Air & Space Power Journal - Español Tercer Trimestre 2004


Guatemala’s Protracted War--The Role of the Guatemalan Air Force

Dr. James S. Corum

Guatemala, Central America’s largest and most populous nation, experienced a series of major insurgencies from the 1990s to 1996, when a peace accord was finally signed between the government and the major guerilla groups. Guatemala is important as a classic case of modern revolutionary warfare. From the early days of independence Guatemala had been ruled by a small and powerful oligarchy of landowners and businessmen. The social divisions were enormous and exacerbated by the fact that about half of the population was ethnically Indian, lived in a tribal society, spoke Indian languages and maintained a culture highly distinct from the Ladino half of population. The Ladinos, usually a mix of Indian and Spanish blood but European in culture, religion and language, had been the ruling caste in Guatemala since the days of the conquistadors and looked down on the Indian population, with the great landowners often keeping the Indian villages in virtual peonage.

The three decade long civil war in Guatemala was part of a much broader regional conflict in Central America which had its roots in long standing social and economic problems exacerbated by a tradition of dictatorial governments. Dissatisfaction with the old order of things resulted in a revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, a civil war in El Salvador from 1980-1992 and some unrest in Honduras in the 1980s. In the world context, this was a place where the Cold War became hot—as Cuba and the Soviet Bloc embarked on a policy of providing military aid and training for Central American revolutionary movements. The American response was a program of economic and military assistance to Central America, the economic assistance to enable small nations to improve the condition of the poor and the military assistance to enable the armed forces of the nations such as El Salvador and Guatemala to defeat the armed rebel movements. US aid, however, came at a price. In order to receive American aid, Central American nations had to agree to a program of democratization as well as social reforms as the American counterinsurgency policy at the time did not see an insurgency in purely military terms but stressed the need to deal with the underlying causes of civil unrest. While most of the Latin American nations accepted the US conditions for aid quite willingly, Guatemala was the exception. During the height of the civil war in Guatemala, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the government rejected the US conditions and initiated a highly aggressive policy to fight the insurgents. The government eventually won against the rebels, but at a high cost in terms of lives lost and human rights violations. The protracted war in Guatemala offers an interesting example of a small nation virtually ‘going it alone" in a counterinsurgency campaign. The Guatemala Air force played an important role in the military operations that broke the insurgency.

Background to the Conflict

Guatemala’s revolutionary history rightly begins in 1954 when a left wing government that wanted to initiate land reform was overthrown in a coup sponsored by the American CIA. The Americans and the Guatemalan opposition viewed the reform program of President Arbenz as the harbinger of communist revolution in the region. The Arbenz government was easily overthrown, but deep dissatisfaction remained with the high level of poverty, the lack of basic human rights and the condition of the large rural Indian population—a group that was virtually disenfranchised economically and politically. In the 1950s and 1960s resistance to an authoritarian government that stood by the status quo manifested itself several times, even within the armed forces. There was a coup in 1960 led by leftist army officers, but this was quickly suppressed and the culprits kicked out of the army. The ex-officers who had participated in the 1960 coup reorganized themselves into a revolutionary party in 1962 and sought assistance from Fidel Castro. In January 1963 the former officers, organized as the "Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) initiated a rebellion in three departments (in Central America a department is a political region- something like an American county), of San Marcos in the northwest and Izabal and Zacapa in the northeast.

After World War II the United States generally ignored Latin America. Although the region is literally America’s back yard, the great event of the Cold War as they were played out in Europe and Asia occupied the attention of America’s leadership. For all practical purposes, Latin America, and especially Central America, was a political backwater. This attitude changed dramatically when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba and aligned himself with the Soviet Union. Moreover, Castro aligned himself with communist revolutionary movements throughout the hemisphere and pledged Cuban support to revolution. These events prompted two new policies from the Kennedy administration, the first being the Alliance for Progress, a large scale program of economic aid to the poorer countries of the region designed to improve the social and economic conditions that were a breeding ground for Marxist movements. The second policy to the was to stand up US military units that would specialize in training and advising smaller nations threatened by communist insurgency, which by the early 1960s, was understood as a new type of Cold War threat—and one that could not be met by more technology or nuclear weapons.

In the 1960s the small guerrilla war in Guatemala caught the attention of the US government, which poured considerable military aid into Guatemala to support the rightist government. Guatemala became the focus of the US military counterinsurgency operations in Central America in the 1960s. Hundreds of US Special Forces soldiers were brought into the country to train and advise the army. By the mid-1960s Guatemala’s small armed forces had been retrained as a light infantry, counterinsurgency force. The Guatemalan Air Force (Fuerza Aerea Guatemala - FAG) was also trained and organized to fight a counterinsurgency war. Despite the reorganization and retraining of the army under American supervision, Guatemala retained a military culture much like that of El Salvador’s when its revolution came in 1980. Guatemala was an authoritarian and highly polarized society and rule by a military-led oligarchy had been the normal means of government for decades. In common with most of Central and South America at the time, the officer corps was highly politicized and promotion was usually more a matter of belonging to the right faction rather than demonstrated professionalism. Another common attitude was the deep-seated contempt for human rights in the military and a military tradition of suppressing dissent with a harsh hand rather than allowing political debate and compromise. It should have been no surprise that political dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s turned to violence rather than attempt peaceful means to change their society. Nor is it surprising that such insurgencies enjoyed a high degree of support from the population- especially the rural poor.

The Guatemalan Air Force

In the early 1960s, Guatemala had a small air force of a few hundred men and a few dozen aircraft composed of World War II surplus trainers, P-51 Mustang fighters, B-26 bombers and some C-47 transports – pretty much the usual force for Central America in those days. As with other Central American states, the Guatemalan Air Force was the most professionally competent of all the services. Still, throughout the course of the conflict from the 1960s until the peace agreement of 1996, the training of the Guatemalan air force pilots and personnel can only be described as barely adequate. When the insurgency began in 1963 the air force supported the army with its P-51s and B-26s. At the same time, the US supplied four T-33 jet trainers as part of a comprehensive modernization program for the FAG. The P-51s of the FAG were rapidly wearing out and parts were scarce. They had become a maintenance nightmare for the air force. On the other hand, the T-33s, which were based on the F-80 fighter that had seen action as a fighter- bomber in the Korean War, were seen by the USAF as a suitable aircraft for a low-level insurgency. So, by late 1963 the new T-33s were put into service as attack aircraft. At this stage of the war, the T-33 pilots were not trained as attack pilots and had to basically learn to conduct rocket, bomb and strafing attacks literally "on the job". At the outset of the rebellion, against the advice of American advisors, the FAG acquired two more P-51s from an American dealer to serve as fighter-bombers. Despite the maintenance problems, the old propeller fighters were still excellent aircraft for counterinsurgency as they were able to carry a lot of ordnance and to loiter over a battle area for a long time. The major disadvantage of the T-33, aside from the fact it was thoroughly mediocre as a fighter-bomber, was that it was relatively expensive to operate. However, in 1964, the FAG received two more T-33s from the US military aid program.

By 1965 the insurgency had expanded and now covered several departments. The US delivered another pair of T-33s as well as four armed Sikorsky UH-19B helicopters, the first military helicopters in Central America. This provided the Guatemalan forces with an air assault capability. The Sikorskys were soon equipped with two .30 caliber machine guns and two 2.7 inch rocket pods for gunship support. By 1966, a rearmed and now well-trained Guatemalan Army was ready to undertake major operations against the insurgents. Under the guidance of US advisors, the FAG reorganized its combat aircraft into a "Special Warfare Composite Squadrons" composed of 2-3 Mustangs, 1-2 T-33s, a B-26, a UH-19B and a pair of C-47 transports with their own contingent of pilots and ground crews. The Guatemalan Air Force, with considerable US assistance, initiated a large scale bombing campaign against rebel-held areas in addition to supporting the army ground operations.

In 1967 the FAG acquired five Bell UH-1B and UH-1D helicopters from the US to reinforce its helicopter force. By this time the Guatemalan armed forces were a pretty formidable force. From 1966 to 1968 the greatly enlarged army and police forces conducted an all out offensive against the few hundred rebels based primarily in the northeast. In addition to going after the rebels, the army attacked the rebel infrastructure and demolished villages providing support. Aerial bombing was common and napalm was used. By 1968 the rebellion had been largely stamped out at the cost of an estimated 8,000 rebels and civilians killed.

Low level insurgency continued in Guatemala but the country was largely quiet during the early 1970s. One reason that the government had been able to mobilize and counter the guerrillas was the rapid economic growth of the 1960s and early 1970s. Guatemala had attracted a considerable amount of foreign industrial investment and diversified its agricultural exports. Moderate prosperity took some of the sting out of the rural grievances. However, the oil crisis of 1973, falling agricultural prices and a major earthquake that devastated Guatemala City in 1976 and killed 25,000 and left more than a million homeless put the Guatemalan economy in poor shape. By the end of the decade the condition of Guatemala’s rural poor was more tenuous than ever. Leftist rebel groups that had been operating since the early 1970s found a welcome home in the overwhelmingly Indian western highlands of the country. By the late 1970s the insurgency had been reborn as a mostly Indian rebellion organized around four Maoist-oriented rebel groups, the largest group of insurgents known as the EGP (Guerrilla Army of the Poor).

The generals leading Guatemala replied to increased guerrilla activity in the highlands with the usual brute force methods. Death squads, which had made an appearance in the 1960s, resumed as the military and landowners tried to stamp out dissent in the rural areas. As the insurgency grew the US government, under the Carter administration, became critical of the Guatemalan junta for its appalling human rights record. Rather than modify its approach to dealing with the insurgency and shut down the murder squads and brutal methods tolerated and supported by the army and police, the Guatemalan government took an opposite tack. To forestall the embarrassment of a congressionally-mandated cutoff of US aid, in 1977 the Guatemalans declared they would forgo all US military assistance rather than accept reforms that would be the price of US support. Guatemala would go it alone and handle the insurgency in its own way.

The Peak of the Insurrection- Cutoff of US Aid

Going without US aid was especially hard on the Guatemalan Air Force, which was almost completely equipped with US-made aircraft provided under military aid programs. In 1971 the FAG had been modernized with the arrival of eight Cessna A-37B fighter-bombers under the US military aid program. Guatemala was the first nation in Central America to receive this very capable counterinsurgency aircraft. Seven more A-37s were supplied in 1974 and 1975, which enabled the FAG to establish a full strength fighter-bomber squadron and retire the P-51s and pull from service some of the T-33s. When the US aid was cut off, Guatemala had a fairly capable small air force of about 650 officers, NCOs and airmen with its principle combat squadron the A-37 unit. In all, the FAG constituted 5 flying squadrons (the fighter bombers, a reconnaissance squadron with light observation aircraft, two transport squadrons and a helicopter squadron) operating out of four major bases: La Aurora (at Guatemala City and the Headquarters of the FAG), San Jose on the coast, Santa Elena and Puerto Barrios). The FAG’s mission was to support the army that had grown to about 27,000 men by the early 1980s.

Cutting loose from dependence on US aid was a bold move for the government but hurt the air force’s ability to conduct operations. The FAG lost three A-37s to operational accidents in the 1970s and these could not be replaced. With the T-33s worn out, Guatemala searched the world aviation market for affordable aircraft to replace losses and retirements. A deal was made in 1979 to import 12 Swiss Pilatus PC-7 turboprop trainers-, which could also be modified as very capable counterinsurgency fighters. Guatemala was able to reinforce its small helicopter fleet in 1981-82 by purchasing at least 8 Bell 206B helicopters as well as at least three Aroespatiale Alouettes. Four Fokker 27s light transport planes were acquired in 1982.

While US aid was cut off, Guatemala was not entirely without foreign support. Argentina provided arms, spare parts and training for Guatemala and other Latin American nations facing insurgencies in the 1970s and early 1980s. Unfortunately for Guatemala, the replacement of the Argentine military regime with a democratic government after the defeat in the Falklands in 1982 resulted in a major reduction in Argentine aid. However, the Israelis stepped in to also play an important role in Latin America, selling and providing arms and assistance in this period. Between 1975 and the early 1980s Israel supplied 11 Arava IAI-201 twin engine transports. Indeed, the Aravas are ideal transport aircraft for combating an insurgency-- able to bring several tons of people or equipment into small, rough landing fields and also easily modified as a gunship with the addition of rocket pods and side-mounted machine guns. The FAG acquired a variety of other surplus aircraft in this period, including a variety of civilian helicopters and 3 ex-French Air Force Fouga Magister CM-170 trainers – another aircraft suitable for conversion into a counterinsurgency craft.

The Government’s Strategy

Despite a large-scale commitment of government troops to saturate the Guatemalan highlands, the insurgency grew quickly. By 1981 much of the rural areas of the west and south were firmly in rebel hands. Guerrilla groups were active daily in nine of the nation’s 22 departments and carried out occasional actions in another nine departments. The guerrillas were able to take over small towns and cut major roads, including the Pan-American Highway, almost at will. The rebels even conducted terrorist attacks in the capitol, Guatemala City. It appeared that the rebels might soon be in full control of most of the countryside. The rebel groups at this point amounted to approximately 10,000-12,000 active combatants with at least 100,000 active civilian sympathizers ready to supply and assist the rebels. Another 260,000 people were estimated to live in areas under rebel control. The rebels were armed with light weapons bought on the black market or smuggled in through Mexico. In early 1982 the various guerrilla forces, the largest being the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, organized themselves as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity Party or URNG. By this time, the rebels were inflicting 250 casualties a month on the army.

In 1981 the army initiated a strategy to deny the rebels the support of the rural population by simply depopulating the areas where the rebels were popular. In the first of a series of major campaigns, each lasting 2-3 months, villages in two central departments were attacked and destroyed. Several massacres of civilians resulted in thousands of peasants abandoning their villages and fleeing combat areas. This created the enormous refugee problem that characterized the Guatemalan civil war. By the late 1980s an estimated one million Guatemalans had been displaced within their own country and another 250,000 had fled to Mexico and settled in refugee camps there.

In early 1982 the war was not going well for the government and the regime of General Lucas Garcia was perceived as corrupt and inefficient. Garcia was thrown out of power in a coup in March 1982 and General Efrain Rios Montt, a former army chief of staff, took the reigns of power. Unlike Garcia and his predecessors, Montt had a comprehensive concept for a counter guerrilla strategy and quickly unleashed it upon the country. Montt mobilized all the resources of the country into a ruthless, all-out war upon the rebels. Montt’s strategy was very brutal and fairly effective. He realized that simply depopulating the rebel areas would not shut down support for the URNG so he came up with a plan to put the rural population under tight government control. Between 1982 and 1984 hundreds of selected villages (one estimate is 440) were cleared out and destroyed by the army. While many rural inhabitants simply fled, thousands of others were resettled under Montt’s strategy in model villages called ‘poles of development", which were carefully controlled by the army. On the military side of Montt’s counterinsurgency program, five task forces were created and a series of offensives was launched throughout the western and southern highlands of the country to clear whole departments of rebels. The army saturated the country with troops and placed garrisons in all the major towns and even in the smaller villages. A new program of "civil guards’ was created as another means of social control. Rural residents were armed with an assortment of old rifles and shotguns and placed under command of an army NCO or officer and directed to carry out patrols against the guerrillas and to mount guard in the villages. Refusal to support the civil patrols or to shoot rebel prisoners was seen as defiance of the government and was likely to invite a visit from a death squad for the offender. In this manner, the whole country was coerced into supporting the army.

The air force saw considerable combat in this period. Rebel villages were bombed and, if the rebels engaged the army in battle, they could expect attack from a flight of A-37s or attack helicopters to retaliate. In the campaigns of 1981-1983 the Arava and C-47 transports of the air force dropped paratroop units to seize territory deep in rebel country or to set up blocking positions. Although the fighting was sustained, it was generally on a low level with squad and platoon actions. The small Guatemalan Air Force was simply not capable of mounting anything resembling a large operation. A lack of modern maintenance facilities and personnel coupled with the shortage of spare parts caused by the US military aid cutoff, meant that no more than 50% of the air force was operational at any time. This meant that the FAG usually had no more than four attack or trooplift helicopters available to support operations- scarcely enough to support a single platoon or company in action. Shortage of aircraft required keeping air operations on a small scale and the company and battalion airmobile operations carried out in El Salvador were not possible in Guatemala.

The Air Force Reserve

One means of maximizing the military capabilities of Guatemala was to engage all of the nation’s civilian pilots and aircraft in a program to support the war effort. Civilian pilots were enlisted in a new force called the "Commando Especial Reserva Aerea" in 1982 under government decree 14-82. A regular air force colonel was put in command of the 100-200 civil pilots, who were given the rank of lieutenant in the air force reserve, a bit of military instruction and issued uniforms and sidearms. Aircraft owners provided aircraft, usually light single or twin engine planes of the Piper, Beech and Cessna variety, for a few days at a time. Pilots were not paid but the Air Force provided the fuel. Pilots reported voluntarily to fly missions when they had time or were occasionally ordered to duty to fly in support of a major operation.

The Air Force Reserve took over much of the routine, non-combat flying operations of the air force, which allowed the small FAG to concentrate on combat operations. The light civilian aircraft flew observation missions and personnel and supplies to small rural airstrips. It was an efficient and simple means of moving people and getting mail and supplies to isolated garrisons in a country where road movement was routinely ambushed. There are a few reports of combat with the light aircraft with FN or M-60 machine guns fired from the side doors of Cessna 182s and 206s. The mobilization of the nation’s civil air fleet and pilots was an imaginative stroke and generally regarded as very successful.

Government Success

General Rios Montt was relieved of the presidency in a coup after only 16 months in power, but the strategy that he mapped out continued from 1983 to 1986. Several more major campaigns were mounted and the western highlands of Guatemala, the hotbed of revolt and dissent, were systematically cleared and largely depopulated. By 1986 the rebellion was considered to be generally under control and the military regime was able to turn over power to a civilian president and loosen some of the tight controls of the Montt era. The improvement of the political climate also meant the resumption of US military assistance. However, by this time, the military power of the rebellion was broken – but it was done at a tremendous cost with estimates of 70,000 to 100,000 dead. In most cases, the dead being rural civilians simply caught in the war.

For its small size and lack of modern equipment, the Guatemalan Air Force played an important role in the war. Throughout the war, the air force saw a high attrition due to operational accidents—probably caused by deficiencies in maintenance and pilot training. For example, of 13 A-37B fighter-bombers supplied to the FAG only one is known to have been lost as a result of combat, shot down by ground fire in a close support operation in 1988. Four A-37s were lost to accidents in the 1970s and one withdrawn from service in 1986 due to wing spar and bolt problems. It remained on the "dead line" as there were not enough parts and funds to fix the airplane Maintenance for an air force with less than 1,000 personnel flying an assortment of 15 different fixed wing aircraft and several helicopter models coupled with US aid cutoffs and a shoestring budget must have been close to impossible. Indeed, given the problems that Guatemala faced and the restrictions on US aid caused by the government policies, it was a significant accomplishment to have kept the air force going as an effective force.

As in most counterinsurgency operations, the primary role of the aircraft was in reconnaissance. The morale and psychological effect of patrolling aircraft was noted by the guerrillas. In the memoirs of one of the guerrilla leaders who helped organize the Guerrilla Army of the Poor in the 1970s, he spoke of helicopters and aircraft being constantly over his band and aircraft "thundering" over isolated villages. At one point, he speaks of "the sky dark with helicopters and military planes" and "hundreds’ of soldiers parachuting into Indian villages. Of course, the small Guatemalan Air Force never had the capability to provide anything resembling constant air coverage nor could it have ever dropped more than 150 paratroopers. Certainly, the psychological effect of airpower against the lightly armed insurgents, who had few weapons to oppose aircraft such as heavy machine guns or shoulder-fired SAMS, seems to have been significant and played an important role in demoralizing the insurgents.

Political Settlement to the Conflict

The Guatemalan government had several advantages in fighting the insurgency. For one, the insurgents of the EGP, like most of the insurgent movements in Central America, were a loose coalition of groups and factions. Insurgent efforts were largely uncoordinated and the rebels put forth few charismatic leaders with a broad appeal, like a Castro in Cuba or a Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, who could effectively direct a rebel strategy. This is a war fought with a highly coordinated and well-planned comprehensive strategy on the government side versus a poorly organized and poorly led popular rebellion on the other. The course of the war supports the old axiom that to effectively fight an insurgency one needs a comprehensive strategy.

Guatemala also had an advantage in having the largest and most diverse economy in Central America. It was difficult, but Guatemala was able to finance the war pretty much on its own—although US non-military aid continued in the early 1980s and proved to be an important prop for the economy. Guatemala was probably the only state in Central America at the time that had the economic resources to forgo American military assistance and fight the war on its own.

However, the harsh approach used by the governments of the late 1970s and early 1980s, most notably the presidency of Rios Montt, caused Guatemala internal political problems and problems with its neighbors. By the mid-1980s even very conservative Guatemalan businessmen and leaders came to the conclusion that the era of military governments in Central America had passed and that to gain a just peace the country would have to democratize, hold honest elections and curb human rights violations. In 1986, when President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica took over the direction of the Central American region conflict negotiations, Guatemala was strongly urged to initiate political and social reforms and to seek a negotiated settlement with the rebels. This policy was supported by the Costa Rican, Honduran and Salvadoran governments. In order to maintain a united front against Nicaragua and Marxist insurgencies in neighboring states, the now civilian Guatemalan government in 1987 joined its neighbors in calling for regional peace negotiations and more democratic reforms in the region. With Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras maintaining a united front, Nicaragua was pressured to allow free elections in 1990 that caused the repudiation of the Sandinista regime and the end of the civil war in that country. Soon after, the Marxist rebels in El Salvador agreed to a peace settlement with the government and a final peace accord ending the civil war was signed in early 1992. Successful settlements in two countries provided the momentum for a negotiated peace in Guatemala where the civil war continued in a desultory fashion for ten years after the guerrilla power was basically broken.

In 1996, after years of negotiations, the URNG signed a peace agreement with the government and agreed to disarm and operate openly as a political party. The peace was made generally on the government’s terms with a promised investigation of human rights abuses, a few land reforms and the promise to accept and protect the Indian culture of much of the population. The army was reduced in size but, in contrast to El Salvador (where 108 senior officers were retired when peace was concluded) only a few officers lost their jobs and the military still held much of the power. Guatemala has evolved into a democracy, but a democracy where the armed forces still hold a privileged position. Yet, the social problems and tensions that formed the causes of the Guatemalan revolution in the first place have receded since the 1990s. The economy is stable, political violence has ended and change comes through fair elections. Few Guatemalans today would accept a repeat of the counterinsurgency tactics used in the 1980s. As one sign of a new atmosphere in Guatemalan politics, Rios Montt was soundly rejected by the voters in the first round of the 2003 presidential elections when he was able to win less than twenty per cent of the vote against two candidates committed to a democracy in Guatemala.


El Doctor James S. Corum

El Doctor James S. Corum, (MA, Brown University; MLitt, Oxford University; PhD., Queen’s University Canadá), es profesor de estudios militares comparados en la Escuela de Estudios avanzados del Poderío Aéreo, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Posee el grado de Tte Cnel del Ejército en la reserva. El Dr. Corum es autor de The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and the German Military Reform (1992), the Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918–1940 (1997), y numerosos artículos acerca de historia militar y conflictos de baja intensidad.

Declaración de responsabilidad:

Las ideas y opiniones expresadas en este artículo reflejan la opinión exclusiva del autor elaboradas y basadas en el ambiente académico de libertad de expresión de la Universidad del Aire. Por ningún motivo reflejan la posición oficial del Gobierno de los Estados Unidos de América o sus dependencias, el Departamento de Defensa, la Fuerza Aérea de los Estados Unidos o la Universidad del Aire. El contenido de este artículo ha sido revisado en cuanto a su seguridad y directriz y ha sido aprobado para la difusión pública según lo estipulado en la directiva AFI 35-101 de la Fuerza Aérea.

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