The Guatemala Lesson


The only surprise is the surprise. In late March, it came out that the CIA had a paid agent in Guatemala who was responsible for the 1990 torture and brutal slaying of an American innkeeper (his head was nearly sawed off by a machete) and for the 1992 torture and murder of the husband of Jennifer Harbury, an American citizen.

Representative Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who disclosed these facts, said "the agency is simply out of control and contains what can only be called a criminal element."

But this was not the work of one overzealous agent or one rogue operation. This was, and is, standard operating procedure. In El Salvador and Guatemala and elsewhere around the globe, the "criminal element" is the CIA itself. The CIA organized the death squads in these countries, financed them, equipped them, trained them, and consulted with them on individual cases of torture and assassination. These are the facts. That's what the CIA does. The CIA knows it. The Pentagon knows it. The State Department knows it. The President knows it. Congress knows it. And no one does anything about it.

Once a decade, when the American public finally hears about the atrocities that are committed with our tax dollars and in our name, everyone in Washington claims to be shocked, shocked, shocked. There was shock during the Church Hearings in the 1970s about the CIA's role in Vietnam and Chile; there was shock in the 1980s when it was revealed that the CIA had Salvadoran death-squad members on its payroll; now there's shock that the CIA'S been involved in these Guatemalan murders.

As in previous disclosures, the expression of shock serves a number of purposes. It shields officials from responsibility, it diverts attention away from the CIA'S systematic pattern of human-rights abuses, and it thereby deflects criticism against the entire agency. But the Guatemalan case demonstrates in almost crystalline terms why the CIA should be abolished once and for all.

Here we have an agency that overthrew the democratically elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 because a U.S. banana company, United Fruit, was worried about its plantations.

Here we have an agency that since the 1960s has been hand-in-glove with the hemisphere's most notorious human-rights abusers, as Allan Nairn ably documents in the April 17 issue of The Nation. In the last fifteen years alone, the Guatemalan military has massacred more than 100,000 peasants and Indians, and has tortured thousands more.

Here we have an agency that has repeatedly violated U.S. prohibitions on aid to Guatemala. The CIA did this in the 1980s, as Nairn reported way back in 1986 in The Progressive. And the CIA did it again in the early 1990s, after the Bush Administration had cut off military aid because of the murder of the American innkeeper, Michael DeVine. (At that time, no one owned up that Guatemalan colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez, implicated in the death, was on the CIA payroll. The CIA, according to The New York Times, funneled $5- to $7 million annually in military aid to Guatemala at a time when no such money was supposed to be going there. These payments continued during the Clinton Administration.

Here we have an agency that paid Alpirez--another illustrious graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas-$44,000 in 1992, even after it had learned about his involvement in the murder of Michael DeVine. "Everybody is covering up for everybody else," says Carole DeVine, Michael's widow.

Here we have an agency that admittedly misled Congress about the DeVine case and now pleads that it doesn't have all the information it needs to explain what happened.

And here we have an agency that is still paying Guatemalan military officers to this day--despite all the revelations that have come out, and despite Secretary of State Warren Christopher's statement that the payments had ended, a statement he was forced to retract. The CIA is a scandal. …

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