194. Memorandum From George F. Jones of the Political Section of the Embassy in Guatemala to the Ambassador to Guatemala (Meloy)1
- Guatemalan Motives in Acquiring Additional C-47s
We start from the following assumptions:
1. The GOG has a contingency plan for the invasion of Belize which includes, probably as its major feature, an air assault on Belize City airport.
2. Although there may well be other considerations involved in seeking eleven additional C–47s, such as their use in commercial cargo carrying, a consideration which the GOG has in mind—as they admitted to you—is that they hope the additional planes will enable them to transport most of if not the entire parachute battalion at once. The battalion is currently stationed at San José, but could be moved to a more convenient staging area, such as Puerto Barrios, in order to obtain maximum utilization of the aircraft. The tactical elements likely to be included in such an operation consist of a headquarters company and 3 parachute rifle companies, a force of about 500 personnel (numbers involved depend upon the mix of support elements to be included in the first sortie). 21 operational C–47 aircraft could do this job, since distances involved are not great; an expected return time for surviving aircraft bringing additional support to the airhead if still in existence would be about four hours.
3. If a government decision is made to invade Belize, the military will use whatever aircraft it owns or can requisition at the time, even though they may not be sufficient to carry a full battalion in one sortie, regardless of what conditions or restrictions the U.S. may have at[Page 551]tached to the aircraft it provided and regardless of what informal assurances Guatemalan officials may have given us. This of course is true a fortiori if the officials in power at the time are not the same ones who have given us the assurances.
The question is when and under what circumstances Guatemala might attack Belize with American-provided aircraft. The answer could be “never”—if the circumstances that would bring about an attack never develop, but we cannot be 100 percent sure of that. It must be borne in mind that Guatemala has ten C–47s now, three of which are either non-operational or not configured for troop carrier operations plus six UH1–H troop carrier helicopters which undoubtedly would be employed in an air assault, probably from the Melchor de Mencos fuel detachment site near the Belize border. The acquisition of another eleven C–47s would increase Guatemala’s ability to get troops to Belize, would increase its chances of actually gaining and holding control of the airport—but they do not significantly increase the potential embarrassment for the U.S.
That potential is fully there in the U.S. aircraft Guatemala now has, together with the number of civil aircraft the GOG could commandeer in an emergency. It should also be pointed out that unless a “stand-down” period of several days was imposed on all C–47 flying, it is doubtful that the FAG could put more than 70 percent of their C–47s in the air at one time. This figure is based on the average in-commission rate for the cargo fleet.
Is the when now? We are convinced it is not. All the information we have suggests that the Guatemalans are making a serious effort to obtain what they see as their minimum security and strategic interests in Belize through negotiations. Although the New York talks were played down to us as preliminary and exploratory, the British Embassy told the Department that the 16°30′ proposal was formally presented, and from our talks with the members of the negotiating team, it is clear that Guatemala would be prepared to surrender its claim in return for agreement on that line (or something close to it) and on some secondary, non-territorial issues. The Foreign Ministry, like all Foreign Offices, would prefer a negotiated solution. There is no evidence that President Laugerud needs or wants a military solution as long as there is any reasonable hope on the diplomatic front (and as long as there is no UDI). Most recently, there are reports that the GOG is worried about Mexico, and military action seems particularly unlikely as long as Guatemala is uncertain about whether Mexico will stay out of it.
Is the when likely to be during the Laugerud administration? Yes, if there’s a UDI. Laugerud himself has told us so, and we have no reason to doubt his word. And even without UDI? If the current negotiations should break down, pressure would certainly grow to try another ap[Page 552]proach. This is not likely to be an invasion out of, literally, the clear blue sky, but a series of belligerent statements, border incidents, harassments, designed to make Belize change its tune and become more accommodating. If there were still no progress, Laugerud might reluctantly give the go-ahead for a military attack, not with the intention of acquiring Belize but of forcing a peace settlement which would give Guatemala control of Amatique Bay.
We cannot answer the question of whether the GOG first thought of the additional ten planes as enabling it to offer a commercial cargo service, and then someone said “in addition, they improve our contingency capability for Belize,” or whether they first thought of that capability and then someone said, “in addition, we can use them to carry cargo and give our pilots more flying time.” The answer does not seem very important.
We do believe that the GOG believes that certain circumstances could force it to attack Belize within the term of this administration, and that it must therefore prepare for that contingency. As a corollary to this line of reasoning, acquisition of the additional planes would, in GOG eyes, provide an inducement to Price to be more flexible in negotiations.
Their stated purpose for increasing the size of their cargo fleet does, however, have very real substance. The FAG has already begun flying C–47 and helicopter missions in support of the petroleum exploration companies operating to the north of the capital and in the Puerto Barrios area. The money they have earned is being spent on physical improvements at the air force base in the form of latrine facilities in one building, a wash rack to clean aircraft, a new sheet metal shop, electrical power installations in the engine shop and a reinforced floor for the large hanger. Plans have also been made to modernize the flight surgeon and dental clinics. In addition, a formula has been established to pay the pilots and crew chiefs of the aircraft participating in this commercial air venture a fee which slightly exceeds the pay per flying hour offered by Aviateca. This program of course is aimed at retaining the air force people who have been tempted to resign in favor of more attractive flying jobs in the civilian aviation sector.
We continue to recommend that the calculated risk involved in the sale be taken. It does not give Guatemala an excessive or unreasonable military capability. It will maintain the influence we have with Guatemala (and our access to knowledge of their military preparations) which is the best hope we have of preventing them from going to war. Moreover, Guatemala can easily get aircraft from other sources.
At some point in the proceedings (i.e., before we give any green light to the GOG), we should discuss the whole matter frankly and confidentially with the British.
Summary: The Embassy’s Political Section analyzed Guatemalan motives for purchasing C–47 aircraft from the United States. While noting the existence of Guatemalan contingency planning for an invasion of Belize, the Political Section recommended approving the sale, inasmuch as it would not give Guatemala an excessive military capability, would allow the U.S. to continue to exercise influence since the Guatemalans could easily purchase aircraft from another source.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, 1975, P810026–0143. Secret. Drafted by Jones on April 2. Defense Attaché Col. Richard R. McTaggart, Col. C. Corbett of MILGRP, Wade E. Thomas of the Political Section, and DCM George R. Andrews contributed and cleared. Sent under cover of a letter from Meloy to David Lazar of ARA/CEN, April 4, not published. In telegram 2109 from Guatemala City, April 23, the Embassy reported that it had information that the Guatemalan Government had purchased “Arava” light transport aircraft from Israel. (Ibid., D750147–0357)↩