How Ronald Reagan Made Genocide Possible in Guatemala

Efrain Rios Montt, who ruthlessly ruled Guatemala in the early 1980s, is currently standing trial in his home country  for the genocide of 1,771 indigenous people. This constitutes a monumental step forward for human rights in Latin America. 

What the mainstream media skates over in its coverage of the Rios Montt trial is the hand Ronald Reagan had in getting the genocidal ball rolling.

The early 1980s were particularly violent in the Latin American theater of the Cold War. Smack in the middle of Guatemala's 36-year civil war which claimed 200,000 lives, Rios Montt edged out the winner of a sham election in a bloodless coup and began systematically repressing support for the Marxist opposition,as his forces raped women, burned villages, and murdered indigenous Mayan peasants.

From day one Reagan backed Rios Montt, feeding him millions first in jeeps and trucks, and then helicopter and plane parts, despite clearly articulated reports from both the CIA and international watchdogs that genocide was accumulating bodies in the ditches and gullies of Guatemala.

A cache of internal Guatemalan records from the time revealed the existence of Operation Sofia, which was the operation that led to the massacre of indigenous peasants. It was used by the 1999 UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission to classify the counterinsurgency campaign in the summer of 1982 as "acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people."

The horror described by independent human rights reporters on the ground is enough to turn your stomach: "We heard many, many stories of children being picked up by the ankles and swung against poles so their heads [were] destroyed."

Despite the fact that he knew all this, Reagan praised Rios Montt, calling him "a man of great personal integrity and commitment" who wanted to "promote social justice."

President Bill Clinton apologized in 1999, saying that the U.S. support for the death squads "was wrong." 

Reagan's foreign policy was dark and repressive, this much we know. It's important to remember, as we witness this ground breaking trail — the first by the way in which a Latin American head of state is tried for genocide under national jurisdiction — that the culprit survives the global forces that helped make him what he was. 

At the end of the day the burden of justice and nation healing falls on the Guatemalan people: it is their dictator who stands trial and their people who suffered under him. But Americans (and Guatemalans) ought to remember that Rios Montt had big friends in Washington.

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Benjy Hansen-Bundy

Recently graduated from Vanderbilt University, Benjy now lives in Greater Boston, and writes freelance.

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