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Slate US researchers infected Guatemalans with syphilis & gonorrhea, then left without treating them. Their families are still waiting for help.

Everyone agrees the experiments were unethical—the legal question is who should be held responsible. No one wants to pay up.

Federico Ramos was 22 when he left his home in San Agustín Acasaguastlán, Guatemala, in 1948 to serve in the country’s military. . . . Once his service was complete, Ramos moved to La Escalera, a tiny village of 400 people near his hometown where he could plant beans and corn and start his own family. Soon after settling down, he began suffering from what he refers to as “bad urine”—he felt extreme strain when he relieved himself. Over the years it got much, much worse and extended beyond his genitals to his appendix and other organs. He consulted doctors who prescribed medicines that didn’t work. . . . As his eight children grew up, they too started to have similar health problems. And later on, so did their children. . . .

For years, the family didn’t know what they were suffering from. A friend of theirs, who was studying at a university in the city, eventually looked up their symptoms and said it seemed like gonorrhea. . . .  Federico is now 91 years old. Sitting on a chair outside his son Benjamin’s small home, the frail veteran tells me how in October 2010, he heard from friends about recent news reports in which the government announced that several members of the Guatemalan military had been secretly and intentionally infected with gonorrhea by American researchers in the 1940s. Other groups—mental patients and prisoners—had additionally been exposed to syphilis and chancroid. The experiments were in the news because then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had issued a public apology to the government of Guatemala for violating its citizens’ human rights. Álvaro Colom, president of Guatemala when Clinton made reconciliation efforts, announced an investigation into the matter. Then-President Barack Obama asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to commence a report investigating how these horrifying experiments came to be. The report has been completed, the apology long since issued. But for families like Frederico’s, compensation and treatment has still not come.

Thank you to Slate for this important update to the struggle for restorative justice. The following points bear correction.

Judge Marvin Garbis ruled the US experiments on Guatemalan victims are illegal, in violation of customary international law prohibiting medical experiments on human subjects without consent under the leading case of Abdullahi v. Pfizer, Inc., 562 F.3d 163, 187 (2d Cir. 2009). Judge Garbus did not rule the experiments were simply “unethical.” Indeed, the government of Guatemala issued its own presidential report analyzing the experiments as crimes against humanity. Slate ignores the report, and should not.

In addition, human victims sued the US in the 2011 case dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds. Sovereign immunity based on the archaic and unfair English concept “the king can do no wrong” should not shield the US for these human rights violations. The article states immunity protects against suits by foreign governments; that is not at issue here.

This is why we represent the Catholic Archdiocese of Guatemala seeking restorative justice for the victims before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Individual and collective memory, truth, and reconciliation require more than an apology by the US. The US must be held accountable on these undisputed facts for human rights violations and crimes against humanity. We also keep the cited documents publicly available at, and not behind a pay wall. This is especially important if the US scours this history from official sites, as the article suggests.


Third amended complaint, Giron Alvarez v Johns Hopkins University, Rockefeller Foundation, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., and others