Central America

Trial of an American Ally: Ghosts of Foreign Policy Past in Guatemala

In Guatemala, a reminder of the slaughter U.S. intelligence agencies ignored. By Constantino Diaz-Duran.

A historic trial is taking place in Central America. Former military dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt is being tried for genocide in his native Guatemala. This is the first time a Latin American despot has faced trial for such charges in his own country.

I lived in Guatemala during his dictatorship. I was a young child when he seized power in a March 1982 coup, and my recollection of his dictatorship is vague, but I have vivid memories of people reminiscing about his term years later—my parents and other people around me often spoke of the Ríos Montt era as a time when things were not so bad, when crime and violence were under control.

Growing up in Guatemala City in the 1980s, I lived in a bubble. Decades later, having spent most of my adult life in the United States, I see Ríos Montt—who received the support of the U.S. government—more critically. I look at what happened during that time not as a Guatemalan but as an American. And I look for lessons to draw upon as we (hopefully) continue to debate our nation’s role on the world stage.

The bloodshed that took place during the Ríos Montt presidency seems undeniable. My parents’ view of that time through rose-colored glasses is explained partly by the fact that his coup against Gen. Romeo Lucas García allowed my family to return to Guatemala after a brief exile in Florida. My parents have never been political, and had no ties to any government. But my dad’s successful business enterprises had put him in the sights of Lucas García’s lackeys. They tried to extort money out of him by threatening to kidnap or otherwise harm someone in the family. My dad refused to pay, and in response, a group of gunmen showed up at his office one day, presumably to kill him. He escaped through a window, rushed home, and he and my mom made the decision to move to Miami.

With Lucas García and his henchmen out of power, my parents deemed it safe to return to their homeland. Ríos Montt’s brief term (he was overthrown himself a year later) was largely peaceful in the capital city. He was viewed as an overzealous evangelical Christian who at least was tough on crime, and kept the guerrillas in check. Allegations of massacres in the interior were dismissed by middle-class and upper-middle-class citizens as mere leftist propaganda.

For city dwellers, the most annoying part of Rios Montt’s presidency were his weekly radio and TV broadcasts, which aired on every station, and which were often nothing but impassioned, moralistic sermons. With his famous catchphrase “usted papá, usted mamá,” he lectured parents on how to raise their children, and ranted about everything from world events to fashion—he once made a particularly famous admonition to secretaries, advising them not to wear miniskirts, lest they become a source of temptation for their bosses.

Life in the countryside was much different. There, tens of thousands died during the ‘80s in a civil war that spanned three decades. The accusations against Rios Montt stem from the massacre of 1,171 people in the western highlands of Guatemala. This week, witnesses against the former dictator related the horrors committed by the Guatemalan Army. “The soldiers tore the victims’ hearts out and put them on a little table, they piled them there,” said a survivor. The highlands were a hotbed of guerrilla activity, and the Army wiped out entire villages in retaliation for their harboring rebels.

Justice must be served in the death of these men, women, and children, and I am glad to see that the members of the Guatemalan military who oversaw these atrocities are being held accountable. This is not to say that the communist guerrillas were innocent—they committed similarly heinous crimes. But I cannot pretend that the massacres did not happen. I no longer live in the bubble where I grew up.

As Americans, there is another bubble we must burst. We cannot pretend that our government was not aware that these horrors were taking place. I love this country and am proud of the values set forth in our founding documents. It is precisely because I treasure what America stands for that I find no excuse for the actions of the diplomatic and intelligence personnel who looked the other way while lending financial and military support to the likes of the Guatemalan dictators.

These days, the civil libertarians and pacifists among us have focused most of our attention on the government’s actions in the Middle East. We are outraged by the drone attacks carried out on foreign soil, and worry about the possibility that these weapons could someday be used on us. But the trial taking place in Guatemala against a former U.S. ally must act as a reminder that the tentacles of our defense and intelligence agencies reach beyond just Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Americans we have a duty to keep our government on a short leash. And we must be wary of any involvement in foreign countries, no matter how good the intentions may be. After all, the interventions in Guatemala and other places were carried out for a noble cause—stopping the spread of communism. We should pay heed to that often quoted call by Thomas Jefferson, “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.” We must not forget that those alliances often come with unsavory, and at times immoral, complicity in the crimes committed by other governments.