Throughout history, the United States government has often found itself involved in wars outside of its own borders, especially those during the Cold War in Latin America. Such was the case during Guatemala’s armed conflict. During this time period, the United States government, the embassy, in particular, was guilty in turning a blind eye to many human rights violations including but not limited to murder, disappearances, and massacres. As an anthropology student interested in the effects of policy on human lives, I saw that the GAM archive serves as a portal to understanding the human lives impacted by the Government of Guatemala (GOG) and U.S. government relations. I began my research by reading several books and articles on US foreign policy in Guatemala, amongst these Armies Without Nations by Robert H. Holden and Dangerous Liaisons: The U. S. in Guatemala by Susanne Jonas, specifically focusing on the early 1980s. My decision to then focus solely on 1982 was largely due to the GAM Archive. While it holds cases from throughout Guatemala ranging from the early to mid-60s all the way to the early 2000s, the large majority of cases come from 1982. I also decided to focus on this time period to see the extent of human rights violations during the reign of President Efrain Rios Montt, as 1982 corresponds with the military junta coup that put Rios Montt in power as well as his “scorched earth” policy, a military strategy to destroy villages and displace populations.
Using the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) I found a chronology of United States Government relations with the Government of Guatemala which includes embassy visit reports, presidential meetings, and cables from US officials to and from the United States government as well as GOG developments. I argue that these embassy cables demonstrate the complicity of the United States embassy. In one of the earliest cables from 1982, before the Rios Montt regime, U.S. embassy political officer Raymond Gonzales writes to the State Department urging the United States government to “avoid condoning … illegal acts [human rights violations] by its silence”. The ambassador’s comment to this message implies that doing so would not be beneficial for the United States, even if illegal actions were occurring.
In later U.S. embassy cables from 1982, there are statements that relieve the military of human rights violations and pin the blame on the guerillas, which the embassy states are highly active in the area. They support their claims stating GOG reports; however, no investigation occurs until later in the year from September to November when embassy officials finally visit the areas affected.
Throughout 1982, Chimaltenango suffered several massacres, disappearances and murders. To understand the extent of the events it is important to understand that the GAM archive is composed of nearly 3,750 cases. 481 of these cases come from the Chimaltenango department, of which 217 are from 1982. The disappearances divided by months is depicted by the table below.
The disappearances follow a trend of 14-17 disappearances a month, however, there are a few spikes and rapid decreases amongst this trend. The cases I have chosen tell the collective story of these spikes and the conditions before the embassy visits. Cases taking place after the embassy visits on September 28th and October 21st are contained in the archive but have not yet been digitized.
The first case that I focused on this summer was that of 14-year-old Juan Pablo Armira Lopez who disappeared from the capital but was originally from Chimaltenango. I chose to focus on this case because while it does not occur within Chimaltenango itself, it serves as context for the conditions in Chimaltenango in 1982 and of Guatemala as a whole. His family left Chimaltenango just months before his disappearance due to the increase in violence. The intake form for this case was filled out more than 10 years after his disappearance, presumably by a family member due to the shared last name. My speculation for the gap of time is that it is a result of the threats that were given to his mother at the time of his abduction. When people were disappeared or murdered in Guatemala, threats were commonly directed to the surviving family members.
On the back of the last sheet of the form, there is a handwritten account of the abduction, which states that if the mother spoke of what had happened they, el ejercito (the army) as mentioned in the statement, would come back for her. Many of the reports of disappearances are commonly filed in 1994-6, around the time of the peace accords. However, there are some that are recorded as early as the mid-80s, which correlates to the formation of the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo.
The case of Ricardo Aju Cicajau takes place in Chipiacul, an aldea of the municipality of Patzún, on April 25th. Ricardo, like many of those disappeared in Patzún, was a farmer. I focused on Ricardo’s case due to the close proximity to the Chipiacul raid, which is documented as having occurred on April 26th. This leads me to believe that Ricardo is a possible victim of said raid, as his murder occurred the night leading into the documented date of the raid. The DNSA chronology states that the Guatemalan government reported that the Guerrilla Army of the Poor was to blame for the raid. This, however, was later corrected by the Historical Clarification Commission (April 26, 1982). The report which the Guatemalan government issued is one of the very same reports that the United States embassy would use for its reports of human rights violations.
The case of Paulino and, his daughter, Juanita Chuc comes from the caserio (hamlet) of Chuinimachicaj within Patzún. This incident occurred on June 15th, only a few weeks after Ricardo’s murder. Like Ricardo, Paulino was a farmer who was believed to be taken, along with his daughter, by the ejercito from Zona Militar 302. In Guatemala, the army was organized by zonas militares (military zones) and for Chimaltenango the corresponding one was Zona Militar 302. However, what sets these two cases apart is that the Chuc case comes after the Decree-Law 24-82 which nullifies the 1965 Constitution. This Constitution provided some protection against human rights violations while the Decree allowed officers to legally enter homes and execute arrests without cause. This change of law, I argue, is the cause for the spike in disappearances in May 1982 as and I suggest that the Chuc family is one of the many who fell victim to this change of law.
The cases I mention only show a small part of the story of Chimaltenango 1982, however, they show the truth that the GOG was hiding in their reports— the same reports that US embassy officials would base their reports on without investigation. The embassy visits in September and October were often in response to allegations that the massacres had been performed by military officials. When putting the dates of the embassy visits side by side with the disappearances in Chimaltenango within the GAM archive, it is clear that the embassy statements do not tell the true story. The cables from the embassy state that there is a decrease in human rights violations and that the conditions have improved; however, from August to October the numbers remain the same and only begin to decrease in November, after the embassy visits.
The US embassy’s strategic faith in the GOG reports shows a large amount of complicity on their part. While the US taught many of the Guatemalan soldiers’ war tactics and turned a blind eye to their human rights violations, Guatemala was not an isolated case. The United States embassies have been tied to other Central American and South American war crimes, often providing the same support and being complicit as it was in Guatemala. As evidenced in reply to the cable I mentioned earlier by Raymond Gonzales, the United States government did not stop condoning human rights violations because they did not believe it would be beneficial for them. This leads me to question where else US involvement was parallel to that of its involvement in Guatemala and how many times it has strategically turned a blind eye when people’s lives are at risk.
While doing my own research on Chimaltenango 1982 I thought of questions and purposes that the archive easily lends itself to. It not only helps track the violence of Guatemala throughout a 40-year period but allows Guatemalan citizens to see that their history wasn’t forgotten. The archive can also be of use for anyone wishing to see the effects of the Guatemalan Civil War on indigenous communities or a comparative study of the effects of the Cold War throughout the world.
Chronology: Death Squads, Guerrilla War, Covert Operations, and Genocide: Guatemala and the United States, 1954-1999.