Days of Revolt: America’s Death Squads
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and investigative journalist Allan Nairn break down the mechanics of U.S. intervention across the globe, and the consequences still unraveling today.
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi, I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. Today we’re going to discuss the shadow world of empire, the use of targeted assassinations, the collusion with death squads in countries, especially countries that are carrying out proxy wars in which the United States is involved in. And with me in the studio is certainly one of the great investigative journalists in the United States, Allan Nairn, whose career now about three decades has spanned, covering all sorts of conflicts. East Timor, Indonesia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Palestine, El Salvador.
And in almost all of these countries Allan has dug deep into these shadow worlds at great personal risk. And I think–Allan, first of all, thank you for joining us. And I’d like to ask a little bit about when societies engage, whether that is in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Indonesia, in these civil conflicts, and the United States becomes involved, what the collusion is between the U.S. military in particular and those sectors of the government that are carrying out wholesale assassinations. We often call them death squads. That’s a bit of a misnomer because it hasn’t–Rios Montt’s Guatemala, these are often uniformed, part of the military.
You know, and looking at the various conflicts that you have covered, what are the patterns that you’ve seen?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, it starts with the fact that the U.S. has been willing to kill civilians. When the U.S. was starting, it did that here.
NAIRN: Mass killings of Native Americans, of slaves. But over the years, as they got political pressure from below, it became untenable in the United States. As recently as last century, the early part of the last century in the U.S., there were mass–well, they’re targeted killings of labor leaders. As recently as the ’60s and ’70s there were assassinations of people in the black liberation movement. Classic political assassinations in the ’70s done by the FBI, for example.
But it became more and more politically untenable. But to this day it is still politically permissible for U.S. forces to carry out or sponsor assassinations of civilians. Of students, journalists, religious leaders, peasant organizers, whomever. In fact, in U.S. politics, if a president is reluctant, or seems reluctant to do this, they get castigated. They get called a wimp. George Bush Sr. came under vicious attack when he attempted through covert means to mount a coup in Panama against Noriega and it failed. And there was a cover of, I think it was Newsweek, called The Wimp Factor, where they were attacking Bush Sr. for not being strong enough.
HEDGES: Well, there’s American journalism doing its job.
NAIRN: Within a very short–I think it was within a week after that he invaded Panama formally, an invasion that included the burning of the neighborhood called El Chorrillo, where hundreds were killed. A poor neighborhood. The New York Times then ran a front page analysis by R.W. Apple which said that Bush Sr. had completed his presidential initiation rite by demonstrating his willingness to shed blood. Not his own blood, but the blood of foreigners, including of foreign civilians.
And this to this day is part of U.S. politics. It’s basically a refusal on the part of American society to enforce the murder laws when the killings are done by presidents or generals, and where the victims are foreigners. Now, all big powers do this. But in the recent period, because the U.S. has been the dominant power, the U.S. has the biggest death toll. If you added all the operations up it would go into the several millions. Just to list the ones that I’ve personally seen and tried to expose and fight against, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, South Africa, Palestine, East Timor, Indonesia, Southern Thailand. I’m sure I’m leaving out a few. The U.S. has used the Pentagon, the CIA, occasionally the State Department to set up or back local forces, help them gather intelligence on dissidents, and help them provide the means to carry out systematic assassinations.
In addition to that, as you mentioned, they will sometimes back formal military forces that go into the field and wipe out entire villages. The Guatemalan military did that, especially during the early ’80s when the Reagan administration was backing them enthusiastically under the time of the dictator general Rios Montt. And they would go into villages in the Mayan highlands in the northwest, and I was there, I spoke to the soldiers as they were doing it, I spoke to survivors. They would decapitate people. They would crucify people. They would use the tactics that ISIS today puts on video, and they’re now shocking the world.
HEDGES: One of the things I’d like you to speak about is the mechanics of how it works. You had written, I think the first article I’d read that you wrote was about a death squad leader completely trained, funded, backed by the U.S. called Chele Medrano in El Salvador who was eventually assassinated by the FMLN rebels. And when we were in El Salvador, the head of the military group, Col. James Steele, who had been with some of the dirtiest army units in Vietnam, there was always that question as to the extent–we knew that there were, there was collaboration between the death squads, which were run primarily out of the hacienda police, the treasury police, and the national police. And then you had freelance squads run by the right-wing group [inaud.] Roberto D’Abuisson and others.
NAIRN: And the army. The army [inaud.].
HEDGES: And, and the army. And the army, too. Right. And then in the middle of the Iraq war we find Steele, who was never selected for general because of his involvement in Iran-Contra, is resurrected as a private contractor and sent to train, arm, equip, and run the Shiite death squads in Iraq. And suddenly we are hearing the Salvador option.
What are the mechanics?
NAIRN: Right. Well, first thing’s there has been progress over years and years of popular struggle. It’s become illegitimate for most political leaders to admit to their murders. They now have to hide them. And in the country that’s perhaps, in a sense, most advanced in this respect, Guatemala, two years ago through their domestic courts they put on trial Rios Montt, the former dictator who ran the massacres. They convicted him of genocide, and they sentenced him for 80 years. Imagine the U.S. being able to put a president on trial and do that.
But Salvador is a very interesting example. The Salvadoran death squad apparatus was created by the U.S., starting during the Kennedy administration through the, through mainly U.S. Special Forces, the CIA, and also the old version of U.S. [inaud.].
HEDGES: And let me just, for people who don’t know Salvador, back up. Half of the people in El Salvador were landless. It was controlled by a tiny oligarchic elite known as the ten families. There were more than ten. And there was constant political movement on the parts of the landless, of labor unions, of students groups, of indigenous groups, to attempt to organize to lift themself out of crushing poverty. And so the Praetorian Guard, the military, that was acting on behalf of the oligarchic elite began assassinating, as you point out–we’re going all the way back to the Matanza in 1932. But certainly in the ’50s and ’60s, and then it accelerated up to the war, all of these leaders, so.
NAIRN: Right. And the U.S. created this–starting during the Kennedy administration and continuing all the way up created this intelligence-gathering system which linked Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua. They would have central files organized for them with the help of the CIA, and they would teach them how to go out and watch on a systematic basis the campuses, the courts, the plantations. Especially the factories, run by the local oligarchs but also the American investors. And they would compile files.
And in El Salvador some people showed me some of these actual files, and Gen. Medrano, who was seen as the godfather of the Salvadoran death squads because starting in the late ’60s and through the early ’80s he was the leader working on behalf of the U.S. and organizing the system. He actually sat down–I spent 13 hours interviewing him on tape. And he drew diagrams. And he explained to me how the Salvadoran priests, the nuns, the catechists, the unionists, they were all controlled by Moscow. And he would draw these schematics showing from Moscow to Havana to here to there. And he said, so they all became targets. And it was our mission to kill them. And he described in great detail how he did this while working on the payroll of the United States.
You mentioned Vietnam, and Steele having served in Vietnam. Medrano showed me a plaque. And it was photographed, it said–you can look it up in the old article in the Progressive. Mickey [Kienitz] was working with me, the photographer. He took this photo of Gen. Medrano proudly showing the plaque given to him by the U.S. Green Berets in Vietnam when they brought him over for several months to observe their methods and work with them.
HEDGES: Well, the methods were, as Nick Turse writes in Kill Anything That Moves, was one huge atrocity. Those were the methods.
NAIRN: And then he also showed me a silver medal, which he said was presented to him in the Oval Office by President Lyndon Johnson. It said ‘For Exceptionally Meritorious Service’. And these were the death squads that produced actions like the rape and murder of the nuns.
HEDGES: Well, they were also–.
NAIRN: The anniversary of which just, just happened a, a few days ago. The assassination of Archbishop Romero.
HEDGES: And we should–right. And we should mention that this killing was huge. I mean, 700 to 1,000 people a month were being killed by the death squads in the early ’80s in El Salvador.
NAIRN: And an important aspect of that related to today’s situation where the, the world is finally starting to understand what’s involved with political killing when they see the videos of ISIS. The death squad method in Salvador, not only would they kill but they would cut off hands, they would cut off arms, and they would display their handiwork on the road.
HEDGES: I know. I saw.
NAIRN: So passersby would see it. In the same period a–I spent more of those years in Guatemala, which was even worse, where they were killing more than 100,000, perhaps more than 200,000 by some estimates. In, one day in the library of the Polytechnica, the military academy of Guatemala, I found the Spanish translation of a U.S. military counterinsurgency document which gave instruction on how to create terror. This was the way they put it. And they described methods used in the Philippines in the campaign against the Huks.
NAIRN: And the particular campaign they were talking about was very interesting, because they were talking about some operations that were done after World War II.
HEDGES: Oh, this was in ’45-’46, right.
NAIRN: Yeah. When some of the, the Communists who had helped join with the U.S. to fight against the Japanese occupiers and help expel the Japanese occupiers, immediately after the Japanese occupiers were expelled the U.S. then turned against these, the Communist allies, to try to crush them. And in this document appearing in the Guatemala military library they were describing how to terrorize the population by using precisely that tactic. In the case of the Philippines they were talking about leaving the bodies by the rivers. So you mutilate the bodies, you cut them, you amputate, and then you display the bodies on the riversides to stir terror in the population. And of course that’s exactly what ISIS is, is doing today.
HEDGES: Well, in Sal–in Salvador they would leave, we would see the bodies. And sometimes, because they hated the journalists they, I remember, left three bodies in the parking lot of the [camino real] where they had cut off the genitals and stuffed them in their mouths, and left a note saying, we, we’re next.
You’ve spent significant amounts of time in Indonesia, where the government carried out wholesale killings on a level that [probably] dwarfs even Guatemala.
NAIRN: Perhaps a million.
HEDGES: Perhaps [a million].
NAIRN: Nobody really knows. Perhaps.
HEDGES: What were the parallels that you saw in Indonesia, in terms of American involvement with Central America?
NAIRN: Well, it’s the same tactics. In a, basically what I’ve tried to do over [inaud.].
HEDGES: And we should say that they, there was a leftist government that the U.S. didn’t like. Was it in ’65 that it was–.
NAIRN: Well, this was the government of Sukarno, who was the founding president of Indonesia. He was in a sense a leftist. He was more of a kind of very–. [Inaud.]
HEDGES: Well in the, in the eyes–in the eyes of Washington, that’s right.
NAIRN: And they, they wanted him out of there.
NAIRN: And the U.S. helped, they encouraged a coup against him. The army staged a coup. They seized power. And they then staged a massacre of anywhere from 400,000 to 1 million civilians. The CIA weighed in with a list of 5,000 targets for assassination. The U.S. press was hailing it at the time. They were calling it a gleam of light in Asia.
And Gen. Suharto was installed in power as a result of this process. Suharto later went and, in the mid-’70s, went and sought the permission of President Ford and Henry Kissinger to invade the small neighboring country of East Timor, which was then emerging into independence from having been a Portuguese colony. They gave the green light. They just said do it quickly, try to do it quietly. They went in, they killed a third of the population.
HEDGES: You were there.
NAIRN: Well, not at the time of the invasion. But in ’91 when they actually staged a massacre in front of a cemetery, which I happened to survive. I was there with Amy Goodman, and they killed more than 200 people right before our eyes, and they fractured my skull with their American M-16 rifle butts. And this was stand–this is standard procedure. And this–I’ve tried to go over to the countries where the repression is most intense, and where the U.S. is backing it, and then try to expose it and stopping it, stop it. That’s a long list of countries.
HEDGES: It is, but–.
NAIRN: Dozens upon dozens. And it’s systematic–it’s the exact same tactics in country after country, with local adaptations, and often the officers are all trained at the same U.S. military [places].
HEDGES: You’re right.
NAIRN: At Fort Bragg, at Fort Benning, at Leavenworth, at the Inter-American Defense College, in the case of the Latin American officers. And it’s systematic.
But I should also note, it’s not unique to the US. This is, this is standard for big powers. I mean, if you look at what’s happening in Iraq and Syria today, it’s reached the point–I was in Afghanistan early this year, and it was very interesting because I happened to be in Afghanistan at what was perhaps the most peaceful moment in recent Afghan history. The U.S. had just completed the announcement, and were starting to implement their big pullout, the level of attacks on all sides were down. It was my first time in Afghanistan. Yet walking around in this moment of maximum peace there it was striking to see just the general level of terror on the streets of Kabul, and this conviction that everyone you spoke to had–I didn’t find anyone to whom this did not apply, that no matter who you were, if you wanted to have any kind of impact in politics you had to align yourself with some kind of killer force. Be it the Americans and NATO or the Taliban, or some other armed faction capable of fast mass killing. Without that you had no chance for any [inaud.].
HEDGES: That was true, by the way, in the breakdown of Yugoslavia. It was the same.
NAIRN: Impact. Yes. It’s–and it’s exactly a process of breakdown. Because this never happened in Central America, actually. Central America was just a straight-up massacre. Haiti was a straight-up massacre. Palestine has been a straight-up repression. South Africa was straight-up repression and slaughter. Angola, et cetera. But in, in recent years in Afghanistan, now in Iraq and Syria, it’s reached the point of political and social breakdown, where there’s really no stopping it. It’s out of control. There’s no, there are not just two sides, it fractures into many sides. In some ways, I think it’s in certain ways analogous to what happened in Cambodia, with the massive U.S. bombing of Cambodia which paved the way for the rise of the Khmer, Khmer Rouge.
HEDGES: Which created a failed, created a failed state.
NAIRN: Because it just, it destroys normal, any semblance of normal politics or even society. So in that kind of environment the most evil, the most violent, have a better chance to rise and to prevail.
HEDGES: So I have this question. You unleash, collude, Americans collude with these death squads, these killing machines. Do you believe that there’s a certain point that the, you know, it’s a kind of Pandora’s box that the Americans open, and that they realize it’s counterproductive, or not?
NAIRN: That’s a very good and very important question. Earlier this year, I had a chance to meet with several dozen people who were–these were intellectuals, activists visiting the U.S., and they were from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and Tunisia. And also Libya. These were the people from the front line, what are today the front line countries. And we had a very interesting discussion. When I argued that all the living American presidents and top American generals should all be put on trial for crimes against humanity they completely agreed with that. To them it was, it almost went without saying.
But when I tried to argue that ISIS was not being run from the White House, that ISIS was not a deliberate creation and creature of the United States, they completely disagreed with me. These people almost to a person insisted that ISIS was a creation of Washington. And when I tried to argue the contrary they just, they just weren’t having it. And what was, what made this really interesting was that all of these people had been brought here by the U.S. Department of State. These people had been selected by the respective U.S. embassies in their countries, and they were on a study tour of the United States sponsored by the State Department. So these were the people who the State Department could find who were willing to participate in a program with the U.S. government and they still all believed that the U.S. was backing ISIS.
It shows you that, the point people have been driven to in their thinking. I think the reality of it is that first the U.S., like the other big powers, has no standard of respecting the murder laws. They’re willing to kill any civilian if they find that useful or even convenient, or even for fulfilling an almost whimsical desire, they’ll do it. Secondly, I think the role of concrete interest in politics is often overestimated when you’re talking about world politics. Yes, that’s a factor. Something like oil, yes, that’s a factor. But there are also all sorts of other intangible factors.
One of them is the need to maintain the dramatic tension. Unless you have enough of an enemy out there, unless you have enough fighting going on, unless you have enough drama going on, a big powerful state, one of whose pillars is war, like the United States, or like say, today’s Israel, which is very much an example. Sparta-type states, in a sense. They can’t sustain themselves. They need a high level of dramatic tension. And so they have to constantly be provoking. Constantly be causing trouble here and there. And that often leads to backing forces that sometimes, not usually, come back to bite them.
What’s kind of unusual in historical terms is that we’re now in a moment where these operations of willful murder on the part of the U.S. and provocation have actually come back to bite them. That doesn’t usually happen. There was no consequence like that from Central America. There was no consequence like that from Haiti, in Palestine, from Southern Africa. Nothing like that. But in this case it happens to have happened. And operations like the U.S. backing of the mujaheddin to repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, happened to create and back this force. And then more recently just in the past couple of years the U.S. backing of the various anti-Assad Islamist forces in Syria, these have given birth to first al-Qaeda and then ISIS. And that wasn’t the U.S. intention. They didn’t want to create al-Qaeda in the sense of the al-Qaeda that attacks the US. They didn’t want to create an ISIS which is now a political nightmare for the entire Western [inaud.].
HEDGES: Well, they, they didn’t want to create the FMLN.
NAIRN: The entire, the entire Western world, yeah. These are consequ–the FMLN never came back to–.
HEDGES: It never came to the States.
NAIRN: Really hurt the U.S.. But now it’s happened. But to the people who live there, to the people who live on the other end of the gun, you know, the decision to pull the trigger gets made here. The bullet comes out their end. They experience these decades upon decades of slaughter, and they see what is just the latest iteration, which is, which is ISIS, and they say, oh yeah, I guess that one must be coming from Washington, too.
And earlier you mentioned Col. Steele, who we were talking about before the break. It’s an interesting example. Because first he was in Vietnam. The U.S. Special Forces were bringing people like Gen. Medrano of Salvador over to work with people like Steele in Vietnam. Medrano then goes back to help create the Salvadoran death squads. Years later, Steele is brought to Iraq. And when I was first asked about this, when the Pentagon was employing what they called the Salvador option in Iraq, I said, well, I don’t quite see how it’s going to work, because conditions are entirely different. In Iraq there was a whole community of civilian activists who the death squads were assassinating. In Iraq, such people no longer exist. They’re all dead.
HEDGES: You mean in Salvador there were.
NAIRN: Yeah, in Salvador. And in Iraq such people no longer exist, so I’m not sure what Steele’s going to do. Well, it turns out I didn’t–I didn’t have enough imagination. What Steele, and working for Gen. Petraeus, ended up doing was they unleashed these, these Shiite militias who went out and killed Sunnis.
HEDGES: Any Sunni of any–yeah. Yeah. Often unarmed.
NAIRN: Armed, armed or [inaud.] of them. And this was part of the deliberately sectarian strategy that also included the dividing up by walls of Baghdad. And you know, the U.S. growing close to figures like Maliki, who was personally run by the White House–you know, Bob Woodward’s books are very interesting, as kind of internal stenographies of what was going on in the White House at the time. He describes in detail how George W. Bush would personally handle Maliki. In the way that a CIA person would handle his field asset, Bush would personally handle Maliki from the White House over video conference dozens upon dozens of times. And this is the man who right after the U.S. left launched the most intense sectarian campaign terrorizing the [Sunni] of Iraq, which was kind of the immediate, most proximate cause to the rise of ISIS in Iraq.
So it’s this nightmare that’s been unleashed. It is out of Washington’s control now. No big power has control over this. I think the outside powers are mainly responsible for the rise of ISIS and the chaos in Syria and [Iraq].
HEDGES: Without question.
NAIRN: And that means the U.S., with the invasion of Iraq. Russia with propping up Assad. Iran with propping up Assad. The U.S. for everything they did after the invasion. The Gulf states, Saudi, et cetera, backing the Islamist forces, many of which later became ISIS. But it’s now out of all of their control. The U.S. can’t control it. Russia can’t control it. The Saudis can’t control it. It has reached that point, as it did in Afghanistan. But it’s even worse in Syria and Iraq.
And you know, the Bible says they sow the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind. Well, usually that isn’t true. It’s just not true most of the time. It’s like the other slogan, you know, the people united will never be defeated. Not true. The people united get defeated all the time. They get crushed. They get massacred. They get thrown into mass graves. But sometimes you sow the wind and you do reap the whirlwind. And that’s what’s happening now to the West with ISIS.
HEDGES: Exactly. Exactly. Thank you, Allan.
HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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