On 1 September, Alejandro Maldonado was installed as Guatemalan president. The choice was controversial due his role in nullifying the conviction of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who had been sentenced for acts of genocide during the civil war. This thirty-six year war was a particularly brutal episode in Guatemala’s troubled postcolonial history and still leaves deep wounds, particularly on the collective psyche of the country’s Mayan population. Israel’s support of Guatemala government forces during this time is an example of Zionist foreign policy at its most calculated.
During the 1960s the entrenched status of servitude and poverty for Guatemala’s Mayan peasantry led to a series of armed and unarmed insurrectionary movements in the countryside. The state responded with unbridled brutality, attacking anyone deemed to be a dissident, including Mayan activists and trade unionists. In 1982, a coup brought Rios Montt to power; in the same year an Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a report pointing the blame at the Guatemalan government for thousands of illegal executions and missing persons in the 1970s, particularly against campensinos and Indians. The following year Montt deployed the “Firjoles y Fusiles” (beans and guns) campaign which was essentially a scorched earth military programme against “unruly” villages. Taking on the tactics of his predecessors, Montt entrenched agricultural resettlement schemes into the military’s counterinsurgency plans. His successors emulated his pacification techniques in an attempt to destroy indigenous life and rural existence, replacing it with agricultural cooperatives that maintained the feudal status quo. By the time that the UN had brokered peace in 1996, the UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission estimated the total number of deaths at around 250,000. The report, in line with the findings of a Catholic Church-sponsored truth commission, found that the state’s military operations had a disproportionate toll on indigenous communities, including more than 600 massacres, but also incidents of torture, rape and forced displacement.
Rios Montt finally faced justice on 10 May 2013. Convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison. Dozens of survivors gave testimony at his trial; some were women who had been raped repeatedly, others were children when the Guatemalan forces attacked their villages. The killings, displacement and disappearances carried out under Montt and other Guatemalan leaders could not have been conducted to such effect without the special relationship that the country enjoyed with Israel, which extended from agricultural assistance to counterinsurgency techniques.
Beans, guns and training: Zionist support of Guatemalan state repression
Six years before the “Beans and Guns” campaign ripped through Mayan village life, the Israeli government initiated a two-year programme for Guatemalan officials to study agricultural schemes in Israel. The Kibbutzim pioneer culture of Zionism shares much with the Gaucho frontierism of colonial and postcolonial Latin America, and in the 1978-1979 period, about 1,000 Guatemalans were trained by Israeli settlement study centres in Rohovot and other areas. When the Guatemalan congress gave Israel its highest honour in 2009, the speaker commented, “If there is thriving agriculture, it’s an Israeli contribution.” In reality, there is no thriving agriculture which benefits Guatemalans today, with hundreds of thousands of rural families dependent upon aid.
By the late 1970s, reports of human rights abuses by US-trained and armed Guatemalan soldiers were causing headaches for the Carter administration in Washington; the US congress subsequently suspended military aid in 1977. Within months, Israel had stepped in to fill the void with President Ephraim Katzir signing an agreement for military assistance. According to the Stockholm Institute for Peace, Israel supplied Guatemala with $38 million worth of arms during the civil war period. This included Arava aircraft, artillery pieces and gunboats. The Galil assault rifle, an Israeli-made weapon, was standard issue for the Guatemalan army by 1980, with the state owned small-arms production facility in Alta Verapaz producing its ammunition under Israeli licence. Indeed, corporate enterprise was a significant aspect of Israel’s involvement in the Guatemalan civil war, with a number of Israeli firms active on Guatemalan territory, providing services ranging from military equipment to radar control systems to water development projects. Israel also utilised its shadowy arms industry to avoid embarrassing the US, often shuttling arms to Guatemala through intermediaries, normally retired generals and “securocrats” with dual nationalities. In June 1977, Barbados customs agents discovered a shipment of 26 tons of arms and ammunition destined for Guatemala from Israel in an Argentinian cargo plane; similar shipments were discovered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Reagan’s election in 1979 and his policy of containment in Central America were exploited by Israel. The late Ariel Sharon engineered a relationship with the US in which Israel would carry out much of its dirty work in the region, in a bid to cement a closer relationship and align the countries’ geostrategic interests. This included funnelling weapons to Nicaragua and El Salvador. In a special report by the New York Times in 1983, it was noted that Israel had a role in supplementing US strategic interests.
Israel had contributed considerably to Guatemala’s counterinsurgency programme by the late 1980s, with at least 300 retired and Israeli government affiliated trainers active in the country, passing-on expertise on everything ranging from computer tracking of insurgents and activists through complex snooping techniques, to training elite troops known as “Kaibiles” for the rural pacification programme.
Nicaragua vs USA: The framework for reparations from Israel
In the International Court of Justice case Nicaragua vs USA, America was forced, due to its military and paramilitary acts in Nicaragua, to pay compensation to the Nicaraguan people. There are a number of merits from this ruling which could be used to draw up a case against Israel. Under paragraph 220 of the case it notes that states are obliged to refrain from encouraging a party to commit violations or provide concrete assistance: “The United States is thus under an obligation not to encourage persons or groups engaged in the conflict in Nicaragua to act in violation of the provisions of Article 3 common to the four 1949 Geneva conventions.” Under the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation, it states:
4. In cases of gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law constituting crimes under international law, States have the duty to investigate and, if there is sufficient evidence, the duty to submit to prosecution the person allegedly responsible for the violations and, if found guilty, the duty to punish her or him […]
Israel’s work in providing Guatemala with military advisors and technical assistance to Rios Montt could constitute such “assistance” for a Guatemalan to conduct genocide and violations of international humanitarian law.
Solidarity of rights
What is most remarkable about the tactics used by the Guatemalan government against the indigenous communities is how much they emulate strategies used by Israel to control and break those under its military occupation. Development towns and forced displacement are official policy used by Israel against its Bedouin population; a scorched earth policy was deployed in South Lebanon; counterinsurgency techniques used by the Shin Bet are deployed to stifle popular protest by Palestinians. Truth, reconciliation and reparations are amongst the hardest of socio-legal programmes to implement. It has been a long and torturous process for Guatemala’s impoverished and marginalised communities to extract confessions from those guilty of atrocities committed during the war. Any admittance of guilt from Israel, in complicity with Guatemalan state crimes, will be difficult to ascertain. Israel’s intricate web of lobby groups, as well as one of the strongest legal defence teams in the world, would make the task difficult. Nevertheless, by bringing a case to the ICJ, a deeper bond of solidarity between Guatemala’s oppressed peoples and their natural allies in Palestine could well be fostered.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.