At the height of Guatemala’s mass slaughters in the 1980s, including genocide against the Ixil Indians, the Reagan administration worked with Israeli officials to provide helicopters that the Guatemalan army used to hunt down fleeing villagers, according to documentary and eyewitness evidence.
During testimony at the recent genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, one surprise was how often massacre survivors cited the Army’s use of helicopters in the scorched-earth offensives.
Journalist Allan Nairn, who covered the war in Guatemala and attended the Rios Montt trial, said in an interview, “one interesting thing that came out in the trial, as witness after witness testified, was a very substantial number of them talked about fleeing into the mountains and being bombed, attacked and machine gunned from U.S. planes and helicopters.
“At the time this was going on, I was aware this was happening in some cases, but from the testimony of the witnesses, it sounded like these attacks from U.S. planes and helicopters were more frequent than we realized at the time. That’s an example of how we don’t know the whole story yet – how extensive the U.S. complicity was in these crimes.”
Part of the mystery was where did Guatemala’s UH-1H “Huey” helicopters come from, since the U.S. Congress continued to resist military sales to Guatemala because of its wretched human rights record. The answer appears to be that some helicopters were arranged secretly by President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff through Israeli intelligence networks.
Rios Montt began pressing the United States for 10 UH-1H helicopters in June 1983, as his military campaign was ramping up. Since Guatemala lacked the U.S. Foreign Military Sales credits or the cash to buy the helicopters, Reagan’s national security team looked for unconventional ways to arrange the delivery of the equipment.
On Aug. 1, 1983, NSC aides Oliver North and Alfonso Sapia-Bosch reported to National Security Advisor William P. Clark that his deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane was planning to exploit his Israeli channels to secure the helicopters for Guatemala, according to a document that I discovered at Reagan’s presidential library.
“With regard to the loan of ten helicopters, it is [our] understanding that Bud will take this up with the Israelis,” wrote North and Sapia-Bosch. “There are expectations that they would be forthcoming. Another possibility is to have an exercise with the Guatemalans. We would then use US mechanics and Guatemalan parts to bring their helicopters up to snuff.”
By then, McFarlane had a long and intimate relationship with Israeli intelligence involving various backdoor deals. [For more on McFarlane’s Israeli channels, see Consortiumnews.com’s “How Neocons Messed Up the Mideast.”]
McFarlane’s approach to Israel for the helicopters was successful, according to former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe, who described some of the history behind Israel’s activities in Guatemala in his 1992 memoir, Profits of War.
Ben-Menashe traced the Israeli arms sales to Guatemala back to a private network established in the 1970s by Gen. Ariel Sharon during a gap when he was out of the government. Sharon’s key representative in Guatemala was a businessman named Pesach Ben-Or, and through that channel, Israel supplied military gear to Guatemala’s security services in the 1980s, Ben-Menashe wrote.
In an interview on Thursday, Ben-Menashe said the Israelis supplied a total of six helicopters to the Guatemalans along with computers and software to keep track of alleged subversives who could then be identified and executed. Ben-Menashe said he learned of the mass slaughters during his travels to Guatemala and reported back to his Israeli superiors about the atrocities involving the equipment that they had authorized. The response, he said, was concern but inaction.
“They weren’t for killing these people, not at all,” Ben-Menashe said. “But they thought their interest was to help the Reagan people. If the Reagan people wanted it [the equipment sent to Guatemala], they would do it. [They thought,] ‘this is bad, but is it any of our business? Our American friends are asking for our help, so we should help them.’”
After our phone interview had ended, Ben-Menashe called me back to stress that the Israelis were unaware of the genocidal nature of the Guatemalan military campaigns against the Ixil Indians, although the Israelis did recognize that they were assisting in mass murders of dark-skinned Guatemalans.
“As we saw it, they [Guatemalan military authorities] were targeting all non-white villagers who were sitting on fertile lands that the white Guatemalans wanted,” he said, adding that when he reported this information to his superiors, “the Israelis rolled their eyes [in dismay] but said, ‘this is what our friends in the Reagan administration want.’” [For more on Ben-Menashe’s work for Israeli intelligence, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and America’s Stolen Narrative.]
Besides the helicopters for hunting down villagers who fled into the jungles, the computer equipment and the sophisticated software made the Guatemalan killing machine vastly more efficient in the towns and cities. A former U.S. Green Beret operating in Guatemala once told me that he witnessed Guatemalan security forces stopping buses and inputting identification numbers of the passengers into a computer to select those who would be dragged off to the side of the road and summarily shot.
From first-hand reporting in Guatemala, journalist Nairn also observed the security advantages gained from detailed death lists. Nairn said soldiers under Gen. Otto Perez Molina, the current president, “described how they would go into town armed with death lists provided them by G2 military intelligence, death lists of people who were suspected of being collaborators of the guerrillas or critics of the army.
“They told how they would strangle people with lassos, slit women open with machetes, shoot people in the head in front of the neighbors, use U.S. planes, helicopters and 50 [kilo]gram bombs to attack people if they fled into the hills.”
Nairn said, “The U.S. had also arranged for Israel to step in and become the principal supplier of hardware to the Guatemalan army, in particular assault rifles, the Galil automatic rifle. This was because the administration was running into problems with Congress, which wouldn’t go along with a lot of their plans to aid the Guatemalan military, so they did an end run by using the government of Israel.”
Though the focus of the case against Rios Montt has been the genocide inflicted on Ixil villages in the northern highlands – where some 626 villages were eradicated by the Guatemalan military – those massacres were only part of the estimated 200,000 killings perpetrated by right-wing Guatemalan regimes since a CIA-sponsored coup ousted an elected government in 1954.
The bloodbath was at its worst in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency as he encouraged the anti-leftist slaughters that claimed the lives of some 100,000 Guatemalans. Reagan expanded his support for the Guatemalan security forces even though the CIA was keeping his administration informed of the systematic killings underway.
Another document that I discovered in the archives of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, revealed that Reagan and his national security team in 1981 agreed to supply military aid to Guatemala’s dictators so they could pursue the goal of exterminating not only “Marxist guerrillas” but people associated with their “civilian support mechanisms.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ronald Reagan: Accessory to Genocide.”]
As for Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala for 17 especially bloody months in 1982-83, the 86-year-old ex-general was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity by a criminal court on May 10 and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
But that conviction was overturned on Monday on a 3-2 vote by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court which is still dominated by allies of the military and the oligarchy. As for the Reagan administration officials and the Israelis who aided and abetted Rios Montt and his fellow generals, there is no indication that any accountability will be exacted.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s.
- Tales of Reagan’s Guatemala Genocide (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Israel’s Proxy War in Guatemala (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Genocide in Guatemala: The Conviction of Efrain Rios Montt (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Washington Insider Eduardo Stein Tries to Protect Ríos Montt from the Genocide Trial in Guatemala (alethonews.wordpress.com)
General Efrain Rios Montt has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He has already begun his “irrevocable” sentence of 80 years in prison.
The court that convicted Rios Montt has also ordered the attorney general to launch an immediate investigation of “all others” connected to the crimes.
This important and unexpected aspect of the verdict means that there now exists a formal legal mandate for a criminal investigation of the President of Guatemala, General Otto Perez Molina.
As President, Perez Molina enjoys temporary legal immunity, but that immunity does not block the prosecutors from starting their investigation.
At that time, Perez Molina, operating under the alias “Major Tito Arias,” commanded troops who described to me how, under orders, they killed civilians.
At first, Perez Molina refused to answer, then CNN’s satellite link to him was cut off, then, after it was restored minutes later, Perez Molina replied that women, children and “complete families” had in fact aided guerrillas.
Offering what appears to be a rationale for killing families may not be a sufficient defense. But that is up to Perez Molina.
He too deserves his day in court.
- Genocide in Guatemala: The Conviction of Efrain Rios Montt (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Guatemala: Ríos Montt Trial Implicates Current President (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Washington Insider Eduardo Stein Tries to Protect Ríos Montt from the Genocide Trial in Guatemala (alethonews.wordpress.com)
It has been hailed as the first conviction for genocide of a former head of state in his own country, and certainly the first of a former Latin American strongman. Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was convicted by a Guatemalan court on Friday for his participation in crimes against the Mayans during his rule in 1982 and 1983. His sentences were steep: 50 years for genocide and 30 for crimes against humanity.
As ever with genocide, evidence of an intentioned plan to destroy a race had to be shown. The three-judge panel led by Yassmin Barrios was satisfied that the definition had been made out, finding that there had been a clear and systematic plan to exterminate the Ixil people. Prosecutors allege that up to 1,700 of the Ixil Maya were killed, in addition to torture, rape and the destruction of villages. The acts had occurred as part of a policy of clearing the countryside of Marxist guerrillas and sympathisers.
The heart of the defence by Rios Montt was that, as a political leader, he could not be held accountable for military matters conducted in a rural province some few hours northwest of the Guatemalan capital. “I never authorised it, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered that race, ethnicity or religion to be attacked. I never did it!” In this, he was echoing the sentiments of the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was found constructively guilty for having not stopped the massacres that took place in the Philippines.
Yamashita did have a point, and one picked up by the dissenting judges of the U.S. Supreme Court. To hold such a figure to account in circumstances of military emergency, when contact lines were severed, and the army was fighting for its survival, was a tall order. There was little evidence that those troops had acted under his orders. But Rios Montt could hardly claim to have been Yamashita and, according to the judges, “was aware of everything that was happening, and did not stop it, despite having the power to stop it.”
The trial proved a thorough affair, featuring extensive use of forensics, the examination of mass graves and the DNA of skeletons therein. It was grim but important work, and constituted but a small part of what was a civil war of mass murder. Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala saw conflict that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people. Prior to that, a U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz Guzman ensured that the country would be doomed to decades of bloody instability.
It is often argued that trials do not provide a means of genuine restorative healing to parties or societies. Rios Montt will not be seen as a criminal by conservatives who feel he performed a sterling job in ensuring that the country did not fall into the clutches of left wing revolutionaries. The Cold War subtext here was that he was, if anything, heroic in holding the fort.
Besides, the current Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina, refuses to accept that genocide ever took place. This may not be surprising given that Molina’s name came up in trial testimony, in which a former soldier claimed he had ordered executions while serving in the military of the Rios Montt regime. “When I say that Guatemala has seen no genocide, I repeat it now after this ruling. Today’s ruling is not final… the decision will not be final until the moment they run out of appeals.”
There will also be consternation that the atrocities of the government, rather than those of the rebels, have featured prominently. That the former feature, however, is due to the sheer disproportionate role played by the rulers and paramilitary allies. The 1999 report by the country’s truth and reconciliation commission claimed that the government’s role in the atrocities, along with its allies, was a hefty 93 per cent.
The soiled hands of this incident are many. They did not start or stop with Rios Montt. Will the individuals who also cast money and material the way of such regimes be held to account? A case against the higher-ups, and those complicit beyond the borders of the country may well be in the offing, though that will take time. The edifice of accountability is gradually being built. International law, as ever, takes steps not so much in strides as in awkward stumbles, but when it does reach important junctions, effects are felt. What happens with the appeal will be telling.
Binoy Kampmark can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Guatemala: Former Dictator Ríos Montt Guilty of Genocide (alethonews.wordpress.com)
On March 19, 2013 Guatemala became the first nation to try a former head of state, Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity in its own courts, an extraordinary achievement that led award-winning investigative journalist Allan Nairn to state that, “Guatemala has reached a higher level of civilization than the United States,” where such a trial would be unthinkable. Ríos Montt’s power grab in a March 1982 coup, and his brutal military campaign that human rights defenders have characterized as genocidal, received support from President Ronald Regan, though his administration denied it at the time.
Nairn had flown to Guatemala City as a proposed witness but once in Guatemala, he was asked not to testify after another witness, a former soldier, unexpectedly named current President Otto Pérez Molina as responsible for crimes against humanity. In September 1982, Nairn had interviewed then Major Pérez Molina, a commander in the area where the crimes Ríos Montt is being tried for had occurred. It appears that his testimony would have implicated the current president in crimes, and the victims’ lawyers were afraid that pushing the political establishment any further would endanger the case.
On April 18, the case was unexpectedly annulled by a judge not overseeing the trial, pre-trial judge Carol Patricia Flores. She made the illegal ruling two days after former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein signed a communique published in Guatemalan newspapers, along with 11 other former members of the administration of Álvaro Arzú, calling the charges of genocide against Ríos Montt a “threat to the nation” and suggesting that if a sentence for genocide were handed down it could mean a return to political violence.
Stein, who is a member of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, is now considered to be a consummate Washington insider. For those who follow Honduras, Stein’s position on the Ríos Montt trial may come as no surprise, given that he headed up the one-sided “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that investigated the Honduran June 28, 2009 coup and its aftermath. As the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) explained, the Hondurans who were most affected by the coup were excluded from participating in the creation of of the Commission. Inside sources claim the Commission was actually created in Washington.
Judge Flores has made other rulings that benefit Stein’s political allies. Stein is reported to be very close to Carlos Vielmann, who served as Minister of Governance while Stein was Vice President to Óscar Berger [2004 to 2008]. Vielmann is currently on trial in Spain, charged with directly undertaking death squad actions in 2005, apparently on behalf of the Gulf Cartel (a major Mexican drug cartel), along with then National Police Director Erwin Sperinsen, simultaneously being tried in Switzerland. The National Penitentiaries Director Alejandro Giamattei had also been charged for some of the same crimes, but was cleared by Judge Flores of the charges after seeking asylum in the post-coup Honduran embassy. Judge Flores went on to challenge the Guatemalan Attorney General’s decision to not seek Vielmann’s extradition, preferring that he be tried in Spain.
The hearings in Ríos Montt’s genocide case resumed on April 30, after the Constitutional Court resolved some issues raised by Judge Flores’s ruling, but did not directly address the most illegal element of it, the annulment. This has partially satisfied the needs of the victims and justice advocates, but it leaves the case vulnerable to unresolved technicalities that could later resurface and again undermine the trial.
Guatemala’s UN backed truth commission estimated that over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala’s armed conflict, 93 percent of them at the hands of State security forces, and 3 percent by the guerrillas. The Guatemalan government’s commission established to compensate the victims later estimated that the number of killed or disappeared could be as high as double the UN estimate of 200,000.
- Genocide trial of former Guatemala dictator Rios Montt opens (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Israel’s Proxy War in Guatemala (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) met with Honduran president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo on Wednesday as part of a tour through Central America. According to press reports, Menendez characterized the trip, during which the Senator also visited El Salvador and Guatemala, as an opportunity to evaluate regional counter-narcotics and security initiatives that the U.S. is funding at increasing levels through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). A Spanish-language press report on the trip quotes Menendez as having said that he intends to “explore the specific points of this funding proposal,” and that he wants to “see what works and what does not.”
The State Department’s 2014 budget proposal, submitted on April 10, requests $161.5 million in funding for CARSI, a $26 million increase from the previous year. The proposal requests $4.5 million in foreign military financing specifically for Honduras, an increase of 450% over the FY2012 total. And Just the Facts, a joint project of nonpartisan groups focused on U.S.-Latin American relations, notes that current budget proposals have total U.S. military and police funding for Honduras in FY2014 at $8.7 million, a 63% increase over 2013 projections. Furthermore, according to a Congressional Research Service report, as of last July the State Department and USAID had planned to allocate a combined $72 million to Honduras in FY2012.
These rising levels of funding for the police and military run counter to the concerns of many lawmakers in Washington around the lack of accountability for U.S. involvement in Honduran security and anti-narcotics operations. It also highlights the seriousness of recent reports that the State Department has been supporting units under the command of National Police Chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who allegedly ran death-squads a decade ago, and, more broadly, that the police have been accused of continuing to commit death-squad murders today. In December the National Autonomous University, citing the police’s own reports, announced that police had killed 149 civilians in the previous two years.
It is unclear whether or not Menendez raised these concerns while meeting with President Lobo. But Fox News Latino reports that Menendez praised the head of state for helping stabilize the country after the June 2009 coup. Readers who have followed CEPR’s work will remember that Lobo came to power through elections held by the coup regime under a cloud of political repression, which was why the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Carter Center refused to send election observers. Since then, members of the opposition party and the LGBT community, land rights activists, lawyers and journalists have been murdered with nearly absolute impunity.
In Guatemala, Menendez met with President Otto Pérez Molina and Minister of Governance Mauricio López Bonilla. López Bonilla was part of the six-officer junta that ruled with Efraín Ríos Montt in 1982-3, while Pérez Molina was a commanding officer in the region where the government carried out a campaign of murder, rape and torture. Ríos Montt now faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in a Guatemalan court.
Menendez, meanwhile, is still on the hot seat for having accepted free trips to the Dominican Republic from a major financial backer, Dr. Salomon Melgen. (Menendez has since reimbursed Melgen.) Earlier this year, it was revealed that the senator discouraged U.S. officials from donating port security equipment to the Dominican Republic out of concern that doing so could undermine Melgen’s company’s lucrative contract, though Menendez did not mention the doctor or his company by name. According to federal investigators, Menendez also advocated on Melgen’s behalf to a senior Medicare official regarding the doctor’s reported $8.9 million debt, which he incurred by overbilling the government.
While the Senate Ethics Committee continues to investigate Menendez’s actions, the Washington Post reported on March 14 that a federal grand jury in Miami is also looking into Menendez’s role in advocating for his donor’s financial interests. In response to this news, the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s editorial board said the grand jury investigation undermines “the senator’s credibility and his effectiveness as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations” and urged him to step down from that post.
- US Funds Still Supporting Honduras Death Squads (jurist.org)
- Honduras: Terror in the Aguán (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Will the World Bank Stop Investing in Campesino Assassinations? (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Killings Continue in Bajo Aguán as New Report Documents Abuses by U.S.-Trained Honduran Special Forces Unit (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Honduras: Murdered Lawyer’s Brother Killed in Aguán (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Step by Step: Honduras Walk for Dignity and Sovereignty (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- World Bank Must End Support for Honduran Palm Oil Company Implicated in Murder (alethonews.wordpress.com)
You may not know it from reading or listening to the major U.S. media, but the rest of the world has been steeped in news coverage of a former Guatemalan head of state recently on trial in a national court (though proceedings are currently on hold) for genocide and crimes against humanity. The accused, General Efraín Ríos Montt, was one of the most vicious mass killers the United States—or Israel—ever produced.
Known as “Brother Efraín,” a fundamentalist convert of the California-based “Church of the Word” (Verbo), Rios Montt thanked his God in heaven for anointing him as Guatemala’s president, but on earth he thanked Israel for establishing his March 1982 military coup. Israeli press reported that 300 Israeli advisors helped execute the coup, which succeeded so smoothly, Brother Efraín told an ABC News reporter, “because many of our soldiers were trained by Israelis.” Through the height of la violencia (“the violence”) or desencarnacíon (“loss of flesh, loss of being”), between the late 1970s to early 1980s, Israel assisted every facet of attack on the Guatemalan people. Largely taking over for the United States on the ground in Guatemala (with Washington retaining its role as paymaster, while also maintaining a crucial presence in the country), Israel had become the successive governments’ main provider of counterinsurgency training, light and heavy arsenals of weaponry, aircraft, state-of-the-art intelligence technology and infrastructure, and other vital assistance.
At the time, Rios Montt defended his war against the “guerrilla,” indistinguishable from civilian noncombatants, in this way: “Look, the problem of the war is not just a question of who is shooting. For each one who is shooting there are ten working behind him.” Rios Montt’s press secretary added: “The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators. Therefore, the Indians were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And then they say, ‘You’re massacring innocent people’. But they weren’t innocent. They had sold out to subversion” (Witness to Genocide, Survival International, 1983, p. 12). Or, as one of Brother Efaín’s Verbo pastors explained to a delegation of Pentecostals from California about the regime’s awesome benevolence: “The army doesn’t massacre Indians,” the Verbo pastor assured the visitors. “It massacres demons, and Indians are demons possessed; they are communists.”
A February 1983 CBS Evening News with Dan Rather program reported, Israel “didn’t send down congressmen, human rights activists or priests” to strengthen Israel’s special relationship with Guatemala. Israel “taught the Guatemalans how to build an airbase. They set up their intelligence network, tried and tested on the [Israeli-occupied Palestinian] West Bank and Gaza, designed simply to beat the Guerilla.” Time magazine (03/28/83) chimed in that Guatemalan army “outposts in the jungle have become near replicas of Israeli army field camps.” At one of these Israeli outposts replicated in Huehuetenango (among the areas hardest hit by the genocide, with the second highest number of massacres registered by a UN truth commission), Time continues: “Colonel Gustavo Menendez Herrera pointed out that his troops are using Israeli communications equipment, mortars, submachine guns, battle gear and helmets.” Naturally, as Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García had stated previously: “The Israeli soldier is a model and an example to us.”
Today’s Guatemalan power elite, firmly rooted in the same lineage of death squads that ravaged the country for decades, continues to gaze on this legacy with adoration. “If there is thriving agriculture—it’s an Israeli contribution,” hailed Guatemala’s Congressional speaker in 2009 when his government body bestowed its highest honor to Israel, adding further praise for Israel having shared its “rich experience” in security, education, and medicine over the years.
Investigative journalist Allan Nairn interviewed current Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina when Molina was Rios Montt’s commander carrying out the genocide in the Nebaj area. At one point in the filmed 1982 interview, Molina shows Nairn one of his army’s artillery mortars, answering that the brand of weapon and its ammunition were provided by Israel.
Apart from lasting accolades by Guatemala’s leaders, Israel’s participation in the repression is remembered somewhat differently by its victims, and by the children of its victims. An inter-generational memory is invoked in ongoing coalition work by students in the United States. Activists include undocumented students and young citizens alike, of Palestinian and Maya-Huehuetenango descent. Activities by organized groups cross-pollinate throughout related social struggles. They resonate from the curves of history and offer us ways to move full circle to justice.
One such bend in history can be found in a refugee-led movement that focused on the Right of Return among tens of thousands of displaced Guatemalans who, for a generation, had been living in refugee camps throughout Southern Mexico. Voices of the Guatemalan movement defended a range of issues, from de-militarization of the country to gender equality within the camps. María García Hernández, co-founder of a refugee women’s organization called Mama Maquín, described the standpoint of her group: “The Guatemalan refugee and returnee women are clear about the fact that land is the most important family possession that we have. Land is…a space where we can live and work, defend our rights and pass on our culture, customs and languages to our daughters and sons.” Such sentiment and connection to the land resounds with those of the Palestinian struggle for liberation and return.
García Hernández, whose community called for “all women of the world to fight together for a world with equality and justice,” added reflections of resilience in confronting the present and the future: “We face, with our families, the challenges of coping with the losses of war and exile….All women and men can help search for ways great and small to lead us to a resolution of our most urgent needs and the wish of all humanity to have a world of justice and peace.”
- Genocide trial of former Guatemala dictator Rios Montt opens (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina was involved in some of the crimes against humanity for which former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) and his former intelligence, Gen. José Rodríguez, are now on trial in Guatemala City, according to testimony by a prosecution witness at the trial on April 4. The witness, Hugo Reyes, was an army engineer stationed near Nebaj, El Quiché department, in the Ixil Mayan region, during the early 1980s, at a time when the current president was an army major commanding troops in the area. Reyes said Pérez Molina, then known as “Commander Tito” and “Major Tito Arias,” was among the officers in charge of soldiers who “coordinated the burning [of homes] and pulling people out so they could execute them.”
Speaking by video conferencing from an undisclosed location, Reyes testified that soldiers kidnapped civilians and took them to a military base for torture and execution. “Some had their tongues cut out and their fingernails removed and other injuries,” he said. “The army officers said to them: ‘Sons of bitches, talk or we’ll cut out your tongues.’” “Indian seen, Indian dead–that was the motto they had,” Reyes said; most of the victims were indigenous. “It’s a lie,” Pérez Molina told reporters on April 5. He dismissed the events at the trial the day before as a “circus,” adding: “Bringing in false witnesses takes away all seriousness from the justice system.” (Reuters 4/5/13; Europa Press (Madrid) 4/6/13)
Pérez Molina has frequently been accused of participating in the Ríos Montt government’s “scorched earth” policies, which led to thousands of civilian deaths. A 1983 documentary shows Pérez Molina being interviewed by US investigative reporter Allan Nairn while standing near several battered corpses in Nebaj; one of the soldiers told Nairn that these were captives Pérez Molina had “interrogated” [see Update #1114].
While attention is focused on the Ríos Montt trial, the harassment and murder of activists continues, with at least five murdered in a single month. Tomás Quej, an indigenous leader who had just won a legal struggle for land for his community in the central department of Baja Verapaz, was found dead on February 26 with a gunshot wound to his heart. Carlos Hernández Mendoza, an anti-mining activist and a leader in the National Union of Health Workers of Guatemala (SNTSG), was shot dead on March 8; indigenous campesino leader Gerónimo Sol Ajcot was shot dead three days later, on March 11 [see Update #1168]. On March 17 Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, a leader in the Xinca indigenous group, was murdered and three other activists were kidnapped, beaten and then released; the group was demonstrating against mining operations by the Canadian company Tahoe Resources. Ucelo was also involved in land disputes. On March 21 Santa Alvarado, like Hernández a member of the SNTSG, was kidnapped and strangled. (Global Voices (Amsterdam) 3/25/13)
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 be 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 re-militarization 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 Re-militarization of Guatemalan Institutions
The dramatic images of thousands of heavily armed soldiers in Guatemala City are shocking and troublesome, yet the re-militarization 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 re-militarization 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 re-militarization 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 re-militarization 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 re-militarization 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.
- Does Guatemala Include “Extrajudicial Executions” in its Calculation of National Murder Rates? (alethonews.wordpress.com)
On January 14th, a day marking the one-year anniversary of his administration, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina presented his first annual report on the state of the country. In his speech, Pérez Molina, a former general, graduate of the School of the Americas and accused of being a war criminal implicated in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide, hailed a “historic 10 percent reduction in violent crime” and “an almost five point drop in the homicide rate per every 100,000 inhabitants” from the previous year. Guatemala currently has one of the highest murder rates in the world (41 murders per every 100,000 inhabitants); it had a total of 5,122 murders in 2012. Ironically, while President Pérez Molina was reporting back to the nation on crime statistics and murder rates that morning, the mayor of the town of Jutiapa had just been shot down, dying almost immediately of sixteen bullet wounds.
In the 1980s, the “scorched-earth” campaign of the Guatemalan military tortured, slaughtered and massacred entire villages, resulting in the deaths of over 200,000 people. Under the dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt from 1982-83 state violence in Guatemala has been said to have been the most brutal. A year ago, after years of attempts by human rights defenders to put him on trial, Ríos Montt was charged with genocide in Guatemalan courts. He has since filed two petitions to acquire amnesty from the law, the second of which is still awaiting a ruling. Last month Pérez Molina, who himself served under General Ríos Montt during the 1980s, issued and then suspended a decree stating that it would stop adhering to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987, which human rights defenders say could be an attempt to prevent legal challenges from taking place.
In 2011, when presidential elections were held, Guatemalan and international human rights organizations warned of the danger in electing a former general implicated in “scorched earth” campaigns and extrajudicial executions, pointing out that militarization and repression would likely escalate if Pérez Molina were to win.
On October 4th 2012, those fears were realized as military forces once again attacked, shooting indiscriminately into a crowd of peaceful protesters in the Mayan K’iché community of Totonicapán, and effectively carrying out a massacre. When the ordeal was over, at least six protestors had been killed and another 34 wounded in the first military massacre since the 1996 peace accords were signed. The 3,000 unarmed indigenous protestors had blocked a section of the Inter-American Highway in order to protest rising energy prices, a new educational reform and to negotiate a constitutional reform.
Seven days later, an investigation by the Public Ministry and the National Institute of Forensic Sciences confirmed that the 5.56 caliber bullets that killed and wounded protestors had come from the Galil rifles used by the military. Until then, Pérez Molina had steadfastly denied that his soldiers had been armed or had fired, and attempted to misrepresent details of the incident, finally insisting that soldiers had only fired into the air, and attributing the first shot fired at protestors to a private security guard.
After Pérez Molina was forced to retract his denials about the incident, the officer in charge, Coronel Chiroy, and eight of his soldiers were arrested and charged with “extrajudicial execution”.
In response to international criticism about the incident days after its occurrence, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Harold Caballeros dismissed the murder of the indigenous protestors, stating that: “With sadness, I recognize that in some parts of the world eight deaths is a very big deal, but, although it sounds bad to say this, … every day we have double that number of deaths [from violence]. So, it’s not something that we should make a big deal about.”
At a time when militarization in the region is on the rise and violent repression of dissent has returned, a president accused of war crimes who denies that genocide ever took place in his country, and who has attempted to cover up an obvious massacre, it is difficult to take with much optimism the news that 526 less homicides were reported in 2012 than in 2011. And it begs the question; does the Guatemalan government include its own murders in that calculation? Or does the massacre at Totonicapán actually put the 2012 total at 5,128?
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 engage 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 the 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. email@example.com).
- The roots of Bain Capital in El Salvador’s civil war (blacklistednews.com)