A critique of British press coverage of Guatemala’s civil war

In an audience study attempting to pin-point the ‘black holes of history’, two analysts cite US government documents which demonstrated that in 20th century Guatemala, the United States “initiated and sustained a murderous war conducted by the Guatemalan security forces against civilians suspected of aiding left-wing guerrilla movements”. The citation is sourced from a Guardian report of 1999.[1]

It is perhaps surprising then, that 14 years later, in 2013, when reporting the trial of former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, no mention is made by the Guardian of the US role in the ‘atrocities’ that Ríos Montt is charged with.[2] It is even more puzzling in light of the fact that the charges amount to ‘genocide and crimes against humanity’. In reporting the trial the Guardian state:

“A United Nations backed truth commission blamed most of hundreds of massacres during the war on the army and army-backed paramilitaries. It concluded that attacks on specific indigenous groups constituted genocide because the strategy was to kill as many members of these groups as possible.”


“An estimated 200,000 people died and 45,000 disappeared during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war that ended with peace accords in 1996 and represents one of the bloodiest episodes in modern Latin America history.”

Any foreign role – particularly one by a country that claims to promote democracy, peace and human rights, as the United States does – is plainly critical in this history. However, it is nowhere to be found. The Guardian is not alone in this omission, however.

According to a comment piece published by the Independent (the only piece on the issue to be found on the Independent website), “1982 [the year Ríos Montt took power] proved to be the year in which almost half of the torture, massacres, rapes, and enforced disappearances committed during the entire conflict took place”.[3] “Some of the incidents presented in the charge sheet are horrific” and “Amnesty International’s own reports from the period are full of the horror that swept over the Guatemalan countryside under Ríos Montt’s rule”. Given the gruesome specifics, it is relevant in this context that former US President Ronald Reagan enthusiastically endorsed Ríos Mont, describing him as someone “totally committed to democracy” but who was receiving a “bum rap”. This praise came only a couple of months after an Amnesty International report documenting civilian massacres in 60 Indian villages, with a death toll exceeding 2,500.[4] In the Independent piece, however, such facts are absent. “It is to be hoped that this trial will serve as a milestone, showing that no-one is above the law” – except, we might add, the United States, whose “significant” role in the genocide (according to the UN Truth Commission), is entirely removed from the record.[5]

The BBC fails to shed any more light on the history. “Gen Rios Montt’s 17 months in power are believed to have been one of the most violent periods of the war”; a war in which “An estimated 200,000 people were killed or went missing”.[6] Once again, though, the United States’ role in this “war” is absent. Furthermore, the BBC does not even mention the UN Truth Commission which confirmed the genocidal nature of Guatemalan state policies. Notably, the use of torture also passes unmentioned; the most specific detail the reader is given being “the forced displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans as part of what human rights groups have called his “scorched earth” policy”.

The United States’ Role in the Carnage

Let us consider some of the crimes of the “murderous war” (Guardian) and their historical context. The horrors following a CIA coup of 1954 that overthrew the democratically-elected president Jacobo Árbenz, have been well-documented.[7] US intervention was conducted in the name of anti-communism, though before and after the coup the CIA failed to find convincing evidence of direct links to the Soviets.[8] Nevertheless, the intervention was “significant enough . . . that President Dwight Eisenhower, after his retirement, listed the defeat of “communism” in Guatemala as one of the highlights of his administration’, as two US missionaries who lived in the country, have pointed out.[9]

What followed the coup has been described by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano as an “orgy of violence”, as “a series of ferocious dictatorships” carried out “systematic butchery”.[10] Indeed, in the post-coup administration of Carlos Castillo Armas, one appointee was José Bernabé Linares, who, according to a recently-published history of the US’ role in Latin America during the Cold War, “had established a reputation for torturing those in custody with electric-shock baths and head-shrinking skullcaps”.[11] Meanwhile, the CIA, as it would do elsewhere in years to come, provided security forces with lists of alleged “communists”, who were subsequently rounded up and disposed of.[12] US aid rose from $463,000 to $10,708,000 between 1954 and 1955.[13] In 1966, Operación Limpieza (Operation Cleanup), a vicious counterinsurgency campaign was carried out under the tutelage of US police trainers, and the active involvement of Green Berets that saw the establishment of ‘disappearing’ people: a technique that would extend across the region on a frightful scale.[14] John Logan, a US security adviser who was the architect of the campaign, believed that Guatemalan security forces “will be continued to be used, as in the past . . . as the oligarchy’s oppressors of legitimate social change”,[15] as, indeed, they were.

Turning to the 1982-3 reign of Ríos Montt, let us reflect upon a survivor’s description of a massacre of 300 people (including women, children and the elderly) in 1982:

“Finally they brought out the last child. He was a little one, maybe two or three years old. They stabbed him and cut out his stomach. The little child was screaming, but because he wasn’t dead yet, the soldier grabbed a thick, hard stick and bashed his head. They held his feet together and smashed him against a tree trunk. I saw how they flung him hard and hurt his head. It split open, and they threw him inside the house.” [16]

US forces had extensively trained Guatemalan forces in counterinsurgency since the 1960s, followed by police training in the 1970s. Though military aid was cut during the Carter administration, “loopholes permitted a continued flow of U.S. arms”, observes Edward Herman.[17] President Reagan described Ríos Montt as “a man of great personal integrity”,[18] even after Ríos Montt himself had stated on Guatemalan television that he “had declared a state of siege [in 1982] so that we [the Guatemalan government] could kill legally”.[19] Not only did the Reagan administration push for the restoration of military aid to the country, but in December 1979, even before Reagan’s campaign had begun, a delegation, that included men who “would play a prominent role in Reagan’s campaign and administration”, historian Greg Grandin points out, “made contact with the military to reassure them that aid would be resumed once Carter was voted out”, stating that “Mr Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done”.[20] The notorious School of the Americas, a US military school where a number of Latin America’s dictators received training, not to mention thousands of other personnel, “used improper instruction materials in training Latin American officers, including Guatemalans, from 1982-1991”, according to a US Intelligence Oversight Board investigation of 1996. The School of the Americas manuals condoned “execution of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment”.[21]

It has been touched upon above that the news reports in question, when they do mention the UN Truth Commission on Guatemala, avoid its comments on the role of the United States. For the record, the commission concluded: “[United States] military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations”.[22]

The Disparity between Reportage and Reality

Even if one was to focus solely on Ríos Montt’s reign (1982-3), it would still be necessary to point out that the United States played a key role in the unimaginable violence perpetrated during that time. The fact that Ríos Montt faces charges of crimes against humanity and genocide make the absence all the more striking. However, given the United States interference in Guatemala since 1954, it would seem even more outrageous to ignore the historical record in this case, simply because it is so extensive, blatant, bloody and criminal.

In 1985, Noam Chomsky wrote that “occasional articles and editorials on Guatemalan horrors in the [US] press commonly refer to the travail of the years since 1954, without recalling the overthrow of Guatemalan democracy in 1954 and the regular US intervention since to maintain the system instituted by the CIA coup”, describing such a process as “a sordid display of moral cowardice”.[23] Though the UK did not overthrow Guatemalan democracy in 1954, it is nevertheless shameful to witness such staggering omissions in the British press. Whether such dismissals qualify as “sordid display[s] of moral cowardice”, is, arguably, for the individual to decide. At the very least, the omissions are deeply troubling, and bring the credibility of the British press into serious doubt.


[1] Greg Philo & Maureen Gilmour, ‘Black Holes of History: Public Understanding and the Shaping of Our Past’, in David Miller (ed.) Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq (London: Pluto Press, 2004), p. 232

[2] Jo Tuckman, ‘Former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt goes on trial’, Guardian, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/19/guatemalan-dictator-jose-fra…, accessed on 20 Mar. 2013.

[3] Guadalupe Marengo, ‘The Ríos Montt genocide trial finally begins in Guatemala’, Independent, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-ros-montt-genocide-trial…, accessed on 20 Mar. 2013.

[4] Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (London: Vintage, 1994 [1988]), p. 73.

[5] Guatemala: Memory of Silence, Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, Historical Clarification Commission, 1999, http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/default.html, accessed on 09 May 2012.

[6] 19 March, 2013, ‘Guatemala ex-ruler Rios Montt on trial for genocide’, BBC,
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-21851940, accessed on 20 Mar. 2013.

[7] See, for example: Stephen Schlesinger & Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (New York: Anchor Books, 1984 [1982]); William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military & CIA Interventions since World War II (London: Zed Books, 2003), ch. 10; Stephen G. Rabe, The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), ch. 3.

[8] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 2012, p. 45.

[9] Thomas Melville & Marjorie Melville, Guatemala: Another Vietnam? (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1971), p. 103.

[10] Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, trans. by Cedric Belfrage (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009 [1973]), p. 114.

[11] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 2012, p. 53.

[12] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 2012, p. 53.

[13] Lars Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy toward Latin America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 184.

[14] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 2012, p. 57; Green Berets in Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 1994, p. 72.

[15] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 2012, p. 58.

[16] Cited in Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (Boston: South End Press, 1985), p. 29.

[17] Edward S. Herman, ‘The U.S. Versus Human Rights in the Third World’, in Edward S. Herman, Triumph of the Market: Essays on Economics, Politics, and the Media (Boston: South End Press, 1995), p. 143.

[18] Cited in Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 1985, p. 31.

[19] Cited in Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945 (London: Zed Books, 1995), p. 161.

[20] Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2010 [2006]), p. 109.

[21] Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Holt Paperback, 2007 [2006]), p. 105. On the School of the Americas, see Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004).

[22] Guatemala: Memory of Silence, Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, Historical Clarification Commission, 1999,

[23] Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 1985, p. 34.