Written by Kelsey Alford-Jones
Friday, 25 January 2013 17:27
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, anexperienceall too familiar in the nation´s collective
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 defendingmultinational 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
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
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
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 throughthe 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
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
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
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 un-successful) 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
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 denialof 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.