Israel, Guatemala, and the Question of Genocide

As the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt appears to be headed back to square one after the Constitutional Court’s ruling, NACLA has a fascinating piece up on Israel’s ties to Ríos Montt:

Known as “Brother Efraín,” a fundamentalist convert of the California-based “Church of the Word” (Verbo), Rios Montt thanked his God in heaven for anointing him as Guatemala’s president, but on earth he thanked Israel for establishing his March 1982 military coup. Israeli press reported that 300 Israeli advisors helped execute the coup, which succeeded so smoothly, Brother Efraín told an ABC News reporter, “because many of our soldiers were trained by Israelis.” Through the height of la violencia (“the violence”) or desencarnacíon (“loss of flesh, loss of being”), between the late 1970s to early 1980s, Israel assisted every facet of attack on the Guatemalan people. Largely taking over for the United States on the ground in Guatemala (with Washington retaining its role as paymaster, while also maintaining a crucial presence in the country), Israel had become the successive governments’ main provider of counterinsurgency training, light and heavy arsenals of weaponry, aircraft, state-of-the-art intelligence technology and infrastructure, and other vital assistance.

[…] A February 1983 CBS Evening News with Dan Rather program reported, Israel “didn’t send down congressmen, human rights activists or priests” to strengthen Israel’s special relationship with Guatemala. Israel “taught the Guatemalans how to build an airbase. They set up their intelligence network, tried and tested on the [Israeli-occupied Palestinian] West Bank and Gaza, designed simply to beat the Guerilla.” Timemagazine (03/28/83) chimed in that Guatemalan army “outposts in the jungle have become near replicas of Israeli army field camps.” At one of these Israeli outposts replicated in Huehuetenango (among the areas hardest hit by the genocide, with the second highest number of massacres registered by a UN truth commission), Time continues: “Colonel Gustavo Menendez Herrera pointed out that his troops are using Israeli communications equipment, mortars, submachine guns, battle gear and helmets.” Naturally, as Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García had stated previously: “The Israeli soldier is a model and an example to us.”

In spite of emphasis on US support for Guatemala and other brutal regimes in Central America in the 1980s (and certainly the US absolutely was the keystone in supporting these regimes), it was not the sole actor. Both Augusto Pinochet’s government and the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 sent weapons and military aides to right-wing military regimes in Central America. That Israel, more often than not an ally of the US during the 1980s, was also a willing supporter of Ríos Montt is an untold part of the story, but not necessarily a surprising one, for rarely do authoritarian regimes work in a bubble cut off from international support from a variety of countries.

And of course, that also means Israel was directly tied to a regime that committed genocidal acts itself. There is a quotation from Ríos Montt’s own press secretary in the 1980s that gets at the heart of the mindset behind the regime’s brutal tactics, which may have killed tens of thousands of Guatemalans in 1982 alone:

Look, the problem of the war is not just a question of who is shooting. For each one who is shooting there are ten working behind him.” Rios Montt’s press secretary added: “The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators. Therefore, the Indians were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And then they say, ‘You’re massacring innocent people’. But they weren’t innocent. They had sold out to subversion.

This certainly appears to be genocide, or “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” And it is not as if the targeting of indigenous groups was a secret even at the time. As an evangelical pastor at the time himself put it,

 The army doesn’t massacre Indians. […] It massacres demons, and Indians are demons possessed; they are communists.

That is, simply put, the targeting of an ethnic group for massacre, for destruction, and it was a fact that people at the time were willing to admit. Ríos Montt’s trial may be undone by a technicality, but the historical evidence overwhelmingly points to genocide in Guatemala under the military leader. That Israel supported such a genocidal regime is tragically ironic, if somewhat unsurprising, in the context of the final decade of the Cold War.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Argentina, Chile, Evangelicals in Latin America, Guatemala, Guatemala's Civil War, Human Rights Issues, Human Rights Violations, Indigenous Peoples, International Relations, Latin American Militaries, United States, Violence in the Americas. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Israel, Guatemala, and the Question of Genocide

  1. This is a really disappointing post. It’s another gratuitous attack on Israel for “ties” which, in your own post, you admit also came from right-wing regimes in Latin America and the right-wing Reagan administration in the US. But for some reason, Israel needs to be pointed out here? I could point out like many Pro-Israel folks would that Chavez had “ties” to the Iranian regime that rigged an election and crushed dissenters.

    But that would just show that two wrongs don’t make a right. Instead, what I would submit is that there is no country that doesn’t have ties to other countries with problematic governance. It can be brought down to the reductio ad absurdum of saying peaceful nation Sweden has ties with rogue whaling nations Norway and Iceland.

    What possible purpose does an attack on Israel have in a blog purportedly about the Western Hemisphere?

    To be clear, I’m not criticizing you of antisemitism. Just of being part of a ridiculous tribal bugaboo of the left.

  2. Except your last sentence. The “ironic” part. That does, quite frankly, seem a little antisemitc. Why, do tell, is it “ironic”? Since you’re just anti-Israel and not antisemitic, you couldn’t be referring to anything that occurred before the state of Israel even existed, could you? You also couldn’t be comparing either in kind or degree that thing that happened before the founding of the state of Israel with Guatemala, could you? And, you’re not saying that somehow Jews/Israelis (no difference, right?) are somehow different than other human beings because of that thing that happened before the founding of the state of Israel, are you?

    It seems like most humans are capable of terrible things. You’re not saying in this post that it would be ironic that Guatemalans are part of a genocide because their nation was founded on the Spanish genocide of the Natives, are you? Nope. But Jews are different?


  3. Apparently, you fail to understand the most basic point of the post, which was that, even when the US supports a brutal regime, such regimes also receive aid from other countries that are often overlooked or understudied, and that “rarely do authoritarian regimes work in a bubble cut off from international support from a variety of countries.” Pointing out that this could and did include Israel along other regimes does not suddenly make one part of some “tribal bugaboo” anymore than pointing out Iran’s role in the 1994 AMIA bombing (which this blog has also done, alongside with criticisms of human rights violations throughout the Western hemisphere, from Chile to Mexico) does.

    And what does it have to do with the Western hemisphere? Everything – that’s where Guatemala is. That you think this is a post more about Israel than it is about Guatemala reflects less the content of the original post and more your own preconceptions and biases that you brought with you into your reading.

    As for charges of anti-semitism, it’s pretty easy to bandy about such charges without knowing anything about a person. Given the actual definition of irony as “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result,” well, if you can’t spot the irony of a country that was founded in the wake of genocide committed against its own people (Israel) providing military aid to a country that committed genocide against its own people (Guatemala), then I suppose name-calling strangers is an easier, if intellectually lazier, path. As you yourself say – sigh.

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