A New Scenario in Guatemala: Challenges for Social Movements and Cooperation

Source: Semilleros de Pensamientos

Today’s political scene in Guatemala is full of tension and disagreement. At the same time, a new form of counterinsurgency is developing that at some point we were calling the remilitarization of society. Today, we do not have the slightest doubt that this phenomenon is not simply remilitarization, but rather a plan conceived by the United States and some EU countries and carried out by those three allies of old: oligarchy-bourgeoisie-military, by way of whichever government happens to be in office at the time. We say ‘conceived’ because we do not doubt that the actions of the military play a vital part in the strengthening of a development model based on a green economy or the extraction of natural resources whose only real aim is to destroy natural resources in indigenous territory. Bearing this in mind, we do not doubt that insurgent forces fighting against this development model are made up of community members who oppose the destruction of their land.

This article provides a brief overview of Guatemala’s counter-insurgency efforts: who is leading them, the origin of their ideas, what they hope to achieve, and what the role of the historical social movements, mutual cooperation and solidarity should be in this context. We suggest that community groups should lead the way, as they are central to the resistance movement and provide the best example of the modern insurgent.

Guatemala: new counterinsurgency

General Otto Pérez Molina’s government and the Partido Patriota are refining military control. For example, we have been informed that the Departmental Government Palace in Alta Verapaz has installed a military intelligence centre operated by criminology students and professionals, coming mostly from private universities. On the other hand, the US strategy of employing mostly contractors for military operations is being carefully imitated by the Guatemalan government and the business elite: private police forces are drafted in to guard areas where projects currently being carried out or at least planned. On top of all that, NGOs are brought in to work on “brain-washing” communities, using public and private university students mostly from Social Work, Forestry and Agriculture faculties.

In a speech on land repossession, the current President Otto Pérez Molina spoke of change, but at the same time suggested that the government would restore respect for the authorities. The idea of respect for the authorities has become “respect not for the civil authorities but for the military”. For example, there was an attempt at setting up a military unit in Aldea Monte Olivo on 19 April; a curfew was imposed in Barillas, Huehuetenango; methods of intimidation were used against the leader of San José del Golfo (Yolanda Oquelí); demands made by the Indigenous and Peasant March were twisted out of context; various community leaders were assassinated; there has been forced displacement of communities; indigenous territories have been conceded to mining and hydroelectricity companies; the normal school movement (teacher training colleges, often located in rural areas with adjoining high school and primary schools) has come under attack; there is excessive military control (by military members who are today part of the Government) in the whole country;  military reserves are being again deployed; people linked with ex-guerilla groups have been elected for government positions and placed in strategic positions where they have influence over social movements [2], the repercussion being to gain the favour of media opinion. This was clearly demonstrated by the 4 October massacre in Totonicapán in which the commissioner for dialogue Miguel Ángel Balcárcel played an important part in cleaning up the government’s image.

Without a doubt, Plan Colombia, Project Mérida, Plan Mesoamérica, and Plan Martillo, among others, are all part of the same intervention strategy employed by the US government. For this reason, the strategy employed by Pérez Molina’s government is directly related to government practices in Colombia (Santos) and Mexico (Calderón), complying with all areas agreed upon in those plans and US military control strategy.

Following an analysis on military control in rural communities, and despite the fact that it has been said many times that the National Civil Police Force (PNC) does not have the capacity to control the level of violence taking hold of the country, the Minister of Governance [3] has ultimate control over the task forces that have been created under this government. Initially five task forces were created to control crime in Guatemala; now, they are the Maya Task Forces. All this is related to three big national agreements [4]. The three proposed pacts all refer to, in some way, resolving the country’s security problem, mentioning the North American phrase: “Terror must be fought with terror,” which reinforces the idea of the “terrorist”[5]. As such, one of the main activities of the Minister of Governance has been to create task forces to combat extortion, robbery, higjacking, hired assassins, the assassination of women and kidnapping[6], as approved by members of the PNC, the Army and the Public Prosecutor.
The military and landowners never left Central America. In other words, we have never had a democracy that was led by civilians per se and meanwhile, the rich carried on building their model, leading a large part of the population to believe that armed conflicts no longer existed in indigenous areas.

Drug-trafficking is a complex phenomenon [7], not only in terms of the way it operates, but also because during the last government and throughout this new one, structures have changed and hypothetically, we can say that some of these are taking on characteristics of the old structure, led by the military from the counterinsurgency era. It is not surprising that after the capture of Turcios, Lorenzana, and Chamalé (big players in the drug-trafficking trade), and the death of Coronel Fernández Ligorría by natural causes, former military personnel who are now members of the Patriota government are resuming control of organized crime. One only has to look at the facts: only a few hours after the new President came into power, the Leal brothers from San Juan Chamelo, Alta Verapaz, were murdered; there was an assassination attempt against Arévalo, Totonicapán’s representative minister; local elections in the Franja Transversal del Norte region saw local ministers not only follow the Patriota government’s proposed consolidation measures, but also former drug-traffickers “taking-back” land, who, as we mentioned earlier, are linked not only to the military [8] but also to old Guatemalan bourgeoisie. This is shown by the fact that a large number of the military have a connection with the counterinsurgency policy aimed at dealing with the Guatemalan armed conflict, as many work within the Ministry of Governance, the National Civil Police Force, Fona Paz and other government programmes. At the same time, the Guatemalan oligarchy maintains control over the three most powerful state figures, such as the new President of the Congress of the Republic [9].

However, not only does it conform with hard-handed readjustments of military members linked to drug-trafficking, but also conforms with the US and EU-backed strenghtening  extraction-based development model that, having been left in the hands of multinational companies at the Rio+20 meeting, is aimed at destroying indigenous land in agreement with the anticommunist measures of the 1960s.

Militarization is concentrated on the issue of national security and public safety, through which political power, control over the population and control over the enemy can be obtained, and equilibrium can be achieved in sectors where power must be balanced and/or negotiated, whether political or economical. However, the real aim is to put the Armed Forces in a position where they are the only guarantee to national security. This reopens doors to political power – a role that has weakened over the last 25 years [10]. It also serves to guarantee economic interests, especially in relation to drug-trafficking; to guarantee control over the Zetas, and to guarantee the security of the land which was handed over to the military, most of which is in the Franja Transversal del Norte region, in areas with large indigenous populations where a new social movement and social model is being created. In these areas, and with the backing of governors and mayors, intelligence centres are being built, which, together with the Secretary of Administrative Affairs (SAAS) and the State Intelligence Unit (SIE), are undertaking neo-counterinsurgency activities directed at community leaders or the leaders of social organizations that have historical ties with left-leaning organizations.

At the same time, control is exercised through those who previously formed part of leftist guerilla forces or the socialist left during the armed conflict, such as, Adrián Zapata, Elmer López, Jorge Morales Troj, Claudia Villagrán, Francisco Raymundo, and others. These people know the majority of the leaders of the social movement without actually forming part of the leftist movements. On the other hand, control does not necessarily come directly from that government but through the creation of NGOs such as, CEDER, Empresarios Juveniles (Young Entrepreneurs), the Cabañil movement, and others.

The truth is that despite having signed agreements with national and historic organizations, both labour unions, farmers’ cooperatives and indigenous and popular organizations; the current government has never staked their position on nationalization, on the strategic control of public services, on natural resources such as electrical power, on public transport, on telecommunications, or on oil or water. On the contrary, the policy is to leave those resources in the hands of the families, private cooperatives and transnational companies that hold power over the economy [11].
Ever since the creation of the Creole-Guatemalan State, the alliance between the bourgeoisie, the military and the Church has remained a permanent feature. This alliance was bolstered under the liberal governments, especially the Justo Rufino Barrios government which limited the mobilization of the indigenous population. Possibly, this was the key moment in history that founded what later became known as the bourgeois-democracy; in other words, a democracy led by the Assembly and the Market [12]; a democracy that used racism and discrimination as a political strategy.

Today this alliance is evident in the politico-military decisions made by the Partido Patriota government, as explained by the El Observador Association: the Partido Patriota government is trying to renationalize the old oligarchy-military alliance, except that now the military, in civilian dress, are well-established as an indisputable figure of power and not merely as actors reproducing the interests of the national oligarchy. Today, they can speak one-to-one with big business owners under their own name to defend their interests [13].

Challenges for Cooperation and the Social Movement

One must distinguish the difference between international multilateral and bilateral cooperation and solidarity. Firstly, multilateral and bilateral cooperation is a negotiation between states. This is not necessarily cooperation, because often it tends to come in the form of debt: it may not necessarily have to be repaid like a loan, but it is negotiated under certain conditions. For example, US-aid to combat drug-trafficking is handed over under the condition that North American companies are able to enter the country without too many restrictions. Contributions from the EU are very often made in return for allowing European companies to develop the extraction-based model, mainly in the field of hydroelectric power.

Multilateral and bilateral cooperation occurs according to country-wide or regional interventionist strategies. At the same time, it requires political compromise which comes as a result of membership in international organizations such as the United Nations, OAS, ILO, WB and the IMF. Often, these organizations act as a central pivot, requiring countries to accept models that the most powerful members want to implement in the poorer countries. For them, the fight against terrorism is key to limiting the reinforcement of social movements in countries where they have investment interests in large multinationals; interests which will have even more leverage after Rio+20 [14] when the UN leaves the implementation of the development model in the hands of private corporations. Consequently, projects financed by multilateral and bilateral cooperation serve only to window-dress states such as Guatemala: that is what the excessive funding for HIV-AIDS, citizen participation, young entrepreneurs, folklore and art, among others, is all about.

On that account, this type of cooperation has no interest in dealing with the new form of militarism and counterinsurgency in the country. They may well have an opinion on the subject, but it is only voiced under recommendation or according to certain criteria, as occurred recently when, in a meeting with President Pérez Molina and representatives of the Minister of Defense and the Army , various accredited foreign ambassadors in Guatemala recommended that, after events on 4 October in Totonicapán, the Army no longer participates in policing public protests [16].

Therefore, the type of cooperation described above does not function to help emancipate communities against the established model. Solidarity and cooperation with organizations such as Oxfam, Hegoe, Acsur, IBIS and Actionaid serve to fulfill that purpose. These organizations provide aid, contribute to the search for resources to support communities, and commit to the liberation of the people, while leaving state strategies aside. The logical framework applied to official state cooperation is left aside, because the resurgence of a counter-insurgency model in the country calls for immediate action, sooner rather than later. Also, because the foreign companies involved in the exploitation of resources and foreign-led international cooperation NGOs must inform their respective states of their activities in order to limit the abuse of authority they exercise over indigenous territories with the complicity of the Guatemalan government, the Guatemalan oligarchy and the military [17].

Therefore, the challenge for solidarity organizations is to accompany and understand the defense and recovery of the people’s lands, without the involvement of state or national and international oligarchies. For that reason, social movements and communities should not be asked to do that which is not within the parametres of liberation, such as engage in dialogue with the government and the state, which were constructed without considering the demands of these communities. The challenge is to support the communities and their people in building their own concept of living well, which has the values and principles of the native people’s worldview at its root.

If cooperation and solidarity organizations are to be clear and open in their actions, contributions and involvement with the people and social movements, and in view of the communities’ current situation – which is not new but rather a continuation of colonialism that began in 1492 – they have to bridge the gap that separate them from the people and allow for the construction of a new social movement, where the subjects are the collectives: we’ll call this a community movement [18].

It is impossible to deal with the current situation in Guatemala without building ethnic awareness, social awareness, class awareness, gender awareness and community awareness. The sum of this awareness should allow for the emergence of a new movement that, in the end, will overcome the extraction-based, neo-militarist colonial state of today that promotes a counter-insurgency model where the insurgents are the people.


Within these pages we have presented a brief analysis explaining how a new counter-insurgency model is being built in the county, we have outlined the aims of this model and established that the new insurgents are the communities and its people. Day-in, day-out these people are defending their land and territory against the onslaught of the extraction-based or green economic development model. However, at the same time it asks solidarity organizations for better accompaniment in order to give way to a new social movement, which we refer to as the community movement.


[1] Maya Poqomchi, antropólogo, docente universitario, columnista de Prensa Libre, investigador, escritor y analista desde la perspectiva maya.

[2] Adrián Zapata, Elmer López, Jorge Morales Toj, Carlos Batzin, Miguel Ángel Balcárcel y otros no tan visibles, pero que están haciendo trabajo de inteligencia para el gobierno del Patriota.

[3] De la masacre de Totonicapán, quien sale bien librado es el Ministro de Gobernación y quien recibe la mayor parte de la crítica y costo político es el Ministro de la Defensa, al ser detenidos los militares implicados. Sólo esta situación merece un análisis especial, porque demuestra que hay una lucha de posiciones dentro del gobierno.

[4] Ver. Discurso del Presidente Otto Pérez Molina, www.prensalibre.com.gt.

[5] La mayoría de campesinos (hombres y mujeres) presos en las cárceles de Guatemala y quienes tienen orden de captura, están bajo la figura de “Sedición y terrorismo”.

[6] Gámez Douglas y Gustavo E. Méndez, http://www.agn.com.gt/index.php?opt…

[7] insight crime Grupos de Poder en Petén: Territorios, Política y Negocio, http://www.insightcrime.com/compone…, Julio, 2011.

[8] Solano Luis, En manos de quién estará la seguridad del futuro gobierno patriota; Enfoque, Análisis de la Situación, año 2, No. 18, 28 de noviembre de 2011.

[9] Ba Tiul, Kajkoj Maximo, Estado Secuestrado, www.prensalibre.com.gt

[10] El Observador, 34 y 35, enero a junio 2012, Guatemala.

[11] ibídem

[12] Fernández Liria, et al, Educación para la Ciudadanía, Akal, España, 2007.

[13] Los Gramajistas le apuestan a consolidarse en bloque en el poder, El Observador, 34 y 35, enero a junio 2012, Guatemala.

[14] Ba Tiul, Kajkoj Maximo, Río+20, www.prensalibre.com.gt

[15] Ver la participación de la comunidad internacional para promover el proyecto sobre el Oxlajuj B’aktun del gobierno del Patriota. Ver, Ba Tiul, Kajkoj Máximo, Nuevo Baqtun, www.prensalibre.com.gt

[16] Ver. www.prensalibre.com.gt

[17] Ver Declaración del Consejo de Pueblos de Tezulutlán después del encuentro comunitario del 8 y 9 de agosto 2012 en Monte Olivo, Cobán Alta Verapaz, www.albedrio.org.

[18] Ba Tiul, Kajkoj Máximo, Movimiento o movimientos mayas, (borrador FONGI), www.i-dem.org, 2008.