Start watching

Tending Nature

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching

Earth Focus

Start watching

Reporter Roundup

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

Justice for Guatemalan People: The U.S. STD Atrocities

Support Provided By
"Migration of the Golden People" CARECEN 2002 © Judy Baca Courtesy of SPARC

[UPDATE 7/5: Just published New York Times op-ed says "Guatemalans Used in Experiments Deserve Compensation"]

A diverse and growing alliance seeks justice for Guatemalan people in response to the concededly immoral and unethical atrocities United States health officials committed against 5,128 children, orphans, Guatemalan Indians, leprosy patients, mental patients, soldiers, sex workers and other vulnerable people who were test subjects in non-consensual human experiments beginning in 1946. Health officials intentionally infected 1,308 of these people with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and left most of them untreated. The alliance asks President Barack Obama, Congress, and federal agencies to do justice through the principles and goals below.

There are three wrongs at stake: one is the atrocities beginning in 1946; the second is the failure of the United States now to provide relief for the Guatemalan victims, some of whom are still alive, and their families, heirs and descendants through compensation and treatment; and the third is the failure of the United States to put in place legal and ethical prohibitions so human experiments like this never happen again.

These horrific experiments were made public only recently, in 2010. A Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Commission) has condemned this program as "impossible" under ethical standards. The experiments were not only possible -- they happened, and the harms continue to this day. In a disturbing finding, "the Commission cannot say that all federally funded research provides optimal protections against avoidable harms and unethical treatment." The recommendations of the Commission have not been implemented. While this atrocity has received some media attention, there has been little sustained public attention, no redress for the victims, and no action to prevent such atrocities.

  • The alliance is organized around the following draft principles and goals, based on human dignity, autonomy, respect, and equal justice:
  • Victims of the Guatemalan atrocities and their families, heirs, and descendants receive equal treatment compared to the victims, families, heirs and descendants of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.
  • The atrocities were immoral and unethical, and, there are reasonable grounds to believe, illegal. Rape, battery and assault are immoral and unethical. They are also illegal. The Commission nevertheless has remained silent, for the most part, on legal responsibility and accountability.
  • The United States revises current laws and ethical standards, and improves legal and ethics training of public health officials and investigators, to ensure the strongest possible human subject protections are in place to deter misconduct, provide just punishment, and compensate victims; and to ensure those protections apply domestically and to federally funded projects around the world. The United States should implement the Commission's moral science recommendations now.
  • Representatives of the Guatemalan people are included in the review and revision process.
  • The United States fully and truthfully discloses the identity, actions and omissions of all individuals who held positions of institutional responsibility to approve, conduct, facilitate, fund, authorize, condone, tolerate, or conceal the atrocities; and identifies individuals who knew of, or had information about, the atrocities at relevant times. The Surgeon General of the United States approved the experiments, according to the Commission. Who above the Surgeon General knew, what did they know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it?
  • The Commission publishes on the web in English and Spanish the two reports by the Commission -- and the corresponding report by the Guatemalan government entitled "Consentir el Daño: Experimentos Médicos de Estados Unidos en Guatemala," to include Guatemalan perspectives.
  • The Commission publishes online the records and databases it relied on in its investigation. The Commission reviewed 125,000 pages. 12,000 pages are on the web.
  • The atrocities directly harm the victims who were subjected to the non-consensual experiments, and diminish the common humanity of all us.
  • "We should be ever vigilant to ensure that such reprehensible exploitation of our fellow human beings is never repeated," in the words of the Commission.
Victim profiles from the 'Ethically Impossible' report, page 60
Victim profiles from the 'Ethically Impossible' report, page 60

A federal District Court recently dismissed the human rights suit filed on behalf of victims who are still alive and other similarly situated people. Despite public apologies from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the United States Department of Justice moved to dismiss the case on the grounds of sovereign immunity (in other words, the government cannot be sued without its consent).

The District Court dismissed the case without a hearing in Gudiel v. Sebelius, 11 Civ. 527 (RBW), 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81539 (D.C. District June 13, 2012). The Court suggested that redress be sought from the political branches of government. The Court reasoned as follows:

[T]he Guatemala Study is a deeply troubling chapter in our Nation's history. Yet . . . this Court is powerless to provide any redress to the plaintiffs. The pleas are more appropriately directed to the political branches of our government, who, if they choose, have the ability to grant some modicum of relief to those affected by the Guatemala Study.

The alliance asks President Barack Obama, Congress, and federal agencies to do justice through the principles and goals above. To date, the United States has not taken meaningful steps to redress these terrible wrongs.

The Tuskegee experience involving recompense for past injustice is directly relevant here. Both Guatemala and Tuskegee involve immoral and unethical actions by the United States government; non-consensual human medical experimentation; sexually transmitted diseases; no treatment for infected victims; victims who were of color, low income and vulnerable; a history of discrimination; deception of victims and the public; and the same lead investigator. In Guatemala, United States officials intentionally infected the victims and generally left them without treatment or compensation for the rest of their lives. In Tuskegee, the victims were already infected, but were left without treatment; there were nearly 400 victims. The United States eventually provided treatment and compensation for victims, families and heirs in Tuskegee in response to media attention and a lawsuit.

Dr. Mark Siegler, director of the Maclean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago medical school, was stunned by the disclosure of the Guatemala atrocities. "This is shocking," Dr. Siegler told the New York Times. "This is much worse than Tuskegee -- at least those men were infected by natural means." He added: "It's ironic -- no, it's worse than that, it's appalling -- that, at the same time as the United States was prosecuting Nazi doctors for crimes against humanity, the U.S. government was supporting research that placed human subjects at enormous risk." Indeed, investigators violated the Nuremberg Code, according to the Commission.

Guatemala is the home of the ancient Maya, one of the great civilizations of the world. Miguel Angel Asturias won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967. Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. In 1954, the United States overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala. Military dictatorships assassinated almost 200,000 people in the next 40 years. The bishop of Guatemala, Juan Gerardi, was bludgeoned to death in 1998 for publishing a report on behalf of the Catholic Church documenting the killings. The Guatemalan government engaged in mass killings of Mayans, obliterating entire villages. The cold war and the war on drugs by the United States have devastated civic society and the economy in Guatemala for decades. Guatemala has a total population of 14 million.  55% live in poverty. The average education level is 4.1 years of education. The gross domestic product was $2,000 to $4,000 per person in 2011, according to the Economist.

There are over a million people from Guatemala in the United States, according to the census publication The Hispanic Population: 2010, up from 372,487 in 2000. 332,737 live in California, with 231,304 in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA MSA.

SUBJECT PROFILE: BERTA (from the "Ethically Impossible" report, page 52):

Berta was a female patient in the Psychiatric Hospital. Her age and the illness that brought her to the hospital are unknown.In February 1948, Berta was injected in her left arm with syphilis. A month later, she developed scabies (an itchy skin infection caused by a mite). Several weeks later, [lead investigator Dr. John] Cutler noted that she had also developed red bumps where he had injected her arm, lesions on her arms and legs, and her skin was beginning to waste away from her body. Berta was not treated for syphilis until three months after her injection.Soon after, on August 23, Dr. Cutler wrote that Berta appeared as if she was going to die, but he did not specify why. That same day he put gonorrheal pus from another male subject into both of Berta's eyes, as well as in her urethra and rectum. He also re-infected her with syphilis. Several days later, Berta's eyes were filled with pus from the gonorrhea, and she was bleeding from her urethra.On August 27, Berta died.

Five hundred years ago, Fray Antonio de Montesinos landed with the first band of Dominican friars from Spain in Hispaniola. He was the first, in 1511, to denounce publicly the oppression of innocent people in the Americas, and to call for reform. "Are these not people? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not feel this?"

We raise our voices to ask these same questions today.

  • Click here for the Commission's report "Ethically Impossible": STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948 in English, and Síga este enlace para leer "Ã?ticamente Imposible": Investigación sobre las STD en Guatemala desde 1946 hasta 1948 en Español.
  • Click here for the Commission's report Moral Science: Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research in English. The Commission should publish the Moral Science report on the web in Spanish, too, and the report Consentir el Daño: Experimentos Médicos de Estados Unidos en Guatemala by the Guatemalan government in English and Spanish.

Robert Garcia was born in Guatemala. His family moved to the United States when he was four as a result of the U.S. overthrow of the popularly elected government. His grandfather, a linotypist who had been a member of a labor union, was blacklisted by the dictatorship and could no longer get a job in Guatemala.

Support Provided By
Read More
Chiqui Diaz at work advocating to end social isolation | Courtesy of Chiqui Diaz

Youth Leaders Making a Difference Honored by The California Endowment

The Youth Awards was created in 2018 to recognize the impact youth voices have in creating change throughout California. Learn more about the positive work they're accomplishing throughout the state.
A 2011 crime scene in Tulare County, where one of Jose Martinez's victims was found. | Courtesy of Marion County Sherff’s Office via FOIA/Buzzfeed

California's Unincorporated Places Can Be Poor, Powerless — and the Perfect Place to Commit Murder

It's time to do better by communities that don’t even have local police to call, let alone defund.
Protesters confront police outside the 3rd Police Precinct on May 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after the George Floyd killing | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In California, A History of Young, Powerful Voices in Journalism Emerge

In the Golden State, the youth have a long history of storytelling that uncovers little-heard narratives.