Frederico 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.
Clinton’s apology was spurred by the experiments’ discovery—made by Susan Reverby, a historian at Wellesley College, in 2003. Reverby had been researching the Tuskegee experiments, perhaps the most famous example of a breach of medical ethics in the United States. In those experiments, black men who had already contracted syphilis had been told they were being treated when they were actually receiving placebos as part of an experiment on the effectiveness of treatment. All the while, these men were being observed by doctors interested in learning how their bodies would degrade from the illness. When the reality of the experiment became clear, in the 1970s, it was immediately stopped and a major lawsuit was filed.
It turns out that one of the key researchers who participated in the Tuskegee study in the 1950s had previously done experimentation studying sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala. This research had a similar goal—to understand the effect syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases had on the body, and to test whether existing treatments were effective—but the methods used were even more egregious than what happened in Tuskegee.