Harris Whitbeck, Sr

Harris Whitbeck, Sr

Harris Whitbeck Pinol is an upper-class Guatemalan businessman, politician and counter-insurgency expert. Whitbeck was a failed presidential candidate for Guatemala's Partido Patriotico or Patriotic Party (PP) during national elections held in 2003.Fact|date=January 2008 Whitbeck had previously been in the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco or Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), the political party founded in 1989 by the former Guatemalan strongman and president, former Brigadier General Efraín Ríos Montt, a fanatical Christian evangelist who seized power in a violent coup toppling then dictator General Romeo Lucas García in 1982. Montt's regime was favored by Ronald Reagan's administration as a staunch U.S. ally and anti-communist bulwark during the turbulent 1980's when civil wars plagued Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Prior to breaking away from the FRG, Harris Whitbeck had been one of Rios Montt's closest advisers.

Whitbeck is widely regarded as the key architect of Ríos Montt's counter-insurgency strategy aimed at crushing the leftist and predominantly Mayan Indian guerrillas of the URNG or Guatemalan National Revolutionary Army, a coalition of Guatemala's principal insurgent groups then fighting for land reform, indigenous rights, democratization and an end to systemic human rights abuses.

Officially categorized as a social policy expert, Whitbeck devised methodologies meant to isolate the URNG from its grass roots base in rural Indian villages, hoping to deprive the guerrillas of safe havens, recruiting centers, logistical support and moral authority. A Guatemalan variation of the "carrot or the stick" counter-guerrilla strategy, the policy became known locally as the "beans or bullets" method. In practice this meant the formation of numerous rural "civil defense" groups, government-backed death squads organized into irregular militias responsible for countless thousands of extra-judicial killings of suspected guerrilla sympathizers. These rightist paramilitary groups worked closely with the conventional armed forces and internal security forces and answered to them. Villagers were given the choice of either participating in the groups and receiving development aid or face execution themselves, hence the "beans or bullets" catch phrase.

During Ríos Montt's brief 18 months in power, an estimated 60,000-70,000 mostly civilian victims were killed or disappeared and some 440 villages were wiped out, constituting the bloodiest phase of Guatemala’s thirty six year long civil war which ultimately claimed 200,000 lives, though other estimates list the casualty figures as even higher.

In rightist circles, especially among the upper echelon's of Guatemala's Catholic church (although many "Low Church" clergy advocating Liberation Theology sided with the guerrilla struggle and non-violent human rights activism), patrician families who continued to enjoy a virtually feudal monopoly on land ownership, coffee and fruit companies, industrialists and the military, cited Ríos Montt's notoriously corrupt and brutal tenure as having saved Guatemala from Communist takeover, though Ríos Montt himself was eventually ousted.

In the present day, national and international human rights groups have repeatedly called for Montt and his closest collaborators, as well previous and successive members of Guatemala's past dictatorships, to face prosecution for a long catalog of atrocities and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war era, but to date almost none have faced judicial proceedings. Guatemala's courts are widely regarded as dysfunctional and easily cowed and even in a new democratic era for Guatemala, where former guerrillas have also joined the political process, hopes for a transparent, reckoning of the violent, recent past, remain dim. Harris Whitbeck has never faced a criminal indictment for his complicity in the horrors of the Montt era.

His son is the CNN Latin American correspondent of the same name, Harris Whitbeck (Jr.), and is not to be confused with the father.

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