Allan Nairn on Rios Montt

May 9, 2013

In Blog

The Guatemala Genocide Case: Testimony Notes Regarding Rios Montt

By Allan Nairn

The case against General Rios Montt has included vast amounts of evidence.

My notes for my own scheduled testimony (for what happened see post of April 18; included the following observations:

When Rios Montt seized power on March 23, 1982, he immediately seized
control of and transformed army operations.

He cut back on the urban assassinations, which had become
counterproductive, and increased the massacres of the rural Mayans,
the army’s main “internal enemy.”

He took a sweep tactic that had been pioneered by General Benedicto
Lucas Garcia and made it a systematic strategy, applied across the
Northwest Highlands.

A CIA report observed of Benedicto’s — later Rios Montt’s — method:
“In mid-February 1982 the Guatemalan army reinforced its existing
force in the central El Quiche department and launched a sweep
operation into the Ixil triangle.  The commanding officers of the
units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages
which are cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and
eliminate all sources of resistance.  Civilians in the area who agree
to collaborate with the army and who seek army protection are to be
well treated and cared for in refugee camps for the duratiion of the

In practice, the civilians in the camps were often survivors of army
massacres who were subject to vast coercion including execution,
torture,  rape, forced labor, and forced service in the “civil

Colonel George Maynes, the US military attache in Guatemala, told me
that he and Benedicto Lucas had developed this sweep tactic and that
Rios Montt had expanded it.

A US Green Beret, Captain Jesse Garcia showed me how, under Rios
Montt, he was training Guatemalan troops in the techniques of how to
“destroy towns.” (Allan Nairn, “Despite Ban, U.S. Captain Trains
Guatemalan Military,” Washington Post, October 21, 1982, page 1).

The Guatemalan Catholic Bishops Conference reported in a May 27, 1982
pastoral letter:  “Numerous families have perished, vilely murdered.
Not even the lives of the elderly, pregnant women or innocent children
have been respected … Never in our history has it come to such grave
extremes.  These assassinations fall into the category of genocide.”

In an interview in the palace that May I asked Rios Montt about
killing civilians.  He said: “Look, the problem of the war is not just
a question of who is shooting.  For each one who is shooting there are
ten who are working behind him.”

Rios Montt’s senior aide and spokesman, Francisco Bianchi, who was
sitting next to him, amplified: “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 would say,
‘You’re massacring innocent people.’  But they weren’t innocent.  They
had sold out to subversion.”  (Allan Nairn, “Guatemala Can’t Take 2
Roads,” The New York Times, op ed, July 20, 1982).

I visited the Ixil zone in September, 1982, arriving first in Nebaj.
The towns and much of the Ixil area were under army occupation.

A foreign health worker said 80% of the people were malnourished.
Many were dying of hunger, measles, and tuberculosis.

Rios Montt’s senior commander on scene was a man who called himself
Major Tito Arias, but who was actually Otto Perez Molina, the current
president of Guatemala.

Subordinates of Rios Montt and Perez Molina described how they
tortured and killed civilians.  The soldiers and officers described a
strategy that centered on emptying and massacring entire villages.

They said they would kill a quarter to a third of the people, place a
quarter to a third of them in camps, and the rest would flee to the
mountains where, if the army found them, they would shoot them on

The soldiers said they were still in the midst of intensive sweep operations.

They also said they were under a strict chain of command that placed
only three layers of responsibility between themselves and Rios Montt.
 In the words of Lieutenant Romeo Sierra at La Perla they were “on a
very short leash.”

A number of soldiers named specific towns and villages in which they
had committed massacres.

One, a corporal named Felipe, in Nebaj, listed Salquil, Sumal
Chiquito, Sumal Grande and Acul.

His account was consistent with that of a man from Acul who spoke in
secret and described an April massacre in which he said the army shot
24 civilians.  He said the soldiers shot them in the head after
sorting villagers into two groups, one of which the soldiers said they
would “send to Glory” and the other “to Hell.”  He said: “They said
that they were executing the law of Rios Montt.”

The descriptions of the massacre strategy from soldiers and civilian
survivors were consistent.  They also meshed with accounts that I
heard elsewhere in the Mayan zones.

(Much of the following text is drawn from Allan Nairn, “The Guns of
Guatemala: The merciless mission of Rios Montt’s army,” The New
Republic, April 11, 1983, and from my work in the 1983 documentary
film “Skoop!” also known as “Deadline Guatemala” and “Titular de Hoy,”
done with Jean-Marie Simon and directed by Mikael Wahlforss, EPIDEM
Scandinavian TV):

Just outside Nebaj, more than 2,500 campesinos had been resettled on
an army airstrip. “They didn’t want to leave voluntarily,” explained
Corporal Felipe, who manned a .50 caliber machine gun in the Nebaj
church belfry. “The government put out a call that they would have one
month to turn themselves in,” he said, referring to a nationwide order
from Rios Montt.  “So now the army is in charge of going to get all
the people from all these villages.”

Sergeant Miguel Raimundo, who was guarding a group of 161 suspected
guerrilla collaborators (which included 79 children and 42 women),
said, “The problem is that almost all the village people are
guerrillas.” According to camp records, they had been rounded up in
sweeps through the villages of Vijolom, Salquil Grande, Tjolom,
Parramos Chiquito, Paob, Vixaj, Quejchip, and Xepium.

Sergeant Jose Angel, who commanded a La Perla platoon
explained:”Before we get to the village, we talk with the soldiers
about what they should do and what they shouldn’t do. They all discuss
it so they have it in their minds. We coordinate it first—we ask, what
is our mission?”

Lieutenant Sierra had noted that the sweep commanders had hourly radio
contact with headquarters.  He said the superior officer “knows
everything.  Everything is controlled.”  All field actions had to be
reported in the commanders’ daily “diary of operations” which was
reviewed and criticized in monthly face-to-face evaluations.

Sergeant Jose Angel explained the village-entry procedure: “One patrol
enters the village from one point, on another side another patrols
enters. We go in before dawn, because everyone is sleeping. If we come
in broad daylight they get scared, they see it’s the army, and they
run because they know the army is coming to get them,”

Rios Montt’s army had a clear policy about the meaning and
consequences of such behavior. “The people who are doing things
outside the law run away,” sergeant Jose Angel said. “But the people
who aren’t doing anything, they stay.” He said he had seen cases where
“lots of them ran, most of a village. They ran because they knew the
army was coming.”

Sergeant Miguel Raimundo cited three cases where villages fled en
masse. “All the villages around here, like Salquil, Palob, or here in
Sumal, they have a horn and there’s a villager who watches the road.
If the soldiers come, he blows the horn. It’s a signal. They all go

The soldiers explained that they routinely killed these fleeing,
unarmed civilians.

I asked Corporal Felipe how the villagers react when the troops arrive.

“They flee from their homes. They run for the mountain.”

“And what do you do?”

“Some we capture alive and others we can’t capture alive. When they
run and go into the mountains that obligates one to kill them.”


“Because they might be guerrillas. If they don’t run, the army is not
going to kill them. It will protect them.”

“Among those you have to kill, what kind of people are they? Are they
men or women?”

“At times men, at times women.”

“In which villages has this happened?”

“Oh, it’s happened in lots of them. In Acul, Salquil, Sumal Chiquito,
Sumat Grande.”

“In those villages, about how many people did you kill?”

“Not many, a few.”

“More than ten? More than twenty? More than a hundred?”

“Oh no, about twenty.”

“In each village?”

“Yes, of course. It’s not many. More than that were captured alive.”

Sergeant Jose Angel recalled a similar experience in the village of
Chumansan in the province of Quezaltenango. “When we went in, the
people scattered,” he said. “We had no choice but to shoot at them. We
killed some. . . . Oh, about ten, no more. Most of them got away.”

After tracking and shooting the unarmed civilians who fled in fear the
army dealt with the unarmed civilians who remained in the village.

First, Sergeant Jose Angel explained, “We go into a village and take
the people out of their houses and search the houses.”

Among the items the soldiers looked for were suspiciously large stocks
of grain or beans. The army took what it could use and burned the

Next, he said, “You ask informers who are the ones that are doing
things, things outside the law. And that’s when you round up the
collaborators. And the collaborators—you question them, interrogate
them, get them to speak the truth. Who have they been talking to? Who
are the ones who have been coming to the village to speak with them?”

The soldiers often went in with target lists of “collaborators.”  The
lists were provided by G-2, the military intelligence service headed
at that time by General Rios Montt’s co-defendant, General Mauricio
Rodriguez Sanchez.

The interrogations were generally conducted in the village square with
the population looking on.

I asked Jose Angel how he questioned people. He replied, “Beat them to
make them tell the truth, hurt them.”

“With what methods?”

“This one, like this,” he said as he wrapped his hands around his neck
and made a choking sound. “More or less hanging them.”

“With what?”

“With a lasso. Each soldier has his lasso.”

The day before, in Nebaj, an infantryman who was standing over the
bodies of four captured guerrillas demonstrated the interrogation
technique he had learned in “Cobra,” an army counterinsurgency course
for field troops.  [Another soldier said the guerrillas, who had set
off a grenade, had been “presented” to Perez Molina for interrogation,
“But they still didn’t say anything, for better or for worse.”]

“Tie them like this,” he said, “tie the hands behind, run the cord
here [around the neck] and press with a boot [on the chest]. Knot it,
and make a tourniquet with a stick, and when they’re dying you give it
another twist and you ask them again, and if they still don’t want to
answer you do it again until they talk.”

The sergeants and infantrymen of Nebaj and La Perla said the
tourniquet was the most common interrogation technique.  They said
that live burial and mutilation by machete were also used.

The soldiers said they expected those they questioned to provide
specific information, such as the names of villagers who had talked
with or given food to guerrillas. Failure to do so implied guilt, and
brought immediate judgment and action.

“Almost everyone in the villages is a collaborator,” said Sergeant
Miguel Raimundo. “They don’t say anything. They would rather die than

When I asked Miguel Raimundo about the interrogation method, he
replied: “We say, if you tell us where the guerrillas are, the army
won’t kill you. . . . If they collabo- rate with the army, we don’t do

“And if they don’t say anything?”

“Well, then they say, ‘if you kill me, kill me—because I don’t know
anything,’ and we know they’re guerrillas.  They prefer to die rather
than say where the compaheros are.”

According to Sergeant Jose Angel, it was common for suspected
collaborators to be pointed out, questioned, and executed all on the
same day.

Explaining how he extracted information so quickly, he said, “Well,
they don’t talk like that voluntarily. You just have to subdue them a
little to make them speak the truth.”

After the interrogations had been completed, the patrol leader would
make a speech to the survivors gathered in the village square.

“We tell the people to change the road they are on, because the road
they are on is bad,” said Jose Angel. “If they don’t change, there is
nothing else to do but kill them.”

“So you kill them on the spot?”

“Yes, sure. If they don’t want the good, there’s nothing more to do
but bomb their houses.”

Jose Angel said that in Solola and Quezaltenengo he had participated
in operations of this kind in which more than 500 people were killed

He and other soldiers said that smaller villages were destroyed with
Spanish, Israeli, and U.S.-made grenades. Boxes of these grenades
could be seen stacked in the Nebaj ammunition dump.

The soldiers said they also used a 3.5-inch U.S.- made shoulder-held
recoilless rocket that was designed as an antitank weapon but is
effective against people and straw huts. At the La Perla headquarters,
one such launcher was sitting next to boxes of “explosive projectile”
rockets from the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant.

F’or larger operations, Jose Angel said, patrols called in army planes
and helicopters to bomb the villages. The helicopters were
U.S.-manufactured Hueys and Jet Rangers.   The bombs included
U.S.-made 50-kilogram Ml/61As, twelve of which were stacked in the
base munitions dump in Nebaj.

Lieutenant Cesar Bonilla, the officer in charge of the Nebaj airstrip
resettlement camp said the helicopters were especially useful for
catching villagers by surprise.

“When you go in on foot they see the patrol three kilometers away and
know you’re coming. But with air transport, you land different units
in the area, all the units close in rapidly, and the people can’t go
running away.”

Bonilla said that this type of operation could only be executed by
several helicopters at once. “With just one helicopter you scare them
away and there’s no control.”

The United States Congress’ temporary refusal to sell spare parts had
grounded much of the fleet, so Lieutenant Bonilla was encouraged by
reports that the Reagan Administration was considering changing the

“That would be wonderful,” he said. “With six helicopters, for
example, the airborne troops would land all at once before they could
make a move. The nicest, the ideal, the dream, would be a surprise:
suddenly, pow! Helicopters with troops!” As he spoke, he made
machine-gun noises and waved his Israeli Galil rifle toward the
refugee shacks. “Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta! All at once from the air! Pow! No
escape routes. That would be ideal.”

The day before this conversation, a family in Bonilla’s camp —
interviewed in their shack outside the view of soldiers — described
such an assault on their village. “Two times they came there in
helicopters,” said one of the men. “They would come in and land and
the people would retire and they would always kill a few. They flew
over, machine-gunning people from the helicopter.” The family said
that five were killed in the strafing.

After the torture, the executions, and the burning, strafing and
bombing, the next stage of the sweep was to chase the fleeing people
through the hills.

“Up here there aren’t any villages anymore,” said Sergeant Jose Angel,
speaking of the patrol areas around La Perla. “There used to be, but
then the soldiers came. We knew that such and such a village was
involved, so we went to get them. We captured some and the rest of the
people from the village ran away. They’re hiding in the mountains. Now
we’re going to the mountains to look for them.”

Major Tito — Otto Perez Molina — the commander of the Nebaj base,
said in mid-September that 2,000 people from the area of Sumal Grande
had fled to the mountains and would be pursued by foot patrols and

Sergeant Jose Angel said his platoon went on such operations
frequently. I asked Jose Angel what his troops did when they found

“At times we don’t find them. We see them but they get away.”

“But when you do find them, what do you do?”

“Oh, we kill them.”

“Are they a few people or entire villages?”

“No, entire villages. When we entered the villages we killed some and
the rest ran away,”

Under the policy of Rios Montt’s army, a civilian found outside the
army-controlled towns could be in mortal danger.

“We know the poor people from close up and far away,” said Sergeant
Miguel Raimundo. “If we see some- one walking in the mountains, that
means he is a subversive. So we try to grab him and ask where he’s
going; we arrest him. And then we see if he is a guerrilla or not. But
those who always walk in the mountains, we know they are guerrillas.
Maybe some of them will be children, but we know that they are
subversive delinquents. I’ve been walking in the mountains for a year
now, and just in the mountains, one by one, we’ve captured more than
500 people.”

Sergeant Miguel Raimundo also explained that under the army’s
assumptions a civilian could also be in danger if they never went
anywhere: “A woman told me yesterday that the soldiers kill people,
that the soldiers killed her husband. But I told her that if the
soldiers killed her husband it was because he was a guerrilla. The
soldier knows whom to kill. He doesn’t kill the innocent, just the
guilty. And she said, ‘No, my husband wasn’t doing anything.’ So I
said, ‘And how do you know it was nothing? How do you know what he was
doing outside?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘because he never went anywhere,’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘That’s because he was a collaborator,’ “

It was clear from discussions with these soldiers inside the Ixil zone
that, under their orders from Rios Montt and their commanders,
including Perez Molina, all civilians were potential targets.  Indeed,
they were the principal targets.

Lieutenant Romeo Sierra, who directed the sweeps through his patrol
area of 20 square kilomefers and 10,000 people, told me that thousands
of civilians were displaced but that “in the time I’ve been here
[two-and-a-half months] no subversives have fallen. Lots of unarmed
people, women refugees, but we haven’t had actual combat with

Lieutenant Sierra also said that “human rights” was an “enemy
concept.”  In his army training he had been taught that it had been
developed “by international Communism.”

Years after he had been ousted from power, I interviewed Rios Montt
again.  I asked Rios Montt — a firm believer in the death penalty —
if he thought that he should be tried and executed for his role in the
Mayan massacres.

The general leapt to his feet and shouted:  “Yes!  Try me!  Put me
against the wall!,” but he said he should be tried only if Americans
were put on trial too.  (See Allan Nairn, “C.I.A. Death Squad:
Americans have been directly involved in Guatemalan Army killings,”
The Nation, April 17, 1995.)

Specifically, Rios Montt cited President Reagan, who, in the midst of
the killings, had said that Rios Montt was getting “a bum rap” on
human rights.

Rios Montt, for his part, had said: “It’s not that we have a policy of
scorched earth, just a policy of scorched communists.”

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Posted by Nairn) at 5/09/2013 02:16:00 PM