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Annals from the Bureaucracy of Death

President Clinton stunned Latin America recently by apologizing to the people of Guatemala for U.S. support for repressive military forces there during the Cold War. His forthright statement ended Washington's denial of U.S. complicity in Guatemalan atrocities.

But it's not enough just to feel Guatemala's pain. As new information comes out from Guatemala, illustrating with ever sharper detail the massive crimes committed by U.S.-backed forces, the need for a thorough accounting for U.S. policies becomes more urgent.

An internal Guatemalan military document reporting on the status of "disappearance" victims during the period that Washington resumed official military aid to Guatemala was released Thursday by human rights groups. The document is a chilling reminder of the cruelty inflicted by rulers Washington hailed as reformers. This inside account explaining the "disappearance" of 183 Guatemalans strips the veneer of respectability the Reagan administration so eagerly sought to bestow on the military government of Gen. Humberto Mejía Víctores (1983-1986). It confirms what human rights groups have long alleged: that Guatemalan governments employed a policy of "disappearances," secret abductions followed by interrogation, torture, and in most cases, murder.

` Entries for most of the individuals include photos--often sliced from their ID cards-- as well as personal information, the date and circumstances of their abduction, and a final date, followed by the number 300. While the military may have been skilled at torture and murder, it was not sophisticated in the development of codes. The meaning of "300" becomes apparent from its usage, as in the case of guerrilla suspect Edwin Rogelio Rivas Rivas. After agents shot and injured Rivas when he tried to elude capture, the document notes, they tried to save his life so as to interrogate him. However, "it was impossible, he 300'd and it was necessary to leave him in the street." Another entry notes that guerrilla suspect Ruben Amilcar Farfan, on the point of being abducted, "put up resistance and was 300'd."

While most ended up as "300", others were freed on the condition that they act as informers or were delivered to military bases to work as permanent snitches. Ten were turned over to "D.I.," the initials of the army's centralized intelligence agency, skilled in the use of extracting information by torture. Their ultimate fate is unknown.

The document largely covers events of 1984, the year Washington renewed overt military training for the first time in seven years. This was the culmination of years of Reagan administration pressure on Congress to resume military aid, an effort launched during the military government of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, now accused of genocide by a United Nations-sponsored truth commission. Reagan also succeeded in winning approval for the sale of jeeps and trucks to the Guatemalan army, speciously arguing these items did not constitute security assistance.

The document released Thursday is the first internal document to come to light from the Guatemalan military. It is especially shocking when contrasted with the language used by the Reagan administration's State Department to portray the Guatemalan military at the time.

Praising the Mejía Víctores government's "increased sensitivity to human rights questions," the administration's annual review of Guatemala's human rights record in 1984 concedes that "sporadic abuse still does occur at the local command level." To the contrary, the newly released military document reveals a centralized bureaucracy of death, a powerful agency carrying out abductions, torture, and murder all over the country without interference.

Why did Congress give in to Reagan administration pressure to aid such a brutal regime? One former congressman wrote recently that he fell for executive branch misrepresentations that it was the guerrillas, not the military, who were responsible for atrocities. Former Representative Mickey Edwards, who recently described himself as "responsible for putting guns in the hands of the soldiers who committed those murders," now regrets his acquiescence in Reagan's policy. He has called for a congressional investigation to "assign responsibility and institute safeguards to ensure that no such moral lapse occurs in the future." His advice should be followed.

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