December 6, 1982 marks the 30th anniversary of the Dos Erres massacre, in which US-backed Guatemalan elite troops tortured, raped and slaughtered 201 men, women and children with the tacit approval of the Reagan administration.
More than 200,000 people, mostly poor, indigenous Mayans, were killed during the course of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. That bloody conflict traces its roots to the CIA overthrow of the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. A leftist reformer, Arbenz worked hard to improve the lives of Guatemala’s poor. He expropriated large tracts of land owned by the US-based United Fruit Company, one of the nation’s largest land owners. The company was notorious for its brutal treatment of the Mayans who toiled for a pittance on its plantations.
By expropriating United Fruit’s property and by enacting policies to help his country’s poor, Arbenz quickly made powerful enemies both among the Guatemalan elite class and in Washington and on Wall Street. He was duly deposed in a 1954 CIA coup that brought Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, Washington’s handpicked successor, to power. He rolled back Arbenz’s reforms and re-established Guatemala as a puppet state that served US interests over those of his own people. Power remained concentrated in the hands of a few fabulously wealthy families while the majority of the people languished in poverty. This sad state of affairs led to a leftist uprising and all-out civil war by 1960.
Washington sided with the Guatemalan elites as they attempted to crush the popular revolution, even though that meant backing the ethnic cleansing of the country’s Mayan population. Fully 93 percent of those killed during the civil war were slaughtered by US-backed government forces. Cold War anti-communist hysteria and commerce were the main reasons why successive US administrations ignored the horrific human rights abuses committed by the Guatemalan government and military. President Jimmy Carter, the so-called human rights president (whose government supported genocide in Indonesia), did suspend US cooperation with the Guatemalan military due to its many abuses, but Ronald Reagan resumed ties, with many Guatemalan troops receiving training at the notorious US Army School of the Americas (SOA). There, they were instructed in kidnapping, torture, assassination and other repression.
One of the prominent SOA graduates who rose to political prominence in Guatemala was Efrain Rios Montt. This notoriously brutal right-wing general, who also served as the country’s de facto president, is currently on trial for genocide. He destroyed hundreds of Mayan villages, killed tens of thousands of his own people and left a million more homeless.
In October 1982, leftist guerrillas ambushed an army convoy near the village of Dos Erres, killing 21 soldiers. The government dispatched an elite unit called the Kaibiles, a barbaric bunch whose members had to kill a dog with their bare hands and eat its heart as part of their graduation ritual, to exact revenge on the people of Dos Erres. The crack unit set to slaughtering every man, woman and child they found there in the most brutal manner imaginable. Men were tortured. Children were thrown into the village well. Babies had their heads bashed against walls. Girls were raped before being shot or bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers, their bodies then thrown into the well with the children. Fetuses were torn from pregnant women and girls. Very few people are known to have survived the massacre. When it was all over, 201 villagers were dead.
On the same day that the Kaibiles attacked Dos Erres, President Ronald Reagan met with Rios Montt and called him “a man of great personal integrity who wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and promote social justice,” adding that the brutal dictator had gotten a “bum rap” from human rights advocates. Declassified State Department documents prove that the United States was fully aware of the massacre at Dos Erres. Yet a month after the slaughter Pedro Pimental Rios, who in 2011 was sentenced to 6,060 years imprisonment for his role at Dos Erres, was hired to teach at the School of the Americas. Pimental Rios, who had raped children at Dos Erres, was awarded the US Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service and was allowed to settle in California until he was extradited to face trial for genocide in Guatemala.
Other Kaibiles were also allowed to immigrate to the United States. Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, who smashed villager’s head with a sledgehammer and threw grenades into a well full of living women and children, moved to California where he became a respected karate instructor. Another former Kaibile, Santos Lopez Alonzo, kidnapped 5-year-old Dos Erres survivor Ramiro Cristales and brought him to the US where the boy was treated as a slave.
In December 2011, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom apologized for Dos Erres. He also presided over the trial of five former Kaibiles for their role in the massacre. Between them, the soldiers were sentenced to 30,300 years behind bars, although the long sentences are largely symbolic since Guatemalan law prohibits prison terms longer than 50 years.
Unlike Guatemala’s president, the US government still does not talk about its involvement in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of poor, innocent people throughout Central America in the 1980s. From supporting the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, to backing the dictator Manuel Noriega in Panama, to arming, training and funding death squads that assassinated priests and raped and murdered American church women in El Salvador, Washington’s legacy in Central America is one of support for brutal, reactionary forces dedicated to crushing the hopes and dreams of millions of poor peasants.