Condemned to Relive the Past
July 9, 2005
By Ken Sanders
who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it." - George
It is probably safe to assume that few Americans know or care
about their nation's history of atrocities in Latin America. They
neither know nor care about the death squads in Guatemala and El
Salvador that were trained, funded, and equipped by the U.S., and
which tortured and murdered thousands of alleged "communists and
From the point of view of the U.S. government, Americans' ignorance
and disinterest in their nation's history of "counter-terror assistance"
to countries like Guatemala is a real boon. It makes it that much
easier for the U.S. to fund, train, and equip nearly identical death
squads in Iraq.
Beginning in the 1960's, the U.S. assisted the right-wing Guatemalan
government in establishing a counter-terrorist task force to combat
communist insurgent groups (a.k.a. terrorists). For instance, when
the Guatemalan government asked for help in developing special squads
that would kidnap, torture, and kill suspected communists, the U.S.
military recommended that the U.S. "fully support current police
improvement programs and initiate military psychological warfare
training and additional counterinsurgency operations training."
In other words, Guatemala got the help it wanted.
In 1968, the State Department's Viron Vacky, former U.S. Deputy
Chief of Mission in Guatemala, criticized the U.S. government for
condoning the Guatemalan government's counter-terror practices of
killing, torturing, and mutilating suspected communists. Vacky summarized
the U.S. position regarding Guatemala's death squads: "[A]s long
as Communists are being killed it is alright. Murder, torture and
mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are
In a 1971 cable to the House Sub-Committee on Inter-American Affairs,
the U.S. embassy in Guatemala confirmed Vacky's accusations when
it admitted, "The U.S. Government is aware of the tactics being
used by the Government of Guatemala in combatting (sic) urban and
Despite this awareness, the U.S. continued to provide overt military
aid to the Guatemalan government and its regime of murder and torture
until 1990. Covert military aid continued until 1995. The U.S. wrote
a similar story in El Salvador.
Why the (extremely) brief history lesson?
In Iraq, U.S.-backed counterinsurgency groups are engaging in the
same practices of kidnapping, torture, and murder that were employed
in Guatemala and El Salvador. With each passing day in Iraq, more
and more bodies of suspected insurgents are turning up exhibiting
clear signs of torture and summary execution.
Take, for instance, the case of Hassan an-Ni'ami, a suspected
terrorist. As reported in The Observer, an-Ni'ami was abducted
in May by Iraqi police commandos (to great televised fanfare) twelve
hours before his mutilated body turned up at the morgue. He had
been hung from handcuffs until his hands and wrists became swollen.
There were burn marks and welts covering his torso. His nose and
arm were broken and one of his upper vertebrae was dislodged. Clusters
of circular wounds on both sides of his left knee looked like they
had been inflicted by an electric drill.
Finally, he was shot repeatedly in the chest and head. His is
not an isolated case.
Beginning in April, following the announcement of Iraq's new Shiite-led
government, the bodies of Sunni men began turning up at Baghdad's
central morgue. Witnesses had seen the men captured by men in police
commando uniforms and body armor, brandishing Glock 9mm pistols,
and driving Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings. (The use
of Land Cruisers and Glocks is significant since they cost more
than $55,000 and $500 apiece, respectively, and are used exclusively
by Western contractors and Iraqi security forces.)
The mens' hands had been tied or handcuffed behind their backs
and their eyes were blindfolded. The dead men appeared to have been
whipped, electrocuted, and beaten with blunt objects before being
shot, execution style, in the back of the head. According to Knight-Ridder,
more than 30 such killings in Baghdad occurred in less than a week.
Similarly, Knight-Ridder reported that in May, 14 Sunni farmers
were abducted from a Baghdad market by a patrol of more than 10
police vehicles. The next day, the bodies of the suspected insurgents
were found in shallow graves. The men had been blindfolded and tortured,
their hands cuffed behind their backs. According to the Knight-Ridder
story, Iraq's Human Rights Ministry found nearly 100 detainees in
Iraqi police and intelligence facilities. The majority of them had
been tortured. (On June 24, 2005, Yasser Salihee, an Iraqi special
correspondent for Knight-Ridder, was killed by a U.S. sniper's single
shot as Salihee approached a roadblock. The Knight-Ridder story
on Iraq's U.S.-backed death squads broke three days later.)
The paramilitary forces credited with the torture and execution
of an-Ni'ami and the other suspected terrorists and insurgents are
the Rapid Intrusion brigades of Iraq's Ministry of the Interior.
The most infamous of the Rapid Intrusion brigades is the Wolf Brigade,
a group suspected of a litany of human rights abuses. The Wolf Brigade
even has its own "Cops"-like television show on the U.S.-financed
Iraqi television network. Called "Terrorism in the Grip of Justice,"
the show features detainees confessing, apparently under duress,
to various crimes. The detainees frequently appear to have been
beaten. In one case, a former policeman with two black eyes who
confessed to killing two police officers was killed and delivered
to his family a few days later.
These paramilitary groups are funded by American and British aid
diverted from the Iraqi Police Service. The aid includes weapons,
ammunition, protective vests, and armored vehicles. Iraq's paramilitary
groups are also advised by members of the U.S. military. One such
advisor, James Steele, led U.S. Special Forces missions in El Salvador
during that country's era of death squads. According to the New
York Times Magazine, Steele was responsible for training elements
of the Salvadoran army that committed rampant human rights abuses
in the 1980's. In other words, Steele trained the Salvadoran death
Finally, as frequently boasted by the Bush administration, paramilitary
groups like the Wolf Brigade work in conjunction with U.S. forces.
While embedded with U.S. forces in March, Peter Maass of the New
York Times Magazine witnessed U.S. soldiers turning a blind
eye to Iraqi commandos kicking and beating suspected insurgents.
Maass also reported how U.S. soldiers only reluctantly intervened
when Iraqi commandos threatened to execute the son of a suspected
insurgent if he did not reveal his father's location.
Maass also described his tour of a detention center established
by Iraq's paramilitary commandos in Samarra. Jim Steele was the
tour guide. Maass witnessed 100 detainees on the floor, blindfolded,
their arms tied behind their backs. Maass saw a detainee being beaten,
a detainee with a freshly-bloodied nose, and an interrogation room
with a desk that "had bloodstains running down its side." Maass
also overheard U.S. soldiers talking about a suspected insurgent
at the detention center who was "hanging from the ceiling by his
arms and legs like an animal being hauled back from a hunt."
It bears remembering that we do not know, and there is no way
to confirm, that any of the people captured, tortured, and murdered
by Iraqi death squads like the Wolf Brigade were terrorists or in
any way involved in the insurgency. They might have been. But they
might not have been, too. We will never know.
The evidence of U.S.-sponsored death squads in Iraq continues
to mount as more and more mutilated bodies show up in Iraqi streets
and morgues. Sadly, as evidenced by the histories of Guatemala,
El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and others, the U.S. government
is all-too-willing to create, advise, and support counterinsurgency
death squads which indiscriminately kidnap, torture, and kill. This
willingness, however, is overshadowed by the American public's ignorance
of and disinterest in its government's love of dirty wars.