By Prof. Edward Curtin
A friend of mine told me the following curious story. In the early 1990s, while taking a course at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he sat next to an ordinary-looking older man, a soft-spoken, pudgy fellow, who said he was from Guatemala. After a few weeks into the term, he came to class one day and found the man sitting alone, far from the other students, who seemed to be avoiding him.
Another student explained to my friend who the man was: Hector Gramajo, a former Guatemalan general and defense minister who was there on a Mason fellowship, studying for a degree in public administration. While he was Army Vice-Chief of Staff and Director of the Army General Staff, the Guatemalan army massacred more than 75,000 Mayans in what a United Nations Truth Commission later (1999) called genocide.
Otto Perez Molina, former President of Guatemala. Photo credit: Michael Wuertenberg / World Economic Forum / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)
On graduation day, while in his academic gown, Gramajo was handed court papers informing him that he was being sued in the US by eight Guatemalans who together with family members had been abused by soldiers under his command. Later, the lawsuit was joined by one from Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American nun, who had been raped and tortured by Gramajo’s men.
He didn’t contest the lawsuit; he just ignored it, and left the US for Guatemala to run for – what else! – the presidency. Before he left, however, he gave a public lecture at Harvard and, blessed by that august institution, and with his prestigious degree in hand, went to his other alma mater, the School of the Americas (SOA), which some refer to as the “School of Assassins,” at Ft. Benning, where he gave the commencement address. (More on this “educational” organization below.)
In 1995, a federal judge in Boston awarded $47.5 million to the plaintiffs. Gramajo never paid. He was back in Guatemala, where, in 2004, in a fitting twist of fate, he was killed by a swarm of Africanized bees.
Another Soft-Spoken Man, Otto Perez Molina
Joy erupted in the streets of Guatemala in early September, after months of demonstrations had forced the congress to strip presidential immunity from President Otto Perez Molina, who then resigned and was subsequently jailed on corruption charges.
The fraud, conspiracy, and bribery charges against Molina, 64, a former army general and intelligence chief, are dubbed “La Linea,” or “The Line,” because a network, or long line of government officials is involved. The case concerns bribes paid by businesses to customs officers and government officials in order to evade import duties. Molina is alleged to have profited handsomely, but he denies the charges. His former vice president, Roxanna Baldetti, was jailed on August 21st on similar charges.
Molina is implicated in many massacres and murders while he was an army general, and chief of military intelligence while on the CIA payroll. One of these many victims was the husband of the Harvard-trained American lawyer Jennifer Harbury.
The corruption charges were the result of an investigation conducted by the United Nations International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in collaboration with the Guatemalan Justice Department.
The huge street demonstrations in Guatemala City and around the country, fueled by indignation at long-standing systemic corruption, put enormous pressure on the judiciary to finally arrest Molina. His September 3rd arrest brought optimism to a country sorely in need of some good news.
But then, three days later, a television comedian (shades of US election theatrics), Jimmy Morales — backed by military officers implicated in torture, assassinations, and massacres — won the first round of the presidential elections, despite widespread remonstrations to postpone an election considered rigged by corrupt oligarchs and drug lords.
The US mainstream media has reported the basics of these events. But, as usual, what they haven’t done is report on the deeper back story to all this, and how the US government is involved in nefarious ways that stretch back many years.
For example, the fact that Molina was trained at the SOA at Ft. Benning, GA, in torturous interrogation techniques, and is implicated in many killings, is never mentioned in the The New York Times story of his resignation, nor in any subsequent story, as of the date of this publication.
For a long time, the United States government has been deeply involved in the support and training of death squads, and corrupt military officers, not only in Guatemala, but throughout Latin America.
Corruption is child’s play compared with the massacres, acts of torture, assassinations, and disappearances that were carried out across Latin America by personnel trained and supported by the US. Carolyn Forche, an American poet and activist, got a rare, intimate glimpse of the kind of monster who was involved in these acts when, in 1978, she had dinner at the home of an unnamed Salvadoran colonel. This event inspired a prose poem — The Colonel — that you can listen to here. Below is an excerpt from it. It is not for the squeamish:
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace… We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine… I was asked how I enjoyed the country… There was some talk of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground. May 1978
Expertise in Torture and Murder
As for Molina — like the Salvadoran death squad leader of the period of Forche’s poem, Roberto D’Aubuisson, who ordered the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the defender of the poor — he, too, was trained by the US at the SOA.
This is where for more than half a century the US has trained Latin American and Caribbean military in the most efficient techniques for torturing and killing their own people. Trained by the US, these soldiers have returned to their countries where they have tortured and killed peasants, students, priests, nuns, opposition leaders, et al. by the thousands. Far too many Americans are blissfully unaware of what is done in their name. (In 2001, it was euphemistically renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation [WHINSEC] — pure Orwell.)
For years, Roy Bourgeois, a former US naval officer and Maryknoll priest, has led an effort to inform the American people of what is occurring at the SOA, and to have the US government shut it down.
At the website he founded, one can find extensive documentation on the people who have graduated from this “Institute” for lower learning, and on their murderous histories. In Guatemala alone, conservative estimates put the number at well above 200,000 killed. This is not simply Guatemalan history, but the secret history of the United States.
Despite its notorious and well-documented history, here is how the New York Times described the SOA on April 1, 1985:
Col. Michael J. Sierra, the commandant of the school, said that later this year courses in medicine, engineering, psychological operations and maintenance would be offered for the first time as the curriculum goes beyond standard military operations.
‘We have been been teaching military science,’ Colonel Sierra said. ‘Now we’ll start teaching courses that can contribute to national development….’
In many Latin American nations, military officers have been far more involved in political and economic development than have soldiers in the United States….
The school, the basic purpose of which is to build ties between the United States and Latin America, has sought to expose Latin American officers and their families to life in the United States,…
Build ties between the United States and Latin America? They certainly have achieved that.
Molina is implicated in many massacres and murders while he was an army general and chief of military intelligence — and on the CIA payroll. One of his many victims was Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, known as “Everado,” who fought against the US-backed government that massacred hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. Captured in 1992, he was tortured for years, then killed under Molina’s auspices. His wife, the Harvard-trained American Lawyer and activist Jennifer Harbury, has done much to publicize his case.
Other victims tied to Molina are Judge Edgar Ramiro Elias Ogaldez, and Bishop Juan Gerardi. See Francisco Goldman’s intriguing story on the Gerardi assassination. He reports that once the death squads and military killers were exposed by the UN for genocide and widespread assassinations, they mutated into the criminal mafia and drug cartels. In 2007 he published his authoritative book — The Art of Political Murder — on the Gerardi case.
Molina is currently being charged with corruption, not murder — at least not yet. As with the recent corruption charges, Molina denies all.
Guatemala’s current situation and tragic history can be traced back to the CIA-led coup in 1954 that ousted the democratically elected government of President Jacobo Arbenz and installed the military dictator Carlos Armas. Arbenz was an advocate for land reform and was loved by the poor. The wealthy hated him. And when the CIA couldn’t bribe him, they ousted him in a most humiliating way. Even after he went into exile, the agency used constant disinformation to smear him in every way imaginable until his strange death in a bathtub in 1971.
Since the 1954 coup, and with the ongoing support of the CIA and the School of the Americas (SOA), the Guatemalan people have lived a nightmare. What follows should give you a sense of the CIA’s thinking behind the coup and its aftermath. It is a transcription of a CIA document released to The National Security Archive, a research institute, on May 23, 1997 under a Freedom of Information Act request.
A hammer, axe, wrench, screwdriver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy and handy will suffice.” For an assassin using “edge weapons,” the manual notes in cold clinical terms, “puncture wounds of the body cavity may not be reliable unless the heart is reached.
“A Study of Assassination,” unsigned, undated:
Among the documents found in the training files of Operation PBSUCCESS and declassified by the Agency is a “Study of Assassination.” A how-to guide book in the art of political killing, the 19-page manual offers detailed descriptions of the procedures, instruments, and implementation of assassination. “The simplest local tools are often much the most efficient means of assassination,” counsels the study. “A hammer, axe, wrench, screwdriver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy and handy will suffice.” For an assassin using “edge weapons,” the manual notes in cold clinical terms, “puncture wounds of the body cavity may not be reliable unless the heart is reached…. Absolute reliability is obtained by severing the spinal cord in the cervical region.” The manual also notes that to provide plausible denial, “no assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded.” Murder, the drafters state, “is not morally justifiable,” and “persons who are morally squeamish should not attempt it.”
No, this dirty work is not for the “morally squeamish.”
If one is searching for the truth about the coup, the document above is accurate and revealing. However, if one searched the web and discovered a posting at globalsecurty.org (see sidebar at the end of the article) one would be misled. That posting is nothing more than a summary of a Congressional Research Service report. It never mentions Guatemala, although it includes other Latin American countries — Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, and Peru. A gullible reader might come away with the impression that the School of the Americas had nothing to do with Guatemala, when, in fact, it had a great deal to do with it. Why leave out this country in particular?
Could it be that GlobalSecurity.org is unfamiliar with documents such as the one described above? Is it one of those glib sites that posts articles that do not give the full picture, even if inadvertently? Or is it a site that presents disinformation? The web is filled with questionable information, so one must proceed skeptically.
Those interested in the truth must probe much deeper, but that is difficult as the following account of the propagandist Edward Bernays makes clear.
From PR to “The Engineering of Consent”
The 1954 coup d’etat was ably assisted by American Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who is often called the “father of public relations.” He is barely known to the general public and is part of our secret history. A war propagandist for the US during World War I, Bernays used his propaganda techniques — now called PR — to “engineer the consent” of the American people on behalf of the power elite.
Leading up to the 1954 coup, he was the chief propagandist for The United Fruit Company and in that capacity created a vast media campaign painting the Arbenz government as communist and in cahoots with the U.S.S.R.
This was the height of the Cold War, and the American government was consumed with using anti-communist and anti-Soviet rhetoric to defend its spheres of interest; for a long time the American government, in conjunction with American corporations, had considered Latin America and the Caribbean their de facto colonies.
The United Fruit Company — now Chiquita Brands International — was an American corporation that had controlled vast tracts of land and numerous businesses in Guatemala and throughout Latin America since the early 1900s. The company was known for its support of dictators and the exploitation of the people and the land.
Intimately linked to the power elite within the US government, United Fruit extracted huge profits and rejected any reforms that challenged its control of the land. It was the largest landholder and employer in Guatemala. It owned railroads and discouraged the building of highways. It had long controlled Guatemala’s politicians. It’s power was so extensive that one historian compares it to the Dutch East India Company in its influence. It’s shareholders and supporters were amply distributed throughout the foreign policy establishment in the US.
As US Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler made clear in 1935, the US military was used to deal with any resistance to American corporations’ business interests overseas. Guatemala is a case study in this regard. President Arbenz’s land reform act of 1952 — Decree 900 — expropriated rural farm land, 70 per cent of which was in the hands of 2 percent of the landowners, including vast acreage controlled by United Fruit but, significantly, only land not under cultivation by the company. The land was redistributed to poor peasants. The owners ( who included Arbenz himself) were to be compensated at fair market value.
But this arrangement was not acceptable to United Fruit or their backers in Washington. The American Ambassador to Guatemala, John Peurifoy (CIA Director Allen Dulles’s handpicked man), then tried to bribe Arbenz with a $2 million payoff to terminate the land reforms.
Arbenz refused, and his overthrow was set in motion by the CIA. Bernays was called upon to present the land redistribution as a communist takeover and a threat to US national security. His media propaganda campaign, presenting Arbenz as a communist in league with the USSR, together with the CIA’s additional propaganda, created the justification for the CIA-led coup.
What wasn’t revealed at the time was that the Eisenhower administration had intimate ties to United Fruit. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had represented United Fruit at his law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, and his brother, Allen Dulles, the CIA chief in charge of the 1954 coup, once sat on United Fruit’s board of directors and had also done legal work for them. Both brothers had large financial stakes in the company. Such clear-cut conflicts of interest were not an anomaly within the Eisenhower administration. Many other administration officials were connected in one way or another to United Fruit. Bernays’s propaganda, using anti-communist rhetoric, served perfectly the interests of his conjoined clients — United Fruit and the CIA. As a result of Dulles’s and Bernays’s machinations, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were eventually massacred
The excellent documentary by Adam Curtis, The Century of Self, documents Bernays’s profound and largely pernicious influence on American life with a section specifically devoted to his propaganda efforts on behalf of the 1954 coup. Today’s “mainstream media” has learned a lot from Bernays, so if one wishes to see through the vast amount of propaganda and dissimulation in current news coverage, learning about Bernays is crucial.
The recent arrest of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina on corruption charges cannot be understood except within the larger context of US interference in Latin American countries going back more than a century. And that record of US meddling in Central and South America has been largely left out of official histories of the United States.
The rise of the CIA to virtually unchallenged supremacy in Washington’s power structure is but one part of this backstory. Peter Dale Scott, who has written voluminously on the subject, calls this phenomenon of a de facto shadow government hidden behind the public facade while serving corporate interests, “the deep state.” This secretive power elite, through its decades-long support of coups and death squads in Guatemala, has linked that country’s fate inextricably to US interests and policies.
Sometimes even when the mind knows and assents, the heart stays frozen. But music, like poetry, can often break the ice within. Here is the acclaimed singer and former Panamanian reform presidential candidate Ruben Blades, singing a song from his album, Nothing but the Truth. The song is called “In Salvador,” but his words could apply to what goes on in many Latin American countries. The “regular guys” of Ruben’s song are often death squad killers, “made in America” at the “School of the Assassins.”