From Fiction to Reality: The Chilling Tale of US Government Experiments in Guatemala

 | May 23, 2023

Illustration by: Nuestro Stories

There are many reasons why humans like the idea of horror. From the big screen to short stories to tales told around the campfire, this genre has fascinated us for centuries. 

Horror allows us to tap into our deepest curiosities about the darker side of humanity without ever having to access that side ourselves. It allows us to cross lines we would never cross in real life — and then two hours later, we are able to walk away from it all, knowing we’re safe. 

Unfortunately, the kind of horrors that humans can act out on their fellow human beings in real life is far worse than even some of the darkest movies can conjure. 

The real-life scenarios don’t let you get up and walk away two hours later completely unscathed, popcorn remnants in hand. They are the kind of horrors whose effects can last a lifetime or can cut a life terribly short. 

Such was the case in the 1940s during the sanctioned human experiments carried out on Guatemalan citizens by the US government.

Read more: Study: U.S. Latino History Is Barely Covered in the Country’s High School Textbooks

To understand what happened in Guatemala in the mid-40s, we must first go back further to The Tuskegee Experiments 

The Tuskegee Experiments was a decades-long experiment conducted on 400 men between 1932 and 1972. Researchers gathered 400 Black soldiers who were already known to be infected with syphilis and refused them treatment for decades, serving them placebos instead in order to “study the long-lasting effects of syphilis on the human male”.

Both studies were born from The Laboratory of Public Health Service, in conjunction with the Venereal Disease Research Laboratory. The argument was to study the effects of certain STDS, which at the time had no known cure. 

Where the Tuskegee experiment left off, however, the Guatemalan experiments picked up in a terrifying way

Where the Tuskegee experiments took people who were already infected, the Guatemala experiments purposefully infected 1308 soldiers, psychiatric inpatients, prisoners, and sex workers with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid in order to study their effects. 

People who were purposefully infected were not only refused treatment but were often given additional STDs on top of the original ones they were infected with through torturously painful means. 

The President-commissioned report “Ethically Impossible” detailed a multitude of the atrocities committed in the 2 years of this experiment.

“In February 1948, Berta was injected in her left arm with syphilis,” the report reads. “A month later, she developed scabies.” 

Several weeks later, Dr. John Cutler (the lead investigator) noted Bertha had also developed red bumps around the injection site, as well as additional lesions on her arms and legs. According to his note, Berta’s skin was beginning to fall off her body. She died on Aug 27th.

While this example feels like it must have been isolated or extreme, the report shows that the opposite is true. In the two-year span of time that the experiments took place, no shortage of torturous methods was used in order to see what kind of effects would come from it.

So, why did it happen?

While there are plenty of reasons that have been given over the years, one of the major topics has been science considering some races as dispensable.

The research paper “Moral Science; Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research,” by Georgetown University, offers an indisputable argument. 

According to the data collected and the summary of the results, the report states, “A possible remaining but clearly unacceptable explanation for choosing Guatemala would reflect the notion that the Guatemalans were a suitable, if not preferable, experimental population by virtue of poverty, ethnicity, race, remoteness, national status, or some combination of these factors.”

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Featured image is from the image Hoja Suelta, by José Guadalupe Posada, 1901.
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