The myth of the squeaky-clean US

In describing the Guatemalan civil war, media reports often omit important context and downplay the US role.

Efrain Rios Montt (left) was convicted last year of genocide, but the ruling was later overturned [Reuters]

Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a former second lieutenant in the Guatemalan military, was recently convicted in the US of making false statements while seeking to obtain US citizenship. Because he failed to disclose his involvement in the Guatemalan army, Orantes could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Orantes’ story would not have made national news had it not been for the fact that he is also accused of having led a massacre in Guatemala. In 1982, more than 200 men, women, and children were killed during the attack at Dos Erres. The soldiers were allegedly looking for stolen weapons when they entered the village but, after not finding any, proceeded to rape the women and kill all the witnesses, including many young children. All the soldiers were forced to participate in the massacre, so that they would all be equally guilty.

Unfortunately, US media coverage of the Orantes case has been severely lacking. Most media stories failed to mention the US’ intimate involvement in the Guatemalan civil war, which is unforgivable. In articles that do mention that the US backed the Guatemalan military, the wording is often not strong enough. While it is difficult to uncover the exact contours of US support, there is no doubt that the US provided military, economic, and political assistance to the Guatemalan government during its 1960-1996 civil war.

The US cut off direct military aid to Guatemala in 1977 during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, but aid previously promised continued. President Ronald Reagan tried to convince Congress to lift the ban on direct military aid but, to its credit, Congress did not go along.

While US assistance did not increase significantly until after the country’s return to civilian rule in the mid-1980s, direct and indirect aid did go to Guatemala during the height of the violence, at the same time that the massacre at Dos Erres occurred. Some US government aid was delivered directly, while millions more were sent covertly. US aid also arrived from private donors such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other evangelical Christian leaders. US Cold War allies such as Israel and Argentina also provided assistance.

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There is no evidence that those murdered at Dos Erres were guerrillas. However, journalists should contextualise the conflict by stating that the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit was fighting against the government, and receiving support from Communist countries as well as Mexico and Sandinista Nicaragua. Describing these dynamics is difficult, especially if one is required to summarise in a few sentences. But that does not mean that the history should go unmentioned, and journalists should not shy away from the challenge.

The media also needs to explain that the Dos Erres massacre was just one of hundreds of mass killings carried out during the civil war. The 1998 Catholic Church-led Recovery of Historical Memory Project identified 422 massacres while the 1999 United Nations-backed Historical Clarification Commission listed 664 massacres. In a comprehensive comparison of these studies, Gonzalo Sichar Moreno found evidence of 1,112 massacres. Up to a quarter million people were killed or disappeared, the vast majority of them civilians. The Guatemalan state’s official and unofficial security forces were responsible for about 90 percent of the massacres. Dos Erres was one of the larger massacres carried out by government forces, but it was not unique by any stretch of the imagination. US media coverage often leaves the reader believing this to be the case.

I have also been surprised that few articles (see National Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the AP) found it relevant to mention the recent trial against former Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt, who oversaw the worst period of violence while in office from March 1982 to August 1983. He was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in May 2013, before a questionable constitutional court ruling overturned his conviction and returned the case to an earlier period in time. There is a good chance that Rios Montt will return to a courtroom in mid-2014 – but nothing is assured when it comes to the Guatemalan criminal justice system.

US journalists have had a perfect opportunity to connect the Sosa trial to the Rios Montt trial, as several news stories mentioned that prosecutors are interested in charging Sosa in Guatemala for his involvement in the massacre. Guatemalan courts have already convicted five men for their participation in the massacre. They could have simply added a line or two connecting these prosecutions. Even better, they could have mentioned that the Dos Erres massacre occurred while Rios Montt was president, and just days after a meeting with US President Ronald Reagan and the other Central American presidents in Honduras. After the meeting, Reagan announced to the press that he believed Rios Montt has been receiving a “bum rap” from human rights organisations and that he was “totally dedicated to democracy”.

While this AP article briefly mentions that the US supported a number of Guatemalan military governments, the emphasis is on the fact that Sosa is one of “four former soldiers allegedly involved in the Dos Erres massacre who have been arrested by US homeland security officials”.

I fully support the efforts of the US’ Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit and other agencies pursuing human rights violators living iin the US. But the US comes out looking way too clean in these articles – portrayed as vigorously pursuing a bad guy who committed dastardly deeds and then dared to seek refuge in the US. This is not entirely accurate.

By its omissions and lack of context, the US media is failing to tell the story of the Guatemalan civil war in a responsible, just way. That’s not just unfair to the victims and survivors of the war: it’s also dangerous.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.