte had killed 1,224 “criminals” (“1,142 men and 82 women”) from January to June 1979 and that the ESA had killed 3,252 “subversives” in the first ten months of 1979. Although no similar statistics have been issued for 1980, government spokesmen have continued to report on the latest victims of “anticriminal” and “anticommunist,” but allegedly independent and nongovernmental, “security measures.”

Amnesty International believes that abuses attributed by the government of Guatemala to independent “death squads” are perpetrated by the regular forces of the civil and military security services. No evidence has been found to support government claims that “death squads” exist that are independent of the regular security services. Where the captors or assassins of alleged “subversives” and “criminals” have been identified, as in the cases cited in this report, the perpetrators have been members of the regular security services.

The victims

During 1980 the security forces of the government of Guatemala were reported to have been involved in unexplained detentions and murders of people generally considered as leaders of public opinion: members of the clergy, educators and students, lawyers, doctors, trade unionists, journalists, and community workers. But the vast majority of the victims of such violent action by the authorities’ forces had little or no social status; they came from the urban poor and the peasantry and their personal political activities were either insignificant or wholly imagined by their captors.

The precarious balance for the poor in Guatemala between life and death at the hands of the security services is illustrated by the testimonies in this report. The former soldier describes house-to-house searches in which the discovery of certain “papers”—leaflets or circulars—was sufficient reason to wipe out an entire family. The prisoner, who was brutally tortured and escaped only the day before he was due to be executed at Huehuetenango army base, believes that a neighbor denounced him as a “subversive” because of a dispute over the village basketball court—a good enough reason, as far as officers of the Guatemalan army were concerned, for him to be tortured and put to death.

At first glance most of the victims of political repression in Guatemala appear to have been singled out indiscriminately from among the poor; but the secret detentions, “disappearances,” and killings are not entirely random; they follow denunciations by neighbors, employers, or local security officials, and the evidence available to Amnesty International reveals a pattern of selective and considered official action. By far the majority of victims were chosen after they had become associated—or were thought to be associated—with social, religious, community, or labor organizations, or after they had been in contact with organizers of national political parties. In other words, Amnesty International’s evidence is that the targets for extreme governmental violence tend to be selected from grassroots organizations outside official control.


A more elaborate pattern is followed for dealing with Guatemalans of higher social or economic status, such as business people and professionals—doctors, lawyers, educators—or with leaders of legal political parties. Where people in these groups are suspected of “subversive” activity, past or present, the discretionary powers of security service agents do not appear to be unrestricted. Such cases are thought to require consideration by high-ranking government officials before individuals can be seized or murdered; the system appears to function hierarchically, with the official level at which a decision may be taken corresponding to the status of the suspect.

In 1980 a number of occupational groups which, in recent years, had largely escaped being the particular targets of political repression were singled out for violent attacks, resulting in numerous “disappearances” and deaths; they included priests, educators, and journalists.

Father Conrado de la Cruz and his assistant Herlindo Cifuentes were detained with at least forty-four other people during a demonstration in Guatemala on May 1, 1980; the pair have since “disappeared”—many of the others have been found dead. Three other Roman Catholic priests are reported to have been killed by the security services in 1980: José María Gran, Walter Voordeckers, and Faustino Villanueva. Other clergy have been formally expelled from Guatemala.

After March 1980 the teachers and administrators of the national university, Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC), were singled out. By mid-September twelve members of the law faculty and fifteen other teachers and administrators had been killed, including four members of the USAC executive committee. The rector, Saúl Orsorio, and some fifty staff members fled into exile.

At least seventy-one USAC students died or “disappeared” after the detention in 1980: fifty-three teachers have been shot dead in different parts of the country.

The President’s “special agency

The evidence complied and published by Amnesty International in recent years indicates that routine assassinations, secret detentions, and summary executions are part of a clearly defined program of government in Guatemala.

New information in the possession of Amnesty International bears this out. It shows that the task of coordinating civil and military security operations in the political sphere is carried out by a specialized agency under the direct supervision of President Lucas García.

This presidential agency is situated in the Presidential Guard annex to the National Palace near the offices of the president and his principal ministers, and next to the presidential residence, the Casa Presidencial. Known until recently as the Centro Regional de Telecomunicaciones (Regional Telecommunications Center), the agency is situated under two rooftop telecommunications masts on the block-long building.

The telecommunications center in the palace annex is a key installation in Guatemala’s security network. For years informed sources in the country referred to the organization working from there as the Policía Regional (Regional Police)—although the authorities repeatedly denied the existence of such a body. In 1978 a former mayor of Guatemala City, Manuel Colom Argueta, denounced the Policía Regional as a “death squad.” On March 23, 1979, he was assassinated in the city center as a police helicopter hovered overhead.

The center was previously called the Agencia de Inteligencia de la Presidencia (Presidential Intelligence Agency); in a speech in 1966 Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia, head of state from 1963 to 1966, described its founding in the National Palace complex in 1964.

During 1980 sources in Guatemala City reported that the name had been changed again, to the Servicios Especiales de Comunicaciones de la Presidencia (Presidential Special Services for Communications); an alternative title was said to be the Servicios de Apoyo de la Presidencia (Presidential Support Services).

It is this presidential agency, situated in the palace complex and known by various names, which Amnesty International believes to be coordinating the government of Guatemala’s extensive secret and extralegal security operations.

In 1974 a document from the records of a United States assistance program described the Centro Regional de Telecomunicaciones as Guatemala’s principal presidential-level security agency, working with a “high level security/administrative network” linking “the principal officials of the National Police, Treasury police, Detective Corps, Ministry of Government [Gobernación; alternatively translated as “Interior”], the Presidential House [Palace], and the Guatemalan Military Communications Center.” (The document, which was declassified, came from the United States Agency for International Development, Termination Phase-Out Study, Public Safety Project: Guatemala, July 1974.)

The National Palace complex makes it possible for the security services to centralize their communications and also to have access to the central files of the army intelligence division, which are reported to be housed in the presidential residence itself. The files are believed to include dossiers on people who were political suspects even at the time of the overthrow of the government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz in 1954—they include Colonel Arbenz’s active supporters in the left-wing political parties of the time.

Files of political suspects were established by law in Guatemala first in the wake of the 1954 coup and more recently under the auspices of Military Intelligence in 1963, when they were incorporated into a “National Security Archive” (Decree Law 9, 1973, Ley de Defensa de las Instituciones Democráticas). It is believed that outdated files are still used as a basis for political persecution.

In many cases on record with Amnesty International, political activities during the 1940s and 1950s appear to have been the sole motive for a detention followed by “disappearance” or by a “death squad” killing. For instance, the submachine-gun attack in September 1980 on Professor Lucila Rodas de Villagran, the sixty-year-old head of a girls’ school, was widely attributed to her active membership in her youth in the Partido Acción Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Action Party), which ceased to exist more than twenty-five years ago.

Reliable sources in Guatemala say that the presidential intelligence agency is directed by the joint head of the Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial) and Military Intelligence. Policy decisions and the selection of who is to “disappear” and be killed are said to be made after consultations between the top officials of the Ministries of Defense and the Interior, and the Army General Staff, who command the forces responsible for the abuses.

Much of the information included in this section is general knowledge among informed Guatemalans of many political orientations. It is widely accepted that the Presidential Guard annex of the National Palace houses the headquarters for the secret operations of the security services. Entry to the center is guarded by heavily armed soldiers, with closed-circuit television cameras mounted on the corners of the building. Unmarked cars without license plates or with foreign plates are usually parked outside the center.

Details of the presidential coordinating agency’s operations are not known—for example, Amnesty International has not been able to confirm allegations by some Guatemalans that the agency holds prisoners inside the Presidential Guard annex—but that the agency exists and that it serves as the center of the Guatemalan government’s program of “disappearance” and political murder seem, on the evidence, difficult to dispute.


The “death squads” of Guatemala are part of a “program of pacification” carried out by the Guatemalan security services, according to a former official of the Ministry of the Interior who resigned on September 3, 1980.

Elías Barahona y Barahona, who had been the ministry’s press representative since. 1976, described his job there as that of carrying out a press policy to explain governmental violence in terms of fighting between “clandestine groups of the extreme right and left.” He said that blank letterhead stationery of the alleged “death squads,” Ejército Secreto Anticomunista and Escuadrón de la Muerte, was stored in the office of the Minister of the Interior, who is responsible for internal security.

According to Elías Barahona lists of people to be eliminated were prepared from the records of Military Intelligence and the National Police. They included the names of “trade union leaders and campesinos (peasants) provided by the Department of Trade Unions of the Ministry of Labor and by a sector of private enterprise.”

Citing as his authority an officer of Military Intelligence, he said that the “definitive lists” were prepared “in a dependency of the army called ‘military transmissions’ (transmisiones militares), on the fourth floor of the National Palace, and were approved at meetings held there attended by the Ministers of Defense and the Interior, and the Chief of the General Staff of the Army.”

The former press official said the Chief of the Presidential Staff and of Military Intelligence and the head of the Military Intelligence Archive (Archivo de la Inteligencia Militar) were responsible for coordinating operations. Decisions were carried out by “the principal army and police headquarters of the republic,” he said.

Elías Barahona fled to Panama after his defection and later declared his membership in the Guatemalan guerrilla organization Ejército Guerrillero do los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor).—from the Amnesty International report

Copyright © 1981 by Amnesty International Publications.