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18 Guatemalan Ex-Military Leaders Arrested for Crimes Against Humanity During U.S.-Backed Dirty War

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In a stunning development, Guatemalan police have arrested 18 ex-military leaders on charges of committing crimes against humanity during the decades-long, U.S.-backed dirty war against Guatemala’s indigenous communities. The ex-military leaders face charges of ordering massacres and forced disappearances during the conflict, which led to perhaps a quarter-million deaths. Many of the arrested former military leaders were backed by the United States, including Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, who had worked closely with U.S. military officials to develop a system of attacking the highlands where Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan communities reside. The system involved decapitating and crucifying people. We speak to investigative journalist and activist Allan Nairn.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to stunning developments in Guatemala, where this week police have arrested 18 ex-military leaders on charges of committing crimes against humanity during the decades-long, U.S.-backed dirty war against Guatemala’s indigenous communities. The ex-military leaders face charges of ordering massacres and forced disappearances, which led to perhaps a quarter of a million deaths. Many of the arrested former military leaders were backed by the United States, including Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, who had worked closely with U.S. military officials to develop a system of attacking the highlands where Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan communities reside. The system involved decapitating and crucifying people. Lucas is a former army chief of staff and the brother of the ex-dictator, General Fernando Romeo Lucas García. Speaking Wednesday, he defended himself against the charges.

MANUEL BENEDICTO LUCAS GARCÍA: [translated] Because I have done well for humanity, I have saved lives. As I always said in each opportunity, if I killed, I killed during a battle in front of my troops, and not as a coward or anything like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Guatemalan prosecutors also moved to have the immunity lifted for Édgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, an ex-military leader who’s now the right-hand man of the incoming Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. The arrest comes six months after massive popular against a corruption scandal ousted the now-jailed former President Otto Pérez Molina, who is also formerly a U.S.-backed military leader during Guatemala’s dirty wars.

For more, we’re joined by Allan Nairn, an investigative journalist and activist who has worked on Guatemala for decades, is an award-winning journalist.

Allan, talk about the significance of these developments this week.

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, for Guatemala, this is kind of the beginning of a Nuremberg trial-type process, except it’s not being done by a foreign, occupying power that just won a war, the way the Nuremberg trials were done. This is being done by the local justice system. Heroism on the part of survivors who brought complaints forward, and also on the part of forensic anthropologists, lawyers, prosecutors, who are risking their lives to bring these cases, have resulted in this round-up of some of the worst mass killers in the country. And they were working for the Guatemalan army—they weren’t renegades. They were, in turn, working for the U.S. government. The U.S. was backing the G2 military intelligence service, for which many of these arrested officers were working. Some were on the U.S. payroll. They were armed, they were trained, they were advised by the U.S. General Benedicto, who we just saw in the clip saying he wasn’t a coward, he worked together with Colonel George Maynes, the U.S. military attaché. Maynes told me that he and Benedicto together developed the strategy of the sweeps into the highland villages, where they would go in, execute civilians, throw them in mass graves, decapitate, crucify.

Those who were arrested on charges yesterday are facing charges tied to two specific cases. One is the case of a 15-year-old boy. The army raided his house with machine guns. They snatched him. They taped his mouth. They threw a nylon bag over his head. They dragged him into a van. He was never seen again. The reason they hit his house was because his sister, his older sister, had been held captive at an army base, where she was being tortured and repeatedly raped, but she—one account says she had grown so skinny from lack of food that she was able to slip out through the bars and escape. So, retaliation, they hit the house, they took the boy.

The other case concerns the army base at Cobán, where they’ve so far found 558 cadavers, so far—skeletons, 90 of them children. People were brought there from massacre sites all around the northwest. Some of them fled from the massacre sites surrounding the Chixoy Dam project, which is backed by the World Bank. The army would go into villages, burn the houses, take women down to the rivers and violate them. And a number were taken away in helicopters—helicopters, some supplied by the U.S., some supplied by Guatemalan oligarchs, some working out of a CIA operation at the Aurora airport. And from there, they were flown to the Cobán army base. And now, years later, their bones, the bones of these largely women and children, have been traced through DNA sampling back to the surviving families, who have been brave enough to stand up and report this. And these are the bases of the cases.

So, what we’re talking about was the ISIS of its day. The tactics that the world is now finally starting to understand because of the ISIS videos—beheadings, crucifixion, slavery, gang rape, mass slaughter of civilians—ISIS brags about this. Well, the Guatemalan army and their U.S. advisers didn’t brag about it—they concealed it—but they were doing—they were using those same tactics.

AMY GOODMAN: How does this, these arrests this week, that have shocked many, relate to the uprising of the last six months?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, this was only—this was only politically possible because of the uprising. The uprising, where hundreds of thousands of people came into the streets, brought down General Pérez Molina, and it created a climate where the prosecutors dared to try to go forward with these charges.

These officers arrested the other day include a former army chief of staff, a group of intelligence chiefs, a former member of the Ríos Montt junta, a former minister of the interior. These are people at the heart of the power structure in Guatemala. They’re the partners of the oligarchy. They were the partners of the U.S. military. If you go back and read the cables that have so far been declassified from within the Defense Intelligence Agency and other U.S. agencies, you see them praising these officers, the very ones who were—have now been arrested for these atrocities. And these men arrested are also—also form part of the core of the group that’s the government of—the incoming government, Jimmy Morales, just elected. His right-hand man was Ovalle Maldonado, who is one of those charged with crimes at the Cobán base, which I was just describing, where they—the pits are just stacked with skeletons. So, this has big implications.

And it could have even bigger implications for the U.S. I spoke to, during the years when this was happening, three of the four CIA station chiefs who served there. I named their names in an article which appeared in The Nation in 1995. The prosecutors can go look at that article, see who they are. The U.S. personnel who were there, and who are still alive, can be subpoenaed. The U.S. should be subpoenaed to release all NSA, State Department and Pentagon documents regarding payments they made to these officers, training and advice they gave to them. The Guatemalan authorities, in theory, would have the right to extradite surviving U.S. officials.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, I wanted to go back to 1995—we’re talking what? Twenty years ago—when you were interviewed by Charlie Rose about the piece in The Nation called “C.I.A. Death Squad,” in which you described how Americans were directly involved in the killings by the Guatemalan army. You were being interviewed alongside Elliott Abrams, who challenged what you were saying. Abrams had served as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs under President Reagan from ’81 to 1985. It starts with you, Allan.

ALLAN NAIRN: We’re talking about more than 100,000 murders, an entire army, many of its top officers employees of the U.S. government. We’re talking about crimes, and we’re also talking about criminals, not just people like the Guatemalan colonels, but also the U.S. agents who have been working with them and the higher-level U.S. officials. I mean, I think you have to be—you have to apply uniform standards. President Bush once talked about putting Saddam Hussein on trial for crimes against humanity, Nuremberg-style tribunal. I think that’s a good idea. But if you’re serious, you have to be even-handed. If we look at a case like this, I think we have to talk—start talking about putting Guatemalan and U.S. officials on trial. I think someone like Mr. Abrams would be a fit—a subject for such a Nuremberg-style inquiry. But I agree with Mr. Abrams that Democrats would have to be in the dock with him.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there, as Allan is speaking, Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs under President Reagan, is simply throwing his head back and laughing. Allan, your thoughts today?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, Abrams was perhaps the key figure in U.S. Central American policy during the time of the slaughter. He later became a top adviser to the Bush Jr. White House dealing with the Middle East, where the U.S. has mounted similar operations in support of killer forces. For example, in Iraq, in the capacity as a private contractor, the U.S. brought over one of the U.S. military men, Colonel Steele, who had worked alongside the Salvadoran death squads. And in Iraq, he helped to set up the Shiite militia operations that went out and targeted Sunnis in Iraq. This was under the time of General Petraeus, when Petraeus was also carving up Baghdad with walls on a sectarian basis. They called it the “Salvador Option.” This is a policy that’s been applied uniformly around the world. But since the U.S. is not yet as civilized as Guatemala, people like Abrams have not been put in the dock. But the Elliott Abrams equivalent—equivalents in Guatemala are this morning being brought before a judge in Guatemala as prisoners, and they’re going to face their fate.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, this week also, the current president, just before Jimmy Morales takes over, of Guatemala surprised many by announcing that he is slashing the minimum wage in maquiladora areas, in a video that’s gone viral. Describe what happened.

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, Maldonado Aguirre, the interim president, who used to be the kind of the front man for the MLN death squad party, announced he was cutting the minimum wages in these factory areas. He was giving a speech. Some demonstrators showed up. And he, who is known for his smooth demeanor, his calm, he just went nuts, and he started screaming at the demonstrators. He called them “bums.” He called them “Leninists.”

But there’s a strong connection between the slashing of wages and this terror. Terror helps to keep the wages down. When you break strong communities, when you make it impossible for unions to organize without facing the threat of deaths—death or disappearance, that pulls down wages. We all know about the outsourcing of production from the U.S., but there’s also an outsourcing of repression. In the early 20th century, U.S. labor leaders and organizers were killed, with a fair amount of frequency. But over the years, that became unnecessary. As the production has moved overseas, so has the killing. So that exerts the downward pressure on wages. At the same time, when there’s terror in a place like Guatemala, people flee. They come to the U.S. That’s where a lot of the undocumented immigrants originated from. And then Americans complain. Well, you know, if you go and burn down your neighbor’s house, don’t complain when, as they run from the flames, they come onto your lawn.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us directly to our next segment, and we’ll be talking about immigration and the immigrants who are imprisoned and the raids that are taking place since New Year’s under the Obama administration, sending immigrants back over the border. Allan Nairn, I want to thank you for being with us, investigative journalist who’s reported on Guatemala for decades. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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