100. Letter From the Ambassador to Guatemala (Mein) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Oliver)1

Dear Covey:

Your letter of February 62 reached me on February 12, when I was having to devote a great deal of time to personnel reductions. The [Page 228] questions raised by your letter and by the IRG/COIN decisions are of such importance that I did not want to give you a hasty reply. Our recommendations on personnel reductions are in, and we are now tackling the CASP. The points raised in your letter and those we must consider in the preparation of the CASP are so closely related that I wanted to be sure that my reply not only represented my own analysis and recommendations, but also that it did not reflect views contrary to those of the other members of the Country Team as they will be included in the CASP.

Let me say in the first place that I appreciate the opportunity to comment. We have not been sent officially any details of the IRG/COIN meeting, although through informal channels we have been sent IRG/ARA/COIN Action Memorandum No. 93 containing the decisions taken at the January 31 meeting. Parenthetically, I would like to suggest that some machinery be established for sending IRG documents to the field. They would be very helpful. At its meeting on January 31, the IRG/COIN decided (a) that diplomatic and military approaches should be made to the Guatemalan Government to induce it to end its counter-terrorist activities, and (b) to approach the President of Mexico and ask for suggestions regarding the Guatemalan situation, and whether he would be willing to take any initiatives with the Guatemalan Government toward remedying this situation. Your letter only touched on the first point, but, and I trust you do not object, I would like to comment on both aspects of the IRG/COIN paper.

The situation in Guatemala is, as you say, an extremely complex one. It is further complicated at the present time by extensive, and more often than not erroneous reporting by an uninformed press in the United States, and also by the apparent acceptance as “gospel” in some quarters of statements regarding Guatemala by a couple of frustrated priests. I am sure it is also complicated by the present frame of mind of the people in the U.S., the frustrations over Viet-Nam, and the general attitude toward the administration. I find the IRG/COIN decisions, to the extent they represent Washington thinking, very disturbing and can only hope that my comments, our reporting, and the CASP will help to clarify the picture and to place recent developments in their proper context so that any action we might take will not reflect only a negative posture but will direct itself to the real problem, and will be of help to the Guatemalan Government in its counter-insurgency activities.

It is very difficult to predict what lies ahead. That there will be further acts of terrorism and counter-terrorism is generally accepted. [Page 229] The unanswered questions in everyone’s mind are who, when, where and why. The apparent open break between the PGT and the FAR is likely to lead to increased terrorism since not only has the PGT been a moderating force, as hard as it might be to believe that there has been any moderation, but the degree of force to be used is the very issue which has led to the break. We do not know yet whether all the elements of the FAR have broken with the PGT, but we do know that at least one large group has done so and that its plans include further assassinations, robberies, terrorism, etc. It is a fact of life, therefore, that terrorism will continue to be a part of the Guatemalan scene, at least for the immediate future. There is little the Guatemalan Government or its security forces can do to prevent terrorist actions, and since it is well nigh impossible to know when and where the terrorists will strike, it is extremely difficult to take measures to prevent or meet such strikes. The only remedy, therefore, seems to be constant vigilance and to handle each incident as it occurs, while at the same time searching out the terrorists in the hope of eventually eliminating the problem. This is what the Guatemalan security forces are attempting to do. It is a very difficult problem which requires unpleasant, and at times unpalatable, remedies, and which cannot be just wished away.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the Guatemalan Government is fighting not only for the survival of the present administration but also for its very existence as an institution, and that what is at stake for the Guatemalans is what we and others are fighting for in Viet-Nam and other parts of the world. The proclaimed objective of the PGT and of the FAR, whether together or separately, is to take over Guatemala and to establish a communist regime. The difference between the two groups is primarily one as to methods. Thus challenged it is only natural that not only the government, but the people also, react in defense of their institutions, as deficient or ineffective as they may be, and of their way of life. This is what is taking place and the counter-terrorist actions taken by the security forces have, up to now, the backing and tacit approval of the people.

There is one aspect of the IRG/COIN position that I find not only disturbing but also puzzling. We have for some time, certainly since I arrived in Guatemala, been concerned over the internal situation, the guerrillas in Zacapa and Izabal, possible support from Cuba, and so forth, and in the early days with the government’s failure to recognize the problem and its apparent inability to take any corrective action. The record will show that during the Peralta Administration, and since Mendez Montenegro came to power on July 1, 1966, we have urged the government and the security forces to take measures to eliminate the guerrilla problem. The insurgency situation has been one of our great concerns in Guatemala, and many of our actions and programs have been directed specifically at getting the government to move and [Page 230] then in supporting it once it began its counter-insurgency actions. We have had special groups visit us to study the situation, and we have directed a large part of our Military Assistance and Public Safety programs to this problem. The Guatemalan Armed Forces finally launched their campaign against the guerrillas in Zacapa and Izabal in October 1966. The campaign was successful, so that today there are no organized guerrilla units in that area. The surviving guerrillas either left the country or moved to other sections of the country, with many of them coming to Guatemala City to join forces with their urban comrades. The terrorists in the city today are the same elements which were operating earlier in the mountains, led by the same persons, and with the same objectives they had before, that is, to create chaos and eventually take power. Their method of operation may be different, that is, terrorism, assassinations, bombs, etc. rather than encounters between units in the field, but otherwise there is no change.

I am puzzled, therefore, by what appears to be a change in Washington thinking. While the campaign was going on in the mountains we gave it our blessing, but once the center of action shifted to the capital we seem to view the matter in a different perspective. We seem to be saying that the campaign in the mountains was “counterinsurgency”, and therefore necessary if the democratic institutions were to survive, while the campaign in the city against the same forces is “repressive action”, and therefore wrong. I frankly fail to see the difference.

This does not mean that we should approve or command all that is being done or all the methods that are being used. We don’t. We must, however, view the matter in its true perspective and in the Guatemalan context. The Guatemalan Government, and its security forces, is determined to overcome the threat posed by the PGT/FAR and the only way it can apparently do so, certainly in its own eyes, is by searching out and eliminating the terrorists and the guerrillas. Economic and social reforms, as necessary and urgent as they are, will help to weaken whatever popular appeal the guerrillas might have among the lower classes but they will not in themselves meet the immediate problem created by the terrorists. The terrorists are not reformists who would put down their arms if the government undertook social and reform measures, but rather are men who have but one goal, namely, the assumption of power.

Unless I misread the information coming out of Washington, there appears to be a view held by some that the terrorists are reacting to the action of the security forces—that counter-terrorism breeds terror-ism—and that if the security forces cease their activities there will be no more terrorism. (This reminds me a little of the debate in the States over the bombing of North Viet-Nam.) To a certain extent this is true, since the greater the pressures against the terrorists the more likely they [Page 231] are to react, and some of their recent activities would seem to indicate that they have been acts of desperation. This does not mean, however, that the terrorists would have been inactive, since that is not in their nature and in line with their program. I am sure the security forces would be very happy to put a stop to their actions if they could be assured that the PGT/FAR would cease all violence. As mentioned earlier, the terrorists have the initiative in that no one knows exactly where or when they will strike next, so that if the situation is to be resolved by means other than force the terrorists must either stop their activities or be prepared to come to terms with the security forces. The President tried on at least two occasions in the early days of his administration to find a peaceful solution to the problem but he was rebuffed each time by the PGT/FAR.

The ideal situation would be, of course, for the government to depend on the courts for the enforcement of the law and the application of justice. The court system in Guatemala is not only antiquated but the quality of the judges is very low. The security forces feel they cannot rely on the courts for the administration of justice, and, unfortunately, some of their recent experiences have not served to reassure them. The judges are not only often incompetent, but they are in many cases corrupt, and responsive to pressures and threats. Also, the entire judicial process makes it very difficult to prosecute anyone apprehended. There are no prosecuting attorneys as we know them, and often the only accusing officer and witness is the policeman who happened to arrest the defendant. The case of the guerrilla Obregon killed in the city last Friday, February 23, is a good illustration of this point. Obregon was captured by the police early in 1967, along with several others, including the sister of the guerrilla leader Turcios. The members of the group were tried and found guilty but released on appeal. The speculation at the time was that the appellate judge had been threatened and had, therefore, decided to release the prisoners. Rogelia Cruz Martinez, whose death triggered the mid-January incidents, is another case in point. She was being held for a traffic violation, but the threats received by the judge from the FAR were such as to lead him to release her. There have been other similar cases. The Congress begins this week debate on a bill revamping the entire judicial system. Maybe this will help in the long run, but it provides no alternative for the present.

I must apologize for going to such great length before answering the question posed by the IRG/COIN, that is, what might we do to induce the Guatemalan Army to put an end to its clandestine operations. I would answer the question as follows:

In my opinion we should not seek to influence the Guatemalan Army “to put an end” to its clandestine operations. Not only do they believe the method being followed is correct, but since they are [Page 232] dealing with a subversive movement it would be difficult to suggest a substitute. We have not been able to think of a more effective method. An approach by us to the Guatemalans would not produce the intended results since they would, undoubtedly, tell us that they have no alternative, that they must eliminate the enemy, and that they would, therefore, have to continue their counter-terrorist activities. It would, therefore, be a non-productive effort on our part. In addition to being foredoomed to failure, it would also weaken whatever influence we might be able to exert for moderation.
Any suggestion by us that the Army put an end to its clandestine operations would more than likely be misunderstood, not only by the Army, but by the President and other political leaders as well. As discussed earlier, the security forces have been successful thus far in their counter-insurgency operations, as the very reaction of the terrorists would indicate, and for us to suggest to them at a time when they have the enemy on the defensive that they should let up could be interpreted by them to mean that we have changed our position, that we no longer support the government, and that we disapprove of its security measures. There would even be those who, maliciously or otherwise, would interpret our approach as an indication that we no longer opposed the cause of the guerrillas. That may sound ridiculous, but it would not be unlikely. Some could even go so far as to speculate that what they might interpret as a change of position on our part had been motivated by the Maryknoll incident, and was simply an effort by us to save the lives of those involved.
We should also not deceive ourselves by thinking that if the security forces put an end to their clandestine activities the problem will disappear. At least since 1963 the communist insurgents have engaged in widespread acts of terrorism throughout Guatemala, and the government’s entrance into the clandestine counter-insurgency field in late 1966 was a reaction to the communist terror; an effort to find an effective means to contain a threat which had not been contained within the existing legal framework of law enforcement. If the armed forces should cease their counter-insurgency activities before the situation is brought under control the guerrillas and terrorists would not only continue but would, undoubtedly, intensify their efforts since they would be able to operate more freely. Such freedom would probably also result in a more rapid reorganization of the FAR guerrilla force and a corresponding increase in the insurgency threat to the government. This could also lead to an eventual open confrontation between the PGT/FAR and the extreme rightists, which would not only be nasty, but which would pose some real issues for us. It should not be overlooked that one of the reasons which led the armed forces to organize the clandestine groups, and to use them in counter-insurgency, was the threat by the extreme right in the early days of the present administration [Page 233] that if the government did not move against the communists the right would. The actions taken by the armed forces, including its clandestine operations, have served to remove this issue from the political arena.
This does not mean that there is nothing we can do. We have on several occasions, and when supported by information available to us, pointed out to the Minister of Defense, and to others, that they might be contemplating action against innocent or mistakenly-identified individuals. We have also suggested to the Army that it exercise stricter control over the special unit of the National Police engaged in locating and eliminating FAR elements. Also, we have suggested that if the security forces feel it necessary to carry out summary executions in certain cases that they bury the bodies rather than leave them to be found, which produces a bad psychological effect, and creates an impression abroad that blood is flowing in the streets of Guatemala and that bodies are appearing everywhere. This poses a problem for the security forces, however, since they must continually show the public that they are moving effectively against the guerrillas and terrorists, and one way to do so is to leave the bodies of known communists where they will be found, identified by the families, and the events reported in the press. We should continue to urge moderation, which is probably the only effective thing we can do at the present time, and we will, of course, continue to do this.

I realize this still leaves the problem of public and Congressional concern over the situation in Guatemala unanswered, but I am afraid we are going to have that problem as long as the situation here remains as it is, and as long as the press in the U.S. continues to report mostly the negative aspects of developments in Guatemala. Judging from the reports I see, the press these days seems to be interested only in terrorists, guerrillas, and so on, or in issues which can be played up as anti-administration or anti-U.S. foreign policy. There seems to be no ready answer to this specific problem, except to present the facts as we see them, and to let the facts speak for themselves, while at the same time pressing for moderation, and, if possible, an early solution to the insurgency problem in Guatemala.

With reference to the suggestion that we approach the President of Mexico, I am of two minds. In the first place, the suggestion reflects a tendency which has always bothered me of calling upon others to help us when we can probably do the job ourselves, or before we have even tried. In this instance we have not discussed the matter with the Guatemalan Government, and yet we are considering asking for help from Mexico. Also, if we are going to approach a third party for help, why Mexico? Mexico, contrary to what we might think, does not have much influence with the Guatemalans, so that an approach by them [Page 234] on this issue would probably not be productive. The other Central American Governments would have greater influence than Mexico, but even that would be minimal. On the other hand, maybe an approach by the Mexican President, should he agree to make one, might be helpful in that it would give the Guatemalans one more opportunity to seek Mexican Government cooperation in establishing more effective control to prevent the smuggling of arms across the border and the travel by Guatemalan insurgents through Mexico to Cuba, Prague and other points behind the curtain. The Guatemalans believe that their problems with the insurgents would be more manageable if the Mexican authorities were more cooperative. If the Guatemalans are correct in their estimate, and if the President of Mexico is willing to use his good offices, it might therefore be a fruitful exercise.

In your letter you raised the question of a trip to Washington to discuss this problem. I frankly have no desire to go to Washington at this time, but your letter and recent communications from Chuck Burrows lead me to believe that it might be a good thing to do. It might be helpful to sit down with those working on Guatemala and to discuss not only the situation as we see it, but also to get a better understanding of some of the questions being raised in Washington. As to timing, I would prefer to wait until we have our CASP well underway, since our discussions in the preparation of that document are basic to any fruitful discussions I might have in Washington. Unless there is some urgency from the Department’s standpoint I would prefer, therefore, to go some time in the latter part of March. I will write Chuck Burrows about this, and, if you agree, plan to go up at that time.4

Best personal regards.


  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, ARA Files: Lot 72 D 33, Guatemala. Secret; Official–Informal.
  2. Attached but not printed. Oliver reported that the assassinations of Webber and Monroe led the Interdepartmental Regional Group for Inter-American Affairs (IRG/ARA) to “explore the underlying causes of such dramatic incidents to determine whether the U.S. should take some action.” The IRG/ARA had discussed a number of suggestions, but sought the Ambassador’s “advice on what we might do to induce the Guatemalan Army to put an end to its clandestine operations.” “What bothers us at this end,” Oliver explained, “is the growing concern in the U.S. about the violence in Guatemala and the feeling that we are associated with a repressive regime.”
  3. Dated February 6. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, ARA/IG Files: Lot 70 D 122, IRG/ARA/COIN Action Memos)
  4. Oliver continued the discussion of Guatemalan security in a letter to Mein, March 8: “There was no thought here that you suggest to the Guatemalan Government that it stop its efforts to eliminate guerrilla activity either in the campo or the city. The distinction we were seeking to make (and in re-reading my letter, I see that this distinction was not made clearly) was between discriminate and non-discriminate activities.” “What has bothered us,” Oliver emphasized, “is the physical elimination of a rather large number of persons who appear to have no political coloration, or could not by a reasonable definition be called Communists.” (Ibid., ARA Files: Lot 72 D 33, Guatemala)