A perfect storm of violence in Guatemala

crime | Mar 18, 2009 | By Edward W. Littlefield

As neighboring Mexico teeters on the edge of what some say is a societal breakdown, Guatemala serves as an important role-player and as a strategic pathway for northbound narcotics as well as for cartels seeking to spread their influence south to protect this passageway. Drug trafficking is seriously demoralizing this country of thirteen million, which is still haunted by the memory of Latin America’s longest and one of its bloodiest civil wars. However, recent governmental initiatives may serve up a dollop of optimism, because after much treading in place, President Álvaro Colom seems ready to act. Guatemala appears to be taking early and tentative steps towards addressing the hugely disruptive legacy left by the country’s thirty-six year internal conflict, which cost upwards of 200,000 lives and ended only with the 1996 UN-brokered peace accords.

Since the beginning of March 2009, President Colom has announced the establishment of a presidential anti-impunity committee, a panel to review and declassify military archives from the civil war that had begun in 1969, and the formation of a United States-trained anti-narcotics force. These developments demonstrate what could be a laudable attempt to bolster human rights that have rarely met upbeat expectations before, nor have been able to acquire the institutional integrity and security which were badly needed by this fragile Central American democracy. However, Guatemala and the international community should be aware of the historical precedents of such initiatives, considering that the country’s previous efforts to overcome the dolorous past usually have gone up in smoke.

Impunity and Violence: The Civil War’s Legacy and Longstanding Threats to Guatemala’s Integrity and National Security

Following the civil war, the implementation of the 1996 Peace Accords had been undermined by institutional weaknesses, a lack of political will, and indiscriminate violence (6,292 homicides were reported in 2008, of which only 2 percent reached trial and of which only 146 cases were solved). In a letter to Guatemalan Minister of Defense Major General Abraham Valenzuela González, Human Rights First, in addition to several North American non-governmental, human rights, and solidarity organizations, postulated that “much of the continued lawlessness in Guatemala may stem from the culture of impunity that has grown out of the failure to prosecute the heinous crimes committed during the conflict.”

State counterinsurgency apparatuses and the paramilitaries, together with the military, were responsible for 90 percent of the war’s 200,000 deaths, for the most part, at the hands of clandestine security organizations. Today, these paramilitary death squads are considered a primary perpetrator of violence and the prime retardant of Guatemala’s post-conflict pacification process. Their attacks on human rights workers in 2002 provided the impetus for a 2004 agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government to establish the Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Organizations (CICIALS).

Adamant stonewalling from Congress, individual senior military officials, and the country’s Constitutional Court, which ruled the commission unconstitutional, grossly impeded such groups’ investigation. In 2006, after the government eliminated the International Commission’s authority to oversee constitutional conflicts from its mandate, a new body was set up. This was the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). In its own words, this body was meant to be “an innovative new initiative [was set up] by the United Nations, together with a Member state, to strengthen the rule of law in a post-conflict country.”

The UN initially recommended that the commission be independent of the state and judicial apparatus, but the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, which holds the ultimate decision-making power over CICIG, rejected this format. Instead, it forced the commission to coordinate with the very institutions which it was investigating. By 2008, CICIG had received $21 million from foreign governments and organizations to carry out its work, yet Guatemala’s impunity level remains at a shocking 98 percent.

Recently, the attorney general and judiciary have impeded CICIG efforts to prosecute former Attorney General Álvaro Matus for obstructing the investigation into the murder of a former security advisor. In what Spanish judge and CICIG chief Carlos Castresana, the former prosecutor in the 1998 Pinochet extradition case, dubbed a “mockery of justice,” Matus was released on $2,000 bail. President Colom endorses Castresana’s plea for a two year extension of the commission’s mandate, which is set to expire in September 2009. Yet it almost does not matter since CICIG has proven impotent in combating impunity and criminal and clandestine security organizations in Guatemala.

Additionally, the violence of the Mexican drug war has spilled south, posing a serious threat to Guatemala. The latter is one of nine Central American and Caribbean states splitting $65 million appropriated by the United States’ Merida Initiative to fund counter-narcotics activities. To the consternation of Guatemalans of civil rectitude, President Colom, elected in 2008 on a crime-fighting platform, was recently targeted by Mexico’s paramilitary wing of the Gulf cartel, Los Zetas, who threatened his life. Nevertheless, this month, Colom has taken compelling, albeit contradictory, steps towards combating these remnants of the civil war.

Colom’s Initiatives to Counter the Civil War’s Doleful Legacy

This month alone, President Colom has generated three initiatives that essentially address the Guatemalan Civil War’s endemic practices of impunity and non-state violence: a presidential anti-impunity committee, a panel to review and declassify Guatemalan army archives from 1960 to 1996, and an elite, U.S.-trained anti-drug force. These developments are conscientious efforts to definitively move the country’s institutions and civil society beyond the civil war. However, the former two are hindered by their very own structures, and the last named, while addressing the issue that most imminently threatens the state’s existence, evokes ominous presumptions of conflict.

Announced on March 3, Colom’s Presidential Commission Against Impunity will be comprised of representatives from various state agencies and organizations, and in the words of the president, it is intended to be “a ‘mirror’ to the CICIG.” The Presidential Commission will seek to support CICIG in its struggle against organized crime and clandestine security groups. Though details remain unknown, the establishment of the new commission further embeds anti-impunity in the state. The government at least is on record as recognizing the need to ensure institutional integrity without depending upon CICIG, whose mandate is due to shortly expire. Yet the presidential entity may turn out to obstruct the international body’s efforts. According to LatinNews Daily, the new commission may prove counterproductive, “given that one of the main problems facing the UN-backed committee is precisely its dependency on the state apparatus.” By further linking CICIG with the state, Colom provides greater opportunities for resistant parties to hinder the UN commission’s quest for justice.

Army and police leaders, representatives of the very institutions which most arrantly enjoy impunity for human rights derelictions during and after the civil war, could be among the first to be prosecuted by the commission. Hopefully this important step towards promoting democracy and human rights observance will complement, rather than hinder, CICIG’s mandate. The Presidential Commission Against Impunity should resist submitting to the military, attorney general, and Constitutional Court’s pressures if it desires to maintain more than a symbolic significance in the country. Moreover, Colom should be intent upon bolstering, and not strive to be independent from the CICIG, so not to subvert the commission’s charter efforts. The President’s aim to “to help in the workload that is considerable, but above all to be a support for it by giving CICIG all the necessary inputs,” demonstrates the commission’s sound principles and lofty goals. Yet it remains to be seen whether the new body in practice will prove to be self-respecting and effective.

On March 3, President Colom also announced a presidential commission to review and declassify Guatemalan military archives from 1954, the year the CIA-backed exile army overthrew democratically-elected Jacobo Árbenz, to 1996, the year of the United Nations-facilitated Peace Accords. The commission, to be headed by army Inspector General Colonel Aníbal Flores España, represents an important movement, not just for Guatemala but other conflict-ridden Latin American states, as well as instances of U.S. complicity in cases where democracy was traumatized both in policy and practice. In fact, the documents may reveal important information about Washington’s support for military dictatorships during that period. More immediately, any disclosures made could expose human rights abuses carried out by the state, military, and paramilitary forces, which could help Guatemalans address their nation’s exceedingly troubling past and put it behind them.

The release of the documents would almost certainly be of elemental importance in the ongoing prosecution of the country’s genocide trial, which was brought before the Spanish Supreme Court in 1999. It evokes the theory that one country’s crimes against humanity warrant “Universal Jurisdiction” of foreign governments and institutions. Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, together with Guatemalan NGOs initiated investigations that implicated government officials with terrorism, genocide, and systematic torture. In March 2008, the Constitutional Court denied the claim of General Ríos Montt, who infamously ruled the country as a military dictator from 1982 to 1983, that army archives relating to massacres contained state secrets and whose declassification could threaten national security.

However, the country’s Attorney General, José Velásquez Zárate, continues to refuse the investigation of former military and police officials accused of committing mass atrocities during the civil war. According to Human Rights First, the “declassification and release of documents in the archives will undoubtedly aid [survivors and human rights defenders] in the investigation of these and other cases and in bringing the perpetrators to justice.” Additionally, as of March 2008, the military is obligated to make relevant archives public, given the new law stating, “in no case may information relevant to the investigations of human rights violations or mass atrocities be classified as confidential or reserved.”

However, once again, the Guatemalan military is almost certain to frustrate the Colom initiative. The commission appears to suffer from the same symptoms as the anti-impunity initiative in that the army, the very institution under investigation, and with the most to lose, will comprise its leadership. In February 2008, military officials — namely the recently dismissed former Minister of Defense General Marco Tulio García Franco — opposed the initiative to open the archives, claiming the demand was unconstitutional and beyond presidential mandate. The current Minister of Defense, Major General Abraham Valenzuela Gonzalez, has received death threats from unidentified military officials in response to Colom’s pledge. The President, however, believes “the opening of the archives will allow us to find the truth and only that way we will find peace.”

The Presidential Commission Against Impunity and the declassification of military archives demonstrates Colom’s increasing commitment to human rights issues as well as addressing the country’s horrific historical memory, after a very slow beginning. Colom’s power vis-à-vis a military that has been tainted through most of its history will play a large role in determining the commission’s effectiveness.

Another initiative whose success is yet to be measured is the elite, U.S.-trained Aerial, Narcotic, and Terrorism Intervention Force (FIAAT). FIAAT is a unit of 24 police agents and 25 officials from the Guatemalan air force and navy that has undergone training by the United States Border Patrol’s Tactical Unit (BORTAC). Information about FIAAT is still limited, but understanding BORTAC’s history and philosophy can provide insight into the nature of this new force. The mission of BORTAC, the global special response team of the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, is to “respond to terrorist threats of all types anywhere in the world in order to protect our nation’s homeland” and “interests abroad.” In collaboration with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Coast Guard, BORTAC carried out Operation Snowcap, 1987 to 1994, to disrupt the cultivation, processing, and transporting of cocaine throughout Central and South America.

According to Michael Evans, director of the Colombia Documentation Project, Operation Snowcap failed to reduce coca cultivation as well as disrupt cocaine trafficking and was called off by the State Department in 1992. Moreover, according to the State Department, the DEA, “‘an agency which does not have military expertise,’ was being asked to execute ‘paramilitary operations’” against guerrilla insurgencies and narcotics traffickers who routinely have at their disposal a far superior force.

It seems somewhat contradictory to establish a presidential commission to legally prosecute organized crime and clandestine security organizations, then to establish an elite, U.S.-trained lethal vehicle with a history of paramilitary-like activity to combat narcotics trafficking. While FIAAT represents an important collaboration between the U.S. and Guatemalan military to combat what constitutes the latter’s greatest threat as well as an important pathway for drugs trafficking, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cites the country as a major transit area for cocaine and heroine en route to Mexico warning onlookers to be wary of such an organization’s historical antecedents.

According to Andrew Morrison and Rachel May – the authors of Escape from Terror: Violence and Migration in Post-Revolutionary Guatemala – in the 1960s, as the Guatemalan military expanded its forces in rural areas to combat the mounting guerrilla threat, Mano Blanca and other paramilitaries, most of whom were linked to the government or rightwing political parties, initiated “death squad activity and authoritative genocidal assaults against the unarmed rural populace.” Such paramilitaries, all evidence suggests, still function within and outside of the government. High levels of drug trafficking, impunity, and corruption make FIAAT’s future even more tenuous and deserving of vigilance. The state and military will be challenged to prove that they can ensure the peace, the rule of law, and the country’s survival without reverting back to the repressive strategies of the past.

From Post-Conflict to Preemption: Guatemala’s Other Challenge

These presidential initiatives to combat the impunity, violence, and drugs that have flourished in Guatemala have in the past been limited to heavily rhetorical and symbolic significance. However, they could gradually come to represent important new directions for this post-conflict society. Victims of violence, human rights organizations, the state, and the military now have new tools with which to ensure justice, historical accuracy, and security. But it will be far from easy. The Guatemalan military is capable of thwarting an honest inquiry into the past by shrouding previous injustices in mystery and by potentially staging anew the same kind of violent scenes from the civil war. The dilemma lies in the fact that the military has to have a significant role in securing Guatemala’s future as the drug wars spread from Mexico southward.

On March 11, the U.S. Senate voted to cut the Merida Initiative’s funding for the Mexican military’s anti-narcotics operations from $450 million to $300 million. It is unclear how this will impact Guatemala’s funding and security, not to mention the extent to which the Mexican cartels will further proliferate in their southern habitat. This uncertainty in itself, illustrates the extent to which Guatemala is vulnerable to the rest of the region’s instability. To ensure its own integrity and survival, Guatemala, along with other Central American states such as El Salvador, which is hardly in better shape, must simultaneously address the past and confront the disastrous effects of the spreading drug war. The country’s fate will help determine more than just the success of its first moderately left leader since 1956.

Edward W. Littlefield is an analyst at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. COH.org



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