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US Policy Driving Militarization in Guatemala

US policy in Central America has contributed to corruption and the increased presence of the military in day-to-day life.

A patrol of soldiers passes through the community of Pajoques in San Juan Sacatepéquez in October 2014. (Photo: Jeff Abbott)

Residents of Guatemala City are angry with the United States Marines. Early in June, a Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter flew low over Zone 9 of Guatemala city, causing damage to buildings in the area.

The United States Embassy confirmed to the Guatemalan press that the helicopter did indeed belong to the United States Marine Corps Southern Command. The embassy explained that, “due to high winds, the helicopter could not maintain altitude after takeoff. It regained its altitude, but apparently the airstream caused by the rotors damaged buildings.”

At the end of May, 280 Marines from the United States Southern Command arrived in Central America on a six-month deployment based north of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Reportedly, they’re here to perform humanitarian response in the event of a disaster, train local militaries, and combat drug trafficking.

The forces add to the permanent presence of US soldiers in the region; the United States maintains bases in Honduras and El Salvador, and has a mobile unit in Guatemala.

US Southern Command has stated that the soldiers’ purpose is to “establish security cooperation” in the region, but security observers argue that these policies are contributing to the militarization that has already occurred.

“This is part of the remilitarization that has occurred in Guatemala in the years since the signing of the peace accords [in 1996],” Sandino Asturias, a security expert and director of the Center for Guatemalan Studies, told Truthout. “The United States has financed the creation of forces to control the borders. They have a strategic objective to control the borders of Guatemala.”

Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle

The presence of US Marines in the region has added to the already tense atmosphere, as Guatemala faces one of the greatest political crises since the end of the internal armed conflict in 1996.

The US Embassy has expressed its dedication to maintaining a close relationship with embattled president Otto Pérez Molina, who faces mounting pressure to resign in the face of a corruption scandal that has already unseated the former vice president, Roxana Baldetti. On June 2, US Ambassador Todd D. Robinson appeared next to Pérez Molina in the presidential palace to announce the US government’s decision to “help” oversee reforms of Guatemala’s tax collection agency and reiterated the US’s continued support for the administration. But many activists have seen this as further US meddling in the region.

Observers state that the US’s unflinching support for Pérez Molina during this crisis reflects its economic interests in the region. In particular, they allege that the US is working to ensure the success of the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, an agreement between the US and the countries of the “northern triangle” of Central America, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which was launched in early 2015, after the crisis of unaccompanied minors during the summer of 2014.

The Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity entails the provision of an additional $1 billion from the US on top of previously existing aid programs to the three Central American governments, in hopes of stimulating investment in the region. The plan also continues and expands the economic policies enacted through the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

“The security is not for the people of Guatemala,” Edgar Rene Celada Quezada, a professor of security at the University of San Carlos, told Truthout. “The security is for the multinational companies and for the United States.”

A key part of the plan is promoting security in the northern triangle, which has high levels of violence. The militaries of Central America, which in the last few years have gained renewed presences in security operations, have taken on another role: guaranteeing the free market.

The United States’ Guatemalan Task Forces

The expansion of the Guatemalan military under the new aid package includes the formation of two new interagency task forces along the borders with Honduras and Mexico. Both forces are made up of military and police, as well as members of the public ministry and the justice department.

The first interagency task force, Tecún Unám, was established in June 2013. It is meant to secure the border with Mexico, and according to Government Agreement 277-2013, its mission is “to conduct combined security operations throughout the Republic to prevent, combat, dismantle and eradicate criminal actions.”

Two years later, the Guatemalan government formed another task force along the border with Honduras. Task Force Maya Chortí is made up of police and soldiers from Guatemala and Honduras. The 700-member force is the first binational task force in the region, meant to combat trafficking of arms, drugs and people along the border.

“The United States financed the creation of these forces,” Asturias told Truthout. “They were formed with the strategic objective to control the two borders of Guatemala.”

In fact, the US government has invested $22 million in the formation of Task Force Tecún Unám, and $13.4 million to the initial formation of Task Force Maya Chortí. But the support goes well beyond financing. Both task forces have received significant training from United States Army Southern Command, Customs and Border Protection and the Texas National Guard in command and control, intelligence gathering and quick reaction tactics. The US has also provided radio equipment and both armored and unarmored J8 Jeeps, and Ambassador Robinson has spoken openly about the US’s part in creating the task forces.

Questionable Success Rates

Despite the substantial funding and support they’ve received, evidence suggests that the task forces have had very little success combating drug trafficking.

“Tecún Unám has had two years, and Chortí has had six months, and what have they shown? Nothing,” Asturias told Truthout. “These forces don’t function, and they do not reduce the crisis.”

Asturias’ assessment of Tecún Unám is supported by a 2015 report issued by the RAND Corporation, a think tank originally formed to do policy research and analysis for the US Armed Forces. RAND found that in the year and a half since Tecún Unám’s formation, it had only performed five unassisted operations and had deep divisions between the police and military elements.

“The operational success of Tecún Umán at this juncture is questionable,” the RAND Corporation report concludes. “Although there is political will at the highest levels of the government for its sustainability, this is not mirrored at key positions further down the chain of command.”

The report adds, “Senior leadership’s bragging about all the ‘successful’ operations seems contrived and disingenuous to members of the (Interagency Task Force), who feel they are not being used to their full potential.”

Yet despite the questionable success rate, the US Embassy has spoken openly about forming at least two other task forces: Task Force Xinca, along the border with El Salvador, and another in the Petén, along the borders with Mexico and Belize.

Militarization of the Migration Crisis

According to security analysts like Asturias, this US-led movement to secure the borders is not merely aimed at deterring trafficking, but was enacted in response to the influx of Central American migrants at the US-Mexico border during the summer of 2014.

“The United States sees the migrants as a threat,” Asturias told Truthout. “They are treated as criminals; they are seen as an enemy. The governments of Central America are responding to the lead of the United States.”

Human rights observers agree.

“Militarization isn’t improving security and is in fact doing the opposite,” Kelsey Alford-Jones, from the Washington-based Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, told Truthout. “While the United States continues to talk about strengthening the police, the biggest investments have been in militarized border security bases, ‘joint task forces’ that – in the aftermath of the surge in child migration last summer – are also being touted as a way to keep Central Americans from going north.”

The Return of the Military and Corruption

Officially, the US Congress has set limits on aid to the Guatemalan military since 1978, and continues to do so today. But despite the congressional ban, US policy has contributed to the increased role of the Guatemalan military in domestic security.

The military began to return to prominence in internal security during the administration of Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004). But the greatest expansion has occurred during the administration of current president Pérez Molina, with six new task forces established under the narrative of promoting national security and combating drug trafficking.

Pérez Molina, a former commando, has overseen the rapid increase of military presence in public security. As troop presence has increased, so too has the amount of military aid provided to Guatemala by the US government, despite the limits placed by Congress. According to Asturias, US military aid has increased nearly 40 percent since 2012.

The military has returned to power under Pérez Molina, with over 30 public ministries now headed by former military. And with the return of the military has come a return of the strategy of counter-insurgency, and of corruption.

“The generation of military members that now control the country were the same actors that were active during the internal armed conflict during the 1980’s,” Asturias told Truthout. “There is a continuation in the mentality, the thinking – especially the counter-insurgency – and the corruption; the military was a good business for the military leaders.”

“We are recycling these processes from the ’80s,” adds Asturias. “The military has returned to their businesses, to the strategy of the counter-insurgency, but they cannot return to the policy of massive repression and the dirty war of the ’80s. We are now in a different context.”

The policy of militarization “endangers those who are fleeing violence or persecution and has done almost nothing to address entrenched corruption, trafficking and deadly violence,” Alford-Jones told Truthout. “These policies should not be viewed as the success story the US and Guatemala want to sell us.”

The formation of the new task forces is a direct violation of the 1996 peace accords. Specifically, it violates the mandate for division of the police and military. And this has occurred with the direct complicity and support of the United States government.

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