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General Carlos Arana Osorio

First of a series of ruthless military presidents of Guatemala

Monday 08 December 2003 01:00 GMT

Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio, soldier and politician: born Barberena Santa Rosa, Guatemala 17 July 1918; President of Guatemala 1970-74; married Alida España (died 1993); died Guatemala City 6 December 2003.

General Carlos Arana Osorio was the military ruler of Guatemala from 1970 to 1974, in the early stages of a long civil war that pitted left-wing guerrillas against a conservative establishment. During his time in office, the Guatemalan armed forces became the ultimate arbiters of political life, and effectively placed themselves above the law. The consequences are still being felt today.

Between 1966 and 1968, while still a colonel, Arana commanded a ruthless counter-insurgency campaign against the guerrillas in Zacapa, eastern Guatemala, earning himself the nickname "Jackal of the East". More than 8,000 people are believed to have died in the so-called "Operation Guatemala", in which the army was advised by US Special Forces officers.

Arana's military successes prompted a coalition of far-right political parties, including the misleadingly named National Liberation Movement (MLN), to put him forward as their candidate in the 1970 elections, which he won. He thereby became the first of a series of military presidents, who outdid each other in the ferocity of their war against the rebels, who had their main strongholds in the predominantly Maya Indian highlands. Paramilitary death squads, among them the notorious Mano Blanca (White Hand), operated with impunity during Arana's four-year term, when thousands of opponents, real and suspected, were murdered.

The brutality of the security forces was, if anything, counter-productive: two of the country's main left-wing guerrilla groups, the Organisation of the People in Arms (ORPA) and the People's Guerrilla Army (EGP), were formed during Arana's term. The last military president left office in 1986, but the fighting went on for another decade, until peace accords were finally signed in December 1996.

Also during Arana's presidency, negotiations with Britain over Guatemala's claim to most of the territory of the colony of British Honduras (renamed Belize in 1973), collapsed, and Britain stationed troops there to discourage a Guatemalan invasion. The colony had been granted internal self- government in 1964, but did not become independent until 1981. The territorial dispute has still not been finally settled.

After he was replaced as president by General Kjell Laugerud García in 1974, Arana remained a leading figure in extreme right-wing political circles, where he was regarded as the saviour of the country from international Communism. He led his own political party, the Central Aranista Organisation (CAO), which won several seats in congress in the 1974 elections, but he retired from public life not long after that.

Colin Harding

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