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Guatemala’s Cursed Armed Force Back in Town

Guatemala’s Cursed Armed Forces: Washington’s Old Friend is Back in Town


One can be forgiven for arguing that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who demonstrably is losing the war in Iraq, is now trying to achieve an easy win in Latin America, where he is presiding over the rehabilitation of what he sees as the Latin American military’s sense of honor. But the murderous reputation of that institution was established not due to invention or superficial judgment, but because of the fact that during the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of innocent civilians were tortured and murdered throughout the region at the hands of local armed forces.

Under such conditions, restoring one’s good name is no easy task. But due to Rumsfeld’s spirit of generosity, all has been forgiven at the Pentagon. At the cost of tens of millions of dollars, it has been staging periodic ministerial meetings with Rumsfeld’s counterparts from throughout the hemisphere since 1995, as well as funding the successor to the infamous School of the Americas at Fort Benning. Furthermore, the Secretary of Defense has made an on-site visit to seemingly obscure Paraguay, ostensibly to thank the local leaders for the possible U.S. usage of the Mariscal Estigarribia airstrip, and for allowing U.S. national guardsmen to rotate into the country. In addition, Rumsfeld has facilitated the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Chile, the major military sale from the U.S. to Chile since the end of the Pinochet era, in a deal first arranged by Lockheed lobbyist Otto Reich, and which could ultimately spark an open arms race between Chile and hostile neighboring countries like Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.

Guatemala’s newly appointed defense minister, General Francisco Bermudez, is currently in Washington D.C., for a four day visit that began on March 13. On his agenda is an appointment with the Secretary of Defense. In that meeting, Rumsfeld is expected to address the matter of a renewal of U.S. military aid to Guatemala, and possibly the construction of a DEA base in the Guatemalan rainforest to help combat drug trafficking in Central America. The relatively high visibility of Bermudez’ visit is not adventitious, but represents a longstanding Rumsfeld policy of upgrading ties with some of Latin America’s most reprehensible and unsavory military establishments, who during the 1970s and 1980s savaged their nations’ constitutions and citizenry, including in Chile, Argentina, El Salvador and, perhaps most of all, Guatemala.

The Guatemalan Military: Presente
Bermudez’s visit comes as a follow up to last October’s defense conference, “Security and Economic Opportunity,” which took place in Key Biscayne, Florida. At that reunion, Rumsfeld met with Central American defense ministers and representatives from different branches of the region’s armed forces. It was during this gathering that the then-Guatemalan defense minister, General Carlos Aldana, called for the creation of a Central America peacekeeping force, which putatively would promote political stability, as well as provide emergency relief to civilians after natural disasters such as hurricanes. Secretary Rumsfeld said the talks were a “unique moment in the Americas.” But, what Rumsfeld didn’t say out loud, was that by attempting to revive the Latin American military, he could be putting to risk the very civil governance whose creation is at the heart of what he says is his Iraq policy.

It was ironic to hear Guatemalan military officers discussing political stability. The armed forces of that Central American nation have long had a reputation for their covert behavior and unqualified brutality, whether they were overthrowing de facto governments almost at will, setting up infamous death squads, staging massacres of indigenous communities in Guatemala’s highlands in their “beans and bullets” crusade, and torturing tens of thousands of civilian victims. Dating back to 1960, it is estimated that almost 200,000 civilians have been put to the sword by the Guatemala military, as part of Washington’s “Cold War”-abetted national security hemispheric policy. The country’s 1960-1996 civil war, which featured unspeakable cruelty, has been sometimes referred to as the “silent Holocaust,” for its mindless slaughter. Unfortunately, the end of military rule and civil war did not bring about a new era featuring highly professional, law-abiding, loyal-to-the-nation armed forces. Nor has the Guatemalan government had the temerity to implement some of the most important of the requirements listed by the country’s “Truth Commission” in 1993. Despite the Guatemalan military’s notorious reputation for drug trafficking, contrabanding and harsh treatment of the indigenous population, the U.S. is once again involving itself in the internal affairs of the country, extending a growing amount of military aid in exchange for the country’s participation in the “war against drugs.” In that war, Washington’s best friend in Central America is the Guatemalan military, closely followed by the Salvadoran and Honduran armed forces. Ironically, the DEA will remind you that in recent years, the Guatemalan military – particularly its G-2, was the prime drug trafficking cartel in the country.

Washington’s Drug Strategy
At the same time, the Boston Globe’s Indira Lakshmanan (“Cocaine’s New Route,” November 30, 2005), cited interviews with senior Guatemalan officials who said that they would ask for stepped-up U.S. military cooperation and a permanent DEA base in the country’s dense jungle bordering Mexico. This will not make Mexico City, nor that country’s military, particularly happy in having the U.S. as its neighbor, not once, but twice. Such activities could also mark a return to the early 1990s, when the DEA had a fleet of helicopters stationed in Guatemala for purposes of surveillance and interdiction. Since then, "enforcement efforts have shifted to other areas," leaving a dearth of resources for enforcement in Central America. This was revealed by DEA director of operations Michael Braun, in his November 9 testimony before a Congressional subcommittee. The Boston Globe article also mentions that Guatemalan convictions of traffickers, whether private citizens or officials, are rare. None of the 16 alleged Guatemalan traffickers wanted in the United States have been extradited in the last dozen years since warrants against them were issued, allegedly because of delays in that country's judicial process, noted Michael P. O'Brien, the DEA's representative in Guatemala.

The most striking example of this new counter-drug relationship occured last year, when Rumsfeld declared that the U.S. will lift its ban on military aid to that country’s armed forces. In March 2005, Washington gave $3.2 million to initiate a modernization process of Guatemala’s military capacities. Assistance had been withdrawn in 1990 after it was learned that Guatemalan military forces had been involved in the killing of U.S. citizen Michael Devine. Rumsfeld’s repeated expressions of concern for Americans fighting in Iraq apparently doesn’t easily transfer to the fate of U.S. nationals Michael Devine in Guatemala or Lori Berenson in Peru. The alleged murderer of Devine, in fact, was Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez, who attended the School of the America and was reportedly on the CIA’s payroll for many years. While the case remains unsolved, the Bush administration has apparently decided to overlook this, as well as the cold-blooded murder of tens of thousands of Guatemalans during the civil war, in favor of more pressing issues like the war on drugs and Washington’s need to erect a thin line of allies to fend off the seepage of the “pink tide” to the north.

Military vs. The World
Washington was very active in creating the monster that is the Guatemalan military and which terrorized the country during the 1960-1996 Guatemalan conflict. It is ironic, but not entirely surprising, that the U.S. – which has always been fully knowledgeable regarding the face of the Guatemalan beast – now praises the country’s ersatz democracy and begins anew to pour money into its corrupt leadership, this time with the help of the newly authorized Millennium Account, which is the White House’s new slush fund to fund pro-U.S. personalities and projects throughout Latin America. This is a way to tell President Berger “thank you” for his support on issues like CAFTA-DR.

Guatemalans deserve a military that they can be proud of, but that does not seem likely to be a fact of life in the immediate future. At best, they will have to wait another generation, when a new group of military officers come to power, who might just be disgusted enough with what their predecessors have done to bring the desperately needed positive change to their pariah institution.

This analysis was conducted by COHA Research Group: Larry Birns (COHA Director), Alex Sánchez (Research Fellow); lead authors.

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