In June 1954 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, concerned about the threat of communism in Guatemala, assisted in the overthrow of the government led by President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. A five-member junta assumed power. Following communications with Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry and consultations with countries in Central America, the U.S. determined that the new Guatemalan government intended to fulfill international obligations and was not communist.
A little more than a month after the coup, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles instructed Ambassador John Peurifoy at the U.S. Embassy at Guatemala City to establish diplomatic relations with the new Guatemalan Government. With the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy toward Guatemala began to prioritize eliminating the drug trade and human rights abuses. Thomas F. Stroock, who presided over the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala from 1989 to 1992 when bilateral relations shifted, was interviewed by Andrew Low in November 1993.
“The Guatemalan Army is a part of the problem, not part of the solution”
Thomas F. Stroock, Ambassador for Guatemala, 1989 to 1992
When I first got to the State Department everybody was busy with their own particular piece of the Central American pie, and nobody had truly concentrated on the slice of the pie that said, “Guatemala.” The “Guatemala” piece in the puzzle was still to be solved, and I rapidly realized that no one was going to do it except myself.
So while it was “studying in”, I decided that I would try and keep things simple… try to concentrate on what in Spanish came to be known as “los Quatros D’s,” “The Four D’s,” They were drugs–of course not for drugs, but against drugs, democracy, development, and human rights.
Human rights doesn’t begin with “d” in English, but it does in Spanish, (“derechos humanos”). And drugs is (“drogas,” and democracy is “democracia,” and development is “desarrollo…”). So you can call them the “Four D’s” in Spanish, and we did.
In my opening statement at the airport when I arrived and in my opening speech to the Mission–which I called an “all hands on deck” speech — and in my opening conversations with President [Vinicio] Cerezo [Anevalo, president from 1986-1991], I concentrated on the “Four D’s”.
I made them our keystones and I would constantly refer to them. It got to the point where people wanted to throw up when they heard me talk about them. But they did become the focus of the mission, and we did, I think, make progress in all four areas. Drugs was the one (of the four D’s) that most directly affected the average citizen in the United States.
There were two drug problems in Guatemala. The first was the actual cultivation of the poppy flower in the narrow high valleys of the Northern Altiplano, the ones in Guatemala that lead up northward into Mexico. They’re very deep; they’re very narrow; they’re ideal for cultivating poppy.
The small farmers take the poppy seed out to Mexico where it’s chemically treated and becomes heroin. Mostly what happened was that the poppy plant was picked, placed on mules and taken on back dirt roads up to Mexico to be treated and turned into heroin there.
“I made public appearances with a flak jacket on”
We were very involved trying to stop all this when I got there. We had our own air force of six helicopters and six thrush airplanes, all under private contractors reporting to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA, to fumigate, poison and eradicate poppy seed….
Negotiating these efforts was tricky. An American plane had been shot down over Nicaragua running contraband to the contras. They didn’t want the same thing to happen in Guatemala, which was why the U.S. armed forces never were involved.
It was a very inefficient way to operate, but nevertheless that’s the way it had to be.
We had to secure permission from the Guatemalan government to allow us to run these secret contract operations in their country. We had to base the plane’s pilots on Guatemalan Air Force bases, and we needed the cooperation of the Guatemalan army.
The Guatemalan army is a part of the problem, not part of the solution in Guatemala. While they were and are very constructive and necessary to us in the war on drugs, they also are one of the big threats to growing democracy. They are one of the great causes of the violations of human rights endemic in the country.
Some of them were part of the drug organization. They have an enormous influence on the country’s ability in every area because there are 43,000 of them, they’re disciplined, and they are the only agency in the country that really works.
We can get into that later, but in many of these small, unstable societies it takes the military to make things happen–no other agency, public or private, has the necessary money or organization or manpower. In any event they were the only people we had to work with.
In the three and a half years we were there, I desperately tried to move our drug enforcement dependency from the army to a civilian police force–the (“Guardia Civil”), the treasury agents. As I left we had succeeded in establishing some basic treasury organizations that were involved in seeking out those who would transport drugs and contraband into Guatemala, which was the second problem.
We never succeeded in getting our program of spraying and fumigating and trying to kill poppy plants away from the necessity of cooperating with the Guatemalan army. We absolutely needed their logistical bases. We couldn’t operate without them.
We needed their permission to fly over the country because we couldn’t do without that. We needed frequently to call on them for repairs to our equipment. They could have shut us down overnight, and they frequently threatened to do just that.
My frequent conversations with the various officers in the Guatemalan army almost always carried the implied threat of cooperate or your drug effort will suffer… we had constantly to keep in mind that we were interdicting and fumigating poppies in San Marcos province, at their sufferance, and they could shut down that program at any time.
The farmers whose poppy was being fumigated didn’t like it at all. There was a tremendous uproar all the time claiming that we were destroying and causing peasants to lose their legitimate crops, none of which was ever proven and none of which was true. Nevertheless at least once a month we got a complaint about that. It was a very involved and dicey situation.
[Besides eradicating poppy fields] the biggest part of our drug problem was that Guatemala increasingly became a way station for transmitting cocaine from South America into the North American market. The coca plant itself is principally grown in Peru.
It is shipped into Colombia where it is made into cocaine. Then the Colombians want to bring it into the United States. They used to bring it up in boats through the Caribbean, but our naval interdiction efforts in the Caribbean got very efficient, so they started shipping through Guatemala.
The whole time I was in Guatemala we had five United States Navy cruisers with radar and antenna and support, cruising off the coasts of Colombia attempting to track drug flights in airplanes and speedboats, leaving Colombia. They would come up to Guatemala and Mexico then transship and the cocaine would go up into the United States.
Guatemala was an ideal place to do that because of the large farms, the large banana plantations, the large coffee fincas, the large sugar ingenios, and the large cattle ranches all had air strips. It was easy to drop into these air strips and transship from planes to either mules or human beings or trucks or other airplanes.
“He had been involved in transshipping cocaine for years, and we proved it”
To patrol this interdiction effort we had a very large DEA presence in the embassy. We had a Guatemala City Office Chief, five DEA agents and two pilots. There was constantly the desire to expand the operation and to make the DEA bigger…. The whole time we were there, I think we seized a total of maybe sixty tons of cocaine.
Our biggest haul was one haul of about thirteen tons, as I remember, which was towards the very end of my stay there. This caused a Colombian hit team to come into the country, so we heard, to try and kill me. This was why in my last month there, I made public appearances with a flak jacket on, which was very uncomfortable and very damned unpleasant.
We were successful, I think, in training the Guardia Civil–the Treasury–Police to become effective in this area. We did succeed in getting the extradition of five drug traffickers under extradition treaties. That was an enormous political effort to get that to happen…
We would try to stop the poppy from growing, we would try and interdict the flow of cocaine through the country, and we would try and find out the people who were involved with it and extradite them to the United States. Sometimes we weren’t even so delicate or diplomatically nice as to extradite them.
There was a Nicaraguan citizen, a known drug Kingpin, named Gadea, who came into the country. We knew he was coming and we got the Guardia Civil to nab him as he got off the plane, and we got them to put him on a special plane that was flown down by the United States Marshal for Florida where there was a warrant out for his arrest.
All of this was done outside the extradition treaty, because he was an undesirable alien. This was legal, except the Guatemalans, in their hurry, forgot to go through all the legal steps they had to do through the court. Where that guy is today, I don’t know, but we got him out…
We legally extradited under a very complicated extradition treaty, it takes months to do. Some important figures, including Arnoldo Vargas, the mayor of Zacapa and a key figure in the old Cali cartel, a known murderer, a real thief, had controlled (Zacapa) province for years. He had been involved in transshipping cocaine for years, and we proved it. We got him, we extradited him to the United States under the extradition treaties; and we got four others as well…
So we did make a difference in the war on drugs, but it did take up a lot of time, and we didn’t make enough of a difference. We won some battles, but we never did win the damn war, and I don’t know if the war is winnable…
“There is no excuse anymore for us to tolerate the human rights violations we thought we had to tolerate in the past”
There’s a pretty well-accepted statistic that well over 120,000 people have been murdered by both sides in the 32 year long guerrilla war. I am personally convinced that about 25 percent of those murders and atrocities were committed by the guerrillas and their supporters, and about 75 percent of those murders and atrocities were committed by the army and their supporters.
There’s an organization called the “Patrulleros Civiles,” which the army has set up in each village. The Patrulleros have been set up to make sure that guerrilla groups don’t move in and out of these small villages. They have ended up in too many instances, tyrannizing and terrorizing these villages. By now they pretty much control them.
The army is the most important figure in the rural areas of the country for a very simple reason. If you are the mayor of a little village [and need something like a new well, the government can’t help you]… But if you go down the road to the local army barracks, and talk to… the lieutenant in charge, he’ll send a group of troops out and they’ll dig the well… or they’ll build the road.
That’s where the army gets its strength and support. They are the only effective force of any kind that represents government out in the country. And, of course, they take advantage of it. They steal and rob and commit atrocities, and anybody who speaks out against them is going to disappear…
Furthermore, half the population of Guatemala is “indigena”– direct descents of the Mayan Indians the conquistadores encountered. They speak 23 separate different and distinct languages. Not dialects, distinct languages. So one tribe doesn’t understand the other.
They’re separated by their language, they’re not united. Perhaps half of them know how to speak Spanish, which is the official language of the country. So at least 25 percent of the population doesn’t speak Spanish at all, just their native languages. They’re people who don’t read. They vote with their thumb; they sign contracts with their thumb print.
When I first got to the Department, and read the cables, it became obvious to me that State was apologizing for the human rights atrocities that had been committed for years. We were so concerned that the Soviet Union would extend its influence in Latin America that we accepted the atrocities committed by the rich oligarchs… army… and corrupt governments.
We accepted corruption and atrocities as the price we had to pay to make sure that the country didn’t fall into the hands of the Soviet Union, or that the Soviet Union wasn’t able to make a Cuban-type base for ballistic missiles aimed at us. It was a legitimate concern, and one which drove our policy in Latin America for years, including the first two months that I got to Guatemala.
But there was a sea change in November and December of 1989: an amalgam of Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the fracturing of Eastern Europe. We saw the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Now there was no reason to tolerate human rights violations by anybody, but certainly not by the army. There was no longer any communist threat for them to protect us against…
I went down there with the belief that we had been much too accepting of human rights violations in the past, that it was not in our national character, heritage or interest to continue to accept it. And yet, I couldn’t be a do-gooder and ignore the fact that one had to work with what you had there, the agencies that were functioning…
Every day you’d pick up the papers, read about another murder. There were street children being tortured. There are about 5,000–probably 10,000 now–children who live on the street every night in Guatemala City, abandoned by their families….. There were pictures of three street boys who had been tortured.
I’m convinced security forces, maybe not army, maybe the police, did it. Their tongues were cut out, their noses were cut off, their fingers were burned. I mean torturing children; it was truly terrible. Something I didn’t think people of the United States could possibly condone.
We tried to get the police to come forward as to what happened, and to investigate. Unfortunately, the courts were hand in glove with the police on this, so nothing happened. I got there in October.
By February of 1990, I had my belly full. I’d spoken to the President (Vinicio Cerezo,) we had monthly breakfasts, so we’d had four monthly breakfasts in which we’d discussed all of these things. I’d made at least two special trips down to see the Ministry of the Interior.
I don’t know how many times I’ve gone by the Defense Ministry with the Defense Attaché, Colonel Cornell, to discuss them. We were getting nowhere. They knew that the American Ambassador was going to leave in three or four years. Their plan was to stiff him and pat him on the head. In time he would go away, and things would continue in their natural course.
“That letter was the pivotal point that changed the whole direction of the way the embassy moved on human rights”
I was scheduled to make a speech to the Rotary Club, which is the biggest gathering with businessmen in the country. I got hold of the Public Affairs Officer, John Tracy. I said, “I want to make a speech. I want to make it as friendly as possible under the circumstances, but as firm as a rock about human rights.”
That’s what it was. There was a phrase in there that said, “The United States cannot long have productive relations with a country that either promotes, or tolerates, human rights abuses of its own citizens because that is not in the tradition of the American people.”
Well, that created quite a sensation. The press asked Vinicio Cerezo (seen right), the President, about it, and he said, “Well, I know Tom. He’s kind of a cowboy, and these are just his personal opinions, I’m sure they don’t reflect the opinions of the United States government.”
So, for the first time, I really pulled in whatever chips I had. I called Bernie Aronson (Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs from 1989 to 1993) in the State Department, and I said, “You guys have got to support me.” I give Bernie a great deal of credit for a lot of things; but certainly on this one. He backed me up 100 percent….
He said, “What we’ll do is we’ll bring you home. We’ll recall you as a sign of our displeasure with the president’s statement.”
When I got back to Washington, I thought to myself; just being recalled and coming back, that’s not dramatic enough. I need something dramatic. I need a letter signed by the President of the United States saying that Ambassador Stroock does indeed speak for this administration.
To get a letter signed by the President through the fudge factory down at Foggy Bottom, is not going to happen in a week. I wanted to get back to Guatemala in a week while this thing was still hot….
Joe Sullivan, who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central America, was in favor of doing it. Bernie Aronson was in favor of doing it. You have to understand that Guatemala was not large on their radar screen–they had a few other problems. It was essentially turned over to me. “If you can get a letter, hurray.”
The first thing I did was get hold of Margaret Tutwiler who had worked on the Bush campaign as Jim Baker’s secretary. She was now the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. I got an appointment with her and asked Margaret to get me an appointment with Jim Baker so I could get my letter.
Then I worked with the Guatemala desk officer …. We worked up a one-page letter in Spanish–with a good English translation this time — for the President to sign. It said that indeed I did speak for the administration, and while the President had every kind of admiration and respect for President Cerezo, he really wanted him to know that human rights were an important component of our relations. I forget all the details but it was a good friendly, fair, but very firm letter…
That letter [signed by President George H. W. Bush], I think, was the pivotal point that changed the whole direction of the way the embassy moved on human rights. It changed the way the Guatemalan government perceived us. It also changed how the rest of Guatemalan society perceived us.