Younger readers may not recall Efrain Rios Montt
, the mass-murdering dictator of Guatemala. But I sure do. Even though he's now 87 years old, a court has convicted Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Americans must never allow this man's tyranny to disappear from memory. To a great extent, his crimes are our
A CIA-backed coup brought Rios Montt to power in 1983. President Ronald Reagan supported him right down the line, sending him huge amounts of military aid even though Rios Montt's mass-murdering ways were infamous throughout the world.
Prosecutors say Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to try to rid Guatemala of leftist rebels during his 1982-1983 rule, the most violent period of a 1960-1996 civil war in which as many as 250,000 people died.
He was tried over the killings of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous group, just a fraction of the number who died during his rule.
Back in the 1980s, Rios Montt received tons of favorable coverage (and money) from American televangelists Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell, because the Guatemalan dictator was a Pentacostal Protestant who loved to caterwaul about how much he loved Jesus, even as his soldiers raped and slaughtered indiscriminately. I suspect, but cannot prove, that American intelligence used these fundamentalist churches as "cover" for sending funds to the Guatemalan regime.
Rios Montt belonged to a California-based ministry called Verbo
, or the Church of the Word, a subsidiary of a larger organization called Gospel Outreach. Over the years, many a spook-watcher has suggested that this missionary group his provided cover for a Certain Interesting Agency. (See, for example, this website
.) In many ways, the Agency made a tactical error when it allowed this man to lead a coup in a traditionally Catholic country, because his fervent Protestant evangelism alienated most Guatemalans. Even members of the conservative elite who might otherwise have supported the right came to despise Rios Montt.
From William Blum's indispensable Killing Hope
On the first of July, Rios Montt announced a state of siege. It was to last more than eight months. In his first six months in power, 2,600 Indians and peasants were massacred, while during his 17-month reign, more than 400 villages were brutally wiped off the map... In December 1982, Ronald Reagan, also a Christian, went to see for himself. After meeting with Rios Montt, Reagan, referring to the allegations of extensive human-rights abuses, declared that the Guatemalan leader was receiving "a bad deal."
One of the recent Reagan hagiographies bears the title When Character Was King
. Let us pause for a moment to savor the irony.
PBS has a surprisingly good web page
on Rios Montt:
But human rights groups, which did not support the lifting of the embargo, along with some members of Congress told a different story: one of kidnappings, refugees and massacres by government forces.
This for example, came from Robert Goldman from Americas Watch Committee.
"Rios Montt is a dictator who came in with all these promises, and yet, what did he do?" Goldman says. "He abolished all press freedom. There's less press freedom now in Guatemala than there has been for the last 30 years. No political parties are allowed. No union activity. Search and seizure without warrants are conducted. A three-man military tribunal can sentence anybody to anything, including death."
Here's a chilling thought: Much of that description now applies to our own country. Unions have been largely crushed. The feds need no warrant to scoop up your emails and cell phone calls. Most of the press will soon be owned by Murdoch and the Kochs. Anyone declared an "enemy combatant" can be blasted to atoms by a killer drone, without trial.
Oh, and lest we forget:
There was another key player
in the Guatemalan horrors...
The Covert Action Information Bulletin reported in 1987 that the State of Israel, Guatemala's principle backer between 1977 and 1986, not only sponsored espionage and torture of Guatemalans, but employed members of Gospel Outreach’s Verbo Church to assist their agents.
"Israel also installed computer surveillance equipment in Guatemala and, under the pretext of providing agricultural assistance, helped devise Rios Montt's 'beans and bullets strategic hamlets, modeled after the CIA's Operation Phoenix. . . [ed. note: ‘beans and bullets’ refers to Rios Montt’s policy, ‘If you are with us, we’ll feed you; if not we’ll kill you.’]
Israel’s role was confirmed by a member of Israel’s Knesset according to CIABASE files on Death Squads: “Guatemala, 1981-89. Israeli Knesset member General Peled said in Central America Israel is 'dirty work' contractor for U.S. Helped Guatemala regime when Congress blocked Reagan administration. Israeli firm Tadiran (then partly U.S.-owned) supplied Guatemalan military with computerized intelligence system to track potential subversives. Those on computer list had an excellent chance of being ‘disappeared.’”
[Richard Paradise of Gospel Outreach] says he works under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization as a liaison with U.S. evangelicals, with the assigned role of working against anti-Semitism within the U.S. . . According to a special report entitled 'Sectas y Religiosidad en American Latina' published in October 1984 by the Chile-based Instituto Latinoamericano de Estudios Transnacionales, during Rios Montt's rule, members of Gospel Outreach's Verbo church took jobs in espionage and torture and accompanied Israeli and Argentinean experts during interrogation sessions." 33.
Many people now prefer to forget that Israel consistently backed South and Central American fascists throughout this period. (And yes, "fascist" is, in this instance, the correct word.) In fact, the Israelis even worked with fugitive Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie
during his South American sojourn.
Why were the Israelis operating so heavily in Latin America? To a large degree, they acted as cut-outs for American intelligence.