Declassified documents show U.S. Embassy knew that Guatemalan security forces were behind wave of abductions of students and labor leaders
Historical Archives Lead to
Arrest of Police
Declassified documents show U.S. Embassy
National Security Archive calls for release of
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 273
By Kate Doyle and Jesse Franzblau
Washington, DC, March 17, 2009 - Following a stunning breakthrough in a 25-year-old case of political terror in Guatemala, the National Security Archive today is posting declassified U.S. documents about the disappearance of Edgar Fernando Garcia, a student leader and trade union activist captured by Guatemalan security forces in 1984.The documents show that Garcia's capture was an organized political abduction orchestrated at the highest levels of the Guatemalan government.
Guatemalan authorities made the first arrest ever in the long-dormant kidnapping case when they detained Hector Roderico Ramirez Rios, a senior police officer in Quezaltenango, on March 5th and retired policeman Abraham Lancerio Gomez on March 6th as a result of an investigation into Garcia's abduction by Guatemala's Human Rights Prosecutor (Procurador de Derechos Humanos-PDH). Arrest warrants have been issued for two more suspects, Hugo Rolando Gomez Osorio and Alfonso Guillermo de Leon Marroquin. The two are former officers with the notorious Special Operations Brigade (BROE) of the National Police, a unit linked to death squad activities during the 1980s by human rights groups.
According to the prosecutor Sergio Morales, the suspects were identified using evidence found in the vast archives of the former National Police. The massive, moldering cache of documents was discovered accidentally by the PDH in 2005, and has since been cleaned, organized and reviewed by dozens of investigators. The National Security Archive provided expert advice in the rescue of the archive and posted photographs and analysis on its Web site. Last week, Morales turned over hundreds of additional records to the Public Ministry containing evidence of state security force involvement in the disappearance of other student leaders between 1978 and 1980. As the Historical Archive of the National Police prepares to issue its first major report on March 24, more evidence of human rights crimes can be expected to be made public.
Government Campaign of Terror
The abduction of Fernando Garcia was part of a government campaign of terror designed to destroy Guatemala's urban and rural social movements during the 1980s. On February 18, 1984, the young student leader was captured on the outskirts of a market near his home in Guatemala City. He was never seen again. Although witnesses pointed to police involvement, the government under then-Chief of State Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores always denied any role in his kidnapping. According to the Historical Clarification Commission's report released in 1999, Garcia was one of an estimated 40,000 civilians disappeared by state agents during Guatemala's 36-year civil conflict.
In the wake of Garcia's capture, his wife, Nineth Montenegro - now a member of Congress - launched the Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo-GAM), a new human rights organization that pressed the government for information about missing relatives. Co-founded with other families of the disappeared , GAM took shape in June of 1984, holding demonstrations, meeting with government officials and leading a domestic and international advocacy campaign over the years to find the truth behind the thousands of Guatemala's disappeared. The organization was quickly joined by hundreds more family members of victims of government-sponsored violence, including Mayan Indians affected by a brutal army counterinsurgency campaign that decimated indigenous communities in the country's rural highlands during the early 1980s.
Declassified U.S. records obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that the United States was well-aware of the government campaign to kidnap, torture and kill Guatemalan labor leaders at the time of Garcia's abduction. "Government security services have employed assassination to eliminate persons suspected of involvement with the guerrillas or who are otherwise left-wing in orientation," wrote the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research four days after Garcia disappeared, pointing in particular to the Army's "notorious presidential intelligence service (archivos)" and the National Police, "who have traditionally considered labor activists to be communists."
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala considered the wave of state-sponsored kidnappings part of an effort to gather information on "Marxist-Leninist" trade unions. "The government is obviously rounding up people connected with the extreme left-wing labor movement for interrogation," wrote U.S. Ambassador Frederic Chapin in a cable naming six labor leaders recently captured by security forces, including Garcia. Despite reports that Garcia was already dead, the ambassador was "optimistic" that he and other detainees would be released after questioning.
Many of the kidnapping victims noted in U.S. records included in this briefing book also appear in the "Death Squad Dossier," an army intelligence logbook listing 183 people disappeared by security forces in the mid-1980s. In 1999, the National Security Archive obtained the original logbook and released a public copy. The logbook indicates that Garcia was among dozens of students, professors, doctors, journalists, labor leaders and others subjected to intensive army and police surveillance in the weeks leading up to their capture, disappearance and - in about half of the cases - execution. The logbook entry listing Fernando Garcia includes his alleged subversive alias names and affiliation to the Guatemalan Communist Party, as well as detailed personal information taken from official documents such as his national identification card and his passport. Other victims listed in the Death Squad Dossier who are named in the U.S. documents posted today include Amancio Samuel Villatoro, Alfonso Alvarado Palencia, Jose Luis Villagran Diaz and Santiago Lopez Aguilar. U.S. records describe their disappearances in the context of the government campaign to systematically dismantle Guatemala's labor movement.
The U.S. records posted today contain illuminating information on how the use of illegal kidnapping as a counterinsurgency strategy reached a peak during the government of Oscar Mejia Victores. U.S. figures estimated that there was an average of 137 abductions a month under the Mejia Victores regime during 1984. According to one extensive State Department report written in 1986, part of the modus operandi of government kidnapping involved interrogating victims at military bases, police stations, or government safe houses, where information about alleged connections with insurgents was "extracted through torture." The security forces used the information to conduct joint military/police raids on houses throughout the city, secretly capturing hundreds of individuals who were never seen again, or whose discarded bodies were later discovered showing signs of torture. The National Police, subservient to the Army hierarchy, created special units to assist the military in the urban counter-guerrilla operations.
The records also demonstrate military efforts to cover up their role in the extra-legal activities. In 1985, for example, as Guatemala prepared to transition to a civilian government for the first time in a quarter of a century, the Army ordered the Archivos - which the State Department called "a secret group in the President's office that collected information on insurgents and operated against them" - to move its files out of presidential control and into the Intelligence Directorate (D-2) section of the military.
U.S. documents also chronicled developments as members of GAM became targets of government violence themselves. GAM members suffered the worst period of violence during Easter "holy week" in 1985, beginning with the kidnapping of senior member Hector Gomez Calito, whose tortured and mutilated body was found on March 30, 1985. According to one U.S. Embassy source, agents from the Detectives Corps of the National Police had been gathering information on Gomez in the days leading to his abduction. Two weeks before his disappearance, Chief of State Oscar Mejia Victores publicly charged that GAM members were being manipulated by guerrillas and questioned the sources of their funding. Following his murder, GAM co-founder and widow of missing student leader Carlos Ernesto Cuevas Molina, Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, who had delivered the eulogy at Gomez Calito's funeral, was found dead at the bottom of a ditch two miles outside Guatemala City, along with her 2-year-old son and 21-year-old brother. While the government claimed their deaths was an accident, Embassy sources discounted the official version of the events, and claimed that Godoy was targeted and her death a premeditated homicide. Human rights monitors who had seen the bodies reported that the infant's fingernails had been torn out.
The arrest of the police officers in Guatemala is an unprecedented step in the struggle against impunity, and a testament to the investigative efforts being carried out in the historical National Police archive. The declassified records, however, demonstrate that Fernando Garcia's disappearance was not an ordinary police arrest, but rather an organized political abduction orchestrated by the highest-levels of government. In addition to the police files that have already proven so crucial to breaking new ground in this case, the release of the relevant military files is critical to unraveling what role the Army High Command and Chief of State played in this crime. In addition to the material authors of the crime, those who planned and ordered Garcia's kidnapping must also be investigated. At the time of his disappearance, the key military and police personnel overseeing Guatemala's urban counter-terror campaign were:
Oscar Mejia Victores, Guatemala's former chief of state, is currently named as one of eight defendants charged with genocide and other crimes in an international criminal case that is being investigated by Judge Santiago Pedraz in the Audiencia Nacional (National Court) of Spain.
The Garcia case is also important in the context of Guatemala's current struggle against organized crime. The same week authorities arrested the police officers involved in Fernando Garcia's kidnapping 25 years ago, the PDH announced that retired and active duty police are involved in today's organized kidnapping gangs. Government prosecutors have announced they are currently investigating at least 10 members of the police's elite anti-kidnapping unit for involvement in contemporary abductions. The struggle for justice and accountability for Guatemala's past crimes has a direct relationship to the current efforts to dismantle illegal armed networks. Last week's arrests marked an important initial step in the right direction towards ending blanket impunity in Guatemala.
U.S. documents on government death squad operations, the disappearance of Edgar Fernando Garcia, and attacks on Guatemala's Mutual Support Group - GAM
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala informs Washington about the abduction of Fernando Garcia and other trade-union officials in the recent weeks. According to press accounts on his disappearance, armed men kidnapped him while he was walking in Guatemala City on February 18, 1984. The cable provides information on related incidents of abductions of labor activists in the weeks leading up to Fernando Garcia's capture, describing the disappearances in the context of the widespread government targeting of Guatemala's labor leaders. The document provides information on the political and organizational affiliation of the recently disappeared labor activists. According to the cable, Fernando Garcia was part of CAVISA, the industrial glass union, which is an "affiliate of the communist trade-union confederation FASGUA," Guatemala's autonomous federal trade-union.
It also mentions that the disappeared victims were associated with the CNT (Confederacion Nacional de Trabajadores), and makes reference to the case of the 28 CNT labor leaders, who "disappeared in 1980 in one fell swoop. It is believed that GOG security forces murdered all of them." The other group mentioned is the National Council for Trade Union Unity - CNUS, which asserted that Fernando Garcia was already dead. Despite those claims, the U.S. Embassy remained "optimistic that Fernando Garcia of CAVISA will be released." Edgar Fernando Garcia was never seen or heard from again.
The same day that Embassy officials inform Washington of Fernando Garcia's disappearance, the State Department produces an intelligence report on the recent spike in political assassinations and disappearances. The intelligence report describes several notable cases of victims in the "new wave of violence," over the past several weeks, and provides key information on police coordination with military intelligence in government kidnappings. It mentions the recent abduction and release of a labor leader and confirms that "he had been kidnapped by the National Police, who have traditionally considered labor activists to be communists." It states that the detective corps (the DIT) of the National Police has traditionally been involved in "extra-legal" activities, working alongside the Army's presidential intelligence unit, the Archivos.
(Document previously posted: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB15/index.html)
Less than a month after Fernando Garcia's disappearance, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Guatemala, Paul D. Taylor reports on the growing protests from the Confederation of Syndicalist Unity (CUSG) over the recent disappearance of trade-union leaders, "especially the disappearance of STICAVISA trade-union official Edgar Fernando Garcia." The CUSG blames the disappearances on the "government attempts to destabilize the Guatemalan labor movement," a charge which the government denies. The cable goes on to describe the individual cases of the disappeared, including the case of the escaped prisoner Alvaro Rene Sosa Ramos, who "fled to asylum in the Belgian Ambassador's residence after being shot in an attempt to escape his captors. Once recovered from gunshot wounds, he will be going into exile." Sosa Ramos is mentioned in the Death Squad Dossier as entry number 87.
The document offers further background as to why the labor leaders are disappearing. According to the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Paul D. Taylor, "By picking up leftist trade-union leaders connected with the CNT and the FASGUA, the government of Guatemala - advertently or inadvertently - is destabilizing the Marxist-Leninist wing of the Guatemalan labor movement." His analysis concludes that the individuals were most likely targeted due to government suspicion that they were connected to armed insurgent groups, and that "security forces are after them for that reason."
International pressure continues to mount for investigations into the disappearances of Fernando Garcia and other labor leaders. The cable reports on a trade-union delegation visit to Guatemala, led by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Pat Derian. The delegation presses Embassy officials for information on the missing trade-union leaders. The Embassy continues to make the point that "all of these abducted union leaders are from the leftist CNT," emphasizing the political orientation of the disappeared victims.
The delegation maintains that Fernando Garcia was being held by the army, and asked the Embassy to look into his disappearance, as well as that of Jose Luis Villagran, "disappeared February 11, 1984 in zone 11." U.S. officials promise they will "make inquiries to the government about all these people." Ms. Derian presses further, asking them to make "representations," not just "inquiries" into the disappearances. Deputy Chief of Mission Paul D. Taylor still maintains, however, that it has yet to be demonstrated "whether government forces seized all these trade-unionists" and further comments "If the GOG has picked them up, it is almost certainly for matters other than their trade-union activities."
The cable reports on the death of Hector Orlando Gomez Galito, a member of the activist Mutual Support Group (GAM). The Embassy reports that he was "abducted and assassinated the weekend of March 30-31." Gomez was kidnapped by unidentified men after leaving a weekly GAM meeting in Zone 11 of Guatemala City, and his body was discovered near the Pacific highway 15 miles from the city. "His assassination follows in the wake of reports that members of the groups had been the subject of unspecified threats."
The cable lists the co-directors of GAM as Beatriz Velasquez de Estrada, Aura Farfan, Maria Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, Maria Choxom de Castanon, Nineth Montenegro de Garcia, and another Mrs. Garcia, the mother of Edgar Fernando. The cable examines Hector Gomez Calito's involvement in the organization, concluding that he may have acted as a spokesperson unofficially because of security concerns. Gomez was one of the group's planner for a march to be held on April 12 or 13, and, "According to reports, the GAM claims that Gomez was killed because of his involvement with the organization."
GAM director, Nineth Montonegro de Garcia, and Father Alain Richard, member of Peace Brigades International (PBI), meet with U.S. officials to provide the Embassy with background information on the death of Hector Gomez. They explain that Gomez had joined GAM following the disappearance of his brother, and had acted as a publicist for the group. Richard tells officials that the police detective corps (DIT) had asked the mayor of the town of Amatitlan, where Gomez was from, for information about his activities, and that his house was reportedly under surveillance by "men in automobiles."
The Embassy also states "Richard had no doubts that the GOG [the Government of Guatemala] was directly responsible for Gomez's murder." Richard added that regardless of the belief that the entire group was being watched, GAM would continue their advocacy efforts. The cable ends by noting "Embassy officers will meet GAM directors on Monday, April 8."
The Embassy provides a summary of GAM organizing in March, "with some emphasis on its activist activities (blocking traffic, occupation of government offices, etc.) and the GOG reaction to those activities." It gives background on the creation of the group, dating its first public appearance in early July 1984, when GAM members began publicly campaigning for an investigation into the disappearances of their relatives and calling upon others to join. They approached the Embassy shortly thereafter, "asking for our assistance on behalf of 67 missing persons."
A few days after a GAM event in November 1984, they were received by Chief of State General Mejia, where "they repeated their demands" to investigate the disappeared. They met with Mejia a second time, which led to the formation of a government commission ostensibly to look into the GAM charges. In March 1985, they occupied the offices of the Guatemalan Attorney General, "protesting the lack of action by the GOG Tripartite Commission." Beginning in mid March, the government began to express disapproval of the tactics chosen by GAM to pursue their objectives. Press reports carried warnings issued by Mejia Victores in which he "charged that the GAM was being manipulated by the insurgents and questioned the source of the group's funds."
According to the cable, the Embassy had informed Washington on March 25 that four members of GAM had allegedly received various threats. One of the names on their list was Hector Gomez, even though he was "not then known to the Embassy in any capacity related to GAM. Additional information regarding the specifics of Gomez's murder have been provided."
Before Embassy officials had the chance to meet with GAM members again, another one of their members was killed. "At about 8:00 pm April 4, Maria del Rosario Godoy Aldana de Cuevas, a founder and member of the board of directors of GAM was found dead in her automobile." Three days after Rosario Godoy de Cuevas delivered the eulogy at Hector Gomez' funeral, she was found dead along with her 2-year-old son and 21-year-old brother. U.S. Embassy provides the official story given by the Guatemalan government, that she was "the victim of an apparent vehicular accident." Embassy sources, however, believe the death was premeditated, and note several contradictory facts in the official version of events. Rosario de Cuevas helped found GAM following the disappearance of her husband, Carlos Ernesto Cuevas Molina, another labor leader who was kidnapped on May 15, 1984.
Provides further information on the death of Maria Godoy de Cuevas, and describes the "sense of threats felt by GAM members." In press broadcasts Archbishop Prospero Penados referred to the recent events, including the Cuevas deaths, as the "holy week of shame and fear" in Guatemala, and called the deaths a "bloody act."
Embassy comments on the matter of the autopsy, noting that it is unclear what examination was completed by "police forensic specialists." An Embassy source also said "he had heard that the victims had died of asphyxiation and that a 'bogus autopsy' had been performed ... another rumor circulating said that the victims had died from gunfire. But again, no details or proof have been offered." The Guatemalan Interior Minister said he had the "official report that showed the Cuevas case to have been an accident."
The cable reiterates that "GAM members had recently began to receive anonymous threats by letter and telephone," and that other press reports spoke of anonymous threats against the organization. Threats notwithstanding, the group announced plans for another public protest later that month.
Piedra also takes aside the Foreign Minister, who tells the Ambassador that he was against the "continuance of these types of crime." He added that the U.S. Embassy should continue opposing such violations to all sectors of Guatemalan society, "and in a very special way to the military."
This Department of State report from 1986 provides details on the evolution of the use of forced disappearance by security forces over the decade prior, and how this tactic became institutionalized under the Mejia Victores regime. "In the cities, out of frustration from the judiciary's unwillingness to convict and sentence insurgents, and convinced that the kidnapping of suspected insurgents and their relatives would lead to a quick destruction of the guerilla urban networks, the security forces began to systematically kidnap anyone suspected of insurgent connections." The documents estimates there were 183 reported cases of government kidnapping the first month of the Mejia government, and an average of 137 abductions a month through the end of 1984. Part of the modus operandi of government kidnapping involved interrogating victims at military bases, police stations, or government safe houses, where information about alleged connections with insurgents was "extracted through torture."
The document concludes that the U.S. embassy and the State Department have failed in the past to adequately grasp the magnitude of Guatemala's problem of government kidnapping.
(Document previously posted: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB15/index.html)
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