Answering for bloodthirsty crimes against humanity


Saturday, May 18, 2013

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RONALD Reagan once described him as "a man of great personal integrity and commitment". Erfaín Ríos Montt, in the course of a long military career dating back to the early 1950s, displayed very little integrity but certainly a lot of commitment to eradicating the indigenous people of his native Guatemala who were guilty of nothing more than wanting to exist and make a living.

In the course of a 17-month stint as president in 1982-83, he led a scorched-earth campaign which took the lives of 1,771 Mayans. At least, that's the number actually documented by prosecutors who secured his appearance before three Guatemalan judges. Last week, they found him guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.

It was a historic decision, for never before has a country's judicial process found one of its own former heads of state guilty of such crimes. Monumental as it is, the task leaves much unfinished business. Ríos Montt was, by no means, solely responsible for the systematic brutality and genocide unleashed against the poorest citizens of that beautiful Central American country.

Many others remain to be brought to trial, and the stain is not confined within the boundaries of Guatemala. The United States, beginning with President Eisenhower — initiated, encouraged and sponsored much of the brutality on the grounds of fighting communism.

American evangelical leaders also played a huge part in supporting Ríos Montt who, after falling out with the Roman Catholic Church, fell under the influence of American Pentecostal "God Squads" and became a born-again member and passionate preacher in the Iglesia del Verbo (Church of the Word). Big names on the US evangelical circuit — like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, Loren Cunningham and Pat Robertson — adopted him. Through their offices, he was introduced to the White House when Reagan became its occupant in 1981.

Ríos Montt was a career military officer who entered the US Army's School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1951 and had his first taste of action in the coup against a reform president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, in 1954. Unlike many other Latin American countries, Guatemala was never occupied by US forces, since it was governed by a succession of regimes friendly to Washington. Its oligarchy consisted mainly of descendants of the original Spanish settlers together with a few European immigrants. They were disdainful of the indigenous people who were already well-entrenched when the conquistadores came.

Successive governments welcomed US companies not with a mere welcome mat, but a whole broadloom carpet. By far the most important was the United Fruit Company, which was also an early player in Jamaica's banana industry. It began its hegemony in the 1930s under President Jorge Ubico with more than 40 per cent of the land. United Fruit also controlled the railway and electricity companies and paid no taxes or import duties.

This cushy state of affairs came to an end in 1945 with the election of a reform-minded Government under President Juan José Arévalo. This began a period some call "Ten years of Springtime". Arévalo set up a health plan and social security as well as a department to look after Mayan affairs. It wasn't an easy time for him, as there were numerous military coup attempts. Árbenz came along in 1951. He initiated land and social reform which displeased the oligarchy and the Monroe Doctrinists in Washington.

While he was a student of socialist theorists, Árbenz was his own man who wanted to straighten things out in his own country for the benefit of his own people. At that time a mere two per cent of the population owned 70 per cent of the land. The people who actually worked that land were virtual slaves to the landowners. Continuing Arévalo's liberal policies, Árbenz brought in agrarian reform to re-distribute some 65,000 hectares of uncultivated land owned by United Fruit. The idea was to foster small farms owned by individuals. The Government actually compensated United Fruit for the land.

But the Americans would have none of this. United Fruit had considerable clout with the US Government. The secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was a lawyer whose firm had prepared the company's contracts with Guatemala. His brother, Allen, who ran the CIA, had been a member of United Fruit's law firm while other senior Administration officials had high-level connections with the company.

The CIA, which had been formed seven years before, already had one great success under its belt — the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, a freely elected nationalist leader in Iran the year before. Turning its eyes on Guatemala it conducted a campaign of disinformation and subterfuge against Árbenz, in which a young Ríos Montt took part with gusto. A new strongman, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, who had studied with the US army at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was now in charge. He resumed the brutality and support for the oligarchy.

Resuming the nastiness

Thus began one of the nastiest campaigns in Latin America — one which, sadly, is not well known. Furnished with lists of radical opponents by the US ambassador, Armas began a new regime of bloodletting and restored all the confiscated lands to United Friuit. He shut down opposition newspapers, burned books deemed to be "subversive", outlawed political parties, trade unions and peasant organisations, and, by barring illiterate people from voting, disenfranchised one-third of the voters.

He targeted the indigenous population and even after he was assassinated in 1957, the brutality continued. Between 1954 and 1996, well over 200,000 Guatemalans were slaughtered and the country had the worst human rights record in Latin America. As the military waged its campaign in the countryside, resistance multiplied and a guerrilla army came into being. More repression followed.

The CIA and the US military had sent in advisers to train the Guatemalan military and death squads began to emerge. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter, incensed by reports of atrocities, cut off overt military aid, but money still seeped in through covert CIA routes, Argentina and Chile also helped the military, and a new partner stepped in — Israel, which trained soldiers, built munitions plants and supplied weapons.

It was on Reagan's watch that Ríos Montt staged a coup. Claiming that the "spirit of the Lord" was guiding him against "communist subversives", he intensified the war against the aboriginals. About 400 villages were flattened and more than 100,000 people fled to neighhbouring Mexico. He was overthrown by a civilian, Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, who disbanded the secret police and took some other measures to tone down the ferocity of the campaign. But the army still went after "subversives", be they peasants, students or human rights activists.

Ríos Montt's misdeeds eventually caught up with him, and last year prosecutors made history by bringing a successful case against him. His lawyers argued that neither the 86-year-old officer nor his intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, ordered the killings. They said the atrocities were committed by field commanders facing a determined left-wing insurgency.

The tribunal heard more than 100 witnesses over five weeks, including Mayan survivors who described how soldiers killed their relatives in their campaign to wipe out villages. The head of the tribunal, Judge Yasmín Barrios, sentenced Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison while acquitting Rodríguez Sánchez.

It doesn't matter whether Ríos Montt serves a day in prison — the point has been made and a precedent set — the forces of justice will catch up with you. It's a warning to leaders all over the world who either ordered atrocities or allowed them under their watch.

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