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Allan Nairn

The witness who would have accused the US and Pérez Molina

American journalist Allan Nairn is very familiar with the term “scorched earth”. It wasn’t something he read about in a report, or something that he heard about, he witnessed it with his own eyes during his trips to the Ixil region during the early 1980s. Nairn interviewed former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his advisor Francisco Bianchi, who talked about the operations launched against the civilian population in an attempt to destroy support for the guerrillas. He also talked to military commander Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina in the days when he used the nom de guerre Tito Arias. Nairn believes that on the day he interviewed him, Pérez Molina tortured four guerrillas to death. He also argues that Pérez Molina, US diplomats and the CIA all took part in the wave of genocidal attacks against civilians that swept over Guatemala. He was called by the prosecution as a witness in the Ríos Montt case but at the last minute he was told that he wouldn’t testify.

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Nairn has written in his blog that he was due to testify on April 15. However, following revelations made eleven days earlier by former army mechanic Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes, the prosecution appeared to have changed its mind. Reyes implicated three high profile characters: President Pérez Molina, general José Luis Quilo Ayuso, president of the Guatemalan Association of Military Veterans (AVEMILGUA), and colonel Juan Chiroy Sal, who currently faces trial for the murder of eight peasant protestors during a demonstration in Totonicapán, in 2012, in major human rights violations. However, the fact that Chiroy Sal was underage back in 1982, has cast doubt over the validity of Reyes’ testimony.  Reyes’ sensational allegations strained the relationship between Pérez Molina and Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. In fact, on the day that Ríos Montt was sentenced, Pérez Molina told CNN that Paz y Paz had called him to explain that she was unaware of the fact that Reyes was going to make those statements. It is thus hardly surprising that the prosecution decided that Nairn wouldn’t testify.

Nairn’s work, which has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation and The New Republic, among other media, describes the human toll of the conflicts in Guatemala, El Salvador and East Timor. His investigations have also exposed how the United States has provided those countries’ repressive regimes with arms and military training, thereby becoming an accomplice in a long list of human rights violations. In 1993, Nairn and Amy Goodman received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial First Prize for their reporting on East Timor. Nairn has also received the George Polk Award (1994) and the George Aronson Award for Social Justice (1994).

Deadline Guatemala, the documentary directed by Mikael Wahlforss in 1983, features Nairn and photographer Jean Marie Simon during one of their trips to the Guatemalan highlands; it is a sequence of brutal images of war and destruction and also contains insightful interviews with the different parties involved in the conflict: civilians who were systematically attacked by the army, the guerrillas, the soldiers and their commanders.

Nairn had already travelled to Guatemala when he was told that his testimony was no longer required. He was interviewed by Plaza Pública on May 10, the day Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, a sentenced that was recently overturned by the Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.

What was the focus of your testimony going to be? Were you going to talk about what you witnessed in Quiché when you took part in Mikael Wahlforss’ documentary, Deadline Guatemala?

That would have been the main point, what I saw in the field, what soldiers and survivors said and also the interviews with Ríos Montt.

On April 18, the same day that the trial was halted, you wrote on your blog that you had not been allowed to testify and that prosecutors and judges had been intimidated during the Ríos Montt trial. Do you have any evidence of this?

Yes, there have been additional threats beyond what I wrote in the article.

When did the MP tell you that you were not going to testify, were you given a reason?

Just that I wouldn’t testify but I don’t want to go into too much of the detail.

Did you feel frustrated when you were told that you couldn’t testify?

Yes.

When the trial was suspended did you think it was over?

At first it was over, it was dead, but it got resuscitated and a large part of what brought that about was Pérez Molina’s reaction to him being criticized for being responsible for stopping the trial. That really seemed to shake him. The decision to restart the trial clearly wasn’t his alone but he was the dominant player. First he had allowed it to go forward with the proviso that it didn´t touch him; he was willing to sacrifice Ríos Montt as was the whole establishment, then as they saw how much damage the trial was doing politically the elites changed their mind and said: “Why should we sacrifice Ríos Montt? Why should we sacrifice anything?” But when the backlash came and he was being held personally responsible, the negotiations started again finally he went back to his position of sacrificing Ríos Montt and those elements who had been able to help to force shutting down the trial in the first place - the retired military and the CACIF people - were forced to retreat.

When you interviewed Ríos Montt, did he ever say that he was aware of the massacres that were taking place in the highlands?

In my two interviews with Ríos Montt he was very firm about how he was in charge. The first time, in May 1982, one of the first things that I asked him was about how he was known as “El Verdugo de Sansiquisay”. So I asked him “What happened at Sansiquisay?” and I was expecting him to dodge the question but he didn’t. In fact, he got down on his knees on the carpet in the Palace and said: “Let me tell you what happened in Sansiquisay”. And using his finger he started to diagram the scene and he said: “Well, the subversives were here and I surrounded them and I told them to open fire”. He was giving this detailed description of what up until that time was the only case on his record in which he had been charged with atrocities and rather than denying that he was involved he was embracing the fact that he was in charge and he was using it as an example of his aggressive command style. At that time, when we started talking about the massacres in the countryside rather than saying they weren’t happening, he said: “Look, for every guerrilla who is shooting they’re ten who are working behind”, meaning ten unarmed civilians. And then his aide, Francisco Bianchi, who was very powerful, jumped in and said: “Well the guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators, indios, he called them, “And how do you fight the subversion? You have to kill Indians because they had sold out to the subversion” and Ríos Montt did not correct him, he had no objection. Much later, after he had been thrown out of office, I asked him whether, given the fact that he was a great believer in the death penalty, he should be tried and executed for his own role in the massacres. And he jumped to his feet and shouted “Yes! Try me! Put me against the wall! But if you’re going to try me you must also try some Americans including Ronald Reagan!” And that’s always been his style.

When you interviewed him at that time, were you surprised about how open he was about his own actions?

I was a little surprised. That was part of his personality. And that was one of the things that got him into trouble politically; some in the army and many in the oligarchy felt that he was giving the elite a bad image because he would go on TV and give these crazy sermons and in the middle of it he would start talking about sex and personal morality and people thought: “That’s not appropriate for a head of state”. But you still see it today. He’s 86 years old and there he was shouting at certain moments (during his closing statement on May 9). He was also slightly contradictory; on one hand he would state that for every soldier shooting there were ten behind, but then if there had been another question about the massacres he would say something like “well you say there are massacres”. He would contradict himself; he would jump back and forth.

Do you think that Ríos Montt had a point when he said that some Americans should be tried for the role they played in Guatemala? Is it possible to do that?

I think that at this moment it’s not possible. If you went to an American district attorney or a federal attorney and asked them about the possibility of indicting George W. Bush for the crime of aggression in Iraq - that’s what many of the Nazis were convicted of in Nuremberg - or you asked them about investigating Obama for the killing of civilians with drone strikes, they would look at you as if you were a raving lunatic even if under international law and US law they would have the authority to initiate such a prosecution.

Isn’t there a double standard there?

Oh yes, because the US is supporting the trial of Ríos Montt. First they supported Ríos Montt as he was doing the slaughter and now they support his criminal trial and that’s typical of the US. The reason the US is supporting this is because they get to say that they’re pro human rights and point to this as an example of how the US stands for justice and it cost them nothing because they think that it’s not going to come back to bite them.

When Judge Barrios said that the Ministerio Público should investigate all of those involved in the crimes of which Ríos Montt was indicted, would that include Americans? Do you think they could be brought to trial in Guatemala?

Yes, I think that the Ministerio Público is also required to investigate the Americans who were on the scene and involved at this time: people from the American embassy, the American military who were training the Guatemalan troops, and also a substantial number of covert personnel. Their main work was with the G2. I would also suggest to them that they should try to subpoena the defense reports produced by the CIA and other US intelligence agencies and most importantly the tens of thousands of wiretaps done by the National Security Agency. The US has this practice of spying on the armies that it’s backing. They do that routinely and systematically and of course they always have the most advanced surveillance technology. So as a matter of routine the US would have been monitoring communications in the Palace and at that time they were landline phone calls to and from Ríos Montt. However, that is the most difficult material to obtain from the US government.

A number of CIA telegrams have already been declassified and have been made available through the National Security Archive. Some were used as evidence during this trial. Do you think there are many more documents that haven’t been declassified?

Those that were released through the Freedom of Information Act were at a low level of classification, they were not considered to be the top secrets. With the most secret documents you don’t even see a single paragraph. So I think the vast majority of the information that the US has about these crimes has not yet been disclosed. As a participant, the US had huge amounts of inside knowledge. For example, according to the US military attaché, George Maines, the sweep tactic of sending the army into villages that produced the Ríos Montt massacres, was developed by him and Benedicto Lucas García, who worked together. He (George Maines) said that Benedicto (Lucas García) started it and Ríos Montt expanded it and made it a general policy. Another American who was here at that time, American Green Beret Captain Jesse García, described how he was training Guatemalan troops in various assault tactics, including destroying towns.

Did you ever interview José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez?

Not that I’m aware of. They were using code names at the time.

Did his acquittal surprise you?

I was. The G2 was not just an intelligence being, it was an armed force in its own right and it did a substantial part of the killing. The G2 was almost entirely going after unarmed people. In fact there’s one case where the G2 had kidnapped the wrong guy, an American minister, and the American embassy went to Ríos Montt, and he called the torture center and said: “He’s the wrong guy; you’ve got to let him go”. I talk about this in “Bureaucracy of Death”, a piece I did with Jean Marie Simon. The G2 provided targets to the army. For example, in a typical rural massacre, even though no one was being dispatched from G2 headquarters, the list of targets was given to the patrols as they would go out to the villages so they would go out to the villages and they would look at their list, drag them over and they would start the torture interrogations with them. The G2 was complicit in murder and often directly involved when it came to targeted political assassinations, as they used their own personnel to do it, especially disappearances. They would grab people, bring them back to the various detention centers and work them over until they had no more use for them and then they would hack them up and dispose of the bodies.

Of all the things you witnessed when you came to Guatemala during the early 1980s, what did you find most striking?

When I got the news that a friend of mine who had disappeared was dead and that her hands had been cut off. Also, the atmosphere of terror: the shootings, the decapitated bodies in the streets. There was a real possibility that just walking around in the course of the day you might see or hear a machine gun. I had never seen anything like it. Since then, I’ve worked on similar situations of repression in many countries but there’s only one other situation where the level of terror equals that of Guatemala: East Timor when it was under occupation from the Indonesian army. They killed a third of the population, the same percentage of Jews who were killed by the Nazis. In 1991, I was actually in the middle of a massacre and survived. More than 180 people were killed by the Indonesian army. It took about twenty minutes to unfold and as the soldiers were shooting people down with their American M16s I remembered Guatemala and thought: “My God, this is what it’s like”. I had heard so many descriptions of massacres from survivors and from the soldiers and now it was happening.

Judge Jazmín Barrios ordered the Ministerio Público to investigate anyone else who might be involved in the crimes that Ríos Montt was convicted of. Do you think there are grounds to investigate the role played by Pérez Molina in the massacres and bring him to trial?

I think that order of hers to the Ministerio Público to continue the investigation against all those who were also complicit in these crimes is as important as the guilty verdict against Ríos Montt. I was surprised by that, I wasn’t expecting it. Ríos Montt’s conviction makes the issue of Pérez Molina’s culpability inescapable. How can a legal system convict the overall commander for a program of genocide and mass killing but not investigate and leave open to indictment the figure who was implementing that program? Pérez Molina was closer to the blood than Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt was in the Palace. Even though he was giving the orders and even though he received very regular reports and was commanding these massacres from the top with a very firm hand, it’s Pérez Molina who is coming face to face with the victims and who would sometimes personally do the interrogations as he did that night when we met in Nebaj.

Did the Ministerio Público know that you were going to mention Otto Pérez Molina?

I don’t know, I guess that was always a possibility. Things changed after one witness, a former soldier (Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes), mentioned (Otto) Pérez Molina. That seemed to have shocked and alarmed Pérez Molina. I don’t think that anyone was expecting that that witness would mention Pérez Molina and after that Pérez Molina took steps to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again. It appears that he’s very worried about this.

Was it a wise move to mention Pérez Molina into this or could it have jeopardized the trial?

Well, it wasn’t really a political choice; it was just a spontaneous statement from that witness who, on his own, decided to mention Pérez Molina’s name. That shook things up.

What part of your testimony would have been most sensitive?

Any mention of Pérez Molina. There are several aspects; the most important one is that he was the field commander on the ground in the Ixil area during many of the massacres for which (Efraín) Ríos Montt is being charged. Secondly, when I was there, I spoke to many officers and soldiers who were under his command. They said that acting under orders, they regularly captured and tortured civilians and they described that in detail.

Could you tell us about the scene in Deadline Guatemala where Otto Pérez Molina is standing over the bodies of four guerrillas?

The part that was caught on film where he was standing over the bodies of four guerrillas who had been captured the night before has got a lot of attention in Guatemala.  It was immediately apparent to me that Pérez Molina was involved in their death because a soldier said that they had turned these men over to him for interrogation and another soldier who was not on tape, said to me “yes, we finished them off, we killed them” and there they were, dead. The official army explanation was that they were killed in a grenade explosion but that was not a plausible explanation. I heard the explosion. We were not far away; we were actually walking away from their headquarters with Pérez Molina when it happened. We all heard it; we ran back, he went inside but we weren’t allowed inside. Next thing we saw many hours later was that the men were dead, as you can see on the film. At least some of them were wounded by the grenade but the soldiers said that they were still alive afterwards and the soldiers said that Tito interrogated them and indeed I saw Tito running inside to where the explosion had happened, so that means that within one minute after the explosion he would have been face to face with those men and it is impossible that those four men were dead by then from that explosion. What is far more plausible is the explanation from the soldiers that they were alive for quite a while afterwards and that Tito then commenced a very intensive interrogation and at the end they were dead, killed by the army, I don’t know by whose hands exactly.

Did you find this striking at the time?

At that time, having been part of that incident and immediately forming a very clear picture of what had happened, it did not strike me as a very big matter compared to everything else that was going on. This was a case where armed guerrilla captives had died after interrogation and in comparison you had thousands upon thousands of civilians in the villages who were being massacred by those same troops, by those men. That was the real issue, the massacres going on under Ríos Montt’s command. So that was what struck me at the time as important and Tito at the time didn’t make a big impression.

What was your impression of Pérez Molina when you interviewed him?

He actually didn´t make much impression. The New Republic article that I wrote at the time only had a few lines about him. He seemed like just another bureaucrat. He spoke very differently from his subordinates because he was someone who was obviously political, who had training on how to speak to outsiders and he would just give you the line, it was like speaking to a public relations person, whereas just about everyone below him, the lieutenants, the sergeants, the corporals, the troops, spoke very frankly. It so happened just by chance that the death of those four men was caught on film so that has now come back to haunt him and it’s something that many people are talking about.

Was that was the only time you saw him?

We saw him several times over the course of several days and recorded a number of interviews with him because we were in and out of Nebaj at that time but he was not very striking. The only striking thing about him was that he was the field commander for these troops that said they were committing massacres and said they were doing it under orders.

How important do you think Deadline Guatemala has been in terms of raising awareness of the role played by Pérez Molina during the war?

I’ve run into lots of people who’ve seen the video. In fact, I was very surprised, the other day, when I started talking to a soldier and I asked him: “What do you think about the Ríos Montt trial?” And he started giving me his opinion and said: “You know there’s this video on the Internet. You’ve got to see this video” and then he started to describe it and he said “And you know who’s in this video?” and he pointed in the direction of the Palace and said “He is. Pérez Molina”. It was kind of striking.

Was any important footage left out of the documentary that could now be used as evidence to prosecute human rights violators?

There were many more hours of footage. Mikael Wahlforss has copies of the tapes. That would be worth looking at.

Would you be willing to testify against Pérez Molina?

Yes, I’d be willing to testify in any case where I might know something that’s relevant.

In his closing statement during the trial, Ríos Montt said: “Each regional commander is responsible for what happens and what he lets happen in his territory”. Do you think he was shifting the blame onto commanders such as Pérez Molina?

Well, I don’t know what he’s thinking politically. Of course, Pérez Molina and Ríos Montt have often been adversaries in the past but the main thing that Ríos Montt was doing was trying to duck responsibility. He actually said that that the only three important duties that he had were pensions, recruitment and conferring medals on military personnel which is cowardly on his part. Here is a man who was a general, who was a military dictator, who presided over perhaps the greatest slaughter in Guatemalan history and one of the greatest slaughters in recent world history. And he used to be proud of this, he used to be very outspoken about his command, his control, his strength, and now he’s running away and hiding, saying he had no responsibility. It’s a pathetic response on his part and it’s completely contradicted by the facts. 

I asked him whether, given the fact that he was a great believer in the death penalty, he should be tried and executed for his own role in the massacres. And he jumped to his feet and shouted “Yes! Try me! Put me against the wall! But if you’re going to try me you must also try some Americans including Ronald Reagan!” And that’s always been his style.
How can a legal system convict the overall commander for a program of genocide and mass killing but not investigate and leave open to indictment the figure who was implementing that program? Pérez Molina was closer to the blood than Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt was in the Palace. Even though he was giving the orders and even though he received very regular reports and was commanding these massacres from the top with a very firm hand, it’s Pérez Molina who is coming face to face with the victims...