The conviction last week of Guatemala’s former military dictator and president Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide provides a chance to reflect on Taiwan’s little-known role in the armed conflicts of Central America in the latter half of the 20th century.
As the head of the Guatemalan government between March 1982 and August 1983, Rios Montt was ultimately responsible for government policies which sought to exterminate swaths of Guatemala’s indigenous population. This was achieved through the use of so-called “death squads,” which mainly attacked the country’s Maya people, whose political protests were being framed as pro-Communist. However, what the administration was actually concerned with was consolidating the power of the Guatemalan elite and the communist frame put on the protests was largely fictional.
To clarify what Rios Montt’s conviction relates to, one can look at Paragraph 122 of the 1999 UN report of the Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala. This paragraph states that: “the [commission] concludes that agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people which lived in the four regions analysed. This conclusion is based on the evidence that, in light of Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the killing of members of Mayan groups occurred (Article II.a), serious bodily or mental harm was inflicted (Article II.b) and the group was deliberately subjected to living conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part (Article II.c). The conclusion is also based on the evidence that all these acts were committed ‘with intent to destroy, in whole or in part’ groups identified by their common ethnicity, by reason thereof, whatever the cause, motive or final objective of these acts may have been (Article II, first paragraph).”
About 60 percent of Guatemala’s people identify themselves as a member of one of several distinct groups under the umbrella term “Maya,” and of the 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared between 1960 and 1996 during the country’s armed conflict, the vast majority were of Mayan heritage.
Taiwan’s relationship with Guatemala during the country’s armed conflict is interesting. When the Republic of China (ROC) was excluded from the UN on Oct. 25, 1971, Guatemala was quick to confirm its continued diplomatic support for the nation. At the center of this effort was Mario Sandoval Alarcon, an ultra-capitalist future implementer of death squads and the then-speaker of the Guatemalan Congress. The records of now disbanded Government Information Office state that Sandoval arrived in Taiwan on Oct. 28, 1971, for a week-long strategic planning visit. Sandoval would become the linchpin between Guatemala and Taiwan.
Beginning in 1974 when Sandoval became Guatemala’s vice president, military officers from Guatemala and other Central American republics came to Taiwan to receive political warfare and counterinsurgency training at the Political Warfare Cadres Academy in Taipei’s Beitou District (北投). In 1986, US journalists Scott Anderson and Jon Lee Anderson published an expose on this period entitled Inside the League: The Shocking Expose of How Terrorists, Nazis, and Latin American Death Squads Have Infiltrated the World Anti-Communist League, which is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the topic.
“Through his leadership role in the Latin American Anti-Communist Confederation and the World Anti-Communist League, Sandoval made numerous trips to Taiwan, where he was feted by Kuomintang [KMT] leaders. Quietly, Guatemalan officers, an estimated fifty to seventy, were sent to Taiwan to receive training in political warfare,” they wrote in the book. “The courses at Peitou [sic], which were taught in Spanish, met Guatemalan educational requirements for military advancement; majors that went to Taiwan returned as Lieutenant Colonels. Even as their Guatemalan armed forces salaries continued, Taiwan picked up most, if not all, of the air fare and living expenses while they were in Taiwan.”
In the years after 1974, an increasing number of Guatemalan officers went to Taiwan, Taiwanese political warfare manuals became commonplace on the bookshelves of Guatemalan military personnel and Taiwan began holding military training courses in Guatemala on ideology, counterinsurgency, political warfare and information extraction techniques. As such, the Guatemalan death squads who executed their government’s genocidal policies were at least partly trained by the Taiwanese. It was the then-Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) repressive model of governance that was appealing and insightful to the ideologically similar authoritarian regimes in Central America who were keen to consolidate their own power base, and the ROC was increasingly keen to help these regimes as it found itself more and more diplomatically isolated.
Taiwan was not the only country to provide military assistance to Guatemala during its armed conflict; the US, Israel and Argentina were notable others, and no one is accusing Taiwan of participating actively in the war. However, Taiwan’s refusal to comply with the UN commission set up at the end of the conflict should be seen as indicative of the sensitivity of the information that would have been revealed on the role that it played. Taiwan and Guatemala have made extensive political and structural reforms since this period, yet much of the information pertaining to this era remains classified in Taiwan.
The conviction of Rios Montt by a Guatemalan court goes someway toward the country’s reconciliation with its past, so perhaps the time has now come for Taiwan to conduct a full and frank investigation into its own relationships with some of the 20th century’s most controversial regimes.
Colin Alexander is a Ministry of Foreign Affairs international research fellow. His research focuses on Taiwan’s international relations with its remaining diplomatic allies.