General Romeo Lucas Garcia

Military ruler of Guatemala who presided over an era of violence and mass slaughter

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:16

Fernando Romeo Lucas García, politician: born San Juan Chamelco, Guatemala 4 July 1924; Minister of National Defence 1975-76; President of Guatemala 1978-82; married Elsa Cirigliano (two daughters); died Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela 27 May 2006.

Romeo Lucas García was the last in a series of military rulers in the period 1970-82 when Guatemalan general elections became merely elections for generals. He oversaw a campaign of selective murder in urban areas, while in the countryside his brother unleashed a deliberate policy of massacres unparalleled in modern Latin American history.

Lucas's killing of two centre-left leaders and the suppression of independent union activity convinced many that change was impossible by peaceful means. Guatemala was catapulted into a spiral of violence that left tens of thousands dead. He shared the Washington-inspired Cold War template for Central America in which left-wing movements espousing long-delayed reforms had to be fought and defeated, if necessary by the mass slaughter of civilians.

Born in San Juan Chamelco, in Alta Verapaz province, in 1924, Lucas rose through the ranks of the army to become Defence Minister during General Kjell Laugerud's presidency (1974-78) and head of the National Emergency Committee in the aftermath of the devastating 1976 earthquake. He stood as candidate for an alliance between three civilian parties representing traditional oligarchic and military interests in the 1978 elections. He excited no-one, but had the right connections within the civilian elite and military establishment. Despite laws making it compulsory to vote, only 15 per cent of the eligible voters went to the 1978 polls. The opposition candidate probably won the vote, but certainly not the count.

Politics was being fought out elsewhere. A widespread protest against bus-price increases prompted Lucas to drop an image of moderation cultivated during the election campaign. The political space available for peaceful protest and organisation was abruptly sealed. Trade unionists, students, teachers, lawyers, university professors, journalists and even priests were killed at a rate of five a day in 1979. That figure rose to 10 a day by 1981. New "death squads" appeared with names like the Secret Anti- Communist Army. Such was the level of killing that for Guatemalans "the Lucas years" became the benchmark by which to judge the sheer awfulness of urban repression.

Two of the most notorious cases were those of the union at the Coca-Cola bottling plant, which lost most of its executives to murder or exile between 1978 and 1981, and the complete disappearance of 27 leaders of the National Workers Central (CNT) abducted in one go from a meeting in June 1980 never to reappear.

The victory of the left-wing Sandinistas in Nicaragua in July 1979 further encouraged Lucas and his entourage not to offer the US President Jimmy Carter (or "Jimmy Castro" as Lucas called him) a centrist alternative to themselves. The moderate centre was targeted: two prominent leaders of the social democrat party, Manuel Colom Argueta and Alberto Fuentes Mohr, were assassinated in broad daylight in Guatemala City. Even several local activists of the decidedly moderate Christian Democrat party were killed.

In 1981 Amnesty published a seminal report called A Government Program of Political Murder tracing the authorisation of death-squad killings straight to the presidential palace. A special intelligence agency processed information and decided who was to be killed. Lucas and top members of his government were widely reported to have approved the lists. Amnesty's report came at a bad moment for the Reagan administration which was trying to restore military aid to Guatemala cut off during the Carter years, by arguing that the right-wing terror was independent of government responsibility.

In fact, unlike their counterparts in El Salvador bank-rolled by Washington, the military under Lucas had relied more on Israeli and Argentine support to crush the urban guerrilla presence. In the rural areas however, a newly confidant insurrectionary guerrilla movement inspired by the Sandinistas was clearly gaining ground, particularly amongst the majority Indian population.

Some military opposition to Lucas's ineffective conduct of the war was eased by the appointment of his brother, Benedicto, as chief of staff in mid-1981. Trained by the French in counterinsurgency tactics, Benedicto Lucas García was the first to implement a coordinated policy designed to "drain the fish from the sea". Mayan Indian peasants began to be killed in large numbers, some real supporters of the guerrillas, and others merely considered to be supporters because they were Indians. The survivors were herded into strategic hamlets, and thousands forced to form civilian patrols under army control. It was ethnic cleansing par excellence.

The resulting carnage was appalling. The extensive church report into Guatemala's civil war, Nunca Mas ("Never Again"), calculated that in the last 12 months of Lucas's rule, 2,495 Mayan Indians were victims of 97 army massacres in the department of Quiche alone.

General Efraín Ríos Montt took over from Lucas after a coup in March 1982 led by younger officers partly fed up with the extraordinary levels of corruption. Lucas and his close entourage were undoubtedly millionaires, in part because of their control over important sectors of the economy, and also as a result of corrupt arms deals. Lucas himself owned several large properties in the Northern Transversal Strip, an area where large chunks of land had either been bought or acquired by military officers instead of being given to poor peasants.

Like the vast majority of senior Guatemalan officers, Lucas was never brought to trial. In 1999, the Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú filed genocide charges against him and other military figures before Spain's National Court. Six years later, in February 2005, the court issued an arrest warrant for his alleged part in the killing of 37 people during a raid on the Spanish embassy in January 1980. Rigoberta's father, Vicente, was among the dead.

An extradition request never prospered, and Lucas died in Venezuela where he had spent the last years of life in exile suffering from Alzheimer's disease. A court case would have helped to determine if he was a modestly talented man, pushed by other generals and the landowning oligarchy into doing their dirty business, or a tyrant fully aware of what he let loose. Few Guatemalans believe the former.

James Painter

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