Guatemala in the 1960s: Vigilantes or Government Operatives?
Young political officer William Newlin arrived in Guatemala in early 1966 amidst worsening political and social chaos. As the civil war raged, thousands of people began disappearing from universities, churches, and media institutions. The Guatemalan government claimed that a right-wing insurgency group was orchestrating the disappearances—the Mano Blanca (White Hand). An official, top-secret U.S. government report supported these claims. Newlin knew that was wrong. His sources led him to believe that Mano Blanca did not exist independently; it was a front for a Guatemalan government operation—one that was killing its own people.
Newlin refused to let senior U.S. officials in Washington be misled by a deeply flawed report. So he decided to address it head-on. With support from Ambassador John Gordon Mein, Newlin drafted a paper to send to Washington describing the Guatemalan government role in the campaign of disappearances. One key message was blunt: by supporting the Guatemalan government, Newlin said, the United States was complicit.
The Guatemalan civil war spanned over three decades (1960-1996) and twelve dictatorial leaders. It cost an estimated 200,000 lives. The United States had special involvement from the start—beginning when the CIA aided the army’s overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, and ending with millions of dollars in aid sent by the United States to the Guatemalan military in the 1980s.
William V.P. Newlin’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on November 26, 2001.
Read William V.P. Newlin’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Christina Krisberg.
The Guatemalan government was systematically wiping out all of the good people in all of the liberal institutions, which included labor, the church, the universities, the press . . .
A Country in Chaos: I was a political officer. My beat was the insurgency. It was a terrible time to be in Guatemala. It was a terrible time to be in Guatemala in any capacity. It was certainly a terrible time to be in Guatemala as an American political officer if you had any liberal leanings. What was happening in Guatemala at that time was that the Guatemalan government was systematically wiping out all of the good people in all of the liberal institutions, which included labor, the church, the universities, the press, and anything in-between.
The line was that they were being kidnapped by right-wing vigilante groups. That was utter bullshit.
Vigilante Group Exposed as Government Operation: Thousands of people were disappearing. The line was that they were being kidnapped by right-wing vigilante groups. That was utter bullshit. The right-wing vigilante groups did not exist. They existed in name. There was an organization that was known as the Mano Blanca [the White Hand]. It put out papers. It threatened people. People would disappear. The government said that the people had been taken by the Mano Blanca. The Mano Blanca would say that they had been taken by kill squads in the government. But in fact there was no organization at all called the Mano Blanca. It was just government security forces operating clandestinely. The U.S. government was up to its ears in this. I did not know that officially. I don’t know who in the embassy knew it officially.
There was a top secret report from INR that talked about the right-wing vigilantes operating in the capital who were killing off the liberal elements. It made me furious.
Countering a Misleading U.S. Government Report: But I did not know at my level, second secretary of embassy, officially, that this was the government that was doing this. But I knew it unofficially because I’m not dumb. Everybody knew it unofficially. At that time, [John] Gordon Mein was our ambassador, who was later killed there.
There was a top secret report from INR [State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research] that talked about the right-wing vigilantes operating in the capital who were killing off the liberal elements. It made me furious. This was a piece of paper that was theoretically going to go to the top levels of the [U.S.] government . . . I said to [John] Gordon Mein that this made me furious–our reporting was saying that everyone said the government was doing it, not a right-wing organization. Here [INR was] reporting to our government that it was right-wing organizations.
We were in bed with the government. We were complicit in this.
A Blunt Message for Washington: [Gordon Mein] said, “What do you want to do about it?” I said, “I want to take it on head on. I want to say, ‘This report from the INR is contradicting embassy reporting. It is not true. It’s misleading our senior officials.’” He said, “Why don’t you write it up and let’s take a look at it?” I wrote up a two-page paper that was very blunt and direct. I gave it to him. Then he took that and gave it to my boss, Matt Smith, a lovely man who spoke completely fluent Spanish. Together we reworked it. It ended up being much, much longer and putting the whole thing into a much broader historical context, and thus diluted the paper I had written. Nevertheless, it did include what I wanted to have included, and mostly in my words. I included the fact that these were not right wing vigilante groups, but that they were government-supported, and that we were in bed with the government. We were complicit in this. That went in an airgram.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
B.A. in Government, Army ROTC Harvard University 1951 – 1955
M.B.A, Harvard Business School 1957 – 1959
M.A. in Economic Analysis, The Fletcher School 1959 – 1960
Entered the Foreign Service 1960
Paris, France—Special Assistant to the Economic Minister 1961 – 1964
Guatemala City, Guatemala—Political Officer 1966 – 1968
Washington, D.C.—Senior Watch Officer, Operations Center 1972 – 1974
Brussels, Belgium—U.S. Mission to the European Community 1974 – 1976
Washington, D.C.—Office of Benelux Affairs 1977 – 1979
Washington, D.C.—Canadian Desk Officer 1980 – 1983