How to Spin a Genocide

The Rios Montt trial set back a month and will now likely collapse, a sad day for international justice. But for neoconservatives, the decision is good news, because Reagan’s shady connections with Montt have been exposed (for the few willing to discover them). And yet some on the right are still trying to protect Montt and Reagan – here’s how you spin a genocide.

J. Michael Waller calls blaming the U.S. “easy propaganda.” He writes in the New York Times that,

The Rios Montt prosecution was less about justice and more about using the courts to wage political propaganda campaigns to settle old scores. Rios Montt’s real crime was not genocide, according to prevailing logic, but his political beliefs… shouldn’t former insurgents who committed war crimes in the 1980s also face justice?

We’ll hear more “blame the insurgents” arguments later, but for now, let’s take a look at how the United Nations Commission for Historical Clarification report on the atrocities. They find that U.S. backed government forces, not the rebels, committed 93 percent of the crimes.

The Washington Office of Latin America reports,

Ríos Montt has long been identified by human rights activists in Guatemala and internationally as the man in charge during the period of the most notorious human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s civil war; massacres and targeted attacks on indigenous Mayan communities were widespread during his regime. Ríos Montt’s trial and conviction are a vindication for the victims and their families, as well as a re-assertion of the principle that indiscriminate attacks on civilian communities during wartime can never be justified.

But it was really Montt’s political views that sunk him.

In Foreign Policy, Jose Cardenas defends Reagan in a similar way, downplaying the crimes, and saying that Reagan’s “gamble” just didn’t pan out. He writes:

If someone wants to argue that the Reagan administration’s policy gamble on Ríos Montt to quell the violence did not pan out, then that’s one thing (history books are full of such examples). But to equate it with aiding and abetting “genocide” is beyond the pale. In fact, it is more evidence of an ideological agenda than any noble search for accountability.

In this retelling, we have a United States that merely supported, with the intent of quelling violence, a fascist dictator. Reagan, it’s worth noting, said of Montt:

I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.

Let’s turn again to the most authoritative source we have on the crimes – the UN Report. Rather than fingering the U.S. as merely a financial supporter, the report argues that many of the crimes originated from U.S. doctrines. From the report:

In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.

Later on:

Anti-communism and the National Security Doctrine (DSN) formed part of the anti-Soviet strategy of the United States in Latin America. In Guatemala, these were first expressed as anti-reformist, then anti-democratic policies, culminating in criminal counterinsurgency.

From the right we have a story of the Reagan administration being entirely unaware of the abuses and seeking a means of quelling the violence. From the truth commission we get an entirely different story: U.S. National Security Doctrine actively encouraged violence.

We also have this recently declassified memo from the U.S. embassy in Guatemala, which shows U.S. officials downplaying the atrocities for fear Congress would cut off funding:

We conclude that a concerted disinformation campaign is being waged in the U.S. against the Guatemalan government by groups supporting the Communist insurgency in Guatemala… The campaign’s object is simple: to deny the Guatemalan Army the weapons and equipment needed from the U.S. to defeat the Guerrillas.

Next up is Mary O’Grady who, in The Wall Street Journal, basically blames the guerillas and makes the absurd assertion that the deaths occurred in crossfire.

The tragedy was that the guerrilla strategy had brought the war to the Ixil lands in order to use the civilians. When the army, bent on rooting out the terror, followed, the population was forced to take sides or be caught in the crossfire. That’s why so many died.

Of course, that’s not what happened. Montt believed that the Ixil Indians were inferior people, the offensive was premeditated, not “crossfire.” Read the following news clippings and decide whether the Ixil Indians were “caught in the crossfire.”

Rigoberta Menchu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, described the murder of her family:

As for my mother, we never found her remains, either … If her remains weren’t eaten by wild animals after having been tortured brutally and humiliated, then her remains are probably in a mass grave close to the Ixil region … My father was also burned alive in the embassy of Spain [in Guatemala City] on January 30th, 1980.

Reuters describes what occurred thusly,

When Rios Montt was in power, his government launched a fierce offensive in which soldiers raped, tortured and killed tens of thousands of Maya villagers suspected of helping Marxist rebels. Thousands more were forced into exile or had to join paramilitary forces fighting the insurgents.

O’Grady also presents the army as “bent on rooting out terror.” Such claims do not align with the U.N. report finding that most of the violence was perpetrated by government forces. Cable released during the commission report revealed that the U.S. was aware of: “abductions, bombings, street assassinations and executions of real or alleged communists,” and that, “several villages have been burned to the ground.”

Kate Doyle,Guatemala project director at the National Security Archive, who first obtained the memos told the Guardian that the memos tell a story of “our intimacy with the Guatemalan security forces.”

Rios Montt’s crimes were real, and sadly, the United States had a role in them. We shouldn’t “spin” the genocide out of these atrocities. Rather, Montt should be convicted, to allow reconciliation. Clinton has already apologized, saying

It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake. We must and we will instead continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala.

Such an admission is admirable and factually accurate, making it all the more absurd that the right is trying to spin genocide for political points.

Sean McElwee has previously written for The Day and The Norwich Bulletin and on and He is a writer for The Moderate Voice. Visit his blog at