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Internal Military Log Reveals Fate of 183 "Disappeared"

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 15

Posted – May 20, 1999

For more information contact:
Kate Doyle, National Security Archive (202) 994-7035
Patrick Ball, American Association for the Advancement of Science (202) 326-6799
Hugh Byrne, Washington Office on Latin America (202) 797-2171
Anne Manuel, Human Rights Watch (202) 612-4321


Washington, D.C., May 20, 1999 – The Guatemalan military kept detailed records of its death squad operations, according to a document released by four human rights and public interest groups today. The army log reveals the fate of scores of Guatemalan citizens who were "disappeared" by security forces during the mid-1980s. Replete with photos of 183 victims and coded references to their executions, the 54-page document was smuggled out of the Guatemalan army’s intelligence files and provided to human rights advocates in February, just two days before a UN-sponsored truth commission released its report on the country’s bloody 35-year civil war.

Representatives of the National Security Archive, the Washington Office on Latin America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Human Rights Watch disclosed the document at a noon-time press conference on Thursday, May 20, at the National Press Club, calling it "the only known record of its kind." The logbook covers death squad activity by Guatemalan intelligence units during an 18-month period between August 1983 and March 1985. A two-page excerpt appears in the June 1999 issue of Harper's Magazine.

"This chilling document is the death squad equivalent of an annual productivity report, an account from inside the secret files of Guatemala’s killing machine," said Kate Doyle, an analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America and director of The Guatemala Project at the National Security Archive, located at George Washington University. "It is absolutely unique -- a rare glimpse of organized political murder from the perspective of the perpetrators who committed it."

Throughout the war, the Guatemalan military used abduction, torture and assassination in their counterinsurgency campaign against the Guatemalan left. By the time the government and the guerrillas signed the peace accord in 1996, some 160,000 people had been killed and 40,000 "disappeared" -- 93 percent at the hands of the Guatemalan security forces, according to "Guatemala: Memory of Silence," the report of the Historical Clarification Commission.

The four groups called upon the Guatemalan government to investigate the crimes detailed in the document, and identify and prosecute those responsible. They also called on President Alvaro Arzú to take immediate steps to secure the archives of the military and intelligence services to protect against the destruction of other critical evidence that may exist on human rights crimes.

Click here to view the "Death Squad Dossier" (Color, PDF, 10 MB)

Click here to view the "Death Squad Dossier" (B/W, PDF, 4.2 MB)

Click here to view a one-page exceprt of the "Death Squad Dossier" (Color, PDF, 156 KB)

Click here to view the excerpt from Harper's Magazine (Color, PDF, 3.2 MB)



Document 1

October 29, 1983
GUATEMALA: Political Violence
CIA, top secret intelligence report

The CIA notes a sudden increase in political killings and abductions following the August 1983 coup against Efraín Rios Montt by Gen. Oscar Mejía Víctores. Among the recent victims are Guatemalan contract workers employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), "disappeared" -- according to a CIA source -- by agents of the Guatemalan government.


Document 2

November 15, 1983
Ambassador’s Comments on the Information Concerning the Deaths of Three AID Project Related Persons
Department of State, confidential memo

U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Frederic Chapin is convinced that three Guatemalan AID workers were killed by the presidential intelligence unit "Archivos" in reprisal for recent U.S. pressure over human rights in Guatemala.


Document 3

November 21, 1983
Guatemala: Death Squads Resume Activity
Department of State, confidential intelligence analysis

The Bureau of Intelligence and Research blames Chief of State Mejía Victores for rising violence in Guatemala, and notes that his lack of interest in human rights sends military and paramilitary forces the message that they can take whatever measures they deem necessary to crush "perceived subversive threats."


Document 4

February 2, 1984
Recent Kidnappings: Signs Point to Government Security Forces
U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, confidential cable

Ambassador Chapin responds to two recent abductions in Guatemala City with a starkly worded cable about the responsibility of Guatemalan security forces in the disappearances and the implications for U.S. policy in the country. "I pointed out the other day in San Salvador the conflict between the desire to incorporate Guatemala into an overall U.S. strategic concept for Central America and the horrible human rights realities in Guatemala. We must come to some resolution in policy terms. Either we can overlook the record and emphasize the strategic concept or we can pursue a higher moral path. We simply cannot flip flop back and forth between the two possible positions."

One of the abductions that prompts Chapin to write this cable -- that of Sergio Samayoa Morales -- is a case detailed in the Guatemalan death squad document recently released by the National Security Archive and other groups.


Document 5

February 3, 1984
Report on Human Rights in Guatemala
Department of State, secret report

One day after Ambassador Chapin sends his cable to Washington alerting the State Department to Guatemalan government involvement in recent abductions, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliott Abrams and two other Department officials sign off on a secret report to Congress citing improved human rights in Guatemala and calling for a resumption in U.S. security assistance. "The Mejía Government has taken a number of positive steps to restore a constitutional, electoral process and to address the practice of extra-legal detention. . . Failure to provide some politically meaningful sign of support for the efforts being undertaken to return the country to democratic rule, and to reduce the human rights violations, will only increase the chance of further political instability. In addition, the U.S. has other strong interests in Guatemala and the region which necessitate a solid, bilateral relationship, including a positive relationship with the Guatemalan military."


Document 6

February 23, 1984
Guatemala: Political Violence Up
Department of State, secret intelligence analysis

While perpetuating the Reagan administration myth that the Guatemalan government is "not directly responsible for most political violence," this Bureau of Intelligence and Research analysis nevertheless blames the Mejía government for doing "virtually nothing to punish either the right-wing parties or its own personnel for engaging in such activities."


Document 7

October 30, 1984
Weekend Violence Claims Peace Corps Volunteer, University Professors and Assembly Member
U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, secret cable

As violence in Guatemala continues, this cable reports on a number of recent incidents, including the murders of two prominent professors in the Economics Department of the National University of San Carlos (USAC). One of them -- Carlos de León Guidel -- is included in the Guatemalan army’s logbook. According to that document, de León was captured in 1983 while leaving his office, but "recovered his liberty" (which could mean either that he escaped or was released) six weeks later. A handwritten notation at the bottom of the entry says, simply, "26-10-84 = 300." In the embassy cable, de León is described as having been "killed the evening of October 26 by unknown assailants who intercepted and shot the professor as he was driving home from the university." The cable goes on to describe the recent assassinations as "professional in execution. Circumstantial evidence suggests that at least the de León murder may have been the work of government security forces."


Document 8

March 28, 1986
Guatemala’s Disappeared: 1977-86
Department of State, secret report

In this unusual document, a State Department official gives a comprehensive, thoughtful and blunt analysis of the phenomenon of forced disappearance in Guatemala. Echoing some of the findings that the Historical Clarification Commission would make more than a decade later, the document asserts that "while criminal activity accounts for a small percentage of the cases, and from time to time individuals ‘disappear’ to go elsewhere, the security forces and paramilitary groups are responsible for most kidnappings. Insurgent groups do not now normally use kidnapping as a political tactic. . ." The report describes the military’s systematic use of abduction and murder as a counterinsurgency tactic under Mejía Víctores, and details the modus operandi behind the kidnappings. Finally, the document argues that the U.S. embassy and the State Department "have failed in the past to adequately grasp the magnitude of the problem" of forced disappearance.


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