Israel’s increasingly visible presence throughout the Third World, including such disparate places as the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zaire, Botswana, El Salvador and Argentina, raises a number of questions about the objectives and character of Israel’s foreign policy, the nature of the Israeli state, and the US-Israeli relationship. One Third World connection — Israel’s involvement in Guatemala — involves several unique aspects, but the basic structure of the tie sheds considerable light on the larger issues.

Three fundamental factors underlie Israel’s involvement in Guatemala and all Israeli Third World relations. First, Israel’s global involvements are directly linked to its efforts to break out of its international isolation. Because of that isolation, Israeli leaders reason that they cannot be particular about the kind of regimes they assist. As a former head of the Knesset foreign relations committee recently said, when asked about the Israeli-Guatemalan relationship:

Israel is a pariah state. When people ask us for something, we cannot afford to ask questions about ideology. The only type of regime that Israel would not aid would be one that is anti-American. Also, if we can aid a country that it may be inconvenient for the US to help, we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face not to. [1]

As this remark suggests, a second element in Israel’s Third World involvements is the significant congruence of interest between Israel and the United States in these areas. Israeli policies are not dictated by US wishes, but they frequently advance what Washington perceives to be its own interests in many Third World countries. Sometimes Israeli policies are undertaken to lessen Israel’s dependence on the US. At other times Israel pursues policies with the specific objective of serving American interests. Such initiatives are primarily motivated by the desire to increase Israel’s leverage over Washington’s Middle East policy. Other Israeli policies are happenstance — the outcome of initiatives by individuals, corporations or institutes operating without government policy directives. But all these situations reveal a striking convergence between the results of Israel’s policies and American objectives.

A third factor in Israel’s broadening international commitments is the growing militarization of Israeli society. This militarization is reflected in the increased autonomy of the military in Israel. The military and the military-industrial complex frequently make foreign policy decisions with little input or oversight from the civilian sector. Indeed, according to Israeli military analyst Ze’ev Schiff, the civilian apparatus, i.e., the Finance Ministry, does not even control the defense budget. [2] The spiraling growth of that budget, the increasing role of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as a power factor in the Israeli polity, and the growing concentration of foreign affairs and defense policy decision making in the hands of a select group — all typically former high military officers — has resulted in foreign policies emphasizing military solutions to any and all situations.

A related consideration involves the sale of arms and military-related equipment. Analysts today rank Israel as either the seventh or twelfth largest exporter of conventional weapons globally. [3] Israel’s export interests are related to its perceived strategic need to attain self-sufficiency in arms production in order to lessen its dependence on the US while maintaining absolute regional military superiority. The small size of the country, as well as its inherent financial weakness, made the development of a military-industrial complex on the desired scale problematic. The cultivation of external markets eased the “economy of scale” problem in weapons production. Moreover, the export of arms has helped sustain production at full capacity, facilitating strategic planning and stockpiling, assuring supplies when needed, and permitting scarce resources to be spent on science, technology, research and development, to maintain the country’s qualitative edge. [4]

Significant economic motivations are also associated with arms exports. Israel’s 150 companies that manufacture exportable military equipment employ, directly or indirectly, 60,000 people — some 18-20 percent of the Jewish industrial work force. Moreover, weapons transfers represent one fifth of industrial exports and one tenth of all exports. Thus both levels of employment and balance-of-payments considerations are critically related to arms sales. As a result, Israel’s arms export program has helped its trade position in the face of a chronic trade deficit. [5] In Israel’s calculation, these important military and economic considerations obviously transcend political “niceties” like human rights violations.

Another aspect of the growing militarization of Israeli society involves the 19 years of Israeli military occupation over the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, and, for varying periods, both the Sinai and southern Lebanon. This experience has trained an entire generation of Israelis to impose Israeli rule over subject peoples. Matti Peled, formerly a general in the Israeli army and now a leading peace activist, put it this way:

Israel has given its soldiers practical training in the art of oppression and in methods of collective punishment. It is no wonder, then, that after their release from the army, some of those officers choose to make use of their knowledge in the service of dictators and that those dictators are pleased to take in the Israeli experts. [6]

“A Nation of Prisoners”

Since the CIA-sponsored coup in 1954, Guatemala has been ruled by a succession of right-wing regimes determined to suppress an indigenous revolutionary movement that traces its lineage back to the American intervention. Most of these were military juntas, but even under the nominally civilian regime from 1966 to 1970 military officers filled critical government posts, [7] and during the 1960s the state waged a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against a guerrilla movement based mainly among the country’s Ladino population. Although this guerrilla movement had been dealt a devastating blow by 1970, new sectors of resistance emerged in the 1970s, particularly in the Indian communities, which evoked new strategies of repression and counterinsurgency.

These were the same years that saw Israel “pacify” and consolidate its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Golan territories seized in 1967. Ties between the two states going back to Israel’s establishment were thus reinforced in the 1970s by a shared interest in counterinsurgency. These affinities, old and new, took on new force when Menachem Begin and his Likud coalition came to power in Israel in June 1977. The new Israeli leaders remembered the key role played in 1947-1948 by Jorge Garcia Granados, Guatemala’s representative to the UN Special Committee on Palestine. Garcia Granados, who had been serving as ambassador in Washington, was personally drawn to the Zionist cause long before taking this post and exerted strong influence on the Special Committee to recommend partition. Granados had gone out of his way to meet personally with Begin, Shamir and others in the terrorist underground in Palestine in 1947; in 1948 he urged Guatemala’s president to immediately recognize Israel. [8]

Israel’s present attention to Guatemala is not, of course, predicated entirely on history. Guatemala can still be an asset in international forums such as the UN, where Israel is often quite isolated. Israel also has significant commercial interests in Guatemala. Moreover, Guatemala’s strategic importance to the United States in the context of its Central American policy, coupled with the often stormy relations between Washington and Guatemala City, have afforded Israel a special role in Guatemala. Guatemalan rulers, for their part, see Israel as the world’s foremost practitioner of counterinsurgency, and look to Israel for advice, models, expertise and arms. [9] Israeli assistance began in 1971, but it took on increased importance after 1977, when the Guatemalan generals rejected US military aid in response to Carter administration pressures to remedy their gross human rights violations. Israel has displayed no similar reluctance to work with the country that one Guatemalan lawyer characterized as “a nation of prisoners.”

Rural Pacification

The broad base of rural peasant support for Guatemala’s revolutionary movement, particularly after 1970, led Guatemalan regimes to incorporate agricultural resettlement schemes into their counterinsurgency plans. One aspect of this was “civic action” programs, involving both military and agricultural functions, although the emphasis has clearly been on the military. The US adviser who directed the civic action advisory staff in Guatemala during 1966-1968, Maj. Frederick F. Woerner, describes civic action as “a military weapon in counterinsurgency. I wish I could say that our main concern is in improving nutrition…. These are only byproducts. The security of the country is our mission.” [10] In Guatemala, the fundamental strategy of the military has been to “pacify” the countryside. Between 1954 and 1984, this has meant the murder of more than 100,000 civilians [11]; attempted destruction of the traditional Indian society and culture; and Indian resettlement in “model villages,” which include agricultural cooperatives. The objective is total control of the civilian population, without altering the oligarchic patterns of land ownership. [12] According to Col. Eduardo Wohlers, director of the “Plan of Assistance to Conflict Areas” (commonly known as “Beans and Bullets”) under the Rios Montt regime in 1982-1983, Israel was the main source of inspiration for Guatemala’s counterinsurgency agrarian strategy. Particularly inspiring was Israel’s Nahal program. Nahal, the Hebrew acronym for Fighting Pioneer Youth, trains soldiers in agricultural techniques in order to set up and expand border settlements. “Many of our technicians are Israeli-trained,” Wohlers declared. “The model of the kibbutz and the moshav is planted firmly in their minds. And personally I think it would be fascinating to turn our highlands into that kind of system.” [13] Another Guatemalan view paints a more somber picture of Wohler’s “fascinating” system:

Agriculture holds the key to Israel’s current role. In it [there is] an interlocking mosaic of assistance programs — weapons to help the Guatemalan Army crush the opposition and lay waste to the countryside, security and intelligence advice to control the local population, and agrarian development models to construct on the ashes of the highlands. [14]

Israeli involvement in Guatemala’s agricultural counterinsurgency program began in 1977, shortly after Menachem Begin was elected prime minister. Two important Guatemalans visited Israel: Col. Fernando Castillo Ramirez, the director of the National Institute of Agrarian Transformation (INTA), the institution most concerned with agricultural resettlement in areas of conflict, and Leonel Giron, an agricultural economist in charge of settlement programs in the Franja Transversal del Norte, the vast northern area scheduled for infrastructure development and land settlement. [15] They sought technical, military and agricultural settlement advice, arms and joint investment schemes. Immediately after their visit, Israeli advisers arrived in Guatemala to plan “civic action” programs in the tense Ixcan area in El Quiche, heartland of the revolutionary movement and scene of relentless military repression. [16]

In January 1978, Israel initiated a two-year program of grants for Guatemalan officials to study agricultural cooperative schemes in Israel. Fifty scholarships were made available, and a steady stream of planners, economists, credit managers and others — a significant number of them high officials of the Guatemalan army — went to Israel. [17] In February 1979, the Israeli Settlement Study Center at Rehovot provided additional scholarships for officials and employees of INTA, in conjunction with a rural pacification plan initiated by then-president Lucas Garcia. According to a spokesman for Yitzhak Shamir, during the 1978-1979 period Israeli experts “trained about 1,000 Guatemalans.” [18] The pacification plan, which reportedly contained elements of the kibbutz and the moshav, [19] was never implemented, as the Lucas Garcia regime responded indiscriminately to the growing mass movement, and army and state-organized death squads murdered peasants, labor leaders, clergy, students and moderate politicians. [20]

Gen. Efrain Rios Montt seized power from Lucas Garcia in March 1982 and instituted the "Beans and Bullets" rural pacification program. It was conceived by two Guatemalan military officers, Col. Wohlers and Gen. Fuentes Corado, allegedly in conjunction with Israeli advisers. The new program rewarded with food and housing any peasant who cooperated with the government, and used force or the threat of force against those who did not. The army unleashed a violent crusade against the peasants in which at least 10,000 Indian civilians were killed. [21] There followed dozens of projects in rural areas, many of them implemented by Israelis, including housing in the model villages, roads and new water systems. Analyst Nancy Peckenham has succinctly described the meaning of the “beans” side of the program:

These projects, most of which provided emergency relief to people who had been displaced from their homes by the army offensive and then rounded up by the military from their mountain hiding places, are intrinsic to the national counterinsurgency program. On a secondary level that incorporates long-term goals, the pacification program is promoting a new social and economic order that Wohlers expects will undermine the ability of opposition forces to organize the rural population against the government and military. [22]

One other part of Rios Montt’s “Plan Victoria,” implemented with Israeli assistance, is the recruitment of peasants themselves in civil defense patrols. These patrols effectively set peasant against peasant, and are integral to the counterinsurgency campaign. Membership in patrols, which are organized and controlled by the army, is compulsory. Those who refuse to join are branded as subversives. Peasant recruits are given weapons and instructed to watch others for signs of revolutionary inclinations. Approximately 1 million civilians have been forced to join the patrols. [23] After the overthrow of Rios Montt in 1983, the new government of Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores adopted a more selective approach toward executions and forced disappearances. His regime attempted to consolidate the rural pacification program, focusing on resettlement of Indians in model villages, and strengthened civil defense patrols, a more extensive “food for work” program, and various development schemes initiated by the oligarchy. Available evidence suggests that Israel’s role in Guatemala certainly did not decline during the Mejia Victores administration.

Arms Sales and Military Aid

Israeli-Guatemalan military cooperation began in 1971, during the presidency of Col. Carlos Arana Osario. Then the Guatemalan chief of staff, Kjell Laugerud Garcia, visited Israel and met with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and other Israeli military officials. Laugerud Garcia expressed Guatemala’s interest in procuring armaments and military communications equipment. Later that year, the two countries signed their first cooperation agreement, though specifics were not made public. [24]

In 1974, Laugerud Garcia became president in what was generally considered to be a fraudulent election. Just prior to taking office in April, he made a private visit to Israel, announcing his wish to widen cooperation with that nation. [25] The first Israeli-Guatemalan arms agreement was signed within months. [26] In 1975, Israeli-made Arava aircraft (adaptable for counterinsurgency tasks) arrived in Guatemala, followed by deliveries of armored cars, artillery and small arms, including Uzi submachine guns and the Galil assault rifle, which became standard issue for the Guatemalan army. Israeli technicians and military advisers accompanied the Aravas. [27]

Guatemala’s interest in purchasing Israeli arms and seeking Israeli advisors was heightened by its increasingly difficult relations with the United States. Guatemalans resented the various pressures Washington exerted, as well as the patronizing attitudes of its advisers sent with the American weapons. In 1977, a series of events resulted in Israel becoming Guatemala’s principal arms supplier and primary source of counterinsurgency advice. [28]

Three months after Jimmy Carter became president in January 1977, the State Department issued a report condemning human rights violations in Guatemala. The Guatemalan regime retorted that it would reject in advance any military aid from a government which dared to impose conditions or interfere in its internal affairs. [29] At Carter’s request, Congress suspended military aid to Guatemala, and the administration included Guatemala on a list of “gross and consistent violators of human rights.” This directed US officials not to support multilateral loans to Guatemala from the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank, unless the loans demonstrably financed “basic human needs.” [30]

The Israeli government immediately stepped in to fill the vacuum and a flourish of activity ensued. Israel did not put “strings” on its arms or advice and was indifferent to the repressive practices of the Guatemalan regime. The flow of arms and "agricultural development" advisers picked up considerably. In June 1977, Barbados customs agents discovered a shipment of 26 tons of arms and ammunition destined for Guatemala from Israel in an Argentinian cargo plane, portending the expanding role of Israel as Guatemala’s main arms supplier. [31] Soon Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), owned and controlled by the Ministry of Defense, installed an Elta radar air traffic control system at the airport near Guatemala City. The system is still operated by Israeli technicians. [32]

In December 1977, Israeli President Ephraim Katzir made a seven-day trip to Guatemala, where he signed an agreement on military assistance. President Laugerud Garcia also announced that Guatemala would purchase five Dabur-class missile patrol boats from Israel. His defense minister visited Israel soon afterward to finalize the purchase and to seek other Israeli military equipment. [33] A meeting between the defense ministers of the two countries, as well as between Guatemalan officials from other ministries and their Israeli counterparts, took place early in 1978, in Israel. The defense ministers discussed the supply of weapons, munitions, military communications equipment (including a computer system), tanks and armored cars, field kitchens, other security items and even the possible supply of the advanced fighter aircraft, the Kfir. They also talked about sending Israeli personnel to install computer and radar systems, to assist in training and equipment maintenance, to establish an electronics school, and to train and advise the Guatemalan army and the internal security police (known as G-2) in counterinsurgency tactics. Guatemala soon received all the desired equipment and assistance, except the Kfir, [34] which Israel was prohibited by the US from selling because it contained an American-made engine. By 1980, the Guatemalan army was fully equipped with Galil rifles at a cost of $6 million. [35]

Computerized Counterinsurgency

In March 1978, Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia became president of Guatemala in another fraudulent election. During 1979, Israeli technicians from Tadiran Israel Electronics Industries began installing a computer center in Guatemala City which became operational in late 1979 or early 1980. The computer’s data banks are believed to contain the names of at least 80 percent of the country’s population. According to Israeli journalist Yosef Pri’el, the system was established to monitor and “follow up the guerrilla movements in the capital.” [36] Part of the Regional Telecommunications Center, the system is located behind the National Palace and is connected to a complex of intelligence gathering and storage facilities. One report charges that the Center is linked to the US Army’s Southern Command at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. [37] Besides storing information on guerrilla groups, the computer reportedly can also measure sudden large increases in water or power use, which might, for instance, indicate the use of a printing press in the middle of the night. George Black reports that “in the summer of 1981, sophisticated Argentine computer analysis methods (using Israeli hardware) had been crucial in detecting and breaking 27 guerrilla safe houses in Guatemala City.” [38] According to one Guatemalan opposition group, Israel is responsible for the whole complex and Israelis work as advisers and instructors there. [39] Amnesty International has charged that the computer system is an integral part of the state’s apparatus for terrorizing its own citizens. [40]

On November 3, 1981, the Guatemalan army opened an electronics school that was built, funded and staffed by Israelis. According to President Lucas Garcia, the school would train specialists in important counterinsurgency technologies: electronic codification and decodification, monitoring and jamming radio transmissions, and ciphering. [41] The colonel who heads the school says that “teaching methods, the teaching teams, the technical instruments, books, and even the custom furniture were designed and built by the Israeli company DEGEM Systems.” [42]

Experts for Export

The most controversial aspect of the Israeli-Guatemalan relationship is the role Israeli advisers have played in the formulation and implementation of Guatemala’s counterinsurgency strategy. In 1980, the head of Guatemala’s internal security forces, Interior Minister Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz, made a second trip to Israel. Subsequently, the Guardian and other sources reported that Israeli, as well as Chilean, Argentinian and other foreign advisers were working with Guatemala’s G-2 national police to develop counterinsurgency capabilities. [43]

There were a large number of retired Israeli officers and military men seeking employment with foreign governments in the early 1980s, a situation reflected in the Israeli presence in Guatemala. Guatemala needed precisely those skills the Israelis were most qualified to offer. Arieh Egozi noted in Yediot Aharonot that such individuals have become a major Israeli “export article.” [44]

By early 1982 there were at least 300 Israeli advisers in Guatemala. [45] The New York Times reported that “Israel is known to have intelligence teams, security and communications specialists, and military training personnel in Guatemala.” [46]

Israel officially denies providing advisers to Guatemala. The Israeli ambassador in Guatemala City commented: “Maybe there are Israeli persons here, but they are not with the Israeli Army and not with the embassy. We do not even have a military attache and we do not have advisers here.” [47] Nevertheless, Israeli advisers are known to have trained the Guatemalan air force and army special forces, as well as the intelligence services. The Washington Post reported that, “Israeli advisers — some official, others private — helped Guatemalan internal security agents hunt underground rebel groups.” [48] Undoubtedly there are both official advisers and “independents” — former IDF officers who offer their personal services as mercenary “anti-terrorist consultants,” advisers, trainers, and even simple bodyguards. [49] (In addition, dozens of independent Israeli arms merchants, usually retired IDF officers, promote weapons sales for personal profit in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America. [50]) Much of the work of official Israeli advisers has been done under the guise of “civic action” programs, “cooperative agricultural development,” “literacy campaigns” and other seemingly innocuous labels. Israeli advisers — either sent by the government or freelancing — reportedly trained elite troops known as “Kaibiles” for the Indian pacification program undertaken by President Lucas Garcia in the fall of 1981, and carried out more extensively by Rios Montt. [51] By the early months of 1982, the Kaibiles had killed hundreds of Indian civilians. [52]

When Gen. Efrain Rios Montt staged his coup on March 23, 1982, the Israeli news magazine Ha’olam Hazeh reported he had the help of 300 Israeli military advisers who assisted in training, planning and executing the coup. Yediot Aharonot referred to the coup as “the Israeli connection.” [53] Rios Montt himself acknowledged to an ABC reporter that things had gone very smoothly “because many of our soldiers were trained by Israelis.” [54] During the 17 months of Rios Montt’s rule, Israel’s intensified military involvement in Guatemala was supplemented by assistance on other levels. Shortly after Rios Montt seized power, the two countries signed a wide-ranging Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement. Guatemala’s tourist board reportedly targeted US Jewish communities in its promotion campaign, and Guatemalan radio regularly aired Israeli programs. [55] Magen David Adom, Israel’s Red Cross, solicited contributions from American Jews so that Israel could dispatch relief supplies to Guatemala. During this period, a Guatemalan business leader told the Los Angeles Times: “We’re isolated internationally. The only friend we have left in the world is Israel.” [56]

Rios Montt’s minister of defense, Gen. Mejia Victores, overthrew the president on August 8, 1983. The change in presidential palace personnel did not appear to signal any change in Israeli-Guatemalan relations. The Eleventh Convention of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Central America and Panama met in Guatemala City in April 1984, attended by Israeli diplomats and high Guatemalan government officials, [57] though Guatemala’s Jewish community is estimated at no more than 1,500. [58] Rodolfo Lobos Zamora, the Guatemalan army chief of staff, visited Israel in early 1985, reportedly to “negotiate for Israeli aid, particularly military aid.” [59] Mejia Victores himself was scheduled to make a state visit to Israel on April 14, 1985, but the threat of a coup forced him to cancel. [60]

Intensified Involvement

In January 1983, at the height of Rios Montt’s carnage, then-chief of staff Gen. Hector Lopez Fuentes summed up the relationship this way, “Israel is our principal supplier of arms and the number one friend of Guatemala in the world.” [61] What accounts for the pervasive Israeli involvement in Guatemala? The convergence of two factors in the fall of 1981 provides part of the answer. First, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon felt strongly, as did Prime Minister Begin, that Israel could increase its leverage over Washington by performing indispensable functions for the US in third countries. Second, the Reagan administration was obsessively concerned about events in Central America, and Guatemala’s significance in US regional strategy was considered crucial at a time when Congressional restrictions on direct US aid were still in force. Lt. Gen. Wallace Nutting, then head of the US Southern Command, noted in 1982 that “the situation in Guatemala is potentially more serious than in El Salvador because the population is larger, the economy is stronger, and the geographical position is more critically located in a strategic sense.” [62]

These two elements converged in the Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the US in November 1981. The Memorandum specifically provided that the US would grant third countries permission to spend part of their US military credits in Israel. Israel did not feel that the accord went far enough in meeting its needs for expanded markets, nevertheless the Jerusalem Post stated that the Memorandum “laid the groundwork for using Israel’s defense needs and the American aid that nourishes them, to create a broader base for Israel’s industrial development.” [63] The strategic agreement was suspended a month later, when the Begin government annexed the Golan Heights, although Sharon contended that it remained secretly in effect. In discussions prior to the agreement’s formal reinstatement in November 1983, Israel proposed that it serve as a conduit for American aid to “anti-communist” forces in Central America — primarily the Nicaraguan contras and Guatemala — through a fund the administration would establish independent of the government budget to finance projects implemented by Israeli “experts.” [64] The Reagan administration’s commitment to these provisions was apparent when Congress tried to block US aid recipients from channeling such aid to the contras in the FY 1986 foreign aid bill: The Reagan team pressed successfully for wording that would not “take away from the sovereign decision” of other countries to assist the contras. [65]

Markets for Israel

Corporate enterprise is another significant aspect of Israeli-Guatemalan relations. Several Israeli firms have established manufacturing subsidiaries in Guatemala; others have confined themselves to commercial distribution of Israeli products. By some accounts Guatemala is the regional distribution center for Israeli military materiel. [66] Israeli firms are also active in construction projects. Interviews with several American businessmen who have commercial ties there confirmed these Israeli involvements: 1) Eagle Military Gear Overseas, based in the Hotel Cortijo Reforma in Guatemala City, is in charge of the sale of military equipment outside that country. 2) Tahal Consulting Engineers, Ltd. was registered in 1980 for temporary operations in planning, organizing and supervising water development projects in Guatemala. According to the commercial registry of Guatemala, its initial capital investment was $5,000, a miniscule sum given the considerable work it purportedly engaged in. In 1983, Tahal was granted permission to operate indefinitely in Guatemala. (Several American firms that have traditionally engaged in such projects in Guatemala have recently complained bitterly about losing lucrative contracts to Israeli firms including Tahal.) 3) Tadiran Israel Electronics was given permission to operate in Guatemala for two years beginning in September 1983. It manufactures and sells electronic equipment and was initially capitalized at nearly $12 million. Tadiran installed the computer system in Guatemala City. 4) Israel Aircraft Industries, Israel’s largest military-industrial producer, installed the radar control system at the airport and is reportedly producing specialized equipment in Guatemala. [67]

By 1983, reports from a variety of sources in Guatemala confirmed the existence of a munitions factory, in the department of Alta Verpaz. According to Gen. Lopez Fuentes the factory was functional in May of 1983. [68] Eagle Military Gear Overseas, the firm which constructed it, is reported to be the major investor in the factory. [69] There is also an annex where armored vehicles are assembled. According to Mejia Victores’ foreign minister, Andrade Diaz-Duran, the plant was built “to save foreign exchange that we would otherwise have to spend on the international market.” [70] It is not clear, however, exactly what the profit sharing arrangements are between the Israeli investors and the Guatemalan generals who established a Military Industry and Services Secretariat in early August 1983 to “officially” handle the new arms business. Some analysts have argued that the strategic objective behind developing a munitions industry (allegedly to be followed by armaments production) in Guatemala is related to the goals of CONDECA to standardize all weapons and ammunition throughout Central America (except Nicaragua). According to this argument, Israel undertook the venture at the behest of the US in the context of Washington’s regional objectives.

Whatever the case, clearly the plant is a major new development for Guatemala and possibly for the entire region. [71] Several joint US-Israeli projects for long-term developmental cooperation in Guatemala may offer expanded opportunities for Israeli commercial interests. In April 1982, Israeli and US officials prepared a proposal to assemble US industrial products in Guatemalan urban centers, and to encourage the planting of non-traditional export-oriented agricultural products — asparagus, raspberries, broccoli, cabbage, watermelon — in the highlands. Israeli agricultural experts would assist in the development of these commercial farming ventures. [72] Israel, Guatemala and the US prepared a more detailed plan in late 1983 (during the Mejia-Victores/Reagan administration “honeymoon” and immediately after the November 1983 US-Israeli strategic cooperation agreement). At least two trilateral meetings were held in December 1983 in Guatemala City, attended by army chief of staff Lopez Fuentes, Vice President Rodolfo Lobos Zamoro, a delegate from the military bases’ commanders’ council, US Col. Jean Gorovit, the Israeli ambassador and other Israeli officials. The agreements hammered out at the meetings, unofficially known as the San Marcos Plan, were apparently aimed at completing the pacification of the Indian highlands and constructing the infrastructure for the development of military-industrial facilities. [73]

Israel agreed to send more experts to train Guatemalan special forces at the Santa Cruz base in El Quiche, as well as to continue training the special forces of the national security police. The Guatemalan government promised to relocate some of the “model villages” in which Indians are presently being held to provide a labor force for industrial development. To date, though, there is little evidence that these schemes have been implemented.

Strains between Washington and Guatemala resurfaced with Mejia Victores’ public denunciation in April 1984 of the US- backed regional military force (CONDECA) and Guatemala’s subsequent refusal to participate in joint maneuvers with the US. Nevertheless, the basic objectives of the US and Guatemala in opposing leftist movements in the area remain as strong as ever.

Guatemala’s new civilian government under President Vinicio Cerezo, despite its good intentions, does not have the autonomy and power to undertake critical domestic reforms or alter key alliances. In particular, because of the various structural ties that have developed between Israel and Guatemala over the last two decades, Israeli involvement in that country is unlikely to diminish as a result of government changes either in Guatemala City or in Jerusalem. Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, during a May 1986 visit to Guatemala, promised to increase technical and agricultural aid. [74]

Likud strategy, to support the anti-communist political objectives of the United States in order to further cement the US-Israeli relationship and increase Israeli influence over Washington’s policy in the Middle East, seems to have enjoyed remarkable success with the Reagan administration. The New York Times reported in mid-1983 that "American officials, in confirming Israel’s cooperation in Central America, said that it was a factor in the recent improvement of Israel-United States relations." [75] Israeli support for Reagan policies in Congress, via the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has also been appreciated at the Reagan White House. [76]

Of course, past US support for Israel originates from Washington’s perception that Israeli policy in the Middle East serves US interests there. This remains the core of the US-Israeli strategic relationship. But Israeli cooperation outside the region, especially in Central America, has certainly enhanced that partnership. In particular, it seems to have been a factor in the readiness of the Central Intelligence Agency, under William Casey, to provide reconnaissance satellite data on Arab states to Israel. According to Maj. Gen. Yehoshua Saguy, head of Israeli military intelligence from 1979-1983, the US supplied “not only the information but the photos themselves_Casey now says ‘yes’ all the time.” According to an American official, because of the value of this CIA support (“Casey’s gift”) “the Israelis would have every reason to do what Casey wanted [in Central America].” [77] The backscratching is mutual, as the Reagan administration’s eagerness to play down the recent case of Israeli espionage in US intelligence circles indicates.

Israel’s objective of decreasing its international isolation and winning friends in the global community appears to have been validated in its relationship with Guatemala as well. Israeli diplomat Nathaniel Lorch reports a positive correlation between Israeli assistance and Guatemalan political support. [78] Guatemala has provided Israel consistent ideological backing, particularly on important UN resolutions. (Although following the 1981 Reunification of Jerusalem Law, Guatemala moved its embassy to Tel Aviv, Israeli officials are hopeful that Guatemala’s return to Jerusalem will be forthcoming.)

More important, Israel’s failure to move toward any political resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli question and the continued state of de facto war in the Middle East only serves to increase the power of the military in Israeli society. This in turn ensures the continuation of policies in the Third World which serve the interests of Israel’s military establishment and military-industrial complex.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University for a grant which made the field work in Central America for this research possible. Also many thanks to Milton Jamail and Jane Hunter for critiques of early drafts and much valuable assistance. Joe Stork made extensive editorial changes. Any mistakes, of course, are entirely mine.


[1] Statement in a public lecture by Yohanah Ramati, former editor of the Israeli journal The Economist and member of the Foreign Relations Committee during the Likud government (1977-1984), Florida International University, Bay Vista campus, March 6, 1985.
[2] Ze’ev Schiff, “The Show in the Hole,” Haaretz, April 29, 1985, translated by Israel Shahak.
[3] Aharon Klieman ranks it twelfth. See Israeli Arms Sales: Perspectives and Prospects (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, Paper 24, February 1984), p. 5. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ranks it higher. See SIPRI Yearbooks (1978-1984).
[4] Klieman, pp. 18-21. See also Jean Briggs, “We Need Entrepreneurs, Not Military Heroes,” Forbes, November 7, 1983, pp. 134-142.
[5] Klieman, pp. 21-25.
[6] Matti Peled, “Israel and the Arms Market,” Haaretz, March 4, 1985, translated by Israel Shahak.
[7] Susanne Jonas and David Tobis, Guatemala (New York: North American Congress on Latin America, 1974), pp. 118-120.
[8] Granados insisted that a UNSCOP subcommittee visit Nazi concentration camps, and argued forcefully that the “Jewish question” and Zionism were organically linked. Shortly after they arrived in Palestine to begin their investigation, Granados convinced UNSCOP to issue a resolution calling on the British to lift a death sentence imposed on three Jewish terrorists, arguing that, “No matter how we viewed such activities, the terrorists were inhabitants of the country playing a definite role in the drama and were entitled to express their views to UNSCOP.” Granados held several secret meetings (alone and with Enrique Fabregat of Uruguay) with various members, including an important lengthy encounter with Begin himself. When the UNSCOP subcommittee on boundaries (of which Granados was not originally a member) was unable to reach agreement on a plan, Granados drew a map extending the Jewish state’s coastal strip to the Lebanese border, then running it parallel to that border until it joined eastern Galilee. Granados drew the borders in the south to include the Negev, then tied the areas together with special corridors. Granados’ own subcommittee assignment was with the group designated to develop the final partition plan, where he was placed after introducing the concept of partition into the UNSCOP deliberations and forcefully defending it over all other possible solutions. Jorge Garcia Granados, The Birth of Israel: The Drama as I Saw It (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), passim. A revealing analysis of the extensiveness of Zionist diplomacy in the pre-state period in Latin America is in Edy Kaufman, “Israel’s Foreign Policy Implementation in Latin America,” in Michael Curtis and Susan Aurelia Gitelson, eds., Israel in the Third World (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1976), pp. 120-146.
[9] Michael McClintock, The American Connection, II: State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala (London: Zed Press, 1985), pp. 162, 187-188, 192-196.
[10] David Tobis, “Retaliation in Guatemala,” National Guardian, January 27, 1968.
[11] Luisa Frank and Philip Wheaton, Indian Guatemala: Path to Liberation — The Role of Christians in the Indian Process (Washington, DC: EPICA Task Force, 1984), p. 3.
[12] Ibid. See also Allan Nairn, “The Guns of Guatemala,” The New Republic, April 11, 1983, pp. 17-21; Clare Maxwell, “Guatemala: Counterinsurgency Plan Eradicating Native Way of Life,” Latinamerica Press, October 25, 1984, pp. 3-4; Nancy Peckenham, “Bullets and Beans,” Multinational Monitor (April 1984); and George Black, “Israeli Connection: Not Just Guns for Guatemala,” NACLA Report on the Americas, May-June 1983, pp. 43-45. (Hereafter Black.)
[13] Black, p. 45.
[14] Ibid., pp. 44-45.
[15] The Franja’s 3,500 square miles, rich in oil and nickel, are owned by an alliance of generals. At the apex is Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia (president of Guatemala, 1978-1982), in partnership with his nephew Raul Garcia Granados (of the Jorge Garcia Granados family). Raul was also a principal in the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF), the umbrella body for Guatemalan business federations, which from 1963 until very recently has given unswerving support to military rule and has customarily provided each regime with its minister of economy. See Rene Poiteven, El proceso de industrializacion en Guatemala, Costa Rica, EDUCA, 1977, p. 190, cited in NACLA Report on the Americas (January-February 1983), p. 23. Since 1980 Israel has been involved in the development of this area. CACIF has been accused, together with the Guatemalan Association of Agriculturalists, of organizing the rural death squads. Other major Franja associates include Col. Carlos Arana Osario (president of Guatemala, 1970-1974), Gen. Otto Spiegler Noreiga (minister of defense in the Kjell Laugerud Garcia government, 1974-1978), and Gen. Hans Laugerud, brother of President Kjell. See NACLA Report on the Americas (January-February 1983), pp. 11-15, especially the extensive sources noted on p. 15.
[16] Black, p. 45.
[17] Organizacion del Pueblo en Armas, “La Organizacion del Pueblo en armas (ORPA) Denuncia: Injerencia de Israel en Guatemala,” (four pages in Spanish) available from SIAG Press, Managua, p. 4. (Hereafter ORPA Denuncia.) See also Centro Exterior de Reportes Informativos sobre Guatemala (Managua, 1984), p. 4. (Hereafter CERI-GUA).
[18] Miami Herald, May 10, 1986. See also CERI-GUA, p. 4.
[19] Black, p. 45.
[20] Amnesty International, Guatemala: A Government Program of Political Murder (London, 1981).
[21] The figure of 10,000 murdered civilians under the Rios Montt regime is a commonly accepted statistic. NACLA Report on the Americas (November-December 1985), p. 11, estimated “that from 1981-1984 between 36,000 and 72,000 Guatemalans had died. And that was only the adults; murdered children remain uncounted.”
[22] Peckenham, “Bullets and Beans.” See also Peckenham, “Campos de reeducacion para los indigenas,” Uno Mas Uno (Mexico City), February 12, 1984.
[23] Frank and Wheaton, pp. 84-98. See also Guatemalan Information and Analysis Service, “A Troubled Democracy” (Managua, July 5, 1984.) (Hereafter SIAG.)
[24] Edy Kaufman, Yoram Shapira and Joel Barromi, Israel-Latin American Relations (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1979), pp. 107, 118.
[25] Ibid., pp. 107-108.
[26] El Dia (Mexico City), August 12, 1977.
[27] See “Israel’s Part in Central America (II),” Central America Report, December 14, 1984, p. 386; and Black, p. 44. The Economist (April 3, 1982) reported that Israel was Guatemala’s major arms supplier. For Israeli arms sales to Latin America in general, see New York Times, December 17, 1982. Leslie Gelb cites an instance when Secretary of State Alexander Haig “prompted Israel to do more in Guatemala. By all accounts,” Gelb adds, “Israel needed no prompting.” See also NACLA Report on the Americas (January-February 1982), pp. 49-50; Miami Herald, December 13, 1982; MERIP Reports 112 (February 1983), pp. 16-30; Jerusalem Post, June 4, 1982; Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 1982; National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1981; Sunday Telegraph, August 28, 1983.
[28] Klieman (p. 6) argues that Israel is not the principal military supplier to any single country. The overwhelming evidence on Guatemala suggests that Klieman is incorrect: Israel is indeed Guatemala’s principal arms supplier and has been since 1977. See “Israel’s Part in Central America (II),” Central America Report, December 14, 1984, p. 386; “Israeli Arms,” Latin American Regional Reports: Mexico and Central America, January 13, 1984, p. 8; “Guatemala: Weapons Shipment,” Foreign Broadcast Information Service, January 21, 1984, p. 13; Houston Chronicle, January 17, 1983; Israel is not the only country advising the Guatemalan army, so it is not always possible to be sure of the source of advice regarding a specific policy. However, the prominence of Israeli advisers in Guatemala, the praise that government leaders have heaped on the Israelis, and the parallels with Israeli occupation policies lends credence to the argument. See for example Alexander Cockburn, “Sharing Responsibility for Guatemalan Horrors,” Wall Street Journal, February 24, 1983. Argentina, Taiwan, South Korea and South Africa as well as the US have also played important roles in Guatemala.
[29] NACLA Report on the Americas (March-April 1983), p. 26.
[30] George Black, Milton Jamail and Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, Garrison Guatemala (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984), p. 159. (Hereafter Black et al.)
[31] The incident was reported by Yaov Kami in Yediot Aharonot, November 3, 1980.
[32] Central America Report, October 31, 1977.
[33] Central America Report, December 12, 1977; Uno Mas Uno, December 4 and 9, 1977.
[34] CERI-GUA, passim; ORPA Denuncia, passim. Cynthia Arnson, “Israel and Central America,” New Outlook, March-April 1984, p. 20, provides information on some of the military material Guatemala received. See also Israel Shahak, Israel’s Global Role: Weapons for Repression (Belmont, MA: Association of Arab-American University Graduates, 1982). A variety of other sources, as well as my own field research, have confirmed Guatemala’s receipt of such equipment and personnel.
[35] Black et al, pp. 154-155.
[36] Davar, August 13, 1982.
[37] Clarence Lusane, “Israeli Arms in Central America,” Covert Action (Winter 1984), p. 36.
[38] Black et al, p. 154.
[39] ORPA Denuncia, p. 3.
[40] Amnesty International (1981).
[41] CERI-GUA, p. 5; Jane Hunter in Israeli Foreign Affairs 1/4; Black, p. 44.
[42] “Moderna escuela de transmisiones y electronica del ejercito inaugurada,” Diario de Centro America (Guatemala City), November 5, 1981. Arnson (“Israel and Central America,” p. 20) confirms the Israeli role in designing, staffing and funding the school.
[43] Guardian, December 29, 1981. See also Jacques Lemieux, “Le role d’Israel: Encerclement du regime Sandiniste,” Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1984. While allegations of Israeli training in interrogation and torture techniques cannot be proven, such Israeli practices against Palestinians are amply documented. See, for example, Law in the Service of Man, Torture and Intimidation in the West Bank: The Case of al-Fara‘a Prison (Ramallah, 1985); Sunday Times (London), June 19, 1977; and the three State Department reports of Alexandra Johnson published in the Palestine Human Rights Bulletin 17 (April 1979).
[44] Arieh Egozi, “An Israeli for Hire,” Yediot Aharonot, April 3, 1985, translated by Israel Shahak.
[45] The figure is cited in a variety of sources. See CERI-GUA, and Excelsior (Mexico City), October 11, 1983.
[46] New York Times, December 17, 1982.
[47] Washington Post, January 23, 1982.
[48] Washington Post, August 17, 1983.
[49] Edy Kaufman, “The View from Jerusalem,” Washington Quarterly (Fall 1984), p. 46.
[50] Emmanuel Rosen, “Lonely Wolves in the Arms Jungle,” Ma’ariv, August 12, 1982, translated by Israel Shahak. Victor Perera provides a good discussion of the role of these private arms merchants, especially that of Marcus Katz; see “Uzi Diplomacy,” Mother Jones (July 1985).
[51] According to one report, Israeli social psychologists discovered the great respect of Guatemalan Indians for the ancient Maya-Quiche gods, including Balam, the God of Gods and of War. Naming the elite troops Kaibiles was intended to invoke fear and respect. SIAG, Los Kaibiles (special report), January 1983.
[52] Frank and Wheaton, p. 70.
[53] Yoav Kami in Yediot Aharonot, March 28, 1982 and Haim Baram in Ha’olam Hazeh, April 12, 1982. Edy Kaufman states that the allegation of 300 Israeli advisers participating in the coup is a “gross exaggeration.” “The Israeli Involvement in Latin America,” in William Perry and Peter Wehner, eds., The Latin American Policies of US Allies (New York: Praeger, 1986), p. 159.
[54] Black et al, p. 156.
[55] Black, p. 44.
[56] Houston Chronicle, January 26, 1982.
[57] Latin America Regional Reports: Mexico and Central America (RM-84-04), May 4, 1984, p. 5.
[58] Judith Laikin Elkin, Jews of the Latin American Republics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), p. 193.
[59] “Lobos Visits Israel, Vatican,” Enfoprensa (Washington, DC), March 1, 1985.
[60] Associated Press, April 12, 1985; New York Times, April 13, 1985, says only that Mejia Victores was going to “the Middle East.”
[61] CERI-GUA, p. 2.
[62] New York Times, August 22, 1982.
[63] Cited in the Miami Herald, December 13, 1982.
[64] For Sharon’s statement, see Miami Herald, December 13, 1982. The proposal was subsequently discussed in a New York Times article (April 22, 1984) excerpted from Haaretz; the Israeli government officially denied it was going to play such a role. See also Philadelphia Inquirer, May 31, 1984; Washington Post, June 16, 1984.
[65] Washington Post, September 15, 1985.
[66] Israel Shahak in an analysis dated December 1, 1981.
[67] The original source for most of the information on Israeli investments in Guatemala was CERI-GUA, pp. 5-6. Interviews have confirmed the presence of Tahal, Tadiran and IAI.
[68] See Nuevo Diario (Nicaragua), November 9, 1983; Granma (US), October 30, 1983; Disweek (Belize), November 18, 1983; Guardian (US), November 16, 1983.
[69] SIAG, April 27, 1984. There are numerous sources that argue that the plant was built with Israeli capital and technology, and that Israeli technicians set up the factory. See, for example, Latin American Regional Report, December 2, 1983 and Enfoprensa, January 6, 1984. Other sources report that Austria is the major external investor in the munitions factory. Since it was built to produce bullets for the Israeli Galil (and to produce the Galil in the future), it is reasonable to presume that Israeli interests are involved.
[70] New York Times, July 7, 1984.
[71] See also “Government Making Its Own Weaponry,” San Antonio Light, December 28, 1983, and Guardian, November 16, 1983.
[72] Agencia Guatemalteca de Noticias (Managua), “Project for Economic Recovery,” March 29, 1985. Taiwan and South Africa were also mentioned as possible investors in the project.
[73] The material on the San Marcos Plan is taken from a report prepared by SIAG, April 27, 1984, and from my research in Central America in the summer of 1984.
[74] Miami Herald, May 10, 1986.
[75] New York Times, July 21, 1983.
[76] Robert Kaiser, “Is Dependency on US Aid Doing Israel Any Good?” Miami Herald, June 3, 1984.
[77] Washington Post, May 19, 1984.
[78] Nathaniel Lorch, “Latin America and Israel,” Jerusalem Quarterly (Winter 1982), p. 81.

How to cite this article:

Cheryl Rubenberg "Israel and Guatemala," Middle East Report 140 (May/June 1986).

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