Twilight of the General

Guatemala is not a country that has had much to celebrate in the last half a century.   In 1954, a US-backed coup overthrew the centre-left government of Jacobo Arbenz, and ushered in a thirty year ‘war’ – or rather a reign of terror – in which some 200,000 people were killed, mostly by the army and security services.

So it’s a rare bright spot in the country’s history that the courts have been able to send Rios Montt down for 80 years for genocide and crimes against humanity.   I remember the general   very well, from when I lived in New York during the early Reagan years.

It was a period in which the US   finally ditched Carter’s tepid human rights policy and began providing financial aid and military assistance to military regimes across Central America in order to turn back the revolutionary tide that was sweeping through the region.       In Guatemala, the military was effectively given carte blanche to do whatever it wanted under Reagan, after a period in which the Carter administration had restricted military aid in an attempt to reign one of the most brutal regimes on the continent.

The Guatemalan army was steeped in the counterinsurgency doctrines emanating from the School of the Americas and other US military institutions from the Kennedy years onwards, and it was often so violent that it even appalled the Imperium’s diplomats from time to time.

Under Lucas Garcia and then Rios Montt, the military slaughtered people in their tens of thousands – mostly, but not exclusively Mayan Indians who the country’s Ladino elite regarded as subhuman primitives whenever they tried to assert their civil or labor rights.

In the army’s eyes, anyone who engaged in such activity was a   ‘subversive’, and real or potential supporter of the various leftwing guerrilla organizations that had emerged since the Arbenz coup – and a subversive had to be killed.

In Guatemala, as in El Salvador, in those days, a ‘subversive’ might be   a trade unionist, a teacher who worked with the poor, a peasant activist, or a human rights activist.     Or someone who happened to live in an area of guerrilla activity, like the 250 inhabitants of the village of Dos Erres, in Peten province, which was completely wiped out in 1982, on Rios Montt’s watch, by the Guatemalan army’s elite Kaibil unit, following a guerrilla ambush in the vicinity.

They included the teacher and all the children in the local school, some of whom were photographed here shortly before the massacre:

These children were among the 18,000 people who were recorded as killed or ‘disappeared’ in Guatemala that year at the hands of the army, secret services and paramilitary death squads.     Many of them were savagely tortured before they died to enhance the level of psychological terror that was always implicit in these operations.

The army – and its American backers – described this savage campaign of state killing   ‘counter-terror’, and received political, military and logistical support from the United States, Israel, and South Africa, among others.

All this went into overdrive during the Reagan years, and while it was going on, Rios Montt, an evangelical Christian, liked to appear on national tv in which he delivered little homilies to Guatemalans on their moral standards and the evils of divorce.

This vicious clown was the man who Ronald Reagan once praised for his ‘great personal integrity’ and his commitment to democracy.   Some years later I went to a service by Montt’s American-based church ‘El Verbo’ – The Word, in Guatemala, where I heard some moron preaching about the evils of lesbianism and homosexuality in Guatemala.

El Verbo, like many of the evangelical churches in Guatemala, worked closely with the army in the same areas where it had carried out some of the worst massacres, providing food and ‘spiritual guidance’ to the traumatized survivors.   It was chilling and disgusting to witness it.

I never met Montt.     The old bastard was out   of power then, but no one imagined that he or any other Guatemalan army officer would ever end up in court.

That was in the early 90s, and even then, the army was a law unto itself,   and was still capable of killing anyone who tried to draw attention to what it had done in the past, such as the anthropologist Myrna Mack, who was murdered because of her investigations into army massacres in the Mayan highlands in the 1980.

But cracks in the edifice of impunity were beginning to appear, and Rios Montt is the most high-profile case to date.     It is far too premature to herald a new dawn for Guatemala – the current president was one of Montt’s officers, who himself has been accused of involvement in the massacres of the 1980s.

Nevertheless, many Guatemalans have reason to celebrate, not least the survivors of Montt’s crimes, some of whom sang in court when the verdict was delivered.   Because sending an 86-year-old man to 80 years may be objectively meaningless as an individual punishment, but in Guatemala it is a massive achievement that,   hopefully, opens up the possibility of better days to come.


President Kill

Last week’s New York Times piece  on Barack Obama’s personal involvement in approving the ‘kill list’ of targets for drone strikes has generated a lot of discussion and attention, and with good reason.

The article shines a grim light on Obama’s fervent commitment to a ‘war on terror’ that appears to have  no strategic logic and no clear objectives beyond the accumulation of body counts, killing for the sake of killing – and enhancing his own election prospects through a demonstration of presidential ‘toughness’.

The  Times  attributes Obama’s decision to place himself at the top of the ‘nominations’ process which oversees and and approves the targets of drone strikes to the president’s  strong sense of personal morality and a determination to apply ‘American values’ to a war with an enemy with ‘no rules’ .

But the decision-making process reveals a world in which morality and values are conspicuously absent, and which is driven by the sense of omnipotence of men who sit in offices and tick of lists of targets from countries across the world based on criteria that is not subjected to any external scrutiny.

Take the low numbers of civilians routinely cited by the administration during drone attacks, which the Times attributes to a ‘counting system’ that

[stextbox id=”alert”]… in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.  Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.[/stextbox]

Then there is the ‘nominations’ process, ultimately signed off by Obama himself:

[stextbox id=”alert”]It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government”s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects” biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.  This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda”s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia”s Shabab militia.[/stextbox]

According to the president’s advisor John O. Brennan, the decision to order a drone strike is determined by  ‘The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.’

As the Times notes, however

The administration”s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantánamo.

In the view of some interviewees, Obama’s determination to avoid such ‘complications’ and give his imprimatur to the ‘nominations’ process stems from a strong sense of morality and a determination to apply the ideas of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas  to  a war in which the enemy ‘has no rules’ – as the Times puts it – and also to reduce the damage done to America’s image abroad.

The idea that states must change ‘the rules’ in order to fight an enemy that doesn’t obey them is an old counterterrorism cliché, which has often acted as a pretext and a catalyst for barbarism, and Obama’s ‘nominations process’ is no exception.

Yesterday 17 ‘suspected militants’ were killed in a drone strikein North Waziristan.  On Sunday 10 more ‘suspected militants’ were killed by a drone missile while praying at the funeral of a ‘militant commander’ in South Waziristan.

If the Times is to be believed, these strikes were all approved by Obama, following careful analysis of intelligence data regarding whether these militants were suspicious enough to be killed, and/or whether the targets were significant enough to allow a certain amount of latitude in determining the acceptability of ‘collateral damage’.

Regardless of whether the targets were actual or merely ‘suspected’ militants, it is difficult to imagine how attacks like these can improve America’s image, in Pakistan or anywhere else, let alone that they can protect ‘mitigate the threat to American lives’, as John O. Brennan puts it.

On the contrary, the outrage at such attacks in Pakistan is well-known, as it is in other countries where drones have been used, such as Yemen and Somalia.   An omnipotent national-security establishment with global technological reach may regard such anger as an acceptable cost of low-intensity warfare, and may even convince itself that such targeted killings are winning the war.

But others will see Obama’s ‘kill-list’ as a confirmation of the lawless barbarity undertaken by the world’s most powerful democracy, and another tributary in a bloody swathe of violence that, like so many actions undertaken by the United States since the 9/11 attacks, is the political equivalent of pouring petrol onto a forest fire.

Some may conclude that Obama’s peace prize was the greatest mistake undertaken by the Nobel Committee since Sadat and Begin, and that behind the sonorous gravitas that enabled Obama to win the last election – any may yet win him this one –  is one of the most effective con-tricks ever played on the American public.

And others may wonder at the startling transformation of a former lawyer and community activist into President Kill,  ticking off hit lists in the Oval Office in a process that he and his colleagues see as new kind of war, but which really looks a lot like shooting fish in a barrel.





Skulls, Bones and Human rights

I’m a big fan of the Israeli architect and writer Eyal Weizman.  His book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (Verso 2007) is a brilliant and revelatory account of the different ways in which Israel has used topography and physical space to  dominate and undermine the Palestinians and enhance its control of the Occupied Territories.

So I was naturally drawn to an essay that Weizman co-authored with Thomas Keenan in the latest issue of Cabinet, the New York-based art and culture magazine,  devoted to the subject of forensics.    It doesn’t disappoint.    Entitled ‘Mengele’s Skull’  Keenan and Weizman’s essay traces the relationship between forensic anthropology and human rights, with an account of the 1985 exhumation of Joseph Mengele as its starting point.

The authors see the exhumation and the subsequent confirmation of Mengele’s identity as the beginning of a new era in which war-crimes investigations were increasingly based on ‘things’ and the forensic remains of victims rather than the testimonies of living survivors, as was the case during the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.   In their view

If the trial of Eichmann indeed marks the beginning of the era of the witness, we would suggest that the exhumation of a body thought to be that of Mengele in June 1985 signals the inauguration of an era of forensics in human rights and international criminal justice.

The authors go on to argue that:

If things have begun to speak in the context of war-crimes investigation and human rights, it is not simply that we have acquired better listening skills, or that the forums of discussion have been liberally enlarged. The very entry of bones and other things into these forums has changed the meanings and the practices of discussion themselves. In fact, the entry of non-humans into the field of human rights has transformed it.

This case is made through a step-by-step analysis of the techniques used to confirm the identify of the skull of the ‘Angel of Death’ in Sao Paolo.    These included forensic anthropology (the study of human remains, skull shape and size, bone structure, dentistry etc), handwriting analysis and an innovative  video-imaging process known as ‘face-skull superimposition’ in which photographs of Mengele were superimposed over the skull to establish that it ‘fitted’.      

Until I read this essay I wasn’t aware of the American forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who was one of the members of the team that examined Mengele’s skull.


At the time Snow had just begun training the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team) in the exhumations of the ‘disappeared’ during the military junta’s ‘dirty war’.  These investigations helped prosecutors convict  a number of the military officers who ordered these killings, and the Argentine  Forensics team has since gone to carry out similar investigations in many different countries, including East Timor, El Salvador and Bosnia.

As I wrote the other week, it was this team that exhumed the victims of the 1981 El Mozote massacre as part of the UN investigating team that went to El Salvador in 1993.

On the strength of this essay, I was keen to find out more about Snow, and I’ve just finished Witnesses from the Grave: the Stories Bones Tell (Little & Brown 1991) a fascinating and compelling  account of his life and work by Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover.   Born in 1928, Snow has spent much of his professional life examining the concealed remains of men, women and children who died violently and often atrociously, and helping bring their killers to justice.

Before becoming involved in human rights investigations, he played a key role in a number of high-profile criminal cases in the United States, including the trial of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy.   For me the most powerful and moving section of the book concerns his work in  Argentina,  where he transformed a group of raw and inexperienced students into tenacious investigators into one of the worst episodes of state terrorism in their country’s history.

The whisky-drinking, poetry-loving Snow comes over as a likeable and admirable character, whose essential ethos was summed up in a 1985 speech that he gave to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the role of forensic anthropologists in human rights investigations.  Snow  is a big fan of Federico Garcia Lorca, and in his speech he cites Lorca’s 1936 killing by Francoists as an example of ‘state murder’, in words that are worth repeating:

Of all the forms of murder, none is more monstrous than that committed by a state against his own citizens.   And of all murder victims, those of the state are the most helpless and vulnerable since the very entity to which they have entrusted their lives and safety becomes their killer.   When the state murders, the crime is planned by powerful men.   They use the same cold rationality and administrative efficiency that they might bring to the decision to wage a campaign to eradicate a particularly obnoxious agricultural pest.

That is indeed, how it is.   And as Snow points out, ‘the homicidal state’ often behaves in ways that are not that different from ‘the solitary killer’, except,  as he points out

The great mass murders of our time have accounted for no more than a few hundred victims.  In contrast, states that have chosen to murder their own citizens can usually count their victims by the carload lot.   As for motive, the state has no peers, for it will kill its victim for a careless word, a fleeting thought, or even a poem.

Snow made that speech just before going to Argentina to begin the work that would help shatter the culture of impunity that the military Junta believed would protect them forever.  In doing so he and his young team rendered a huge service, not just to Argentine society, but to humanity.  Because even the most viciously predatory states  like to conceal the evidence of their crimes in an attempt to hide them not just from the scrutiny of the present – but also from the future.

There was a time when this could be done in the belief that nature would take its course and reduce their victims to anonymous heaps of bones, so that even if they were discovered they would have no names or identities.   Today that is no longer possible.  As Joyce and Silver point out, thanks to forensic anthropology the bones of their victims have become witnesses, and the work of Snow and his team have made it that much more difficult for their killers to get away with it.

Remembering El Mozote

Just over thirty years ago, in a three day period from December 10 to 13 1981, a unit of the US-trained elite Atlacatl Battalion massacred more than 1,000 men, women and children in the course of an anti-terrorist limpieza (cleanup) operation in and around the rural  hamlet of El Mozote, in El Salvador’s Morazan province.

The massacre was  a deliberate act of state terrorism that was intended to ‘drain the sea’ in an area was believed to be sympathetic to leftwing guerrillas of the Farabundi Marti Liberation Front (FMLN).    It was also the single worst atrocity in a 12-year civil war in which some 75,000 people were killed.   At the time the provisional Salvadoran government under José Napoleón Duarte  denied any responsibility and blamed the massacre on the guerrillas themselves.

These claims were  supported by the Reagan administration, which carried out its own misinformation campaign and dismissed photographs and media reports of the massacre as propaganda.  It was not until 1993 that  the legendary Argentine Forensics team exhumed dozens of skulls and human remains, including children at El Mozote, as part of the UN truth commission investigations that paved the way for an end to the civil war.

Even then the troglodyte Salvadoran right denied that  the military was responsible and insisted that the children had been shot by the FMLN or were in fact armed guerrillas themselves.   In 1994 I visited El Mozote myself, in the company of Father Rogelio Ponseele, a Belgian priest who had spent the entire civil war with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Army of the Poor (ERP).

At the time the hamlet was a spooky and mostly deserted collection of huts, and the only  monument to the savage events that had taken place there more than a decade before consisted of four stark silhouettes of a man and a woman holding the hands of a boy and girl.  Today  the monument includes the names of all those who died there, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the killings.

It was not until this Monday,  that El Salvador’s leftist president Mauricio Funes made the first public apology for the massacre during a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the peace accords which bought the civil war to an end.  At the site of the massacre, according to Associated Press, Funes told a gathering of peasants and farmers:

‘I ask forgiveness of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters of those who still today do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. I ask forgiveness from the people of El Salvador, who suffered an atrocious and unacceptable violence.’

On one level the fact that such an apology on one level is an indication of how much  El Salvador has changed politically since the 1980s.    To see what kind of place it was, it’s worth reading Mark Danner’s brilliant 1993 account of the massacre in the New Yorker  The Truth About El Mozote.

But the coming of democracy has not brought peace to El Salvador.  Two decades after the end of the civil war, it remains one of the most violent places on earth.  According to a report published last year by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world between 2004-09, with 65 homicides per 100,00 inhabitants, followed by Iraq and Jamaica.

Every year hundreds of Salvadorans are shot and stabbed to death.  But today it is no longer the death squads and the state organs of repression that are doing most of the killing, but tattooed nihilistic gangs fighting over territory in or a share of the US drugs market in a country where the average income is $7200.

Meanwhile, as the North American Congress on Latin America points out, military influence in El Salvador and across Central America is increasing as a result of the ‘war on drugs’ and its concomitant violence and insecurity.

From the US there has been no apology for El Mozote or for the support that it gave to the Salvadoran military and police who were responsible for 95 percent of all human rights abuses during the war.   At the time massacres and atrocities were considered a necessary price to prevent ‘another Nicaragua’ or the implantation of ‘totalitarianism’  in Central America – and Ronald Reagan’s coterie of Cold War zealots only paid attention to them in order to neutralise criticism inside the United States and ensure the continual flow of funding from Congress.

Today  the violence and cruelty that was part of the West’s ‘victory’ in the Cold War has been has been conveniently forgotten – or else it was never considered important enough to remember in the first place.   Meanwhile those who took part in that policy have died or continued in the same trajectory.    Ronald Reagan, the murderous cowboy-clown with the folksy grin has a statue erected in his honour in London.   Other former Reagan officials went on to join the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror.’

One of them was  Elliot Abrams, his sinister Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs – rarely has a job title been so far removed from the quality of the man who filled it.    A self-proclaimed ‘gladiator’ in the Reagan administration’s Central America policy, Abrams played a key role in attempting to cover up human rights abuses in El Salvador, and once dismissed reports of the El Mozote massacre in the Washington Post and the New York Times as ‘nothing more than communist propaganda’.

He    subsequently insisted  that ‘The Administration’s record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement’.      In 2001 Abrams became a national security advisor to the Bush administration on, with responsibility for the Near East and North Africa.    Abrams was one of a series of old Central America hands who oversaw the Iraq war and insurgency, and were closely associated with the policy known as the ‘Salvador option’ – in which Shi’a death squads directed from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior were unleashed against Iraqi insurgents and civilians during the so-called ‘surge’.

Today this ruthless Israel-firster, former Contragate crook and apologist for atrocity is a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and an unrelenting advocate of American and Israeli violence across the Middle East and beyond.

And this is the point.   For what took place at El Mozote was not an insane outbreak of irrational violence, but a method and a technique that has been used by states in many different conflicts.   National security managers like Abrams know this perfectly well, but they tend not to spell it out too overtly to an American public that still believes in America’s essentially benign purpose in the world.

Today America and its allies routinely decry regimes that ‘kill their own people’ as a justification for aggressive wars and ‘regime change’.   El Mozote reminds us of a time when the US supported one of the most barbarous and ruthless regimes of the late twentieth century – regardless of the fact its armed forces also ‘killed their own people.’

So let us remember the victims of El Mozote, but let us not forget the people who killed them and those who tried to cover up their acts.   Because there is really no reason why they should be forgiven.   And some of them are still with us, and like Macbeth, they have been wading in other people’s blood for so long that they simply can’t kick the habit.