Analysis | Guatemala: Return of the Iron Fist?

Last week, Otto Pérez Molina became the first military officer to rise to the Guatemalan presidency since the country’s brutal civil war. Ceasefire’s Sebastião Martins argues we could be witnessing a return to the hardline authoritarianism of the past.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, November 14, 2011 23:02 - 1 Comment

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As Guatemala opened its polls last Sunday (Nov 6,) 7.3 million people were expected to cast their votes and hopes for ‘change’, ‘future’ and ‘progress’ in the country’s second and final round of presidential elections.

The results were announced at around 8.30 pm local time, with Otto Pérez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party – PP) the victor of the electoral bout, claiming 54% of the votes and becoming the first (retired) military officer to rise to the presidency since the country’s brutal civil war.

The day was marked by a relatively low turnout in comparison with the first round of elections on 11 September.

Vice-president Rafael Espada told BBC Mundo that this is a ‘totally natural phenomenon’ since ‘in the first round there is more enthusiasm because magistrates [and members of parliament] were being elected’.

Nonetheless, this year’s annual public opinion poll by Corporación Latinobarometro singled out Guatemala as the country with the highest popular disillusionment toward democratic governance (approximately 20% of approval).

In addition, the tropical storms which have ravaged the country in the past weeks, coupled with the government’s slow response to the disaster; the failed presidential candidacy of former First Lady Sandra Torres; the lack of clear political programs and the purchasing of votes in this election may have contributed to further popular alienation from the political scene.

Despite popular lack of enthusiasm for the electoral race, the election of Otto Pérez Molina, a self-proclaimed champion of “taking the crime-bull by the horns” reflected the trend of previous polls which hailed security as the primary concern for 7 out of 10 Guatemalans.

The country is currently witnessing “wartime” death rates (an estimated 52 murders for every 100,000 people), whilst half of the population is estimated to live in poverty.

Molina was undoubtedly the most controversial presidential candidate in recent years, having been part of the same military regime under which an estimated 200,000 people were killed between 1954 and 1996.

He is also a graduate from the US Army’s infamous School of Americas – located in Fort Benning, GA and offering training in interrogation, intelligence and counter-intelligence techniques –, along with former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (1983-1989), Argentinean dictator General Roberto Viola (1981-1982) and Ecuadorian dictator General Guillermo Rodriguez Lara (1972-1976).

In Guatemala, the recent trial of ex-general Héctor Mario López Fuentez, 81 – accused of ordering some 300 massacres against the Ixil Mayan people during 1982 and 1983 –has renewed suspicions regarding Molina’s actions during the civil war.

The crimes of which general Fuentez is accused occurred at the same time and place where general Otto Peréz Molina is suspect of having committed war crimes.

On 6 July, 2011, three human rights defenders wrote a complaint to the UN’s Office of the High Commission of Human Rights, claiming that there was “strong evidence that he [Peréz Molina] was in a command position in the Ixil triangle in 1982, when acts of torture, terror and genocide were daily events in that region.”

The report was accompanied by graphic documentary footage of the then Major Peréz Molina being allegedly interviewed by a journalist in the region, among the dead bodies of Guatemalan peasants.

Against the controversy with which general Fuentez surrounds the president-elect’s own past, Molina has responded to all accusations by human rights organizations by signaling himself as a key-player in the 1996 peace accords which put an end to the country’s civil war and to its military rule.

He also denies that any acts of genocide were committed during the civil war, which – when Molina is sworn in – may mean a step backwards for a country which has only recently begun to address war crimes perpetrated during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

Most importantly, it may mean that one of the most galvanising figures in the fight against civil war and drug crime impunity – Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz – will be pushed off the stage.

One of the recent breakthroughs which Paz helped bring about was the sentencing of four former members of an elite special forces unit (i.e. Kaibiles) to 6,060 years in prison each for their involvement in the slaughter of 201 men, women and children in Dos Eres, Petén region, 1982.

Like many during the country’s civil war (1960-1996), the Dos Eres inhabitants were seen by the military regime as supporters of the revolutionary guerrillas, and the ‘kaibiles’ are believed to have been sent out to punish them.

While many of Molina’s future policies remain unclear for now, his general stance may be predicted by the recent announcement of some of his cabinet members.

Last week, two months ahead of Otto Pérez Molina being sworn in as President of Guatemala, several high profile constituents of his future cabinet were revealed.

Harvard graduate Harold Caballeros was designated as the upcoming minister of Foreign Relations, a decision which was finalised after a meeting between Caballeros, Molina, the US ambassador to Guatemala and several US congressmen. Caballeros stated recently that Guatemala and the US would maintain their ‘traditional friendly relations’.

The Interior ministry will be helmed by former intelligence officer and Partido Patriota (PP) campaign manager Manuel López Bonilla, charged with everything from security policy to counter-narcotics efforts.

The president-elect is looking to increase cooperation between police forces and the military; extend criminal sentences and video surveillance; and lower the age of criminal responsibility.

In addition, according to Wall Street Journal earlier last week he “would welcome U.S. troops to battle drug gangs” in the country, many of which are part of Mexican cartels which have spread into Guatemala.

However, a recent report presented before the US Congress by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission voiced concerns “that his proposals for increased military presence and ‘iron fist’ policies will lead to unjust criminalisation, abuse of state power, and repression of indigenous communities”.

For the GHRC, one of the key challenges facing Guatemala are the “vast conflicts over land as peasant communities are displaced, at times with deadly violence, to make way for mining, hydro electric and other infrastructure projects, tourism and large-scale, export-oriented agriculture.”

The report also highlights “links between the military and organized crime”, with crime networks co-opting “Guatemalan governmental and military institutions” and including former military special forces officers (e.g. Kaibiles) in their ranks and mimicking their tactics, as is the case with the Zetas Mexican drug cartel operating in the country.

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Sebastião Martins is an MPhil student at the University of Cambridge and a journalist for www.pulsamerica.co.uk, www.irlandeses.org and The Cambridge Student.

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NAR Apostle Harold Caballeros Heads Guatemala Foreign Ministry | Monitoring a Growing Dominionist Movement
Mar 19, 2012 21:35

[…] European publications, from the independent Ceasefire magazine to the conservative Economist have wondered what Molina’s campaign promise, to […]

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