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)
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. firstname.lastname@example.org).
- The roots of Bain Capital in El Salvador’s civil war (blacklistednews.com)