Julio César Méndez Montenegro

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Julio César Méndez Montenegro
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Coat of arms of Guatemala.svg
President of Guatemala
In office
July 1, 1966 (1966-07-01) – July 1, 1970 (1970-07-01)
Chancellor Emilio Arenales Catalán

Alberto Fuentes Mohr

Preceded by Enrique Peralta Azurdia
Succeeded by Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio
Personal details
Born (1915-11-23)November 23, 1915
Guatemala City  Guatemala
Died April 30, 1996(1996-04-30)
Guatemala City  Guatemala
Spouse(s) Sara de la Hoz
Parents Marcial Méndez and Mélida Montenegro


Julio César Méndez Montenegro (November 23, 1915 – April 30, 1996) was the Revolutionary Party President of Guatemala from 1 July 1966 to 1 July 1970. Mendez was elected on a platform promising democratic reforms and the curtailment of military power. The only civilian to occupy Guatemala's presidency during the long period of military rule between 1954 and 1986, Méndez was not allowed to act independently of the military and was widely considered to be a military puppet; Mendez had assumed the presidency under a pact in July, 1966 that gave the armed forces carte blanche with respect to internal security matters and an effective veto over governmental policy.[1] He was the first cousin of César Montenegro Paniagua whose kidnapping, torture and murder during the Julio César Méndez presidency is rumored to have been undertaken with presidential sanction.

Presidency[edit]

It was during the Mendez presidency that the United States dramatically expanded its military mission in Guatemala. Within days of Mendez taking office, US Colonel John Webber Jr. was dispatched to the country to assist in modernizing Guatemala's counterinsurgency apparatus. Under Colonel Webber's command, the United States expanded training within Guatemala's 5,000-man army and outfitted the Guatemalan security forces with the most modern counterinsurgency equipment available.[2] The United States also assisted the Guatemalan security forces in the implementation and use of counter-terrorism, and the establishment of counter-terror units under the supervision of U.S. police advisors.[3] With increased US military support, the Guatemalan Army launched a counter-insurgency campaign that successfully combated and dispersed the left-wing guerrilla organizations fighting in the mountains and country. The guerrillas, including the Rebel Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes — FAR), then concentrated their attacks in Guatemala City, assassinating many leading representatives of the military government, U.S. military advisors, and the American ambassador John Gordon Mein, in 1968.

"White Terror" and paramilitarism[edit]

The repression that began to take shape under the presidency of Enrique Peralta Azurdia began to intensify under Mendez. With the onset of the Guatemalan army's first major anti-guerrilla offensive, the army and security forces carried out widespread extrajudicial killing, torture and forced disappearances. The repression was most intense in the southeastern region of the country, particularly in the department of Zacapa, under the command of Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio.

In March 1966, thirty PGT associates were kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the security forces. This was one of the first major instances of forced disappearance in Latin American history.[4] These 30 disappearances marked the beginning of a dramatic increase of state repression in 1966. When law students at the University of San Carlos used legal measures (such as habeas corpus petitions) to require the government to present the detainees at court, some of the students were "disappeared" in turn.[5]

In exchange for military support of his administration, President Mendez authorized the armed forces to use "any means necessary" to suppress the insurgency. No longer bound to the rule of law, the security forces resorted to terror to control the population and dismantle the civilian support base of the insurgency. Guatemalan government forces killed or "disappeared" thousands of civilians during the escalation of the counterinsurgency. The repression was most intense in the eastern regions where the MR-13 operated, and in Guatemala City where the PGT operated. In eastern Guatemala, government forces engaged in the massacre of civilians and destruction of peasant communities as a means of breaking up guerrilla bases.

Some observers referred to the policy of the Guatemalan government as "White Terror" -a term previously used to describe similar periods of anti-communist mass killing in countries such as Taiwan and Spain-[6] Observers estimate that as many as 15,000 Guatemalans were killed by the military and government-led death squads in three years of Mendez's presidency.[7] The victims included guerrilla sympathizers, labor union leaders, intellectuals, students, and vaguely defined "enemies of the government."[6]

The government's use of "any means necessary" resulted in the opposition increasing its level of resistance to ensure its survival. The "White Terror" (which led to the destruction of the FAR's ladino peasant base in the eastern provinces) caused the MR-13 to retreat to Guatemala City. There, the MR-13 began to engage in selective killings of members of the security forces as well as U.S. military advisors. The insurgents assassinated the American ambassador to Guatemala, John Gordon Mein, in 1968, and the German ambassador to Guatemala, Karl Von Spreti, in 1970.[8]

The Guatemalan army, under the command of Colonel Arana, is estimated to have killed as many as 15,000 unarmed peasants to eliminate fewer than 300 Marxist guerrillas, earning Arana the nickname "Butcher of Zacapa" or "Jackal of the East."[9]

SCUGA[edit]

Following the inauguration of Méndez Montenegro, he appointed Colonel Rafael Arriaga Bosque to Defense Minister. Mendez activated the 'Special Commando Unit of the Guatemalan Army' (SCUGA). The SCUGA was placed under the command of Colonel Máximo Zepeda in January 1967, after which point it assumed command over most of the Guatemalan government's urban counterinsurgency operations against PGT. Composed of both military and civilian personnel, the SCUGA functioned both as a counter-terror apparatus and as an intelligence-gathering apparatus.[10] SCUGA commandos routinely carried out abductions, bombings, street assassinations, torture, "disappearances" and executions of both documented and suspected communists. The SCUGA often collaborated with the Fourth Corps of the Guatemalan National Police, which carried out similar activities. Together these forces often carried out various counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations under the guise of fictitious paramilitary death squads and anti-communist front organizations (known by acronyms such as the NOA, CADEG, CRAG and RAYO). In addition to engaging in operations under the guise of para-militarism, the SCUGA nominally worked with paramilitary death squads such as the infamous Mano Blanca ("White Hand").[11]

Mano Blanca[edit]

Main article: Mano Blanca

Mano Blanca, or the Movement of Organized Nationalist Action, was set up in 1966 as a front for the MLN to carry out its more violent activities,[12][13] along with many other similar groups, including the New Anticommunist Organization and the Anticommunist Council of Guatemala.[14] These three groups operated within the United States supported government arm known as the Regional Telecommunications Center, which linked them to various government, military and police agencies. This network was built on the Committees against Communism created by the Central Intelligence Agency after the coup in 1954.[14] The members of Mano Blanco were largely army officers, and the outfit received a lot of its funding from planters. It also received information from military intelligence.[13] It was one of the only death squads directly affiliated with a political party. Most such groups were "phantom organizations," created so that the United States backed military could carry out illicit activities.[15]

Armed with this support, Mano Blanca began a campaign described by the United States Department of State as one of "kidnappings, torture, and summary execution."[13] One of the main targets of Mano Blanca was the Partido Revolucionario (PR), an anti-communist group that was the only major reform oriented party allowed to operate under the military-dominated regime. Other targets included the banned leftist parties.[13] The PR drew a lot of its members from the activist base that had been created during the agrarian reform program begun by former president Jacobo Arbenz in 1952, and these individuals were targeted by the Mano Blanca.[13] When it was founded, the group had the specific aim of preventing Méndez Montenegro from taking power. During the 1970s, Mano Blanca was led by Raúl Lorenzana.[16]

Human rights activist Blase Bonpane described the activities of Mano Blanca as being an integral part of the policy of the Guatemalan government, and by extension the policy of the United States government and the Central Intelligence Agency.[17] One of the deaths Mano Blanca was responsible for was that César Montenegro Paniagua, a communist politician who was killed in retribution for the killing of West German ambassador Karl von Spreti by FAR guerrillas.[18] Mano Blanca also sent death threats to one of the leaders of a student organization. When he was questioned about the reason for the death threats, the leader of Mano Blanca stated that the student needed to be killed because he was a communist, and would "give his life for the poor."[19] Overall, Mano Blanca was responsible for thousands of murders and kidnappings, leading travel writer Paul Theroux to refer to them as "Guatemala's version of a volunteer Gestapo unit."[20]

References[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Enrique Peralta
President of Guatemala
1966–1970
Succeeded by
Carlos Arana