The History and Resurgence of Death Squads in Central America

Politically motivated killings apparently by death squads have been growing over the past few years in Central America, and concern in Guatemala is heightened as the new administration has brought back to public office many of the same individuals directly implicated in the State repression and genocide of the 1980s.



On March 24, in the Public Health Workers neighborhood in Guatemala City, community leaders and neighbors chatted in a regular gathering place in front of a local store. The relaxed Saturday night was broken up by gunfire, a massacre that killed health care union leader Ovidio Ortiz, along with Bildave Santos Barco, Fredy Leonel Estrada and Oscar Alexander Rodriguez.

Public health workers unions are a strong force in defense of public services and natural resources, and among the most outspoken critics of the abuses of transnational corporations in Guatemala.

Ovidio Ortiz, a life-long health union leader, community organizer and political activist, was apparently the main target in the massacre; he received 8 bullets.


U.S. Assistant Secretary of State’s Visit to Central America and the Return of Repressive States in Central America

The next day, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement William Brownfield arrived in Central America on a two day trip, visiting Honduras and Guatemala. Brownfield’s trip is to promote the US’s “drug war” in the Central America, in close coordination with a government born of a military coup in Honduras, and in Guatemala, a government led since January 7, 2012 by President Otto Perez Molina, a former general accused of participation in genocide.

Politically motivated killings apparently by death squads have been growing over the past few years in Central America, and concern in Guatemala is heightened as the new administration has brought back to public office many of the same individuals directly implicated in the State repression and genocide of the 1980s.

Ex-General, now President Perez Molina is no stranger to death squads. According to declassified State Department and CIA documents, in 1994 while head of Military Intelligence, Perez Molina ran a secret torture center with over 300 political prisoners rounded up by military intelligence. An investigative journalist reported that Perez Molina was a CIA asset at the time.

Human rights activists reflect that the Public Health Workers neighborhood massacre appears to be one in a series of incidents indicating the return to the repressive State, what one Guatemala sociologist describes as the return of the three rights, the neoliberal right, the anti-communist right and the counterinsurgency right.

Criminal Network Death Squads Re-enter Politics

Like the death squads in the 1960s-70s, recent crimes in Guatemala appear to employ criminal networks, drug trafficking network hit men, to carry out violence against unions and communities organizing against abuses by transnational corporations, with the collusion or support of the military and police.

The return of the repressive state in Guatemala is part of a regional process that mixes drug war, anti-terrorism and anti-communist rhetoric and partners US security experts and agencies with repressive States, States made up of many of the same individuals responsible for crimes against humanity carried out just one generation ago with the assistance of US military advisors.

In Honduras, death squads targeting anti-coup activists have been operating across the country since the June 2009 military coup; human rights activists denounce over 300 politically motivated killings. In the Bajo Aguan region, since January 2010 death squad killings have been spearheaded by private security forces working for transnational palm oil corporations with the collaboration of police and the same Honduran military units that have received ongoing training from US military forces. As a result over 60 campesinos and journalists have been killed.

Killing Ovidio, Killing Democracy: Counterinsurgency Violence without the Violence

On September 2, 1993 Ovidio Ortiz helped lead public health workers in recovering a tract of land that the then-militarized Health Ministry had purchased in 1982. Though ostensibly purchased to build a hospital, years passed and public health workers worried the property would fall into the hands of military linked businesses, as has happened with other public lands purchased under military governments, such as a now cement mine on the South side of the city. So, they occupied the land and the union negotiated with the Health Ministry to facilitate access to housing lots for health workers.

Ever since Ovidio was elected either president or vice president of the neighborhood development committee; he was vice president when he was killed. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the National Union of Health Care Workers of Guatemala, and the Conflict Resolution Secretary of the National Front for Struggle in Defense of Public Services and Natural Resources (FNL), an alliance of public health unions and community organizations. And, he was a political activist with the URNG party born from the URNG revolutionary movement.

Over the past decade, health workers have been the most outspoken defenders of public services, with a strong and public political identification with the Latin American “left,” emphasizing the importance of sovereignty, an end to North American hegemony in the region, and popular struggle.

Ovidio was killed just two days after the National Union of Health Workers signed a hard-fought collective agreement with the Health Ministry. The March 22, 2012 agreement was the product of difficult negotiations that involved months of work stops, protests and road blockades. Though most of the struggle took place during the previous presidential administration, on February 24, 2012 the FNL, comprised in large part of the health workers unions, froze the nation for five hours blocking the eight major highway intersections. Public health workers showed their strength, leaving no doubt they are a force to be reckoned with.

Shooting Sprees in Working Class Neighborhoods Spread Fear

Guatemalan human rights organizations observe that the Public Health Neighborhood massacre is also part of a trend of shooting sprees in meeting places like corner stores that began occurring in working class neighborhoods.

On January 15, 2012, in Zone 6 of Guatemala City, young people were reportedly kidnapped by a military patrol. A similar action is reported to have occurred again two weeks later in the El Mezquital settlement, when men dressed in black with ski masks again kidnapped young people.

Six days after the March 24, 2012 Public Health Workers Neighborhood massacre, on March 30, 2012, a passing car sprayed bullets on residents gathered in front of a neighborhood store in Zone 18 in northern Guatemala City, injuring 8.

8 FNL Energy Nationalization Movement Leaders Killed in 6 Months

The National Front for Struggle (FNL), an organization where Ovidio Ortiz held a leadership position, is among the most outspoken opponents of the abuses of transnational corporations in Guatemala, and has been a target of death squad killings. The FNL has led a struggle for the nationalization of electrical services in Guatemala, privatized in 1999, while denouncing illegal surcharges and other abuses by Union Fenosa, a Spanish distribution company that benefitted from the privatization.

Communities organized with the FNL in the Department of San Marcos were part of a movement to withhold payment for electrical services in protest of abuses, including non-compliance with court mandated refunds to clients.

Murders of FNL Members

  • On October 24, 2009, Victor Galvez, a local leader in opposition to Union Fenosa and member of the Front in Defense of Natural Resources (FERNA), a San Marcos based organization that belongs to the FNL, was shot 32 times as he left his office in Malacatan, San Marcos.
  • On December 15, 2009, Union Fenosa cut electrical services to entire townships of San Marcos, and a State of Emergency was declared in response to the resulting protests. Over the next few months, during the state of emergency, a further seven FNL activists were killed in San Marcos.
  • On January 13, 2010 Evelinda Ramirez was shot and killed in the municipality of Ocos while driving to her home in nearby Chiquirines.
  • On January 29, 2010, energy nationalization activist, member of the FNL and the Malacatan municipal workers union Pedro Garcia was shot and killed while driving home.
  • On February 17, 2010 Octavio Roberlo, a principal leader of the FNL in San Marcos was shot 16 times from a passing car when he was closing up his store in the bus terminal.
  • On March 21, 2010, Carlos Noel Maldonado Barrios, Leandro Maldonado, and Ana María Lorenzo Escobar, three community leaders active in the denouncements against Union Fenosa were brutally killed by gunshots and machete wounds in the municipality of Ocos.
  • On March 22, 2011, during protests in reaction to Union Fenosa cutting electrical service to the town of Las Brisas in Ocos, Guatemalan soldiers shot and killed Santiago Gamboa, head of the local committee for the nationalization of energy, while injuring six others.

Drug Hitmen Working for Spanish and US Transnational Businesses?

Ocos and Malacatan in the department of San Marcos are towns renowned to be controlled by drug trafficking networks. Reportedly following the December 15, 2009 massive suspension of electrical services, including to medical centers, Union Fenosa moved their San Marcos offices to a building owned by one of San Marcos’ most infamous drug traffickers, which to local residents appeared to be a signal of an alliance between the Spanish electrical company and traffickers.

The 2009-2010 killings of FNL leaders and supporters in San Marcos were carried out in a way characteristic of drug hit men killings.

The municipality of Morales in Izabal is another area dominated by drug traffickers where unionists are being killed in an apparent alliance between transnational corporations and drug traffickers.

Del Monte Fresh Produce banana workers are organized into the SITRABI union. Del Monte Fresh Produce is charged with hiring some of Guatemala’s most important drug traffickers, including Mario Ponce (extradited to the US on drug charges in January 2012), to kidnap SITRABI leaders in 1999, at the same that Marvin Bush, the brother of Jeb and George Bush, sat on the Florida based Del Monte Fresh Produce board of directors.

Over the past year a new round of hit style killings of SITRABI unionists are terrorizing banana workers: Oscar Humberto Gonzalez Vasquez was killed on April 10, 2011; Idar Joel Hernandez Godoy was killed on May 26, 2011; on September 24, 2011 Henry Anibal Marroquin Orellana was killed; on October 16, 2011 Pablino Yaque Cervantes was killed; and most recently, Miguel Angel Gonzalez Ramirez was shot to death while holding his son.

Death Squad Denounced in Cement Plant Conflict with Swiss Investment

In 2007, indigenous communities denounced the emergence of a death squad in San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala, where 12 Kaqchiquel Maya communities are resisting the entry of a cement plant which will decimate their territory, a project promoted by a consortium of the Guatemalan cement monopoly Cementos Progreso, owned by the politically powerful Novella and Torrebiarte families, and by the Swiss cement giant Holchim.

Community activists report that the violent group emerged following the May 13, 2007 community consultation that rejected the cement companies’ presence in the municipality, claiming it is run by former military officers and known as El Escuadron (The Squad). It first began extorting local residents, generating a ‘security crisis’ and then began killing accused “gang members” they claimed were responsible for the extortion.

Community leaders resisting the cement plant were subject to constant threats and violent attacks, and subject to flawed and apparently malicious prosecution for killings apparently carried out by El Escuadron.

1960s-1980s Death Squads Grew from Criminal Networks and US Security Advisors

The United Nations sponsored Truth Commission, published in 1999, reported on atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war (1960-1996). US government documents declassified in the 1990s as a contribution to the Truth Commission demonstrate that in the mid-1960s a U.S. public safety advisor to Guatemala, John Longdon, pressed superiors over the need to set up covert operations centers, a safe house for coordination of security intelligence and the designation of a room in the National Palace, the starting point of the infamous “El Archivo” parallel intelligence center and nerve center for death squads.

In mid-1966, US Southern Command forwarded a request from the Guatemalan government to the US government for assistance in setting up kidnapping squads. A surge of death squad killings that began in 1966 resulted in thousands of deaths.

The UN Truth Commission found that the death squads of Guatemala’s ‘internal’ conflict were initially criminal groups made up of civilians whose actions were tolerated and covered up for by State authorities, which received logistical support from the military, responded to decisions made in the military command structure, and eventually incorporated military personnel.

Death squads that incorporated drug traffickers like Arnoldo Vargas, a member of the infamous 1980s ‘Mano Blanco’ squad and the first Guatemalan extradited to the US on drug charges in 1992, carried out politically motivated killings.

The Truth Commission’s description of the origins of Guatemalan death squads is disturbingly similar to the picture emerging in Guatemala and Honduras today.

Post Peace Process Police Forces and One Alleged CIA Asset

The military intelligence networks were restructured after the 1990s peace processes and have continued as criminal networks. They shied away from political killings, likely due to the strong international presence accompanying the peace processes. But these intelligence / criminal networks continued to infiltrate the States on all levels.

With the partial demobilizations of the militaries and creation of new National Civilian Police forces after the signing of the peace accords in El Salvador and Guatemala, which involved the large scale recycling of soldiers as police officers, a new generation of death squads was created in Central America.

In the early 1980s, Victor Rivera, a Venezuelan national and reported Central Intelligence Agency asset, came to the Ilopango Airforce base in El Salvador to work alongside the infamous Cuban American bomber and alleged former CIA asset Luis Posada Carriles in running Oliver North’s National Security Council covert operations that employed former Nicaraguan National Guardsmen who had been operating as criminal gangs in Guatemala in attacking the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, the “Contra supply operation.”

Rivera went on to become a security advisor to El Salvador’s post peace accord Vice Minister of Security, Hugo Barrera. Rivera assisted in the creation of an unofficial police unit that operated out of the office of a business owned by Barrera. When the “Police Analysis Unit” was implicated in the killing of a medical student, he fled to Guatemala in 1996.

In 1996, the same year as the signing of the peace accords, wealthy Guatemalans became concerned about a rash of kidnappings, and organizations like Madres Angustiadas (Anguished Mothers) and Friends Against Extortion and Kidnapping (FADES) were formed. They welcomed Victor Rivera who set up another special parallel police team, this one in Guatemala.

Adela Torrebiarte, a founder of Madres Angustiadas and member of the Novella-Torrebiarte family which owns Cementos Progreso involved in the mining conflict in San Juan Sacatequez, supported Rivera’s entry into Guatemala. The two reportedly were close over 12 years.

The United Nations peace process verification mission MINUGUA reported that in 1996 a covert anti-kidnapping commando operated out of the Presidential Palace, and was involved in the capture of kidnappers of the elderly Isabel Bonifasi de Botran (brutally murdered in the course of the kidnapping), and in the capture and forced disappearance of a member of the ORPA revolutionary movement involved in the kidnapping of Olga Novella of the Novella-Torrebiarte family.

In 1997, when Victor Rivera’s parallel security teams office was raided by police, Madres Angustiadas jumped to his defense claiming that he had helped them resolve kidnapping cases. On May 4, 2001 Adela Torrebiarte’s nephew, Juan Andres Torrebiarte Novella, was kidnapped, but was rescued on May 24. MINUGUA reported that four of his captors were severely tortured.

Social Cleansing or Organized Crime Violence?

While kidnappings were the topic of concern in the late 1990s, from 2001 to 2005 it was murder, gangs and social cleansing. The murder rate grew 40% from 2001 to 2005. A large number of killings of young people, apparently gang related and murder of street children by police and gangs was widely reported.

Investigations by the UN-backed special prosecutors unit CICIG demonstrated in 2010 that in 2004 a network of officials in the Ministry of Governance and Police used their positions to engaged in a range of criminal activities, including murder, robbery and drug trafficking. In 2010, arrest warrants were issued for 18 officials involved, including the Director of the National Police Erwin Sperinsen and the Secretary of Governance Carlos Vielmann.

Though reporting focused on their role in the death squad killings of prison inmates and escapees, the breadth of activities that this network was allegedly involved in leads to the conclusion that the inmate killings were not simply about cleaning up society or “social cleansing” but related to other criminal activities the officials were involved in.

This leads one to question what other motives besides “cleaning up” society may have been behind the crisis of killings of young people in the early 2000s.

Guatemalan Death Squads Reemerge in the Public Eye

In 2006, questions about Veilmann’s, Sperinsen’s and Rivera’s activities began to surface after compromising information surfaced in the press that seemed to link them to questionable conduct related to the 2006 killing of three Central American parliamentarians, and the ensuing investigation of the crime. Two fled to Europe in 2007.

Victor Rivera was also suspected to have been in some way involved in the killings of the Central American Parliamentarians. Rivera visited four police officers detained as the material authors of the Parliamentarians’ murders in prison just hours before they were killed in a suspicious prison massacre, and a video was circulated of the officers threatening to bring down Rivera, essentially that they would not be his scapegoats, when they were first detained, illegally, by Rivera.

Then President Oscar Berger named Adela Torrebiarte, founder of Madres Angustiadas, as the new Secretary of Governance after Vielmann, and she kept Rivera on as an advisor.

However, shortly after Torrebiarte left the Ministry of Governance, Rivera was fired on March 30, 2008 and a week later, on April 7, 2008 he was murdered as he drove in Guatemala City.

CICIG’s investigations of Rivera’s murder identified drug kingpin Jorge “El Gordo” Paredes as a suspect. CICIG’s director described Paredes as a long-time associate of Rivera, and described one of two potential motives for Rivera’s murder as the consequence of a collaboration with Paredes that had gone bad. Parades was also implicated in the killing of the Central American Parliamentarians.

Former Police Director Arrested for 2009 Death Squad Killing

The most recent death squad scandal erupted on March 23, 2012 when Marlene Blanco, Director of the National Civil Police in 2008 and Assistant Secretary of Governance for Community Security in 2009, was arrested on charges of running a death squad that tortured and murdered suspects in the extortion and murder of bus drivers. She has been charged with three 2009 killings and is being held in prison.

A dramatic rash of killings of bus drivers began during the 2007 presidential campaign, won by Alvaro Colom, and continued during his presidency to be so dramatic that they were deemed to be a source of political instability.

Marlene Blanco’s brother, Orlando Blanco, was prominent in Colom’s administration as Secretary of Peace and is currently a congressman for Colom’s UNE party. Marlene Blanco’s arrest is the latest in a series of cases initiated against prominent figures or relatives of prominent figures in outgoing administration, including a sister of the former First Lady in what seem to some to be a political vendetta by the ruling party against the outgoing UNE party, its stiffest competitor.

While some suspect that the case against Marlene Blanco may be politically motivated and promoted by current functionaries, the case has been investigated by CICIG, which has gained a great deal of legitimacy. The public prosecutor in charge of the case requested that the proceedings be reserved from the public

2012: New Police Forces in Central America – Restructuring Death Squads?

Sweeping police reform and the creation of new police forces is planned as part of the Regional Security Strategy backed by the US State Department.

In February 2012, a proposal for the creation of a tri-national police composed of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador emerged, and Brownfield promoted that initiative during his March 2012 tour. The tri-national force would be charged with controlling a 20 mile perimeter around borders of those nations, and would undoubtedly be trained in the Regional Security Strategy’s regional training center in Panama whose focus is training in border security and is run by US and Colombian security forces.

In January 2012, incoming Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina named Adela Torrebiarte as the special commissioner in charge of police reform. Torrebiarte helped bring Victor Rivera to Guatemala in 1996, the reported CIA asset who had created some of the first parallel networks in the El Salvadoran police, and was suspected to be implicated in 2006 and 2007 death squad scandals.

Torrebiarte’s family business is suspected by indigenous rights activists in San Juan Sacatepequez to be implicated in the creation of death squads to facilitate the entry of a controversial cement plant in their communities.

She will now be in charge of reforming the Guatemalan police, and participate in the creation of a regional police force, with extensive US assistance.

We can expect that death squads will weather the reform, and probably even flourish.

(Annie Bird is co-director of Rights Action, since 1995, and has written extensively about Central American human rights issues, about the historic and on-going role of the USA in the region, and about global business and investors interests in the region.