Speaking of Abrams, What Did He Know About Genocide in Guatemala?

by Jim Lobe

A Guatemalan court this afternoon found former President Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the indigenous Mayan Ixil population as a result of the counter-insurgency campaign he directed as president from 1982 to 1983; that is, in the middle of Elliott Abrams’ tenure as the Reagan administration’s assistant secretary of state for human rights. While human rights, church groups, and the American Anthropological Association repeatedly denounced that campaign (with some actually calling it “genocide”), the administration moved during that period to restore and increase military aid to the government. In fact, after visiting personally with Rios Montt in Honduras in early December, 1982, Reagan himself declared that the born-again president was getting a “bum rap” from rights groups and journalists and that he was “a man of great personal integrity” who faced “a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala.”

Here’s what Human Rights Watch, with which Abrams clashed quite frequently over rights conditions in Central America, including Guatemala, during Rios Montt’s reign, said tonight after the verdict was announced:

Guatemala: Rios Montt Convicted of Genocide

Landmark Ruling against Impunity, Judicial Control Needed in Handling Appeals

(New York, May 10, 2013)—The guilty verdict against Efraín Ríos Montt, former leader of Guatemala, for genocide and crimes against humanity is an unprecedented step toward establishing accountability for atrocities during the country’s brutal civil war, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The conviction of Rios Montt sends a powerful message to Guatemala and the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Without the persistence and bravery of each participant in this effort – the victims, prosecutors, judges, and civil society organizations – this landmark decision would have been inconceivable.”

Rios Montt was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the crime of genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity in a sentence that was handed down on May 10, 2013 by Judge Yassmin Barrios in Guatemala City. In her decision, Barrios said Rios Montt was fully aware of plans to exterminate the indigenous Ixil population carried out by security forces under his command.

The genocide conviction was the first for a current or former head of state in a national court, Human Rights Watch said.

Clearly, tonight’s conviction should prove rather embarrassing for Abrams, as this genocide occurred “on his watch,” so to speak, and there’s no on-the-record indication that he ever disagreed with the defense that the administration mounted on Rios Montt’s behalf or that he opposed its repeated efforts to provide Guatemala’s army with military aid. Nor, of course, did Abrams resign in protest over those efforts.

Precisely what his stance vis-a-vis Guatemala policy was during this period remains somewhat cloudy, as the American Republic Affairs (ARA) bureau, then led by the late Tom Enders (the man who oversaw the secret bombing of Cambodia), was the main public spokesman for the administration’s policy. Hopefully, the National Security Archive, whose dogged work played a major role in making Rios Montt’s prosecution possible, will soon release declassified documents that will shed light on what Abrams did or did not do on Guatemala during this period and specifically whether he signed off on/objected to/tried to amend testimony and other public statements made by Enders and other officials. (It would be very interesting to find out whether he may have, as the chief human rights official, personally briefed Reagan before the “bum rap” statement.)

For example, after Amnesty International issued a searing report detailing 112 incidents in which from one to 100 men, women and children were reportedly massacred by Guatemalan troops, Enders sent a letter to Congress contesting the findings, noting, among other things, that Amnesty had relied on groups “closely aligned with, if not largely under the influence of, the guerrilla groups attempting to overthrow the Guatemalan government.” His letter was based on an unpublished memorandum from the U.S. embassy in Guatemala which, among other assertions, concluded that “a concerted disinformation campaign is being waged in the US against the Guatemalan Government by groups supporting the leftwing insurgency in Guatemala; this has enlisted the support of conscientious human rights and church organizations which may not fully appreciate that they are being utilized.”

At about the same time, Enders’ principal deputy, Stephen Bosworth, testified before the House Subcommittee on International Development — the administration was moving to increase balance-of-payments support to Rios Montt and lift Carter-era, human rights-related bans on U.S. support for loans from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank — that Rios Montt was doing great things for the native population in the Ixil Triangle:

Political violence in rural areas continues and may even be increasing, but its use as a political tactic appears to be a guerrilla strategy, not a government doctrine. Eyewitness reports of women among the attackers, Embassy interviews with massacre survivors, the use of weapons not in the army inventory, and most importantly, the increasing tendency of rural villagers to seek the army’s protection all suggest that the guerrillas are responsible in major part for the rising levels of violence in rural areas.

Given what we have learned about Rios Montt’s “Beans-and-Bullets” strategy, these assertions today seem utterly laughable, if the actual events were not so terrible.

But the question remains: what was Abrams doing during this period about Guatemala. Did he review the embassy report? Did he clear Enders’ letter or Bosworth’s testimony? Was he — by all accounts, an effective bureaucratic infighter — in the loop while this genocide was taking place and the administration was pushing hard to arm the genocidaires? (We know his office received this cable.) How did he respond?

Rios Montt’s conviction may prove embarrassing not only to Abrams, but also to some of his fellow-neocons who also defended Guatemala during this period. Here’s the Wall Street Journal celebrating Reagan’s blessing as a “Guatemalan Breakthrough” (Dec 15, 1982):

Change in Guatemala would vindicate the Reagan administration’s much maligned human rights policy. Unlike the Carter administration’s confrontational posturing, the quiet argument of Reagan’s men seems to be finding an audience. Much of the changed atmosphere is undoubtedly due to the coup that installed General Rios Montt, a born-again evangelical Christian. The early promise of Rios Montt’s rule was tarnished by reports of massacres of Indians and of renewed “death squad” activity. But perhaps General Rios Montt had recognized the key point — that human rights not only make moral sense but also are the only practical base on which to build a legitimate government.

Thus General Rios Montt seems to have ordered his troops in the field to observe strict rules not to molest or steal from peasants, borrowing a page from the guerrilla textbook. At the same time, the peasants are being encouraged to join government forces in return for food and shelter, thus denying a source of manpower to the guerrillas.

Doubtless the Rios Montt approach also owes something to the way the Reagan administration is handling human rights. An absolute insistence on every detail of the most advanced democracy can prove devastating to our authoritarian friends.

Sounds a little naive in retrospect, doesn’t it?

Also likely to be somewhat embarrassed is the government of Israel which moved into the vacuum created by Carter’s and Congress’s cut-off of military and intelligence assistance and subsequently expanded its involvement with Rios Montt’s counter-insurgency efforts with the Reagan administration’s encouragement. In 1982, just before Reagan’s visit, Ríos Montt told ABC News that his success in allegedly defeating the guerrillas was due the fact that “our soldiers were trained by Israelis.” It was the same year as the Sabra and Shatila massacres by Israel-backed Phalange militiamen in Beirut. Now, its Central American client has been convicted of genocide.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.