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How the British Army Cooperated with the Murderous Guatemalan Regime

Murder in the jungle.

Phil Miller

A young vendor pushes his merchandise past a wall covered with portraits of people who disappeared during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, in Guatemala City, Saturday, September 10, 2011. Photo by Moises Castillo / AP/Press Association Images

Guatemalans are still struggling to come to terms with what happened in their civil war between US-backed rulers, left-wing rebels, and indigenous communities. One former president, Rios Montt, is awaiting trial for genocide, charged with murdering 1,771 indigenous Maya people from 1982 to 1983. Now Britain's covert collusion with Montt's regime at the height of the 36-year civil war is being called into question by files VICE has discovered at the UK National Archives.

In 1983, Britain had a garrison of 1,500 soldiers stationed along the Guatemalan border in neighboring Belize, which was a former UK colony. Politicians in Westminster and the public thought that the British army was out there to stop Guatemala invading Belize, a move it had long threatened.

In secret, however, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allowed her troops to help the ruthless Guatemalan military dictatorship eliminate its internal opponents.

Left-wing Guatemalan rebels were trying to topple Montt's regime and allegedly staged some of their attacks from Belize. The files show that British commanders feared these cross-border raids would give the Guatemalan leadership an excuse to invade Belize. To prevent this, top British army officers decided to share intelligence on rebels with Guatemalan commanders, even though they were linked to human rights abuses. Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots made reconnaissance flights over the Belizean jungle looking for guerrilla camps, and British troops carried out secret foot patrols. UK soldiers even used a Guatemalan rebel informant for one patrol, before sending him back to Guatemala, where he was arrested and later murdered by government gunmen.

A leading lawyer is now warning that British troops may have breached human rights obligations in their handling of this agent.

The files also reveal that a British policeman conducted urban surveillance of guerrilla sympathizers in Belize under "Operation Octopus." And even though diplomatic relations with Guatemala had been cut, the foreign secretary allowed British soldiers to play Christmas volleyball matches with enemy troops.

Murder in the jungle

The unlikely alliance began in early 1983 when the Guatemalan military cultivated an informant inside one of the rebel groups.

The informant, 27-year-old Pedro Barrera, allegedly claimed that his former comrades had guerrilla bases in Belize.

This intelligence was passed to Belizean authorities and British forces, which remarkably agreed to help the Guatemalan regime clamp down on its own opponents.

The British High Commissioner sent a UK-Belizean patrol into the jungle, guided by Pedro Barrera, who by this point was effectively acting as a British army agent. When Barrera failed to find the guerrilla camp, the British high commissioner dismissed his intelligence as "worthless." The patrol was called back after ministers in London panicked about mission creep, with British soldiers now hunting guerrillas instead of just guarding the border.

Ministerial concern did not extent to Barrera. "Special Branch conducted further interrogation of the guide before returning him to Guatemala," a Foreign Office file states bluntly. There is no indication that the soldiers or police worried about what Guatemala might do to Barrera as a failed informant.

But there was able cause for concern. He was arrested in Guatemala but fled to a Belizean border village six weeks later, pursued by three Guatemalan gunmen in civilian clothes.

"Barrera tried to run away and was shot first in the leg and then in the head," a telegram on his murder explains. "The victim had been in Guatemalan custody a few hours before he was killed."

His assassins then went back across the border, where they were greeted by Guatemalan special forces soldiers from the notorious Kaibiles commando unit. "The murderers were themselves undoubtedly official agents," the British high commissioner in Belize told London.

Belize protested to the UN security council about the "callous and barbarous" murder of Barrera, calling it a "flagrant violation of Belizean territory." However, the fact that he was a British army agent was never made public—until now.

"The British government owes a legal duty of care to agents that it uses to protect them against foreseeable risks," commented lawyer Daniel Carey from Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors, who won an award for his work in Guatemala. "The more exploitative that relationship, the more onerous the duty.

"It also has a human rights obligation not to hand prisoners in its custody to regimes where they face a risk of torture or death. On the basis of this account, it appears that both of these duties were breached."

The Ministry of Defence refused to comment.

Secret patrols

After Pedro Barrera's tip-off, RAF pilots flew reconnaissance missions to photograph the Belize jungle for any sign of Guatemalan guerrillas. Defense intelligence staff analyzed the photos in Britain, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher authorized further recon. Two patrols containing British soldiers searched the jungle in vain for guerrilla camps before they were extracted by helicopter. Information from American intelligence later that year led to another search.

However, details about these patrols have been censored in the military files, because the information was "supplied by or relates" to the intelligence agencies or special forces.

The Special Air Service (SAS) regularly operated in Belize. George Hill, an ex-squaddie who served in Belize in 1982 with the royal artillery, saw the SAS twice during his tour. "They were definitely doing covert patrolling," he said.

The possible involvement of elite troops on these controversial anti-guerrilla missions is a common view among the veterans VICE contacted. "Without a shadow of a doubt, it would have been special forces," said Chris Slater, who served in the parachute regiment.

The regiment's second battalion, "2 para," was in Belize in 1983 and had a specially trained reconnaissance unit, "working exactly the same as [SAS units from] Hereford do," Slater explained.

Gus Hales, a "2 para" veteran who served in Belize in 1983, now suspects his jungle patrols were unwittingly aimed at guerrillas. "We were told to look out for drug smugglers who may well be wearing uniforms," Hales recalled. "But the guys we came across in jungle camps were ordered and tried to conceal their tracks.

"They were Mayan Indians who knew how to live in that terrain, which made it kind of strange. Now it would make sense that they were guerrillas."

Paratrooper patrols sounded formidable. "We were a bit trigger-happy, pumped up, and looking for something to come up," Hales said of his time in Belize. His regiment was battle hardened, fresh from winning the Falklands/Malvinas war.

Meeting the enemy

Even though rank and file soldiers possibly did not realize their patrols targeted guerrillas, senior British officers were well aware that was the purpose.

The commander of British Forces in Belize, Brigadier Pollard, had secret meetings with Guatemalan military officers linked to serious human rights abuses, where intelligence on guerrilla activity was exchanged. He had several meetings with Colonel Tobar Martínez, who was in charge of Guatemala's northern Petén region.

Months before their first rendezvous, Guatemalan soldiers under Colonel Martínez's command massacred 251 villagers in the Las Dos Erres settlement, in one of the worst atrocities during Guatemala's civil war, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This did not deter the Brigadier from sharing sensitive intelligence with him about Britain's unsuccessful search for guerrillas, which alluded to Pedro Barrera's failure.

Weeks before Barrera's murder, Brigadier Pollard told Colonel Martínez that British troops had carried out a "full search ... with negative results."

Still, Guatemala's president, Rios Montt, was "impressed" when he heard about the intelligence-sharing arrangement with British troops.

Guatemala's former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt in court during a previous genocide trial. Photo by Moises Castillo / AP

"President Rios Montt had been impressed by news of this 'interchange' and wished to encourage more informal meetings between the armed forces," one telegram reads. Montt came to power in a military coup and is currently awaiting trial for genocide charges relating to this period.

VICE showed the papers to Kate Doyle, an award-winning archivist on the civil war who has gathered evidence for genocide charges against the former military regime.

"Why was anyone in authority talking to Guatemalan forces months after one of worst massacres, which was in the Petén?" Doyle said. "The US backed Guatemala with covert aid but openly criticized their human rights record.

"The British communications are entirely stripped of any human rights dimension. It just does not come up."

The files show that some Foreign Office staff were surprised at the extent of Brigadier Pollard's collaboration, but regarded it as positive.

"I don't think we had fully realized the extent to which he keeps in touch with senior Guatemalan military personnel," a British diplomat in Washington remarked approvingly.

Pollard was so charming that Martínez wanted to "meet again immediately prior to Christmas on a more social basis to include a meal and perhaps a game of volleyball." Margaret Thatcher's foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, then personally agreed to a volleyball match going ahead.

A more explicit document reveals that Brigadier Pollard "was most concerned to reassure GAF (Guatemalan Armed Forces) that if they acquired any hard intelligence on either Guatemalan guerrillas harboring in Belize or on arms being transported to Guatemalan guerrillas through Belize, and provided GAF passed it to us, we would take action on that intelligence, as we had done in the recent alleged guerrilla camp."

Another telegram, seen by MI6, shows that Pollard and his intelligence chief met with the former commandant of Guatemala's Kaibiles commando training school, even though the British army knew Kaibiles were linked to Pedro Barrera's murder months earlier.

The British brigadier proudly told the Kaibiles veteran that "my OPs [observation posts] and patrols, by being in the border area, deterred movement of weapons and guerrillas."

Human rights organizations regard the Kaibiles as the most barbaric of Guatemala's units, with its own members calling it a "killing machine." However, a British army intelligence report took a different view, describing the Kaibiles academy as "probably the best Special Forces school in Central America."

Intelligence files

British units in Belize kept detailed intelligence records of Guatemalan troop movements in case of any attempts to invade. These records show that British forces knew Guatemala's military was engaged in a brutal internal crackdown but continued to cooperate with them nonetheless.

An intelligence bulletin noted that up to 1,000 guerrillas had been surrounded and that the Guatemalan military "intend to keep them surrounded so as to starve them out."

Other bulletins warn of escalating repression against the indigenous Maya population: "There is increasing evidence to suggest that the GAF is straying away from its 'bullets and beans' policy, and is taking a tougher line with Indian peasants."

In case there was any doubt about the situation in Guatemala, one intelligence report noted: "It is a fact that there has been a certain amount of official involvement in murder and political violence. 'Death Squads' have been part of the Guatemalan way of life for many years."

Even on the rare occasions that human rights concerns arose, they were quickly dismissed.

A joint UK-Belize intelligence summary said: "A new report by the World Council of Churches claims that President Rios Montt's government was responsible for the deaths of more than 9,000 people between March and August, 1982."

However, the intelligence officer commented, "Although the report claims to have evidence to support the figure mentioned, there is no collateral in support of the statement."

Operation Octopus

British personnel in Belize also helped police to spy on rebel sympathizers in urban areas. UK aid money funded a British policeman, Alan Jenkins, to "effectively run" the Belize special branch. He put suspected guerrilla activists under surveillance in what the files call "Operation Octopus."

The operation found "pretty conclusive evidence of the existence in Belize of cells organized directly by the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes ("Rebel Armed Forces," or FAR), one of the principal Guatemalan guerrilla organizations."

The evidence was so alarming that the joint intelligence committee in Whitehall carried out a "threat assessment," and MI5 studied the report. "The FAR leadership in Belize is to begin the selection of FAR members in Belize for guerrilla warfare training in the Petén district of Guatemala," special branch warned.

British soldiers responded by giving Belize police more covert surveillance training.

"Bigger picture"

The motive for British action against Guatemalan rebels was that guerrilla hideouts in Belize would provoke Guatemala to invade.

However, the files also contain evidence that could have led UK military chiefs to make a different decision. The invasion threat was classed as low in 1983 precisely because Guatemala was so busy fighting rebel groups. Arguably then, giving the rebels safe haven in Belize could have precipitated the fall of the military regime in Guatemala.

And yet when it came to defeating left-wing rebels, Britain and Guatemala were effectively on the same side.

Harris Whitbeck, an unofficial adviser to Guatemala's President Montt, reminded the British commander at one meeting that: "Of course, seen in the bigger picture, the aim of all of us is to defeat communism in Central America."

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said, "We do not comment on the papers of previous governments."

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