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National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 32

Versión en Español

The Guatemalan Military: What the
U.S. Files Reveal
A report compiled by
The National Security Archive
Photo still from U.S. Army film shot in 1965. U.S. military advisers confer as Col. Carlos Arana Osorio and an aide look on
Presented in Guatemala City
1 June 2000
U.S. military advisers confer as Col. Carlos Arana Osorio and an aide look on (U.S. Army, 1965)

The Guatemalan Military: What the
U.S. Files Reveal,
by Kate Doyle

Volume I: Units and Officers of the Guatemalan Army,
by Carlos Osorio

Volume II: Documents

Report Editor:
Kate Doyle, Senior Analyst and Project Director
The Guatemala Documentation Project

Database Editor:
Carlos Osorio, Senior Research Associate

Contributing Editors:
Michael Evans, Senior Research Associate
Tamara Feinstein, Research Associate
Gretta Tovar Siebenttrit, Research Associate
Sarah Heidema, Intern

Special Thanks:
Zulima Alvarez

The Guatemalan Military:
What the U.S. Files Reveal

By Kate Doyle
Director, Guatemala Documentation Project

Related Links:

Guatemala Documentation Project

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In July 1994, the Guatemalan government and the URNG signed the Human Rights Accord establishing the Historical Clarification Commission.  That same month, the National Security Archive began work on a Guatemala Documentation Project, an effort to obtain the release of secret U.S. files on Guatemala.

The project's first objective was to support the human rights investigations of the Clarification Commission.  We believed that the commission would benefit from access to declassified U.S. documents, since the United States had maintained close relations with every Guatemalan government since the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 (with the exception of the Lucas García regime).  Such contact implied the existence of a treasure trove of records that could shed light on a range of critical issues, including U.S. policy in Guatemala; relations between the two countries; social, political and economic developments; the origins of the civil conflict; and details on specific human rights cases.  We also knew there was one issue about which the truth commission would have virtually no primary information but which is well documented by U.S. agencies:  the Guatemalan intelligence and security apparatus.  As it turned out, of course, the military was the central focus of the commission's study.

The Archive already had experience working with truth commissions in Central America.  In 1992 and 1993, the Archive provided documents and some technical assistance to the United Nations Truth Commission in El Salvador and saw the immense trouble its staff had in obtaining even the most basic data about the Salvadoran armed forces -- information the commission needed in order to understand the institutional causes behind the human rights violations it was charged with investigating.  Dr. Leo Valladares, the Honduran human rights ombudsman with whom the Archive has collaborated extensively since 1993, had an equally difficult time compiling fundamental information about Honduran army intelligence units behind many of the disappearances of the early 1980s.  In view of the Guatemalan military's traditional secrecy and opacity, it was evident that a Guatemalan truth commission would have no more luck than Valladares or the commission in El Salvador in locating information on the armed forces.

 A second objective of the Guatemala Documentation Project was to address directly a restriction placed on the Clarification Commission by its mandate:  that is, the prohibition against naming names.  As the establishing document stated, "The work, recommendations and report of the Commission will not individualize responsibilities..." The Archive respected the decision of the peace negotiators to limit the scope of the commission's investigations, and recognized that there were legitimate misgivings about permitting a human rights commission – which had no legal or judicial powers – from accusing individuals by name of specific crimes.  What seemed unacceptable, however, was the perpetuation of a protective wall of silence around the army as an institution.  This was the concern that prompted us to create the database.  Our objectives were distinct from the goals of human rights advocates.  A human rights organization deals with the issue of naming names by starting with the abuses and abusers.  The Archive approached the issue by starting with an analysis of the institution.

The dilemma posed by the military's culture of secrecy goes beyond impeding accountability, of course.  Without basic information on the architecture of the armed forces, the CEH would have had difficulty identifying potential military sources for testimony or firsthand accounts of the violence.  And without reliable data on the professional careers of army officers, it would have been impossible to confirm the information those sources did provide.  Even more broadly, it would be futile for a truth commission or for the Guatemalan public to attempt to comprehend four decades of violence without a detailed understanding of what everyone acknowledges has been Cartoon by Guillermo Lorentzen published in Al Día, a Guatemalan newspaper, on June 2, 2000
Guatemala's most powerful institution.  Accordingly, the Archive decided to compile a database on the most important military units and officers.  Our initial intention was to provide the Clarification Commission with an encyclopedic guide on the command structure and organization of the armed forces as an aid for their investigations – the kind of reference tool we take for granted in the United States but which simply does not exist in Guatemala.  Subsequent to the release of the CEH report, we refined the database in preparation for its public release today.

Finally, we felt it was critical to clarify U.S. responsibility for the violence that occurred.  In the United States, analysis of U.S. policy in Guatemala tends to begin and end with the coup in 1954.  Much less is known or understood about the complex, intimate and enduring role played by successive U.S. administrations in Guatemala throughout the course of the long civil conflict.  The declassified documents begin to tell that story.  They contain a wealth of new details about the U.S. government's operations on the ground in Guatemala and about U.S. relations with the Guatemalan military, and they offer an invaluable public record of overt and covert decision-making in Washington.


The Guatemala Documentation Project

The Guatemala Documentation Project began with months of secondary research, resulting in a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted to the U.S. government during 1994 and 1995.  We knew from previous experience that certain U.S. agencies regularly produce detailed records on foreign military forces.  Working out of the embassies, U.S. officials gather the information through intelligence liaison, military-to-military and diplomatic contacts.  The agencies most likely to have documents on the Guatemalan military in their archives included:

Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA):  The responsibility of the DIA's defense attachés overseas to collect and analyze data on foreign armies made this agency one of the most fruitful sources of detailed information on the Guatemalan military.  The duties of the attachés – who routinely rotate in and out of country every few years – include selecting students for U.S. military training programs, monitoring promotions, identifying promising officers who might advance to positions of power some day, and recruiting intelligence sources.  The DIA produces "military intelligence summaries," biographic sketches on key officers, general orders (which track changes in command) and in-depth intelligence assessments on security issues.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA):  There are two broad categories of documents produced by the agency relevant to our work:  field reports from the CIA station in Guatemala (protected from the FOIA by special statute and therefore impossible to obtain without the president's intervention) and "finished intelligence" written by analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence at headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  Most of the documents we received from the Guatemala station were the result of unusual circumstances, arising out of the scandal over CIA liaison with Guatemalan officers linked to the murder of a U.S. citizen.

U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM):  SOUTHCOM's military installations in Panama served as the nerve center for the U.S. military presence in Latin America during the cold war.  Its analysts and intelligence officers prepared contingency plans, assessed foreign militaries for war fighting capabilities, and reported on narcotics trafficking, political instability and insurgency in the region.  They also produced biographies of key military officers.

Agency for International Development (AID):  AID's Public Safety programs were key to the development of intelligence and security forces throughout the hemisphere to deal with internal security.  The agency's Public Safety Division in Guatemala, which functioned from 1957-74, wrote hundreds of important reports on the civilian police forces.  Since military officers controlled the security apparatus, Public Safety documents were a revealing source of information about both the police and the army.

State Department:  The U.S. embassy in Guatemala City reported on a wide range of political, social, economic and security matters throughout the years.  It also – after the Carter administration made human rights reporting a priority -- produced a vast quantity of cables, memoranda and annual assessments of the human rights situation in the country.  Back in Washington, the Bureaus of Intelligence and Research and Inter-American Affairs regularly tracked events in Guatemala.

Presidential documents:  These key documents include records from the White House and the president's National Security Council.  They reflect the highest level of policy-making in relation to Guatemala, but they are relatively rare, produced only in times of crisis.  Those that we have are among the most important documents in the collection.

In 1995 and 1996, as we continued to file FOIA requests, we investigated other sources of declassified U.S. documents on Guatemala including the National Archives, presidential libraries (Eisenhower to Reagan), private papers collections, and more.  The Clinton administration helped significantly when it released in June 1996 its Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) Report on U.S. intelligence operations in Guatemala, accompanied by approximately 6,000 State Department, CIA and Defense Department documents.  The IOB investigation focused on the CIA's knowledge about the murders of U.S. citizen Michael DeVine and the Guatemalan husband of U.S. citizen Jennifer Harbury.  At the same time, we began designing what would eventually become the "Military Database," containing information on the Guatemalan armed forces drawn from the thousands of pages of declassified records we obtained in the course of the project.

The Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala opened its doors in August 1997.  We turned over the Military Database to CEH investigators in December, and in January 1998 gave them more than 5,000 pages of the most detailed and substantive documents we had collected by that time.  We also worked with the commission to help obtain additional documents from the Clinton administration, answer specific questions from historians and investigators as their work proceeded, and write analytical papers on a variety of topics to assist in the drafting of the report.

Within Guatemala, the Clarification Commission's mandate gave it the right to ask for information from the parties to the peace accords (government and guerrillas), but levied no penalty for refusing to comply.  In fact the Guatemalan army gave only the most minimal assistance, according to CEH coordinator Christian Tomuschat, and refused to turn over most of the critical documents the CEH requested, with the claim that they were exempt on "national security" grounds or that the papers had been destroyed in the course of the war.  Without the army's cooperation, the commission was forced to rely almost entirely on secondary sources for information on the military -- including human rights reporting by non-governmental organizations and books, articles and manuscripts by scholars of the Guatemalan military.  To those sources commission investigators added testimonies from victims of the violence, their families and witnesses, a handful of interviews conducted with active and retired military officers, and the few military documents actually turned over to the commission, including some of the army's counterinsurgency campaign plans.


Report on the Guatemalan Armed Forces

This report, a compilation of information culled from the declassified record, is the product of the Archive's Guatemala Project.  It is made up of two volumes.  Volume I consists of data gathered on key military units and officers for the truth commission's use.  Drawing on thousands of general orders, biographic records and intelligence reports produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency from the 1960s to the 1990s, Archive researchers extracted information about the command structure of almost 300 military units and entered it into a database.  What we include in this volume are two views of the same data:  organized by each unit first, giving the roster of its commanders over time, and then alphabetically by each officer's name followed by a resume of his career.

The 79 units appearing in the report were chosen from those included in the database by a set of simple criteria:

1. The elements of the high command
2. The elements of the operational structure (military zones, task forces and key army brigades, for example)
3. The elements of the intelligence apparatus
4. Officer training centers (Escuela Politécnica and the U.S. Army School of the Americas, for example)

The 232 individual officers appearing in this report were selected from almost 2000 Guatemalan military officers on the basis of another set of criteria:

1. All military officers who served in the high command
2. All officers who served in the task forces (key counterinsurgency units)
3. All officers who served in intelligence units

Volume II contains five examples of the basic DIA general orders and biographic records from which the database was constructed, and 48 of the most richly detailed and interesting documents that we obtained about the Guatemalan military through FOIA.  This broader category of declassified records -- embassy cable traffic, CIA intelligence reports, AID records on police programs, defense intelligence assessments and more -- provides an extraordinary glimpse into the institutional life and development of the Guatemalan armed forces for the duration of the civil conflict.  Subjects covered in the documents include:  the early cooperation between the military and U.S. intelligence and counterinsurgency advisors, the development of the Guatemalan intelligence apparatus, military operations against the guerrillas, violence and human rights abuses, internal power struggles and civil-military relations.

Introducing the document section is an emblematic photograph showing two U.S. military advisors in 1968 working with Col. Carlos Arana Osorio and his aides.  We include this photograph to make clear that our purpose here is to increase accountability not only of the Guatemalan military but also of our own armed forces in the United States.


Two key questions remain to be addressed:  First, is the information in the declassified documents reliable and credible?  Second, why does the National Security Archive choose to release the report now?

Can we trust the documents?  Yes and no.  After more than five years of reading and analyzing the declassified U.S. record on behalf of the Archive's Guatemala Project, I am confident that the factual information contained in the documentation concerning the Guatemalan military's command structure, officer assignments, rank and promotions is quite reliable.  This is precisely the kind of data that the U.S. government routinely collects and publishes about itself; it is also the kind of material least likely to be based on subjective interpretation.  We would rate the military database and the extracted version found in Volume I of this report, therefore, as highly credible.  If the Guatemalan army identifies errors in this presentation of the U.S. government's reporting, I would welcome the publication of their own reference database about military command structure and officer careers to use in the future.

In contrast, the broader historical record – made up of the many thousands of U.S. documents released on Guatemala over the years from the embassy, the intelligence agencies and the defense attachés – are based on a much more subjective and interpretive process.  And they confront analysts with the same problem that every reporter, historian and scholar always faces when using primary documents, and the even greater problems faced by prosecutors and defendants in making documents admissible as legal evidence.  How do we evaluate for reliability material produced by individual analysts with their own perspectives, prejudices and political agendas?  Which documents were written to influence policy, cover-up mistakes, camouflage bad decisions, help promote a personal career, help damage another, or promulgate an ideological position?

The answer is that the material found in them is only truly useful when combined with information gathered by other means.  Both the "Recovery of Historical Memory" (REMHI) project of the Guatemalan Catholic Church and the Historical Clarification Commission, for example, did many things we could not do:  they gathered oral histories from victims or their families; they interviewed members of the armed forces; they sought out perpetrators of human rights violations; they conducted exhumations of clandestine grave sites -- all critical ingredients for an informed, rich and complex picture of the violence.

Combined with other information, the declassified record offers a unique window into the country, the era, and the institutions involved.  The documents illuminate details never before understood or known about some of the most important human rights cases, and at the same time help analysts of human rights, military or national security policy gain a more complete picture of the period under study.  For U.S. citizens, they provide the internal record of policies conducted in the name of the American people but without their knowledge.  And for the citizens of Guatemala, they provide an inside look at many of the most complex issues at stake in contemporary Guatemalan history -- issues that continue to be closed to public scrutiny.

The Archive decided to make our report on the Guatemalan military public today for several reasons.  The first is prosaic:  the Guatemala Documentation Project is done.  The deadline for completing our work was the day the Historical Clarification Commission released its report to the Guatemalan people, on February 25, 1999.  In an effort to calculate the right moment for our the publication of our own report, we chose to wait until the outgoing government of Guatemala – already burdened by the necessity of confronting the Clarification Commission's findings – stepped down.  We submit the results of our work today to a new administration, one that has expressed keen interest in addressing the challenges of the past, with an eye to a democratic future.

In Guatemala today, there is a dynamic and galvanizing national debate underway about the role of the armed forces in Guatemalan society.  This should not and need not be a threatening debate, but it must be an informed one.  Yet, how can the Guatemalan public participate in a truly informed and enlightened way without the basic information necessary for such a discussion?  We believe that at a minimum the people of Guatemala deserve a clear understanding of their own government – even of the most powerful and secretive institution within it, the military itself.  That way, all sides of the debate can be empowered with the strength of knowledge, facts and history.

This is your history.  It is information obtained from the U.S. government by North American scholars and researchers, and it is available to the North American public.  But it belongs to Guatemala and it is time that it is finally in your hands.

Postscript:  Transferring the Documents

The documents generated by the National Security Archive's Guatemala Project – including this report, "The Guatemalan Armed Forces:  What the U.S. Files Reveal," as well as several other selections of declassified U.S. records on Guatemala -- are available on the World Wide Web.  For the purposes of our presentation in Guatemala, we brought bound copies of the report, and electronic copies of the original Military Database on disk.  We also transported all of the declassified U.S. military records used in compiling the database (three boxes), which MINUGUA and the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman have agreed to accept.  In that way, researchers wishing to verify the data found in Volume I of the report may consult with our original sources.  The Archive is now finishing production on a microfiche collection of some 2,000 of the documents obtained through the Guatemala Project.  It will be completed by the end of the year and published in 2001.

Volume I:  Units and Officers
of the Guatemalan Army

Volume II:  Documents


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