Government security services have employed assassination to eliminate persons suspected of involvement with the guerrillas or who are otherwise left-wing in orientation….”
US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, 1984
The National Security Archive, housed at George Washington University, released two days ago a new electronic briefing book on US knowledge of disappearances during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. The document collection is the result of an FOIA request relating to the disappearance on 18 February 1984 of student leader Fernando Garcia, who was one of 40,000 people disappeared by the government for suspicions of being involved in rural and urban social movements critical of a succession of right-wing regimes. The briefing book includes a total of eleven documents from the US Embassy in Guatemala and the US State Department, all dating from the period 1984 to 1986, that document the extent of US knowledge of the Guatemalan government’s active campaign of terror, intimidation, and extrajudicial disappearance of Guatemalan citizens.
Though this topic does not relate directly to Early Latin America, it is something I have occasion to teach on a fairly regular basis. The briefing books at the National Security Archive are first rate pedagogical tools for use in modern Latin American classes, and particularly for student projects. Amongst their declassified document collections on Latin America are briefing books on The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations, CIA involvement in the 1954 Guatemala coup, the Bay of Pigs, broader CIA activities in the region, the death of Charles Horman at the hands of the Pinochet regime, the record of Otto Juan Riech, the 1971 Uruguayan presidential elections, the Argentine Dirty War, the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre in Mexico, the Tlaltelolco Massacre, the career of Oliver North, the death of Che Guevara, and much more. There are almost ninety collections on Latin America alone.
I have used several of the document collections as the basis of student papers in the past– the first time for a paper on the Death of Che Guevara in a class on the Modern Andes. One of the students later told me that she got a thrill from frequenting coffee shops in Albuquerque with a stack of black-lined documents stamped Top Secret. But, more than that, the documents reveal the ugly underbelly of US involvement in the region to an extent that I find my students never suspect. The documents also work very well as an exercise in historical reconstruction with limited source access– the combination of small-ish sets of documents with redacted text and heavy use of abbreviations tends to send students looking for more information and clarifications. I’ve also found that the staff of the National Security Archive is willing and helpful in tracking down the meaning of the more esoteric of military, intelligence, and state department abbreviations if your students come to a dead end, so to speak.
I’m hoping that the posture on transparency and the FOIA under the current administration will enable the National Security Archive to continue its work at more efficient pace. Their form of sunshine is in desperate need in the halls of US government.