|Recovering history in Central America|
|Magazine - News & Views|
|Monday, 23 April 2012 21:16|
Mike Phipps examines attempts to hold accountable perpetrators of crimes against the peoples of a once war-torn region.
On 28th January 2012, a Guatemalan judge ruled that General Rios Montt, the US-backed dictator who ruled the country in 1982 and 1983, should face charges of genocide for the scorched earth policy he operated. The charges identify him as the intellectual author of crimes carried out in the Ixil Triangle in the El Quiché department. These include the forced displacement of 29,000 people and the deaths of 1,771 individuals in eleven massacres, as well as acts of torture and 1,485 acts of sexual violence against women. Activists from the indigenous Mayan community, which bore the brunt of these atrocities, hailed the decision as “historic and momentous”.
“We can establish these are acts so degrading, so humiliating that there is no justification,” the judge said after detailing the human rights abuses from survivors’ testimonies. The case was filed against a backdrop of rising danger for those involved in fighting for justice – 2011 was the most violent year since 2000 for human rights defenders, 19 of whom were murdered. It also has major implications for Guatemala’s new president, Otto Pérez Molina, who was a military commander in the Ixil Triangle where the genocide was carried out.
The war of the Guatemalan state against its citizens lasted 36 years. Some 200,000 people were killed and a further 45,000 “disappeared” in this period. It involved acts of unbelievable cruelty. One documented case was a massacre of over 160 villagers by government soldiers in 1982. According to the US-based Human Rights Watch, the abuses included “burying some alive in the village well, killing infants by slamming their heads against walls, keeping young women alive to be raped over the course of three days.” This was not an isolated incident, but one of over 400 massacres documented.
In another massacre, the army arrived in the evening, rounded up the villagers, disabled all escape routes and divided the women into two groups: one for rape before being killed and the other for immediate killing. To save bullets, the victims were crammed into a small house which was set on fire with grenades. Some 250 people were killed. In 2004, the government of Guatemala admitted to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights that the Rios Montt regime had practised a strategy of genocide.
The role of the US in all this is worth mentioning. Despite a suspension of military aid to Guatemala under the Carter Administration, covert support continued. In 1982, President Reagan resumed arms sales to the regime, saying Rios Montt was receiving a “bum rap”.
Guatemalan military officers were trained at the notorious US-run School of the Americas in Panama, which relocated to Fort Benning in Georgia in 1984. Manuals used in the training of officers contain instructions in motivation by fear, bounties for enemy dead, false imprisonment, torture, execution, and kidnapping a target’s family members. The Pentagon eventually admitted that these manuals were a “mistake”.
Many of the threads of the Central American story lead back here. The School has graduated over 500 of the worst human rights abusers in the western hemisphere. One of them, a former Guatemalan Defence Minister, gave an address to the School as part of his “anti-terrorist” operations in Guatemala. In El Salvador, ten out of the twelve army officers cited in a UN report as responsible for a 1981 village massacre of over 200 people, the majority children, were graduates of the School. The same was true of the officer responsible for the rape and murder of three US nuns and a lay missionary a year earlier.
El Salvador’s gruesome past is also being revisited. The country’s Foreign Minister recently issued an apology for the El Mozote massacre 30 years ago. This was perpetrated by the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadorean army, who rounded up the over 1,000 villagers and systematically tortured, raped and murdered them, before setting fire to all the buildings. Girls as young as ten were raped and children had their throats slit and were hanged from the trees. One survivor, who escaped in the confusion and hid in a tree, later told reporters that the soldiers killed her husband, her nine-year-old son, and her three daughters aged five, three and eight months. The same troops went to a neighbouring village the following day and committed a further massacre.
The Reagan Administration dismissed the reports as “gross exaggerations” and the actions of the Battalion were described in the US Senate at the time as “commendable” and “professional”. The reporters who covered the story were vilified in the US media as credulous dupes of communism. Journalist Mark Danner, who wrote a book about the massacre in 1994, even suggests that US advisors were with the Battalion and observed the mission from its base camp. To this day, the US has never apologised for its role in the affair.
Nor has it ever apologised for its war on Nicaragua, which has never received a cent of compensation from the US for the long campaign of destabilisation it waged in the 1980s. This included US funding and training of armed terrorists who targeted health care clinics and workers for assassination, kidnapped, tortured and executed civilians, including children, raped women and seized and burned civilian property.
In a 1986 judgment, the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled that the US had violated international law by supporting the Contras and by mining Nicaragua’s harbours. The US blocked enforcement of the Court’s judgment at the UN Security Council and thus prevented Nicaragua from obtaining any compensation. To this day, the US continues to ignore the ruling and has never paid any damages.
The US prefers to use proxy forces in its wars in the region. One exception was the invasion of Panama in 1989 which saw a full-scale US invasion of the country, involving 27,000 troops. At least one major massacre was perpetrated in the El Chorillo neighbourhood of the capital. On the night of the invasion, US Cobra and Apache helicopter gunships, airplanes, warships and land-based artillery bombarded, strafed and set fire to the area, while its residents slept. Some 4,000 houses were destroyed and the ensuing fire engulfed the neighbourhood. Firefighters were not allowed in by US troops. The attack was later compared to Guernica.
US forces arrested 7,000 people, including virtually every trade union leader and the leaders of all the progressive and nationalist parties, as well as cultural leaders. The invasion left 20,000 people homeless. The UN General Assembly condemned it as “a flagrant violation of international law”. No apology – let alone compensation – has ever been offered.
The Obama Administration has not distinguished itself from its predecessors. In June 2009, a military coup overthrew the popular Zelaya government in Honduras. The Obama Administration appeared to distance itself from the putsch at the time and pushed for fresh elections. These duly took place, without the participation of the ousted president, and were subject to widespread fraud and intimidation. Both presidential contenders in the fraudulent election backed the coup. Zelaya’s supporters called for a boycott and hundreds of candidates for Congress and local councils withdrew their names and shunned the elections.
Some 800 US personnel oversaw the poll, however, and were quick to proclaim its legitimacy. The Obama Administration hailed the poll as a “very important step forward for Honduras”, despite 23 Latin American and Caribbean nations of the Rio Group refusing to recognise the election and Amnesty International proclaiming a “human rights crisis” in Honduras. Time magazine headlined its coverage “Obama’s Latin American Policy Looks Like Bush’s”.
Nearly three years after the coup, human rights groups highlight the ongoing political assassinations of regime opponents, journalists and civil society activists. Yet the Obama Administration appears to side with the death squads. “Now it’s time for the hemisphere as a whole to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in June 2010. Within days, the US resumed military aid to the Honduran regime.
Since then, the situation has only worsened. Crime is thriving. There were 120 political assassinations in the country in 2010-2011. In the region of Bajo Aguan, where people are defending their land from large developers, 45 peasants have been murdered.
In March 2012, 94 members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her “to suspend US assistance to the Honduran military and police given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces”. The Obama Administration, meanwhile, is asking for increased military aid for Honduras for 2012.
Today Central America is the most violent region in the world. Certainly some of that is attributable to the drugs trade, which feeds on the atomisation and insecurity produced by global neoliberalism. But it also stems from the region’s brutal and traumatic past, when state forces could commit atrocities with total impunity, aided and abetted by the US. Bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice is a vital first step towards not just elementary justice but articulating an alternative political way forward.