Justice in Guatemala: 44 years later

John Gordon Mein’s death, like that of Chris Stevens, remains uninvestigated, his murderers unidentified and unpunished. 44 years later, it's time to put that right

John Gordon Mein 1913-1968
Fernando Menendez
On 12 April 2013 09:09

August 28th, 1968 was a hot day in Guatemala City when U.S. ambassador John Gordon Mein drove towards the U.S. Embassy. Within minutes, the unarmed ambassador was gunned down by a death squad sent by the FAR (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes – Rebel Armed Forces), a Marxist guerrilla group involved in the country’s long civil war.

A group of gunmen in green fatigues blocked the ambassador’s chauffer-driven Cadillac as he drove back in the mid-afternoon traffic. Trapped between a Buick and a red pick up, Mein was ordered to get out of the car. As Mein tried to escape, one of the assassins ordered: “Shoot him. Kill him.” With machine guns and pistols they opened fire on the unarmed Mein. Moments later Mein lay dead on the street, eight bullets in his back.

He was the first U.S. ambassador assassinated in the line of duty. On September 11th, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other members of his mission were trapped in the U.S. consulate by Islamist terrorists. Stevens was reportedly captured, raped and died from smoke asphyxiation in an incident that has now been described as a “cover up” by critics of the current administration.

In January 1968, Ambassador Mein, a career diplomat, had stood by sternly as the Guatemalan defense minister awarded two medals to Col. John D. Webber and Lt. Commander Ernest A. Munro, two U.S. Embassy security officers gunned down by leftist guerrillas while driving through the capital. The Guatemalan civil war took on an international flavor as the guerillas targeted U.S. assets helping the local government.

The similarities in the deaths of ambassadors Mein and Stevens are noteworthy. First, both men were killed in action during a severe conflict. The Guatemalan civil war was as brutal and bloody as Libya’s overthrow of Gaddafi, only spread out over 36 years. Secondly, both the Marxist guerrillas and the Islamist terrorists targeted Americans as their principal enemies in a global struggle. Thirdly, so far, both assassinations have gone unpunished.

Unlike the Benghazi case, the response to Ambassador Mein’s assassination, however, was quick. One bulletin filed by the State department stated that:

Last night President Méndez Montenegro declared a state of siege. A curfew was imposed and the frontiers sealed. The security forces have rounded-up suspected left-wing extremists and are conducting a house-to-house search for the assassins. Five suspects have been arrested, but as yet no firm leads have developed.

Nevertheless, both ambassadors were murdered with impunity.  Like Ambassador Mein’s killers, Ambassador Stevens’ – those ordering and committing the killing – remain at large. One of the prime suspects in Benghazi was spotted sipping fruit juice in a Tunis café.

The Double Standard

Today, Guatemala is reliving a debate about its civil war that ended in 1996. General Efraín Rios Mont, a former military dictator (1982-83), is being tried in the courts and by the media for “genocide and crimes against humanity.” His trial, stretching the bounds of due process, was moved up by several months.  The current president, Otto Pérez Molina, a former army general, is also under scrutiny for his alleged participation in war crimes during the latter part of the war.

The aim is to bring to justice those who committed crimes during a dirty war that cost an estimated 200,000 lives. Most curious, however, is the selective nature of such “bringing to justice.” While former military leaders and ordinary soldiers are being brought before magistrates, the guerrillas, whose atrocities are well documented, remain beyond reproach.

In 1970, for instance, Germany’s ambassador to Guatemala, Karl von Spreti, was kidnapped and murdered by the FAR. None of the FAR guerrilla leaders were ever brought to trial for the ambassador’s death. In fact, Rodrigo Asturias, a guerrilla commander who refused to sign the 1996 peace treaty ending the war, returned home and ran for president in 2003. He died of a heart attack in his swimming pool.

Having lost the last election to Pérez Molina, Guatemala’s left, backed by UN-associated development agencies and other non-governmental organizations, has focused on the “genocide and crimes against humanity” committed by the Guatemalan armed forces while consistently ignoring the role of the guerrillas in the war. The intent being to frame the civil war as a one-way assault by the military against Guatemala’s defenseless indigenous peasantry without reference to Cuban and Nicaraguan support for the guerrillas.

The indiscriminate bombings, torture of noncombatants, kidnappings and murders committed by the guerrillas are largely sidetracked. Like the left-wing Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu’s best-selling autobiography, most of the left’s narrative is largely selective if not untrue.

In the midst of this, ambassador Mein’s death, like that of Chris Stevens, remains uninvestigated, his murderers unidentified and unpunished. Like Libya, perhaps it is time the U.S. gets an account for the death of its ambassador and the killers’ masters are brought to trial, now that everyone in Guatemala seems to be paying for their past.

Fernando Menéndez is an economist and principal of the Cordoba Group International, a strategic consulting firm providing clients with economic and political analysis

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