Remilitarization Gives Rise to New Tensions and Violence in Guatemala

On October 6, the Guatemalan army gunned down six indigenous protesters in Totonicapán and injured at least 30 more. Thousands had gathered to oppose unpopular government reforms, and while the police held their distance, the military advanced and shot into the crowd. The event was a tragic manifestation of one of the public’s worst fears since President Pérez Molina took office in January 2012: that the Guatemalan armed forces would resort to deadly force in order to repress and silence dissent, an experience all too familiar in the nation´s collective historic memory.

On October 6, the Guatemalan army gunned down six indigenous protesters in Totonicapán and injured at least 30 more. Thousands had gathered to oppose unpopular government reforms, and while the police held their distance, the military advanced and shot into the crowd.

The event was a tragic manifestation of one of the public’s worst fears since President Pérez Molina took office in January 2012: that the Guatemalan armed forces would resort to deadly force in order to repress and silence dissent, an experience all too familiar in the nation´s collective historic memory.

Pérez Molina has made no secret of his intention to deploy the armed forces in ever-greater numbers and ever-expanding roles – the military now overwhelmingly dominates citizen security initiatives. Whether walking down Guatemala City’s central avenue, the “Sexta,” or driving on any major highway, Guatemalans are once again likely to encounter soldiers patrolling with semi-automatic rifles or checking papers at military roadblocks.

The government has opened at least five new military bases and outposts since the beginning of 2012, and has sent soldiers to fight drug cartels, to protect historic sites and nature reserves, and to back up the police during evictions and protests. Soldiers have also been deployed en masse to reduce crime in Guatemala City´s poorest neighborhoods.

Seeing soldiers on the streets may not new in Guatemala, but under Pérez Molina, it has become symbolic of his administration’s approach to governance; and for the first time in over 15 years, current and former military personnel permeate the leadership of civilian institutions and dictate the administration’s approach to governance.

This swift remilitarization is deeply controversial, and the reasons behind it are much more complex than first meet the eye.In fact, some argue that the motivation for militarization has little to do with providing security for Guatemalan citizens – instead, it is about protecting the status quo, ensuring impunity for the armed forces and defending multinational economic investments. The US government has been eager to offer support to the Guatemalan military, despite the problematic implications.

The Military’s Past Atrocities

In1996, Otto Pérez Molina was a General in the Guatemalan military, and was one of their representatives at the peace negotiations that would put an end to the armed conflict. The Peace Accords, signed by Pérez Molina himself, emphasized the importance of strengthening civilian governance: the number of soldiers would be vastly reduced and a new, civilian, police force would be created. The Accords stipulated that the “National Civilian Police shall be under the direction of the civil authorities.” In contrast, the role of the armed forces was to “[defend] Guatemala’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; they shall have no other functions assigned to them, and their participation in other fields shall be limited to cooperative activities.”

The Accords placed limitations on the military not just to strengthen democracy, but also as a response to the atrocities the military had committed against its own people. In 1999, the UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) established that during the 36-year internal armed conflict, 200,000 people were killed, mostly civilians, including an estimated 45,000 who were forcibly disappeared. The Guatemalan state (through its military and paramilitary forces) was responsible for 93% of all human rights violations committed during the conflict, and had committed acts of genocide against the Mayan people.

The Military Creeps Back into Citizen Security Initiatives

Neither the Peace Accords nor the CEH report outlined steps to hold individual soldiers and high-level military officials accountable for the egregious war crimes committed, and many remain in positions of power to this very day. Internal reforms of military institutions were superficial at best, and government officials have been quick to re-engage the military with the justification that it is necessary to provide security to the Guatemalan public.

  • In 2000, only four years after the signing of the Peace Accords, a bill was passed legalizing the military’s collaboration with the police to combat common and organized crime, as well as deforestation, kidnapping, and other crimes.
  • In 2006 (under the direction of then Presidential Commissioner for Security Pérez Molina), President Berger mobilized reserve troops to maintain internal security, fight crime and distribute humanitarian aid.
  • From 2007-2011 President Colom continued to expand the military’s role, reopening military bases and increasing the number of troops, while Congress created a minimum requirement for spending on the Defense Ministry’s budget.

When Pérez Molina assumed the presidency in January 2012, he became the first career military official to hold that office in 25 years. He immediately called on the army to collaborate in “neutralizing illegal armed groups by means of military power.” In September, Pérez Molina inaugurated the Maya Task Force in Zone 18 of Guatemala City, with 1,200 soldiers and 100 police. He initiated a similar operation in Zone 12 in November.

The Remilitarization of Guatemalan Institutions

The dramatic images of thousands of heavily armed soldiers in Guatemala City are shocking and troublesome, yet the remilitarization of Guatemala today isn’t simply about more soldiers on the streets. It also refers to something much less visible –an institutional culture disturbingly similar to the counter-insurgency model that dominated during the internal armed conflict.

Numerous governmental agencies are now run by former military, including the Interior Ministry and offices within the National Civilian Police and intelligence services.  According to Guatemalan security analysts, upwards of 40% of security-related positions are held by former military, including many who were directly involved in the counter-insurgency campaigns; some have even been named in cases before Guatemalan courts for their role in crimes against humanity during the conflict.

Many of these policymakers, including Pérez Molina himself, hail from the generation of armed forces that was active during genocide campaigns such as Operation Sofia; a generation that participated in the extermination of entire villages, that used rape as a tool of war, and justified the use of torture and brutality in their campaigns against civilian, mostly indigenous, communities. This is the generation taught to believe that anyone who rejected existing structures of racism, economic dominance by a minority elite, and political exclusion, were “subversives”, “guerrillas,” “terrorists” and “internal enemies.”

The administration’s approach to policy-making, according to human rights groups, reflects this culture of discipline and obedience rather than democratic governance and dialogue. Any social conflict that disrupts the established order is addressed as the military has always dealt with perceived “threats” from its own citizens: intimidation, defamation, repression, and the use of force — sometimes with deadly consequences.

The tragic massacre in Totonicapán momentarily ripped through the curtain of government propaganda to expose the ever-present threat of violence. The international and diplomatic communities reacted strongly, and President Pérez Molina quickly assured the public that his administration would no longer deploy the military at protests and evictions. Only hours later, however, he had reversed his statement and later came out with a new protocol for the military’s collaboration with the police – a protocol that did not, in fact, reduce the military’s role at all.

The Military and the ‘War on Drugs’

The Guatemalan government has attempted to justify the military’s expanded presence due to the country’s high rates of violence linked to organized crime, gangs and common crime. The US has been quick to accept this argument.

“The military must provide security where the police have failed,” is an easy sell in the context of the US war on drugs andis an argument readily repeated by the US State Department. Meanwhile, the much-needed reform of Guatemala’s police force languishes without the resources or political support to move forward.

The Department of Defense and US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have provided ongoing support and training to the Guatemalan Armed Forces. This collaboration persists despite a decades-long Congressional ban on direct funding to the army due to the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan military against its own people, and the lack of reform within the institution.

Operation Martillo (Hammer) is the newest in a series of US-Guatemala joint operations, although it is also coordinated amongst other countries in Central America and Europe. The operation began in early 2012 and in July, President Pérez Molina signed off on an expansion of the operation. The new agreement permitted US marines and military contractors to be stationed in Guatemala for 120 days and collaborate directly on counter-narcotics missions. It granted US marines the right to be uniformed, to carry weapons, and to enjoy complete diplomatic “privileges, exemptions, and immunity.” Despite regulations requiring approval from the Guatemalan Congress, the document signed by the US and President Pérez Molina attempted to circumvent the process simply by stating: “It is understood that these activities […] do not constitute the passing of a foreign military through Guatemalan territory.”

The operation was not popular among many in civil society. “Drug trafficking in Guatemala shouldn’t be combated by the Guatemalan military, much less by the US military,” commented analyst Sandino Asturias in an interview with GHRC.

Helen Mack, executive director of the Myrna Mack Foundation and former Police Reform Commissioner, commented to the AP at the end of August: “Rural communities in Guatemala are fearful of the military being used to combat drug traffickers because the same techniques are applied that were used in (counterinsurgency) warfare. The historical memory is there and Guatemalans are fearful of that.”

There are other complications in using the military to combat organized crime. The military can’t carry out a criminal investigation, nor can it (legally) detain suspects of a crime. And while the US and Guatemalan armed forces collaborate on high-profile (often unsuccessful) attempts to capture narco-bosses, the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office has quietly had them arrested, many for extradition to the US. Furthermore, the Guatemalan military has documented ties to drug trafficking organizations and other criminal structures – the very groups they are sent to combat.

What does remilitarization achieve?

Soldiers train for battle, not to police the streets. Not surprisingly, increasing involvement of the military in police work has not only re-traumatized communities and survivors of the armed conflict, but it has also failed to reduce crime and violence in Guatemala. In fact, Sandino Asturias confirms that the homicide rate began to rise dramatically after the military reengaged in matters of internal security in 2000.

The military’s remarkable failure to address security concerns over the last 12 years doesn’t faze policy makers; in fact, the security of Guatemalan citizens doesn’t seem to be the primary concern at all.

Instead, increasing militarization has often functioned as a means to provide protection for the economic interests of transnational corporations.

The administration has constructed new military bases near existing or planned development projects such as mines, cement factories, and hydroelectric power plants. Military forces – in coordination with the police and private security guards – have consistently been mobilized to guarantee that “development” projects aren’t disrupted by local protests. This occurs despite the fact that, in the majority of cases, the government failed to consult local communities about the project and actively ignores threats, attacks, intimidation and other illegal acts committed by persons linked to the international corporations.

Public officials have instead branded those who organize against these unwanted development projects as “terrorists” and “guerrillas,” a strategy similar to the psychological warfare tactics utilized during the conflict. The government’s use of States of Siege in conflict zones has given the military free reign to terrorize indigenous families and detain “suspects.” Dozens of community leaders have been arrested on trumped up charges simply for their rejection of the administration’s development policies, giving rise to a new movement in solidarity with Guatemala’s first generation of political prisoners.

The international diplomatic community has been just as willing as the Pérez Molina administration to overlook commitments laid out in the 1996 Peace Accords – partially implemented at best – in favor of political and economic ties that promote investment, trade and “stability.”

Finally, for an entire generation of military officials and their civilian allies, the remilitarization of public institutions is not just about maintaining control, but about ensuring impunity.

As Guatemalan courts at long last – and against all odds – move forward with indictments against the military high command from the 1980s, accountability and incarceration for war crimes is suddenly a concrete possibility. The threat of judicial action has resulted in a policy of denial of the military’s involvement in war crimes and genocide, even as exhumations and court cases add to voluminous evidence against the military. An ongoing exhumation at a military base in Coban, Alta Verapaz has already unearthed over 500 bodies in mass graves, many bound, blindfolded, and showing evidence of torture.

In response, Pérez Molina has methodically dismantled public institutions that worked to promote human rights, historical clarification and justice, seeking to . During first half of 2012, the administration gutted the Peace Archives Directorate (DAP). The office had opened in 2008 to compile and analyze military (and other) archives in order to establish human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict. Archive staff published numerous reports on the conflict and acted as expert witnesses in key human rights cases. The closure of the DAP took place as the government was further weakening the Presidential Human Rights Office (COPREDEH) and consolidating it under the Secretary of Peace, Antonio Arenales Forno, a genocide-denier and long-time ally of the military.

The administration has made repeated attempts to limit or dismiss its regional and international human rights obligations that would jeopardize members of the military. At the beginning of 2013, Pérez Molina issued a presidential decree that refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in cases prior to 1987, even when they are “continuing crimes” such as forced disappearance and other crimes against humanity. Public outcry by national and international human rights organizations forced Perez Molina to annul the decree. Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry further limited access to information that relates to human rights violations from the early 1980s, which, according to Guatemalan groups, should be part of the public domain.

Emboldened by the administration’s fierce pro-military stance, retired members of the military and other ultraconservative and fanatically nationalistic groups have launched their own campaigns in the press and social media, sending direct,and very public, threats to those who seek justice and defend human rights.

As Guatemala spirals back into a reality frighteningly reminiscent of the 1980s, those who have become the intentional or collateral victims of remilitarization find themselves with little support from state institutions. Nevertheless, indigenous communities, activists and other civil society organizations –despite fear of repression or retaliation –continue to denounce remilitarization in all its forms. They recognize that the way forward for Guatemala is not to be found by returning to the nefarious practices of the past.

Kelsey Alford-Jones is the Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, a non-profit, grassroots, solidarity organization dedicated to promoting human rights in Guatemala and supporting communities and activists who face threats and violence. GHRC documents and denounces abuses, educates the international community, and advocates for policies that foster peace and justice.