Elliott Abrams is believed to be U.S. President Donald Trump’s leading candidate for deputy secretary of state, Reuters reported Tuesday. While Abrams is known for having foreign policy roles with two other Republican administrations, he also has a checkered history in Latin America, linked to killings, disappearances and counterinsurgency across the region.
The 69-year-old last served under George W. Bush’s administration, but his work with Ronald Reagan’s administration is the most alarming. Abrams was a key figure in Reagan's anti-communist intervention in Nicaragua, otherwise known as the Contra Wars.
During the 1980s, the U.S. funded right-wing paramilitary groups against the leftist Sandinista forces in the country. Contra forces commonly used terror tactics and committed a number of human rights abuses. It is estimated that at least 30,000 people died in the fighting, which also displaced many.
The Reagan administration was later found guilty of violating international law in their support of the Contras and mining Nicaragua's harbors. Similar abuses with U.S. backing also occurred and were covered up in Guatemala and El Salvador. Abrams was known for downplaying the El Mozote massacre — where a U.S.-trained Salvadoran death squad killed over 1,000 civilians — as communist propaganda.
Around the same time, the U.S. supported brutal right-wing dictatorships in Argentina and Chile to squash the possibility of communist uprising during the Cold War with a counterinsurgency strategy referred to as Operation Condor. During the 17-year rule of Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, thousands are thought to have been killed, disappeared and tortured.
Argentina's, so-called Dirty War is estimated to have left up to 30,000 killed or disappeared after military dictator Jorge Videla came to power in a 1976 coup against left-wing President Isabel Peron and again received U.S. backing.
While the Argentine dictatorship faced criticism from President Jimmy Carter, the administration still supported the regime despite knowledge of torture and killings, and under Reagan's watch, human rights abuses were commonly ignored.
In 2012, Abrams testified in a trial brought forward by the families of disappeared and stolen children, organized through the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. Referring to events in the 1980s, Abrams said that the U.S. administration had believed that Argentina's human rights record was improving, despite the fact they were aware of babies being stolen from pro-democracy activists and then given to right-wing families sympathetic to the military juntas.
After more human rights abuses from the era became known, Abrams seems to have few regrets or remorse over the deadly foreign policy of supporting dictators and paramilitaries across the continent.
“The violence is ending now in part because of the collapse of communism throughout the world, but more because communist efforts to take power by force were resisted and defeated. In this small corner of the Cold War, American policy was right, and it was successful,” Abrams later wrote in the National Review in reference to El Salvador’s bloody Guerilla war.
Abrams was also embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran after the Islamic movement overthrew the U.S.-backed government. Authorities had hoped to continue the funding the Contras in Nicaragua, despite the fact that additional funding had been barred by Congress.
He was found guilty of illegally withholding information from Congress during the subsequent investigation, but was later given a pardon from President George H.W. Bush.
Abrams has been described as a neo-conservative and previously has been critical of Donald Trump, but is set to meet with Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday.