224. Telegram 2009 From the Embassy in Guatemala to the Department of State1

2009. [1 line not declassified] Subj: Internal Security Following the Earthquake.

1. Our impression reported in earlier cables remains the same—that in the commercial centers of the city there has been little or no looting.

2. In the residential zones where Embassy officers live, there has been no appreciable change in the number of burglary attempts. According the RSO, the burglary and attempted burglary level in the area dropped somewhat after the earthquake, but now is back to normal.

3. Problem, to extent there has been one, has most likely been in the poor residential areas devastated by the quake—particularly zones 3, 5, and 6, where 70 to 80 percent of all structures were rendered unusable. Over 250,000 people live in those three zones alone. Under circumstances it would have been extremely surprising if there had been no looting of the rubble. It is to Guatemala’s credit that looting has not been more widespread. Numbers of those arrested or killed according to press and other reports are low in comparison to population involved and amount of devastation.

4. We are less concerned about looting than about GOG’s response to it. Formation of neighborhood vigilante committees to patrol streets may in poorer areas have reflected real need for greater security because police were spread thin after quake, but in some cases committees were simply product of quake—induced nerves (upper classes [Page 615] had visions of thousands of starving looters storming the wealthy neighborhoods). Rather than cautioning against danger to innocent people inherent in such committees, GOG in effect endorsed them, although it did attempt to provide some guidelines. Fortunately, committees now seem to have largely disbanded as post-quake tension subsides.

5. More serious is apparent decision by GOG security forces to take advantage of post-quake disorganization to eliminate elements they regard as undesirable in best Arana administration style. Killing of FURD leader Rolando Andrade, whose political movement was of miniscule importance, is one example. Reported indiscriminate shooting of any looter or suspected looter who had a police record is another. Reputable newspaper El Imparcial reported March 10 that there have been 32 killings since the quake attributed to the Escuadron de la Muerte (Death Squad), a name of which much was heard in the Arana era but which disappeared from the news after Laugerud took office. It was not so much an organization as a name used in connection with any killing by GOG agents. We strongly hope that growing return to normal conditions will increase supervision and control of the security services back to the tight and rational level which characterized Laugerud administration before the earthquake.

  1. Summary: In a report on internal security following the earthquake, the Embassy noted that although there had been little or no looting, the Guatemalan Government had effectively endorsed the formation of neighborhood vigilante committees to patrol streets. On a more serious level, government security forces had apparently decided to take advantage of the confusion following the earthquake to eliminate elements deemed undesirable.

    Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D760093–0007. Secret; Priority; Exdis; Noforn. All brackets are in the original except those indicating text that remains classified. In telegram 62030 to Guatemala City, March 13, Rogers instructed Meloy to “approach President Laugerud and express our deep concern on press reports of the appearance of a number of bodies which show evidence of torture and execution,” and added, “You should stress the strong concern of the USG and of the American people for respect of human rights and abhorrence of political assassination.” (Ibid., D760095–1073) In airgram A–51 from Guatemala City, the Embassy reported, “Incidents of possible political violence during April shot up to the highest point since September 1974,” and added that “The only bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture was the apparent tapering off of Escuadron de la Muerte (Death Squad) or Escuadron-like killings which were rampant in February and March.” (Ibid., P760075–0300)