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Guatemala Shows Why the CIA Must Be Held Accountable For Torture

As discussions around Haspel's nomination heat up, other contentious legal proceedings — the current genocide trials in Guatemala — remind us that U.S. sanctioning of torture has a long, dark history with which we have yet to reckon.

"What we know may be enough for the Justice Department to launch a probe into Haspel's actions at the CIA, especially her potential role in covering up evidence." (Photo: CIA)

"What we know may be enough for the Justice Department to launch a probe into Haspel's actions at the CIA, especially her potential role in covering up evidence." (Photo: CIA)

Gina Haspel's nomination for CIA chief has reignited debate over accountability for torture. A bi-partisan group of Senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), is demanding greater transparency from the CIA on Haspel's involvement in waterboarding and other acts of torture at the "black site" she ran in Thailand, as well as her role in destroying videotapes of torture sessions. 

As discussions around Haspel's nomination heat up, other contentious legal proceedings — the current genocide trials in Guatemala — remind us that U.S. sanctioning of torture has a long, dark history with which we have yet to reckon.

Guatemala shows us why amnesia is dangerous and why the Senate must reject Haspel's nomination.

On March 9, just days before Haspel's nomination, I testified in a courtroom in Guatemala City in the dual genocide trials against the former Guatemalan dictator, General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983), and his intelligence chief, General José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. 

For six hours, I described how the Guatemalan army massacred Mayan communities in the early 1980s, and captured, tortured and "disappeared" survivors during its war against leftist insurgents.

The CIA trained the Guatemalan military in covert repressive techniques, including kidnapping, torture, disappearance and executions of suspected communist dissidents.

The United States supports Guatemala's efforts to prosecute human rights violators. At the same time, the trials remind us that CIA involvement in torture is not an anomaly of the immediate post-911 world, but stretches back decades. Declassified U.S. government documents disclose that beginning in the 1960s, the CIA trained the Guatemalan military in covert repressive techniques, including kidnapping, torture, disappearance and executions of suspected communist dissidents.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the repression left 200,000 dead and 40,000 forcibly disappeared, with Guatemala's 1999 Truth Commission attributing 93 percent of these crimes to government forces.

Mass forced disappearances, what we now call "rendition," spread to other Latin American countries during the 1970s and 1980s, with the active collaboration of U.S. intelligence agencies in operations such as Operation Condor to target and eliminate dissidents, as declassified U.S. documents show.

Guatemala shows why human rights prosecution is key. It's not just reckoning with the past. These cases are entwined with the present and future. Many of Guatemala's notorious human rights violators still hold power, inside and outside the government. Some are reputed leaders of violent crime syndicates that destabilize the country.

No surprise: if human rights criminals aren't prosecuted, they can continue to corrode the rule of law. Sometimes, they get "laundered" back into respectable, high-level government positions. Some have a similar concern with Haspel.  

Finally, Guatemala shows that torturers and other human rights abusers can be prosecuted, even at the highest level.

In addition to the genocide trials, more than a dozen high-ranking former Guatemalan military officers face charges in cases of torture and forced disappearance that occurred during the 1980s.  

These officers deploy the same defense as torture architects in the U.S: They claim they did what was necessary to protect the country from an imminent threat. But Guatemala's courts aren't buying it.

Like the U.S., Guatemala has debated offering immunity to human rights violators. But unlike the U.S., Guatemalan courts have rejected amnesty as incompatible with national and international law. While the U.S. has backed away from prosecuting torture, Guatemala has appointed special prosecutors and high-risk tribunals to try human rights cases.

The United States has supported these accountability efforts. Between 2008 and 2016, the U.S. gave $36 million to the U.N.-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which is helping the Guatemalan Public Ministry investigate high-risk cases. U.S. Embassy personnel often attend high-profile human rights hearings in Guatemala and tweet their support of human rights cases.

In an October 2017 report, the U.S. Congressional Research Service called Guatemala's efforts to prosecute high-profile human rights and organized crime cases a "step forward" in the country's democratic development. Time Magazine named Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana one of its 100 most influential people in 2017.

The irony is that many of the senior military officers on trial now in Guatemala are graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas. So, in a sense, the U.S. is confronting its own past in Guatemala.

On March 14, a bipartisan group of 14 congressional leaders, including the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, sent a letter to the State Department affirming that having strong public prosecutors in Central America is an "important policy priority" for the United States, within the framework of a regional stability plan. 

Of course, the irony is that many of the senior military officers on trial now in Guatemala are graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas. So, in a sense, the U.S. is confronting its own past in Guatemala.

If only we could apply this logic to ourselves. Guatemala and the U.S. are bound by the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which bans torture, without exceptions, and requires that torturers be prosecuted.

At least 100 people died from torture inflicted at U.S. detention facilities around the world after 2001, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. Yet, a 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program, completed in 2014, remains mostly classified.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who led the Senate torture investigation, has called on the CIA to declassify records on Haspel's involvement in the CIA's rendition, detention and torture program. McCain asked Haspel to commit to declassifying the 2014 Senate report on torture. These are important steps.

Yet, we know enough about Haspel's record to conclude that she is a dangerous pick for CIA chief. The Senate must reject her nomination.

What we know may be enough for the Justice Department to launch a probe into Haspel's actions at the CIA, especially her potential role in covering up evidence. 

If Guatemala can prosecute its torturers and rebuild the rule of law, so can we.

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Elizabeth Oglesby

Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson and a Public Voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project. She is co-editor of “Guatemala: History, Culture, Politics” and “Guatemala: The Question of Genocide.” She was an expert witness in the Guatemala genocide trials in 2013 and 2018.

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