“An Organization to Carry Out Questionable and Distasteful Tasks”: Guatemala's National Police and U.S. Training in the Age of Cold War Counterinsurgency

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:50 PM
Chicago Ballroom A (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Kirsten Weld, Brandeis University
In 1957, R. Richard Rubottom of the State Department summed up the raison d’être for U.S. foreign police training initiatives:  “We do not undertake programs to improve the efficiency of Latin American police forces per se,” Rubottom wrote.  “Where we do render them technical and material assistance, it is for the stated objective of increasing their capability to combat communist subversion.”

U.S. training of Guatemala’s National Police over two full decades more than satisfied Rubottom’s expectations.  From 1954 to 1974, USAID’s Public Safety Program funneled money, weapons, vehicles, and training toward transforming the ramshackle National Police into a security force properly equipped to defend U.S. Cold War security objectives on the periphery.  The result was a profound structural transformation of this ostensibly civilian force.  U.S. trainers presided over the police’s militarization and integration into a national intelligence-sharing network designed to coordinate the state’s efforts to root out “subversives.”  Public Safety advisors provided special counterinsurgency training to the police’s detectives and riot control units, many  of which became central protagonists in death squads while Embassy officials looked on.  They sent arms to police units described by Public Safety officers as “trigger happy,” and backed the force’s fortification even as the police’s extralegal activities caused one AID official to ruefully comment, “This is what we were afraid of with increased Public Safety support.”  Civil policing capabilities languished while special operations, clandestine disappearances, and violent raids abounded – an institutional legacy that the country struggles to reshape even to this day.

This paper, based on research in the U.S. National Archives, Guatemalan National Police Archives, and the Guatemalan National Newspaper Archives, details the impact of U.S. police training as a foreign policy strategy on Guatemala, on its National Police, and on the conduct of Cold War counterinsurgency in the United States’ benighted backyard.