Washing U.S. Hands of the Dirty Wars: News Coverage Erases Washington’s Role in State Terror

Recently the Latin American “dirty wars” of the 1960s-80s have resurfaced in mainstream media discussion. One reason is the trials in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Peru, and Uruguay against some of the late twentieth century’s most vicious criminals, who are collectively responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of political dissidents and their suspected sympathizers. Some of the highest-profile defendants are Guatemalan dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83), Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-86), and various officials from Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-83). Dozens of former Argentine military officials have been convicted since 2008, while prosecutions against Ríos Montt and other Guatemalan officials and Haiti’s Duvalier have been attempted since 2011.

Despite dedicating substantial coverage to these events, U.S. news outlets have usually ignored the role of the U.S. government in supporting these murderous right-wing regimes through military aid and diplomatic support. This pattern also applies to press coverage of current U.S.-backed “dirty wars,” in Honduras and elsewhere [1].


The U.S. and the Dirty Wars: An Amnesiac’s View

The documentary record leaves no doubt about U.S. support for state terror in Latin America’s dirty wars. Although historians debate whether U.S. support was decisive in particular cases, all serious scholars agree that Washington played at least an important enabling role [2]. Argentina, Guatemala, and Haiti are good examples.

Argentina’s military regime murdered, tortured, and raped tens of thousands of people, mainly leftists, who criticized government policy. During the height of the repression the U.S. government gave the junta over $35 million in military aid and sold it another $43 million in military supplies [3]. It was well aware of the state terror it was supporting. Three months after the 1976 coup, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger privately told Argentine Foreign Minister César Guzzetti that “we have followed events in Argentina closely” and “wish the new government well. We wish it will succeed…If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly” [4].

In Guatemala, at least 200,000 people (and maybe far more) were slaughtered by the U.S.-backed military regimes that followed the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup against elected President Jacobo Arbenz. The height of state violence was the genocidal “scorched earth” campaign of the early 1980s, carried out—largely with U.S. weapons—by General Ríos Montt and his predecessor Romeo Lucas García. The campaign especially targeted indigenous Mayans, who were deemed likely to sympathize with the country’s leftist guerrillas. In December 1982, despite his administration’s private recognition of the military’s “large-scale killing of Indian men, women, and children,” Reagan visited Guatemala and publicly declared that Ríos Montt was getting “a bum rap” and was “totally dedicated to democracy.” The next day the Guatemalan army launched its worst single massacre of the decade, killing nearly 200 men, women, and children in the village of Las Dos Erres. U.S. military aid continued thereafter, though often secretly [5]. Ríos Montt himself later noted the importance of U.S. military and diplomatic support, telling a journalist that “he should be tried only if Americans,” including Ronald Reagan, “were tried too.” (On May 10 Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, but the conviction was annulled by the country’s Constitutional Court after intense lobbying by Guatemalan business and military elites. In April former army officer and current Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina had tried to shut down the trial, fearing that witnesses would implicate him in civilian massacres; one had already done so [6].)

Turning to the Caribbean, Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier is no less notorious for his brutality. He and his father François murdered and tortured tens of thousands of Haitians. Yet for three decades the Duvalier dynasty enjoyed strong U.S. support, including military training and the sale of millions of dollars in weapons and military aircraft. The dictatorship was “a dependable, good friend of the U.S.” according to a U.S. Embassy official in 1973 [7]. U.S. support was only withdrawn when a popular uprising was on the verge of ousting Jean-Claude in 1986.

Argentina, Guatemala, and Haiti are just three examples of U.S. support for repression. Political scientist Lars Schoultz has measured the statistical relationship between U.S. aid and repression by Latin American governments for the years 1975-77, finding a clear pattern: “The correlations between the absolute level of U.S. assistance to Latin America and human rights violations by recipient governments” were “uniformly positive, indicating that aid has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens” [8]. The logic is not a mystery: Washington has always preferred U.S.-friendly oligarchs and murderers when faced with the threats of substantive democracy, economic redistribution, and independent nationalism.

Yet the documentary record and scholarly consensus are not reflected in U.S. press coverage. As the table below shows, even the nation’s leading liberal media almost never acknowledge U.S. support for the dictatorships in Argentina, Guatemala, and Haiti. Only 13 times over the past five years did any allusion to that support appear in coverage by the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio (NPR), despite 222 total news and opinion pieces that mentioned former dictatorship officials in those countries. In other words, these media outlets acknowledged U.S. support just 6 percent of the time.


News/Opinion Pieces Mentioning U.S. Support for Dictatorships, As Fraction of All Pieces Mentioning Dictatorships (April 2008-April 2013) [9]

New York Times Washington Post National Public Radio TOTAL
Argentina 1/22 (5%) 0/16 (0%) 0/3 (0%) 1/41 (2%)
Guatemala 2/23 (9%) 1/5 (20%) 2/5 (40%) 5/33 (15%)
Haiti 3/74 (4%) 1/39 (3%) 3/35 (9%) 7/148 (5%)
TOTAL 6/119 (5%) 2/60 (3%) 5/43 (12%) 13/222 (6%)


Recently the U.S. press has strongly condemned the Argentine, Guatemalan, and Haitian dictatorships, decrying for instance Duvalier’s “squalid legacy of disappearance, torture and murder” and interviewing Argentine torture victims and children stolen from their parents at birth by the military [10]. The problem is that the perpetrators appear simply as brutal criminals in far-off lands, with no connection whatsoever to the United States.

Coverage that does mention the U.S. role often casts the United States as an advocate for democracy and human rights. One 2011 Times report on Duvalier says only that the United States helped arrange for his “departure from Haiti” in 1986. A 2012 Times report on charges against Efraín Ríos Montt says that “Washington has demanded that Guatemala prosecute human rights violations as a condition for receiving military aid,” while saying nothing of past U.S. support for the man on trial or the fact that the current Guatemalan president, a U.S. ally, has also been implicated in civilian massacres during the country’s civil war [11].

Today’s Dirty Wars

Press coverage of current U.S.-backed repression follows a similar but not identical trend. The difference is that news outlets are less critical of current U.S.-backed terror than they are of U.S.-backed terror further removed from the present. In the rare occasions when they do present current U.S.-backed regimes in a negative light, they usually follow the familiar pattern of neglecting Washington’s role in enabling these regimes.

Honduras is one example. Since the June 2009 military coup against President Manuel Zelaya, the governments of Roberto Micheletti and Porfirio Lobo have presided over a nightmarish cycle of violence against workers, peasants, LGBT people, journalists, and human rights defenders, involving hundreds of political murders and systematic impunity [12]. Despite its half-hearted initial criticisms of the coup (which the U.S. ambassador at the time privately noted to be “a patently illegal act”), the Obama administration soon signaled its tacit support for the Micheletti regime and helped legitimize the November 2009 “election” of Lobo amidst massive government intimidation and repression [13]. It has increased military aid to Honduras since the coup, giving it tens of millions of dollars a year in military aid and sales contracts [14]. It also appears to have lied about its aid to the Honduran national police chief to circumvent restrictions on aid to gross human rights violators [15].

U.S. press outlets have usually ignored these facts. They have often implied that the coup was justified because of Zelaya’s alleged provocations. The victims of state violence have received only a small fraction of the attention given to the victims of the Iranian government and other regimes that Washington designates as adversaries [16].

When U.S. media do report on the repression in Honduras, they downplay the Obama administration’s support for it. The United States is portrayed as an earnest advocate of democracy. Coverage often stresses the “wrangling between the United States and the coup leaders” and characterizes the Obama administration as “leading the support for the democratic option” [17]. Only twice since the June 2009 coup have the New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR mentioned the U.S. role in training General Romeo Vásquez and other coup leaders at the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia. (In the five-year period sampled above, the reporters, editors, and columnists at these three outlets never mentioned the U.S. training of Efraín Ríos Montt and other criminals facing trial in Argentina and Guatemala [18].)

Coverage of Honduras illustrates what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky call the propaganda model: the crimes of U.S. allies are ignored, and violence and suffering merit attention only when U.S. enemies can be blamed (or when the crimes are safely in the past and the record of U.S. support for them can be forgotten). Recent coverage of Colombia, Mexico, and many other countries adheres to this pattern [19]. Even when the press does acknowledge repression by U.S. allies, it usually omits the U.S. government’s role or presents it as a force for democracy and human rights.

The U.S. role in the world should be the foremost focus of U.S. citizens in discussions of global affairs, but it is seldom described honestly in the press [20]. Most of the public favors a foreign policy based on international law and universal human rights but has little knowledge of what the government and U.S. corporations do overseas. If the public knew, it would be more difficult for U.S. elites and their allies to continue violating human rights abroad. Mainstream press coverage systematically fails to provide the most basic information about history and current political realities, highlighting the importance of alternative media not reliant on corporations or the state.


[1] The term “dirty war” is most often associated with Argentina, but similar methods of state terror have been employed in many countries.

[2] See for instance Michael T. Klare and Cynthia Arnson, Supplying Repression: U.S. Support for Authoritarian Regimes Abroad (Institute for Policy Studies, 1981); Michael McClintock, Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counter-Terrorism, 1940-1990 (Pantheon, 1992); Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (Metropolitan, 2006). For earlier precedents see David F. Schmitz, Thank God They’re on Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965 (UNC Press, 1999).

[3] Despite Congress’s partial curtailment of military aid to some terror states in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it continued through various channels both public and covert. On Argentina see Klare and Arnson, Supplying Repression, 5; Department of Defense (DoD), Foreign Military Sales, Foreign Military Construction Sales and Military Assistance Facts (DSAA, 1984), 12-13, 42.

[4] Memo of Conversation, June 6, 1976, pp. 3, 9.

[5] Administration sources quoted in Grandin, Empire’s Workshop, 109-10; Reagan quoted in Steven R. Weisman, “Reagan Denounces Threats to Peace in Latin America,” New York Times, December 5, 1982. On military aid/sales see DoD, Foreign Military Sales, 14-15; Allan Nairn, “The Guatemala Connection,” The Progressive (May 1986): 20-22.

[6] There is still a chance that Ríos Montt and co-defendant Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez (who was acquitted in the first trial) could go to jail, but the high court’s ruling was a major setback for those seeking justice. For updates on the trial see http://www.riosmontt-trial.org. Ríos Montt paraphrased in Allan Nairn, “C.I.A. Death Squad,” The Nation (April 17, 1995): 513. On Pérez Molina’s record and his public condemnation of the trial see Nairn’s interviews on Democracy Now!, April 19 and May 13, 2013, and with Louisa Reynolds, “Allan Nairn: The Witness Who Would Have Accused the US and Pérez Molina,” Plaza Pública,May 22, 2013. For additional analysis see Jo-Marie Burt, “Historic Verdict in Guatemala’s Genocide Case Overturned by Forces of Impunity,” NACLA Report on the Americas 46, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 1-3.

[7] Quoted in Kim Ives, “Wikileaks Exhumed Cables Reveal: How the U.S. Resumed Military Aid to Duvalier,” Haïti Liberté (April 10-16, 2013): 9. See also Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti, State Against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (New York: Monthly Review, 1990), 202-08; Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Haiti: The Breached Citadel, rev. ed. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2004 [1990]), 128-42; Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Picador, 2012), 320-59, esp. 334-35 and 348-50.

[8] Schoultz, “U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations in Latin America: A Comparative Analysis of Foreign Aid Distributions,” Comparative Politics 13, no. 2 (1981): 155.

[9] Based on LexisNexis database searches for Times and Post articles (print or online) and searches on www.npr.org for radio broadcasts mentioning former Argentine officials Jorge Videla, Emilio Massera, Reynaldo Bignone, Alfredo Astiz, Julio Poch, and/or Luciano Menéndez; Guatemalans Efraín Ríos Montt, Mauricio Rodríguez, Oscar Mejía, Héctor López, Jorge Sosa, Pedro Pimentel, and/or Gilberto Jordan; and Haitian Jean-Claude Duvalier. I read each piece that contained one or more of these names to see if it mentioned U.S. support; the tally of thirteen is generous, including even implicit allusions to U.S. support. The table does not include news items mentioning the new pope, Jorge Bergoglio. Many pieces raised the question of Bergoglio’s complicity with the Argentine dictatorship, but only one (a Times blog) mentioned U.S. support for it.

[10] “The Last Thing Haiti Needs,” New York Times editorial, January 20, 2011; Juan Forero, “A Child of the ‘Disappeared’ Finds Himself,” Washington Post, February 11, 2010.

[11] Randal C. Archibold, “Ex-Haitian Dictator’s Return Threatens to Add to Turmoil,” January 17, 2011; Elisabeth Malkin, “Accused of Atrocities, Guatemala’s Ex-Dictator Chooses Silence,” January 27, 2012.

[12] Center for Constitutional Rights/International Federation for Human Rights, Impunity in Honduras for Crimes Against Humanity between 28 June 2009 and 31 October 2012 (November 2012); Rights Action, Human Rights Violations Attributed to Military Forces in the Bajo Aguán Valley in Honduras (February 20, 2013).

[13] Ambassador Hugo Llorens, memo to State Department and other recipients, July 24, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/28/world/20101128-cables-viewer.html?hp#report/cables-09TEGUCIGALPA645 (accessed 4/4/13).

[14] Dana Frank, “Honduras: Which Side Are We On?” The Nation (June 11, 2012): 11-17; Dana Frank,“Memo to Secretary Kerry: Stop Funding the Bad Guys in Honduras,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2013. See also the database at www.justf.org.

[15] Alberto Arce and Katherine Corcoran, “US Aids Honduran Police despite Death Squad Fears,” AP, March 23, 2013.

[16] Michael Corcoran, “A Tale of Two Elections: Iran and Honduras,” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 1 (2010): 46-48; Kevin Young, “Honduras, Iran, and the Propaganda Model,” ZNet, July 5, 2010; Keane Bhatt, “The New York Times on Venezuela and Honduras: A Case of Journalistic Misconduct,” NACLA Report on the Americas 46, no. 1 (2013): 67-69.

[17] Mark Landler, “Clinton Asks the O.A.S. to Readmit Honduras,” New York Times, June 8, 2010; “Honduras’s Democratic Solution,” Washington Post editorial, November 28, 2009. Often the United States and the regime in question (Honduras and Colombia today, but Guatemala, El Salvador, and others in the 1980s) are depicted as trapped between extremists on the left and right, struggling to curb the violence of both. Or we hear arguments to the effect that “few had clean hands in the battle over Central America in the 1980s”— the words of one invited contributor to a recent Times online forum on Guatemala who was a direct enabler of the atrocities. These frames are wildly misleading: not only have U.S.-backed regimes usually collaborated with paramilitary forces and death squads on the extreme right, but the violence of the Latin American left has never remotely approached the violence of the right, and unlike the right’s violence it has been almost entirely directed at military targets (with perhaps one major exception—Peru’s Sendero Luminoso in the 1980s). In Guatemala, the UN Truth Commission after the 1996 peace accords found that 93 percent of all “acts of violence” during the civil war had been committed by the U.S.-sponsored military regime, versus 3 percent by the left-wing guerrillas.

[18] A New York Times news piece from May 17, 2013, belatedly but commendably focuses attention on the U.S. role in Guatemala (Elisabeth Malkin, “Trial on Guatemala Civil War Carnage Leaves Something Out: U.S. Role,” A10). There is, of course, a deep irony in a Times report criticizing the omission of the U.S. role from the trial (see the headline) while saying nothing of the same omission in news coverage by the Times and other outlets. And the report still understates the level of direct U.S. support for Ríos Montt and the Guatemalan army, quoting sources who imply that the U.S. government helped create the army but later lost control over it: one says that the U.S.-trained army “went on to commit genocide” (emphasis added); another says that the army “was like a monster that we created over which we had little leverage.” The first quote neglects the direct U.S. support for, and knowledge of, the genocide as it was occurring, while the second erroneously implies that the Reagan administration earnestly sought to stop the regime from slaughtering people. Nonetheless, the May 17 story constitutes a major improvement over normal Times coverage of the Guatemalan atrocities. In addition, at least two “Room for Debate” Times online forums have mentioned U.S. support for the Guatemalan regime, and even included some perspectives that were harshly critical of the Reagan administration.

[19] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, second edition (Pantheon, 2002); Kevin Young, “Colombia and Venezuela: Testing the Propaganda Model,” NACLA Report on the Americas 41, no. 6 (2008): 50-52; Andrew Kennis, “The Media Dependence Model: An Analysis of the Performance and Structure of U.S. and Global News” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, 2010).

[20] Apologists for U.S. policy often accuse critics of assuming that U.S. actions unilaterally determine the course of history, alleging that they neglect other sources of violence and suffering or that their viewpoint is not “nuanced.” Yet it is only logical and moral for the citizens of a country—and its media—to focus most attention on the role of their own government in perpetrating violence and injustice, since it is that role that they theoretically have the power to influence. Very few critics of U.S. policy neglect the fact that violence and suffering are also caused by non-U.S. actors, as even the most cursory reading of the scholarly and journalistic sources cited in the preceding notes will attest.



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