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Weissman writes: "Rios Montt's conviction leaves untouched a host of never indicted foreign co-conspirators, from former US president Ronald Reagan to Evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries and shadowy Israelis with unspoken connections to their government."

President Ronald Reagan meeting with Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. (photo: Corbis)
President Ronald Reagan meeting with Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. (photo: Corbis)

Indicting Reagan, Israel, and the God Squads in the Guatemalan Holocaust

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

14 May 13


hree Guatemalan judges last week convicted General Efraín Ríos Montt, the former military dictator, of genocide and crimes against humanity for leading the "scorched earth" Plan Victoria that killed 1,771 Mayan Ixils during his 17-month rule in 1982-1983. Never before has a national judicial process found a former head of state guilty of genocide, hopefully diminishing the existing impunity of war criminals from the Congo to Crawford, Texas.

More now needs to follow, if only in the court of world opinion. Beside many still unpunished Guatemalans, Rios Montt's conviction leaves untouched a host of never indicted foreign co-conspirators, from former U.S. president Ronald Reagan to Evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries and shadowy Israelis with unspoken connections to their government.

They all played a part in making possible the killing, rape, torture and disappearances of the Ixil people and - according to the United Nations Historical Clarification Commission - as many as 200,000 others, mostly Mayans and poor mestizos. Another 50,000 were disappeared and more than 1 million were displaced as the army razed their villages.

Legal appeals and injunctions from another court could still let the 86-year-old Rios Montt walk free from his 80-year sentence. The possibility is real, especially since the current Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molino, a former military commander, continues to insist that there was no genocide, only a bloody civil war against leftist insurgents from 1962 to 1996.

Official documents and the blood-chilling testimony of survivors tell a more truthful story. In brief, successive Guatemalan governments have systematically used genocide to fight the civil war and continue violence against the indigenous Mayans reaching back 500 years to the time of the European Conquest.

Paraphrasing Mao Tse-Tung, Rios Montt explained it this way in 1982: "The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea."

A career military officer, Rios Montt began learning his craft in 1951 at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas. He then served in the CIA's 1954 coup against the reformist government of President Jacobo Arbenz and in support of United Fruit, a formative episode for Guatemala, Washington, and military dictatorships throughout Latin America.

Growing increasingly political, Rios Montt ran for president in 1974 and most observers feel that he was robbed of victory. Two years later, after Guatemala suffered a devastating earthquake, he met Pentecostal "God Squads" from a Northern California group called Global Outreach, which had grown out of the Jesus People of the 1960s. The missionaries converted the formerly Catholic Rios Montt, who soon became an impassioned pastor in their Iglesia del Verbo, the Church of the Word.

In this new role, the born-again general became a huge favorite of the Christian Broadcasting Network's Pat Robertson, the Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell, and the evangelists Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, and Loren Cunningham. Their backing opened the White House door when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981.

Eager to fight what he saw as a growing Communist threat in Central America, Reagan quickly sent his personal envoy General Vernon Walters, a former aide to Henry Kissinger and deputy director of the CIA, to meet with the Guatemalan president, Romeo Lucas Garcia. The goal was to strengthen relations, which had soured under Jimmy Carter in the face of growing human rights abuses. Carter had never completely cut off military support, while declassified cables show that the CIA continued to supply money and other assistance. But Reagan set out to do far more.

The following year, as U.S. support for Guatemala grew, a military coup made Rios Montt head of state. Reagan quickly supported him, while America's right-wing Christian leaders fell all over themselves praising the beginning of what we now know as genocide. As Sara Diamond wrote in her book "Spiritual Warfare" in 1989, "Rios Montt's ascension to power was celebrated by the U.S. Christian Right as a sign of divine intervention in Central America."

As if to prove them right, Rios Montt brought in American and Guatemalan advisers from Global Outreach to administer so-called model villages, which were much like the strategic hamlets that the Americans used with far less success in Vietnam. Other American Evangelicals and Pentecostals also flew in to hand out the beans while the Guatemalan Army fired the bullets.

Rios Montt described Plan Victoria's rural pacification in very simple terms: "If you are with us, we'll feed you. If not, we'll kill you." Or, as Catholic blogger Hank Zyp, a Canadian, noted with horror, "God squads and death squads worked hand in hand to introduce the Mayan people to the American Dream."

"In the first two months of his reign, some 1,800 preachers arrived from the U.S. to win the hearts and minds of the peasants with gifts of food and clothing," wrote Zyp. "The number of converts increased among the hungry internal refugees. Model villages, somewhat like reservations, were built to control the uprooted people. Civil guards were appointed to rat on their own relatives."

Though hardly unbiased, Zyp's colorfully expressed views square with other available evidence, and describe better than most the reality of Plan Victoria, which American counter-insurgency advisers were abetting. Reagan added to the effort, stepping up military arms shipments to Guatemala and accusing human rights organizations of giving the general "a bum rap."

The Israelis served as silent partners. According to an exhaustively documented article by political scientist Jane Hunter, Israel began as early as 1974 to sell Guatemala weapons. These came to include Arava aircraft, armored personnel carriers, Dabur class patrol boats armed with Gabriel missiles, light cannons, machine guns, Uzis, and Galil assault rifles, which became standard in the Guatemalan Army.

With Carter's effort to keep Washington looking uninvolved, the Israelis increased their sales and built Guatemala an airbase and munitions factory. Reagan then gave the Israelis the go-ahead to become Guatemala's largest suppliers of weapons.

Israeli advisers also worked with Lucas Gomez's police and intelligence services to hunt down underground rebel groups, especially in urban areas. According to Hunter, the Israelis based much of their work on intelligence networks, computers, and other technology tried and tested on the West Bank and Gaza. Big land-owners appear to have hired Israeli non-commissioned officers to train their private security details, many of which worked with off-duty military officers to form the "death squads."

The Israelis may have had a hand in the 1982 military coup, as Rios Montt publicly attributed its success to Israeli training of "many of our soldiers." The following year, when he was ousted, an Israeli adviser spirited him away to Miami. In between, according to Hunter, Israeli military advisors helped develop and carry out the scorched earth policy of Plan Victoria, in which the army used Israeli and American planes to bomb, strafe, and burn hundreds of villages and drive those who survived into the model villages administered by so many good Christians.

Reagan, the Israelis, and the God Squads - where are the war crime indictments?

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold."

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