Witnesses Expose Ronald Reagan’s Dirty Secret in Guatemala

His genocidal campaign against the Maya in Guatemala’s highlands during the 1980s killed at least 70,000 people. But conservative Christians backed Ríos Montt to the bitter end.

01.15.16 5:01 AM ET

RABINAL, Guatemala — On March 13, 1982, Carlos Chen Osorio, in hiding, watched from the mountains above his hometown in Rio Negro while the military massacred 177 women and children, including Osorio’s pregnant wife and their children. Even though he has told the story for three decades, tears often come to his eyes when he remembers.

“As long as God lets me, I will continue telling my story so that what happened is never repeated,” Osorio told The Daily Beast in this predominantly Mayan town in mountainous Baja Verapaz, Guatemala.

Osorio, like many others seeking justice, thought that he would find some at the genocide trial of former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt, who was once the darling of politically active conservative Evangelical Christians in the U.S. (he’d been “born again,” after all), and of the Reagan administration. (While Montt waged a campaign to obliterate Mayan villagers who might support a guerrilla insurgency, Reagan made the now infamous remark that he’d been given “a bum rap.”

As it happened, Ríos Montt only held office for 17 months, from 1982 to 1983, but during that time he intensified what had already been a ferocious counterinsurgency campaign waged by his predecessors.

In May 2013 Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years for genocide and crimes against humanity. But the verdict was overturned by the constitutional court just 10 days later. And now the hope for justice further dwindles at the news the trial will be postponed because of the 89-year-old Ríos Montt’s deteriorating health.

Whatever the verdict, the trial exposed the brutal murders, sexual violence, and pillaging of Guatemalan villages under Ríos Montt. Classified documents and forensic science have exposed his orders to carry out massacres, U.S. complicity in his tactics, and the horrific results.

“Trials are really good for bringing out a true historical narrative,” said Pamela Yates, a documentary filmmaker who has covered the Ríos Montt trial and the Guatemalan Civil War that ended in 1996. Many Guatemalans only started to accept this harsh truth from the country’s past when evidence was presented in court.

Osorio relives the genocide almost every day. But some days he pretends it never happened and instead imagines a peaceful, normal life in his house that was burned down. There, he sits with his wife of nearly 40 years as they watch their grandchildren play. It is an imaginary world he has created—a world where his family fled to the mountains with him, where he didn’t see his wife’s hair ribbon in a heap of indistinguishable dead bodies, where his children grew up to be successful young professionals. Then he snaps back to reality.

“How is it possible to accuse children of being guerrillas?” Osorio said. “If there were guerrillas [in Rio Negro], there would have been a confrontation.”

Genocide is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” through various types of physical repression. A 1998 truth commission in Guatemala, looking at the evidence, decided genocide was the right word to categorize the ethnically motivated massacres against Mayans during the civil war.

Yates exposed the widespread and systematic nature of violence in a 1983 documentary, When the Mountains Tremble. In the film, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu Tum, a Mayan woman, narrates the story of abuse and survival of indigenous groups in Guatemala, a story that the government repressed through political terror.

“The mainstream media in Guatemala was silenced,” Yates said. “It was not reporting what was happening in the highlands. It couldn’t. It wouldn’t.”

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Through interviews and visits to predominantly indigenous areas, Yates documented evidence of brutal massacres against an unarmed civilian population. Military forces often conflated civilians with communists in areas marked as “red zones” where guerrillas had control, Yates learned by going on military patrols. Classified military documents later confirmed these attacks were part of systematic violence against indigenous Mayans, ordered by the highest commanders.

As Washington looked at these developments, the brutality was shrouded by Cold War rhetoric that presented the war as nothing more or less than a conflict between Cuban-backed leftists and a democratic government.

“The national security of all Americans is at stake in Central America,” Reagan said in a 1983 speech asking Congress to reopen aid to the region so “the people of Central America can hold the line against externally supported aggression.”

Jimmy Carter had previously cut off military to Guatemala in 1977 for serious human-rights violations. But Reagan bypassed congressional restrictions to send aid to Ríos Montt as early as December 1982.

The Reagan administration continually petitioned Congress to reopen aid to Central America, including Guatemala. Even without congressional approval, the U.S. covertly sent military supplies, most importantly helicopters to carry out a scorched-earth policy, through proxies such as Israel and other allies.

“When the U.S. government sends aid to Guatemala, whether it’s military aid, advisers or economic aid, they must understand that they are contributing directly to a worsening bloodbath,” said Menchu in When the Mountains Tremble.

Under Ríos Montt’s counterinsurgency plan, Operation Sofia, the Guatemalan army attacked more than 600 villages and an estimated 70,000 people were killed or disappeared. The army general studied at the notorious School of the Americas, considered by some as a U.S.-led training ground for Latin American dictators.

“The United States was complicit with the genocide. I’m not sure if they knew that it was genocide, but they knew that the Guatemalan military was killing civilians, targeting civilians and targeting the military’s political opposition, including unarmed civilians,” Yates said. “That kind of complicity—silence and President Reagan’s support for General Ríos Montt—is a big burden that Americans have to bear.”

U.S. involvement in the genocide has been largely brushed over in the Ríos Montt and other human-rights trials in Guatemala. However, former president Bill Clinton previously attempted to atone for past errors in a 1999 visit to Guatemala when he apologized for the U.S. involvement in the conflict.

“An apology is a beginning, but I don’t think it’s enough,” said Yates. “How can you bring back people who were killed? How can you bring back land that was stolen? I think reparations are in order.”

Since losing his entire family at the hands of the armed forces, Osorio is now remarried with children and grandchildren. He helped found a genocide survivor organization in Baja Verapaz to raise awareness of crimes of the past and pass on Mayan culture to the younger generation.

Osorio and other activists will continue their work with or without justice for Ríos Montt and other military officers. Just last weekend, survivors organized a march through Guatemala City for genocide awareness. Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation recently launched a project to collect survivor testimonies.

“It’s not one or two people that they killed, but they wanted to end [the Mayan people],” Osorio said. “They weren’t criminals. They weren’t guerrillas. They were women and children, and why did they kill them? We hope that the law applies to [those responsible] so that we don’t repeat what happened.”