Facts about Guatemala's Kaibiles

Latin America and the Caribbean

“For the first time in more than 25 years, an American Soldier has graduated from the Guatemalan special operations Kaibil School, in Poptún, Guatemala,” announces a December news release from U.S. Special Operations Command South.

“The Kaibil School is considered one of the most prestigious, vigorous, arduous military courses in Central America,” the release continues. “Their motto: ‘If I advance, follow me. If I stop, urge me on. If I retreat, kill me.’”

Guatemala’s elite Kaibil Special Forces unit is famous for more than just rigorous training and a medieval motto. Here are some facts that don’t appear in the SOCSOUTH release.

  • “[Kaibil] training included killing animals and then eating them raw and drinking their blood in order to demonstrate courage. The extreme cruelty of these training methods, according to testimony available to the CEH, was then put into practice in a range of operations carried out by these troops, confirming one point of their decalogue: ‘The Kaibil is a killing machine.’” - Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification report
  • “The Kaibiles are largely responsible for introducing the ghastly drug-war practices of severing rivals’ heads, including the 10 found outside Mexico City just last weekend, dismembering their bodies or slowly suffocating them to death. That’s little surprise, given how brutal Kaibil training has been since the unit was founded in the 1970s: members are forced to kill animals, even bite the heads off chickens to prove their ferocity, and perform field surgery on themselves, such as bullet extraction. They were the principal instruments of the Guatemalan military government’s “scorched earth” campaign of the 1980s against leftist guerrillas and communities suspected of backing them. That makes it all the more troubling, as Mexico’s drug cartels push into Central America, that not just former but current Kaibiles are defecting to more lucrative service under the Zetas.” - “Guatemala’s Kaibiles: A Notorious Commando Unit Wrapped Up in Central America’s Drug War,” Tim Padgett, Time, July 14, 2011.
  • “The Kaibiles entered the town of Dos Erres on the morning of December 6, 1982, and separated the men from women and children. They started torturing the men and raping the women and by the afternoon they had killed almost the entire community, including the children. Nearly the entire town was murdered, their bodies thrown into a well and left in nearby fields. Of those [250] killed, 113 were under the age of 14.” - Kate Doyle, Jesse Franzblau and Emily Willard, “Ex-Kaibil Officer Connected to Dos Erres Massacre Arrested in Alberta, Canada,” National Security Archive, January 20, 2011.
  • “In May 1978, the Kaibiles opened fire on an unarmed crowd of over 700 Kekchi Indians in the central square of Panzos, Alta Verapaz, who were protesting land exploitation by land investors. As many as 150 people were killed including women and children, none of whom were armed.” - “Guatemala: All the truth, justice for all,” Amnesty International, May 13, 1998
  • “On September 24 [1979], five hundred soldiers descended on Chajul. … While kaibiles (an ‘elite’ unit of the Guatemalan military) poured gasoline over the prisoners, the officer threatened the audience that this would happen to them if they aided the guerrillas. After setting fire to the prisoners and shouting ‘Long live the fatherland! Long live Guatemala! Long live our president! Long live the army!’ the armed forces withdrew, leaving the villagers to put out the fires and bury the dead.” - Grant Hermans Cornwell, Eve Walsh Stoddard, Global Multiculturalism: Comparative Perspectives on Ethnicity, Race, and Nation (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).

The U.S. military is unlikely to avoid contact with every foreign unit with a notorious human rights past. But the Guatemalan Army Kaibiles have an especially troubled reputation, and they have made no effort to reckon with, to atone for, or even really to acknowledge their past deeds. The closest the unit has come to accountability was the landmark 2011 conviction of four ex-Kaibiles for their involvement in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre.

Staff Sgt. Joel Rodriguez, the U.S. soldier who completed the Kaibil training, “did not want to say too much in order to protect the integrity of the course.” Given the Kaibiles’ history, though, it’s reasonable to question what Sgt. Rodriguez learned in Poptún, and why he was sent there in the first place. And also, to question why the U.S. armed forces would report on the event without even acknowledging the cloud that hangs over the Kaibiles. That cloud is too dark to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

(Thanks to WOLA Intern Elizabeth Glusman for her research assistance.)