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Clinton regrets U.S. role in Guatemala violence


President Clinton said that American support for right-wing military units engaged in human rights abuses during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war was wrong and vowed that it will never happen again.

His comments came during a March 11 trip to Guatemala to inspect damage caused by Hurricane Mitch and to pledge new U.S. aid for the region.

Clinton was the first American president to make such an acknowledgment. “We are determined to remember the past,” he said, “but never repeat it.”

A United Nations report published in February found that some 200,000 persons were killed or disappeared during Guatemala’s long conflict, with the army or allied groups responsible for 93 percent of the violence (NCR, March 12). Indigenous peoples such as Mayan Indians were especially devastated.

The report also found that the United States played a major role in funding and sustaining the repression. American intelligence agencies and private companies had extensive ties with the military forces most responsible for the killing.

On the day Clinton made his remarks, newly declassified documents obtained by a nonprofit group in Washington underscored the depth and duration of the ties between the U.S. government and the Guatemalan military. They showed that the United States equipped and trained security forces in Guatemala during the 1960s and kept up close ties through the 1980s.

The documents appear to show that the United States was intimately aware of how the Guatemalan military was “disappearing” suspected subversives and targeting entire indigenous communities for elimination. A 1994 Defense Department report, for example, outlines how in the 1980s the military would dump suspected opponents out of airplanes over the ocean — thus disposing of evidence of torture.

“For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake,” Clinton said.

Clinton vowed that the United States would support Guatemala’s reconciliation efforts. “We must and will continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala,” he said.

Salvadoran President Armando Calderón urged Clinton to rethink U.S. policy on the deportation of Central American refugees. Some 5,000 Salvadorans and Guatemalans who fled to the United States after Hurricane Mitch face expulsion.

Clinton promised to examine the issue but said, “We must enforce our laws.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999