When President Otto Peréz Molina was elected in 2012, he came with an agenda to fully re-instate US military aid and end the restrictions on funding to Guatemala in place to varying degrees since the Carter administration implemented a direct security aid ban in 1977.
Even before the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, the outright ban on military assistance to Guatemala had progressively weakened, with restrictions loosened for military training and other areas of military support. In 2005, the ban on US military sales to Guatemala was lifted. Yet despite these changes and much to Molina’s chagrin, certain human rights conditions continue to prevent the unrestricted flow of military aid to Guatemala.
Peréz Molina is the first ex-military officer to take power in a civilian government since 1987, and an increase in military presence has been felt throughout the country. Despite his efforts, the US Appropriations Act released in November 2014 for the fiscal year ending September 2015 continues to maintain human rights conditions. The bill requires that the Guatemalan government show progress in the implementation of reparations for communities affected by the construction of the Chixoy dam. It also makes funding dependent on the government building an effective civilian police force separate from the military, and fully cooperating in trying former and current military suspected of committing gross violations of human rights.
On May 10th, 2013, ex-president Ríos Montt became the first former head of state in the world to be tried and convicted in a national court for crimes against humanity and genocide. The case took more than 12 years to go to trial, and included the testimonies of more than a hundred eyewitnesses and experts. However, just ten days later, the Constitutional Court made what many consider an illegal ruling, effectively annulling the verdict. Now, more than a year and a half later, the retrial remains stalled after the presiding judge for the new tribunal was recused at the last minute by Montt’s defense.
The US Embassy in Guatemala supported the genocide case during the first trial, bringing diplomatic attention by attending the public hearings and publishing press releases calling for an independent judicial system and speedy due process. Likewise, Embassy officials announced they were observing the second trial and were present for the opening hearing on January 5th. While Peréz Molina has loudly denounced the Embassy for its public stance on this high-profile case, its international presence has been important to survivors, witnesses and their legal teams.
But as the Guatemalan Center for Independent Media (CMI) points out, the reasons behind the Embassy’s support for the case are complex and multi-faceted. When Montt was initially convicted, a strong case could have been made that the Guatemalan judiciary had successfully tried one of its highest-ranking former military with the support of the Guatemalan state, showing advancement on one of the main conditions of reinstating US military aid. However, since the Constitutional Court annulled the verdict and there is currently no clear timeframe or process for the resumption of the retrial, this same argument no longer applies. Although the appropriations bill makes no mention of specific crimes, it essentially ties the lifting of restrictions to the advancement of the biggest and most emblematic case currently before the judicial system – the Ixil genocide case.
US military restrictions only go so far
In 2008, the Bush administration modeled the highly controversial Plan Colombia to launch the Mérida Initiative – a plan that provides training, equipment and intelligence to Mexican and Central American security forces to address key security issues such as drug trafficking, gang violence and judicial reform. As part of the Mérida Initiative, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was formed and was later expanded under the Obama administration. Since its inception, more than $800 million in funding has been given to Central America under Mérida/CARSI, and the Appropriations Act for FY2015 allocates an additional $130 million to the region for this year – $57 million earmarked for Guatemala alone.
Specifically, the funds are designated to increase border security between Mexico and Guatemala and expand economic and social development in the regions where most unaccompanied and undocumented minors travelling to the US originate and where significant gang activity occurs. The funds are also designated to support facilities that address the need for safe repatriation and reintegration of minors, combat human trafficking, and promote judicial and police reform with a particular focus on strengthening judicial independence and community policing.
There is no doubt that the US Embassy has played a role in helping to promote the progression of the genocide case through a variety of measures, and that the ongoing restrictions included in the Appropriations Act are an additional pressure point. It is also clear, however, from the Mérida/CARSI Initiative and other US sources of funding for military support in Guatemala, that the northern country’s foreign policy in the region privileges a military solution to narcotrafficking and undocumented migration. What’s more, a strong judicial system certainly bodes well for North American extractive companies in the region and other foreign investors looking for stability. The US’ support for the very structures that have led to the problems they now want to eradicate is well documented. Contradictions in US foreign policy are certainly not new.
But while the advancement of the genocide case is essential, as long as the former-general-turned-president Peréz Molina stays in power, major concerns exist for what reinstating unrestricted US military aid to Guatemala could mean for communities, human rights defenders and civil society organizations already experiencing a heavy-handed response to their work against impunity and in defense of territory.
During the last two years alone, Molina has enacted two states of siege – a measure likened to marshal law – almost exclusively under the guise of combating narcotrafficking. Under the states of siege, communities found themselves with many of their constitutional rights suspended, dozens of leaders arrested without charge and a major increase in the presence of military checkpoints and patrols. All of the places where a state of siege has been implemented are host to large-scale resistance movements where communities are organized against the presence of transnational extractive projects.
It remains to be seen what will transpire over Peréz Molina’s final year in office. Although the US currently provides training and support to the Guatemalan military, the restrictions in the Appropriations Act continue to give human rights organizations a glimmer of hope that the US will not resume its unrestricted support for military aid to Guatemala.