101. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Security Situation, Terror and Counter-Terror in Guatemala

PARTICIPANTS

  • For Guatemala
    • Col. Rafael Arriaga, Guatemalan Defense Minister
    • Col. Laugerud, Deputy Chief of Staff, Guatemalan Army
    • Col. Ponciano, Embassy of Guatemala Attaché
  • For the U.S.
    • Covey T. Oliver, Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs
    • Charles R. Burrows, Country Director, Central American Affairs
    • Robert Starzel, ARA
    • Guy A. Wiggins, ARA/CEN/G
    • General Robert Porter, CINC, South Command
    • CINCSO, Panama

Mr. Oliver began the substantive conversation by asking Col. Arriaga to summarize the security situation in Guatemala.

Col. Arriaga replied that he was directing the counter-terrorism campaign, which he justified as necessary to preclude right-wing reaction against the Government of Mendez Montenegro. The Government of Guatemala had been unjustly criticized for this campaign in the press. He was, therefore, much concerned and wanted to know how it could prevent newspapers (i.e., Miami Herald), from printing false stories about it. The Maryknoll fathers, particularly the Melvilles and Blase Bonpane, knew only people on the far left in Guatemala. That is, they did not know anyone but the poor, so could not give an honest interpretation of events. Life magazine, which had printed three hostile articles, was not interested in the attractive aspects of Guatemala, but only in reporting how the army was protecting extreme right-wing terrorism.

Col. Arriaga then turned to the subject of the assassination of Col. Webber, whom he described as a man who understood the Latin temperment and was almost a Latino himself. Col. Webber, he said, had understood the situation in Guatemala.

At this point General Porter arrived, accompanied by Mr. Robert Corrigan. The conversation turned briefly to Panama and Col. Arriaga [Page 236]asked if the political crisis there did not portend a coup by the extreme left. Mr. Corrigan explained that it did not, and that the extreme left was not involved in the crisis.

Mr. Oliver reviewed the conversation for the new arrivals and pointed out to Col. Arriaga that informed public opinion in the U.S., including congressional opinion, took the view that there was too much violence from the right in Guatemala.

In reply, Col. Arriaga cited the bazooka attack of March 7 on the counter-insurgency force barracks at Cipresales. This bloody attack which, he said, left two dead and 30 wounded did not get as much attention from the press as the killing of one or two leftists by the right-wing. Similarly the press always backed up statements by Castro claiming that the CIA was behind every anti-communist movement in Central America. Ambassador Burrows interjected that O’Leary of the Washington Star would like to talk to Col. Arriaga and it might be useful for him to do so.

Mr. Oliver reiterated U.S. sympathy with Guatemala’s problems but asked, with all due respect to the good intentions of the Mendez Montenegro Government, if it could not do more to help the campesinos. He cited the army’s civic action program and suggested that this was the type of activity that should be stepped up to help the newspapers give the other side of the government’s story. He reminded his guest that his impressions were not based on press reports alone but also on other sources.

Reverting to the question of the press, Col. Arriaga said the security forces had finally hit upon a way of making sure their story was told correctly. When they captured two university students who set fire to two department stores in Guatemala City they obtained the students’ confessions on tape and played the tape to the reporters, who “printed the story exactly right this time”.

Mr. Oliver reminded him that we still had a serious public relations problem; right-wing terrorist groups were killing indiscriminately and many innocent people were losing their lives. This was making thoughtful people in the U.S., including members of the judiciary, question the present tendency of the Mendez Montenegro Government. Arriaga countered that 90% of the casualties were inflicted by the leftists.

Mr. Oliver reiterated that it was most important for us to collaborate on positive programs to improve the lot of the people, so that the press would have something to concentrate on other than violence. Col. Arriaga did not have an opportunity to respond before the meeting ended.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 23 GUAT. Confidential. Drafted by Wiggins on March 20.