Guatemala has taken another tentative step towards confronting its bloody past with the arrest of 14 ex-military officers accused of overseeing the massacre of several thousand indigenous civilians during the country’s 36-year civil war. The civilians belonged to the Mayan Achi ethnic group and in recent years numerous mass graves have been uncovered containing their butchered remains.
The reason for the slaughter of these peasant people was their supposed support for Marxist guerrillas operating against the nationalist government. One of those accused is Manuel Benedicto Lucas Garcia, brother of former President Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-1982).
As with several other Central American countries, Guatemala became a battleground for the forces of nationalism and socialism after the conclusion of the Second World War. In 1954, the government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup for his apparent leftist sympathies and his threat to nationalise the land of the United Fruit Company.
‘These events were witnessed by a young Argentine doctor, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who was to become the embodiment of the US government’s worst fears of Marxist penetration of the Americas’. (Williamson, 2009)
The corrupt and brutal tendencies of the succeeding nationalist governments – along with the success of the Cuban Revolution – inspired a major guerrilla insurgency in Guatemala in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, just as occurred in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In each case, the US government was steadfast in its support for the forces of anti-communism, whatever barbarities they perpetrated against their own people.
When the US did withdraw support for a tyrant, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, the Marxist Sandinista Front soon took control of the country and provoked a messy crisis in Washington during the tenure of Ronald Reagan.
Lucas Garcia was deposed in 1982 by a group of junior Army officers led by Efrain Rios Montt and the next three years would be characterised by a diabolical military dictatorship, during which time the genocide of the Achi reached its climax. An estimated 80,000 of these people were killed or ‘disappeared’ during the civil war (which officially lasted from 1960 until 1996).
Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan administration continued to supply the Guatemalan Army with advanced military technology and weapons. A reconciliation commission has in the last few years determined that it was the Army that was responsible for 80% of the atrocities during the civil war.
Even the election of a civilian leader – Vinicio Cerezo – in 1986 did not stop the extra-judicial killings, with various paramilitaries stepping into the void vacated by the Army on the new President’s orders.
A thirty-six year civil war is hard to recover from and Guatemala remains racked by internal divisions, not to mention poverty and political corruption. The arrest of these 14 high-ranking generals, whilst not unprecedented, provides hope that finally those guilty of the worst crimes will be brought to justice.
That the US government continued to support an array of bloody dictators throughout Latin America during the Cold War is a well-known story. Whether it has truly acknowledged its own culpability, or whether it remains committed to the idea that such support was better than allowing a communist bloc to develop in its ‘backyard’ is a bone of contention.