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Rios Montt. Credit: WikiCommons.

The death of former Guatemalan military dictator Efrain Rios Montt over the weekend was a rare bit of good news in 2018. After taking power in a 1982 coup, Rios ​Montt led a regime whose “scorched earth” policy against its enemies led to the rapid murder of around 70,000 people, mostly Mayans. Rios Montt was facing charges of genocide at the time of his death.

Rios Montt was one of 11 Latin dictators, and about 60,000 soldiers, who were trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.) School training manuals were declassified in 1996 and advocated the use of “fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false, imprisonment, executions and use of truth serum”, according to a Pentagon memorandum discussed in this story in The Guardian. The manuals also included “detailed interrogation techniques and used the term ‘neutralization,’ which the Department of Defense admits is a euphemism for illegal execution,” the article said.

Of course, the Pentagon always insisted that the School sought to instill respect for human rights. Years ago I obtained a 24-question multiple choice exam on the topic that was given to students. Here are a few samples:

1/ Your squad has three civilians in its custody, one who is a guerilla. Yesterday the enemy murdered a captured member of your squad. Another member of your unit wants to kill one of the civilians to settle the score the correct action is:

a. Execute the girl in retaliation.

b. Do not execute anyone, but hold the three civilians as hostages until the enemy stops killing prisoners of war.

c. Protect the civilians and do not injure any of them.

2/ Even though the enemy village is relatively secure, there have been many attacks against your forces at night. Enemy civilians have taken part in these attacks. What should you do?

a. Take the major as hostage until the attacks cease.

b. Destroy the homes of civilians in reprisal.

c. Establish an after-dark curfew and punish anyone who violates it.

d. Make the town pay a large fine.

3/ The squad leader gives in order to cut off figures of a dead enemy soldier to confirm a body count. You should:a. Obey the order but announce it to your superiors.

b. Obey the order.

c. Disobey the order and tell your superiors about the incident.

D. Order a squad member of lower rank to obey the order.

Now that’s a test that even Rios Montt could have aced, though its usefulness in promoting human rights is obviously dubious.

Between 1960 and 1996, nearly a quarter of a million people were murdered or disappeared in Guatemala’s civil war. The overwhelming majority were killed by the U.S.-backed army and paramilitary groups, in what a U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission labeled a genocide against the Mayans.

Ostensibly the country is a democracy but the word has little meaning in the current context. The party of conservative President Jimmy Morales, a one-time comedy actor who was elected in 2015, was founded by former generals who want to ensure there’s no accountability from the war period. Morales, who denies a genocide took place, has “expressed his condolences to Ríos Montt’s family,” according to an NBC account.

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