By César Chelala
November 16, 2019 "Information Clearing House" - On March 11, 1999, President Bill Clinton took an unprecedented step. During a four-nation visit to Central America, he expressed regret for the role the United States had played in a brutal counter-terrorism campaign that had caused the deaths of thousands of civilians in Guatemala’s civil war.
President Clinton’s apology followed the publication of the findings of an Independent Historical Clarification commission, which concluded that U.S. government support to the Guatemalan military was responsible for most of the human rights abuses committed during the 36-year war in which 200,000 people died.
The human rights abuses were also detailed in The Guatemala Truth Commission report which was coordinated by Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was brutally murdered. According to the report, children were killed, abducted, forcibly recruited as soldiers and sexually abused. Fetuses were cut from their mothers’ wombs and young children were thrown alive into pits.
Brutal as it was, this was not the first time that the US government had intervened in Guatemalan affairs. In 1954, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out a covert operation that deposed the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. The coup that installed Carlos Castillo Armas was the first in a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes in Guatemala and was preceded by US efforts to isolate Guatemala internationally. Arbenz had instituted near-universal suffrage, introduced a minimum wage, and turned Guatemala into a democracy.
Castillo Armas quickly assumed dictatorial powers, banned opposition parties, imprisoned and tortured political opponents, and reversed the social reforms of the Arbenz government. The coup was universally condemned and gave rise to strong anti-U.S. sentiment throughout the Americas.
Nearly four decades of civil war followed, with leftist guerrillas fighting a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes. The consequence was the genocide of the country’s Mayan population, when more than 200,000 indigenous people were murdered by Guatemalan military regimes supported by the US
As in Guatemala, the US also supported the government in the war in El Salvador against the leftist guerrillas (FMLN), providing military aid in the amount of between one and two million dollars per day. US officers took over key positions at the top levels of the Salvadoran military and made critical decisions in conducting the civil war. The war lasted over 12 years (1979-1992) and resulted in more than 75,000 people murdered or “disappeared.”
According to the United Nations, while 5 percent of the murders of civilians were committed by the FMLN, 85 percent were carried out by the Salvadoran armed forces and the paramilitary death squads. The squads mutilated the bodies of their victims as a way of terrifying the population. The so-called Atlacatl Battalion, which savagely murdered and mutilated six Jesuit priests, was reportedly under the tutelage of US Special Forces just 48 hours before the killings.
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