Ronald Reagan, Enabler of Atrocities
By Robert Parry
consortiumnews.com via rsn
February 6, 2011
When you're listening to the many tributes to President
Ronald Reagan, often for his talent making Americans feel
better about themselves, you might want to spend a minute
thinking about the many atrocities in Latin America and
elsewhere that Reagan aided, covered up or shrugged off in
his inimitable "aw shucks" manner.
After all, the true measure of a president shouldn't be his
style or how he made us feel but rather what he did with his
extraordinary power, what were the consequences for real
people, either for good or ill.
Yet, even as the United States celebrates Reagan's centennial
birthday and lavishes praise on his supposed accomplishments,
very little time has been spent reflecting on the unnecessary
bloodbaths that Reagan enabled in many parts of the world.
Those grisly deaths and ugly tortures get whisked away as if
they were just small necessities in Reagan's larger success
'winning the Cold War' - even though the competition between
the United States and the Soviet Union was already winding
down before Reagan arrived on the national scene. [See
Consortiumnews.com's 'Reagan's ‘Tear Down This Wall' Myth.']
Yet, Reagan's Cold War obsessions helped unleash right-wing
'death squads' and murderous militaries on the common people
in many parts of the Third World, but nowhere worse than in
In the 1970s and 1980s, as Latin American security forces
were sharpening themselves into finely honed killing
machines, Reagan was there as an ardent defender, making
excuses for the atrocities, and sending money and equipment
to make the forces even more lethal.
For instance, in the late 1970s, when Argentina's dictators
were inventing a new state-terror program called
'disappearances' - the unacknowledged murders of dissidents -
Reagan was making himself useful as a columnist deflecting
the human rights complaints coming from the Carter
At the time, Argentina's security forces were rounding up
tens of thousands of political opponents who became subjects
of ingenious torture techniques often followed by mass
killings, including a favorite method that involved shackling
naked prisoners together, loading them onto a plane, piloting
the plane out to sea and shoving them through the plane's
door, like sausage links.
However, since Argentina's rightists were devout Catholics,
they had a special twist when the prisoners were pregnant
women. The expectant mothers would be kept alive until they
reached full term and then were subjected to either induced
labor or Caesarian sections.
The babies were handed out to military families and the new
mothers were loaded aboard the death planes to be dumped out
over the sea to drown. The children were sometimes raised by
their mothers' murderers. [See Consortiumnews.com's
'Argentina's Dapper State Terrorist' or 'Baby-Snatching:
Argentina's Dirty War Secret.']
As ghastly as Argentina's 'dirty war' was, it had an ardent
defender in Ronald Reagan, who used his newspaper column to
chide President Jimmy Carter's human rights coordinator,
Patricia Derian, for berating the Argentine junta.
Reagan joshed that Derian should 'walk a mile in the
moccasins' of the Argentine generals before criticizing them.
[For details, see Martin Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]
Sympathizing with Torturers
So, there was good reason for the right-wing oligarchs and
their security services to celebrate when Reagan was elected
president in November 1980. They knew they would enjoy a new
era of impunity as they tortured, raped and murdered their
Even before Reagan took office, four American churchwomen in
El Salvador were kidnapped by elements of the right-wing
Salvadoran military. Because the women were suspected of
harboring leftist sympathies, they were raped and executed
with high-powered bullets to their brains, before their
bodies were stuffed into shallow graves.
The incoming Reagan administration was soon making excuses
for the Salvadoran killers, including comments from Reagan's
U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Secretary of State
The brutal Argentine generals also got a royal welcome when
they visited Washington. Kirkpatrick feted them at an elegant
More substantively, Reagan authorized CIA collaboration with
the Argentine intelligence service for training and arming
the Nicaraguan Contras, a rebel force created to overthrow
Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. The Contras were
soon implicated in human rights atrocities of their own.
Torture was also on the Reagan's administration's menu for
political enemies. A 2004 CIA Inspector General's report,
examining the CIA's abusive 'war on terror' interrogations
under President George W. Bush, noted the spy agency's past
'intermittent involvement in the interrogation of individuals
whose interests are opposed to those of the United States.'
The report noted 'a resurgence in interest' in teaching these
techniques in the early 1980s 'to foster foreign liaison
relationships.' The report said, 'because of political
sensitivities,' the CIA's top brass in the 1980s 'forbade
Agency officers from using the word ‘interrogation' and
substituted the phrase 'human resources exploitation' in
training programs for allied intelligence agencies.
Euphemisms aside, the CIA Inspector General cited a 1984
investigation of alleged 'misconduct on the part of two
Agency officers who were involved in interrogations and the
death of one individual.' In 1984, the CIA also was faced
with a scandal over an 'assassination manual' prepared by
agency personnel for the Nicaraguan Contras.
While the IG report's references to this earlier era were
brief - and the abuses are little-remembered features of
Ronald Reagan's glorified presidency - there have been other
glimpses into how Reagan unleashed this earlier 'dark side'
on the peasants, workers and students of Central America.
Arguably, the worst of these 'dirty wars' was inflicted on
the people of Guatemala.
Genocide in Guatemala
After taking office in 1981, Reagan pushed to overturn an
arms embargo that Carter had imposed on Guatemala for its
wretched human rights record. Yet even as Reagan moved to
loosen up the military aid ban, U.S. intelligence agencies
were confirming new Guatemalan government massacres.
In April 1981, a secret CIA cable described a massacre at
Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory. On April 17,
1981, government troops attacked the area believed to support
leftist guerrillas, the cable said.
According to a CIA source, "the social population appeared to
fully support the guerrillas" and "the soldiers were forced
to fire at anything that moved." The CIA cable added that
"the Guatemalan authorities admitted that 'many civilians'
were killed in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were non-
Despite the CIA account and other similar reports, Reagan
permitted Guatemala's army to buy $3.2 million in military
trucks and jeeps in June 1981. To permit the sale, Reagan
removed the vehicles from a list of military equipment that
was covered by the human rights embargo.
Confident of Reagan's sympathies, the Guatemalan government
continued its political repression without apology.
According to a State Department cable on Oct. 5, 1981,
Guatemalan leaders met with Reagan's roving ambassador,
retired Gen. Vernon Walters, and left no doubt about their
plans. Guatemala's military leader, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas
Garcia, "made clear that his government will continue as
before - that the repression will continue."
Human rights groups saw the same grisly picture. The Inter-
American Human Rights Commission released a report on Oct.
15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government for "thousands of
illegal executions." [Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1981]
But the Reagan administration was set on whitewashing the
ugly scene. A State Department "white paper," released in
December 1981, blamed the violence on leftist "extremist
groups" and their "terrorist methods," inspired and supported
by Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Yet, even as these rationalizations were pitched to the
American people, U.S. intelligence agencies in Guatemala
continued to learn of government-sponsored massacres.
One CIA report in February 1982 described an army sweep
through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El Quiche
'The commanding officers of the units involved have been
instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are
cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the
EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance," the report
stated. "Since the operation began, several villages have
been burned to the ground, and a large number of guerrillas
and collaborators have been killed."
The CIA report explained the army's modus operandi: "When an
army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or
village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it
is subsequently destroyed."
When the army encountered an empty village, it was "assumed
to have been supporting the EGP, and it is destroyed. There
are hundreds, possibly thousands of refugees in the hills
with no homes to return to. …
'The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil
Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which
the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and
In March 1982, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt seized power in a coup
d'etat. An avowed fundamentalist Christian, he immediately
impressed Official Washington with his piety. Reagan hailed
Rios Montt as "a man of great personal integrity."
By July 1982, however, Rios Montt had begun a new scorched-
earth campaign called "rifles and beans." The slogan meant
that pacified Indians would get "beans," while all others
could expect to be the target of army "rifles."
In October 1982, Rios Montt secretly gave carte blanche to
the feared 'Archivos' intelligence unit to expand 'death
squad' operations, internal U.S. government cables revealed.
Defending Rios Montt
Despite the widespread evidence of Guatemalan government
atrocities cited in the internal U.S. government cables,
political operatives for the Reagan administration sought to
conceal the crimes. On Oct. 22, 1982, for instance, the U.S.
Embassy claimed the Guatemalan government was the victim of a
communist-inspired "disinformation campaign."
Reagan personally took that position in December 1982 when he
met with Rios Montt and claimed that his regime was getting a
"bum rap" on human rights.
On Jan. 7, 1983, Reagan lifted the ban on military aid to
Guatemala, authorizing the sale of $6 million in military
hardware, including spare parts for UH-1H helicopters and
A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency operations.
State Department spokesman John Hughes said the sales were
justified because political violence in the cities had
"declined dramatically" and that rural conditions had
In February 1983, however, a secret CIA cable noted a rise in
"suspect right-wing violence" with kidnappings of students
and teachers. Bodies of victims were appearing in ditches and
CIA sources traced these political murders to Rios Montt's
order to the "Archivos" the previous October to "apprehend,
hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they
Despite these ugly facts on the ground, the annual State
Department human rights survey sugarcoated the facts for the
American public and praised the supposedly improved human
rights situation in Guatemala.
"The overall conduct of the armed forces had improved by late
in the year" 1982, the report stated.
A different picture - far closer to the secret information
held by the U.S. government - was coming from independent
human rights investigators. On March 17, 1983, Americas Watch
representatives condemned the Guatemalan army for human
rights atrocities against the Indian population.
New York attorney Stephen L. Kass cited proof that the
government carried out "virtually indiscriminate murder of
men, women and children of any farm regarded by the army as
possibly supportive of guerrilla insurgents."
Rural women suspected of guerrilla sympathies were raped
before execution, Kass said. Children were "thrown into
burning homes. They are thrown in the air and speared with
bayonets. We heard many, many stories of children being
picked up by the ankles and swung against poles so their
heads are destroyed." [AP, March 17, 1983]
Publicly, however, senior Reagan officials continued to put
on a happy face.
On June 12, 1983, special envoy Richard B. Stone praised
"positive changes" in Rios Montt's government. But Rios
Montt's vengeful Christian fundamentalism was hurtling out of
control, even by Guatemalan standards. In August 1983, Gen.
Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in another coup.
Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued
to kill anyone deemed a subversive or a terrorist.
When three Guatemalans working for the U.S. Agency for
International Development were slain in November 1983, U.S.
Ambassador Frederic Chapin suspected that 'Archivos' hit
squads were sending a message to the United States to back
off even the mild pressure for human rights.
In late November 1983, in a brief show of displeasure, the
administration postponed the sale of $2 million in helicopter
spare parts. The next month, however, Reagan sent the spare
parts anyway. In 1984, Reagan succeeded, too, in pressuring
Congress to approve $300,000 in military training for the
By mid-1984, Chapin, who had grown bitter about the army's
stubborn brutality, was gone, replaced by a far-right
political appointee named Alberto Piedra, who was all for
increased military assistance to Guatemala.
In January 1985, Americas Watch issued a report observing
that Reagan's State Department "is apparently more concerned
with improving Guatemala's image than in improving its human
Other examples of Guatemala's 'death squad' strategy came to
light later. For example, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency
cable in 1994 reported that the Guatemalan military had used
an air base in Retalhuleu during the mid-1980s as a center
for coordinating the counterinsurgency campaign in southwest
Guatemala - and for torturing and burying prisoners.
At the base, pits were filled with water to hold captured
suspects. "Reportedly there were cages over the pits and the
water level was such that the individuals held within them
were forced to hold on to the bars in order to keep their
heads above water and avoid drowning," the DIA report stated.
The Guatemalan military used the Pacific Ocean as another
dumping spot for political victims, according to the DIA
Bodies of insurgents tortured to death and live prisoners
marked for 'disappearance' were loaded onto planes that flew
out over the ocean where the soldiers would shove the victims
into the water to drown, a tactic that had been a favorite
disposal technique of the Argentine military in the 1970s.
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by
accident in the early 1990s when a Guatemalan officer wanted
to let soldiers cultivate their own vegetables on a corner of
the base. But the officer was taken aside and told to drop
the request "because the locations he had wanted to cultivate
were burial sites that had been used by the D-2 [military
intelligence] during the mid-eighties," the DIA report said.
Guatemala, of course, was not the only Central American
country where Reagan and his administration supported brutal
counterinsurgency and paramilitary operations -- and then
sought to cover up the bloody facts.
Deception of the American public - a strategy that the
administration called 'perception management' - was as much a
part of Reagan's Central American activities as the Bush
administration's lies and distortions about weapons of mass
destruction were to the lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003.
Reagan's falsification of the historical record became a
hallmark of the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua as
well as Guatemala. In one case, Reagan personally lashed out
at a human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York
lawyer who had collected affidavits from more than 100
witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported
Contras in Nicaragua.
Angered by the revelations about his beloved Contras, Reagan
denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985, calling him
"one of dictator [Daniel] Ortega's supporters, a sympathizer
who has openly embraced Sandinismo."
Privately, Reagan had a far more accurate understanding of
the true nature of the Contras. At one point in the Contra
war, Reagan turned to CIA official Duane Clarridge and
demanded that the Contras be used to destroy some Soviet-
supplied helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua.
Clarridge recalled that "President Reagan pulled me aside and
asked, 'Dewey, can't you get those vandals of yours to do
this job.'" [See Clarridge's A Spy for All Seasons.]
On Feb. 25, 1999, a Guatemalan truth commission issued a
report on the staggering human rights crimes that Reagan and
his administration had aided, abetted and concealed.
The Historical Clarification Commission, an independent human
rights body, estimated that the Guatemalan conflict claimed
the lives of some 200,000 people with the most savage
bloodletting occurring in the 1980s.
Based on a review of about 20 percent of the dead, the panel
blamed the army for 93 percent of the killings and leftist
guerrillas for three percent. Four percent were listed as
The report documented that in the 1980s, the army committed
626 massacres against Mayan villages. "The massacres that
eliminated entire Mayan villages - are neither perfidious
allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic
chapter in Guatemala's history," the commission concluded.
The army "completely exterminated Mayan communities,
destroyed their livestock and crops," the report said. In the
northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter
Besides carrying out murder and "disappearances," the army
routinely engaged in torture and rape. "The rape of women,
during torture or before being murdered, was a common
practice" by the military and paramilitary forces, the report
The report added that the "government of the United States,
through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct
and indirect support for some [of these] state operations."
The report concluded that the U.S. government also gave money
and training to a Guatemalan military that committed "acts of
genocide" against the Mayans.
"Believing that the ends justified everything, the military
and the state security forces blindly pursued the
anticommunist struggle, without respect for any legal
principles or the most elemental ethical and religious
values, and in this way, completely lost any semblance of
human morals," said the commission chairman, Christian
Tomuschat, a German jurist.
"Within the framework of the counterinsurgency operations
carried out between 1981 and 1983, in certain regions of the
country agents of the Guatemalan state committed acts of
genocide against groups of the Mayan people,' Tomuschat said.
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, 1999,
President Bill Clinton apologized for the past U.S. support
of right-wing regimes in Guatemala.
"For the United States, it is important that I state clearly
that support for military forces and intelligence units which
engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and
the United States must not repeat that mistake," Clinton
Though Clinton admitted that U.S. policy in Guatemala was
'wrong' -- and the evidence of a U.S.-backed 'genocide' might
have been considered startling -- the news was treated mostly
as a one-day story in the U.S. press. It prompted no panel
discussions on the cable news shows that were then obsessed
with Clinton's personal life.
But there was another factor in the disinterest. By the late
1990s, Ronald Reagan had been transformed into a national
icon, with the Republican-controlled Congress attaching his
name to public buildings around the country and to National
Airport in Washington.
Democrats mostly approached this deification of Reagan as
harmless, an easy concession to the Republicans in the name
of bipartisanship. Some Democrats would even try to cite
Reagan as supportive of some of their positions as a way to
protect themselves from attacks launched by the increasingly
powerful right-wing news media.
The Democratic goal of looking to the future, not the past,
had negative consequences, however. With Reagan and his
brutal policies put beyond serious criticism, the path was
left open for President George W. Bush and Vice President
Dick Cheney to return to the 'dark side' after the 9/11
attacks, authorizing torture and extrajudicial killings.
Now, Reagan's 'greatness' is being sealed by the elaborate
celebrations in honor of his 100th birthday, including a
special homage paid during the Super Bowl. In recent days,
commentators, like MSNBC's Chris Matthews, have scrambled to
position themselves as Reagan's admirers, all the better to
protect their careers.
But amid all the extravagant hoopla and teary tributes to the
late president, perhaps some Americans will stop and think of
all the decent people in Latin America and elsewhere who died
horrible and unnecessary deaths as Ronald Reagan cheerily
defended their murderers.
[Many of the declassified Guatemalan documents have been
posted on the Internet by the National Security Archive.]
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry's Lost History
and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck
Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29.
[Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the
1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book,
Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was
written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered
at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy &
Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to
Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project
Truth' are also available there.]
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