These final months of 2003 carry a mood of both hope and fear in Guatemala. A profound remilitarization, building even since the inauguration of a post-war environment in 1996, has been both accentuated and accelerated on the path towards the November 9 elections.
Writing in 1999, Susanne Jonas labeled the peace-resisting elements of Guatemalan society “centaurs.” The optimism of immediate post-war Guatemala had given way to widespread disillusionment by that time, and the centaurs of the economic elite and the military had been successful in hijacking implementation of the peace accords. Still, the doves opposing the centaurs had not given in. “The dinosaur is still there,” wrote Jonas, “but it is not alone.”
The dinosaur may not have been alone, but the encroaching projects of the peace resisters have come to define the new Guatemala. Remilitarization has been realized through the return of the military to politics, through the legalization of impunity, and through the reorganization of paramilitaries and clandestine security bodies.
Being the critical moment in the reinsertion of the military, the upcoming elections have opened a new space for hope unseen since the time of the peace accords. What is at stake is the management of this violent society on the verge, but fear of what could happen has given rise to organization and optimism.
The clash of ideologies is symbolically demonstrated in the showdown of two leaders from the 1980s: 1982-1983 dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt seeks the presidency through the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), while Rodrigo Asturias, aka guerrilla commander Gaspar Ilom, is running for the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Both the right and left are divided; the right over how best to achieve remilitarization, the left over how to oppose it. Guatemalan society, however, is organizing against the return of Ríos Montt, either through support for Oscar Berger and the economic elite, or for the center-left Alvaro Colom and his center-right National Unity for Hope (UNE).
Still, the future of the military in Guatemala is undeniably on the agenda of all candidates. Many members of the armed forces have entered politics, representing the interests and investments of the officers. In this election, each of the dozens of parties is running ex-military officers for at least one position; for their part, the left-wing Alliance for a New Nation (ANN) and the URNG have ex-guerrillas for candidates.
The style of politico-military organization has changed since the 1980s, however. In their heyday, the (mainly) unified military presented a much more open and sinister project of national control through democratic façade. In contrast, this year’s elections are characterized by a free-for-all, with individuals and alliances reaching for their respective slice of the Guatemalan pie.
Since 2000, Alfonso Portillo’s FRG administration has fought to enhance this contested atmosphere of military power. On the one hand, legislation under the majority FRG Congress, with General Ríos Montt as its president, has favored impunity and military benefits. On the other, the FRG have promoted the illicit activity of its power base.
In the 1980s, the military began investing its “counterinsurgent” capital in legal activity such as finance and industry, but also in the more suitable heavy-handed organized crime. The expansion of the lucrative cocaine market coincided with the times of unchecked military power, and today many Guatemalan cartels remain in the control of generals and colonels. In the United States, Guatemala earned the status of noncooperation in the war on drugs under the FRG, and some FRG officials have been banned from entering the US for their involvement in narcotics trafficking.
In addition, violence in Guatemala has recently reassumed the dark form of the 1980s. Organized clandestine security bodies have resurfaced, most visibly in a wave of targeted political assassinations and in violent riots supporting Ríos Montt.
The environment of support for organized crime and political violence, coupled with complete disinterest in social investment, has allowed gang violence and common crime to flourish. By October 3, 2,832 Guatemalans had been murdered in 2003, including over 100 young women whose bodies appeared with signs of torture and rape. Kidnappings increased dramatically, from 35 in 2001, to 111 in 2002, to 250 in the first nine months of 2003. All told, this has been the most violent year since the end of the civil war.
The military-the actual armed, uniformed troops-has been reinserted in Guatemalan society. Far from the limited role envisioned under the peace accords, the armed forces are once again involved in police activity, patrolling areas of heavy crime and heading up major operations. Another line was crossed this April, when the military violently displaced the peasant community of El Maguey in order to gain access to their land.
In addition, the increased political and armed activity of the military has inspired the reorganization of dismantled groups. Members of the government-created paramilitary Civilian Self-Defense Patrols (PAC) reorganized in 2003, demanding government compensation for their services during the war. The PAC were officially eliminated under the peace accords, but have resurfaced as an organized, violent, and successful entity. Roadblocks, mob violence, and even the recent kidnapping of four journalists have led to the approval and initiation of a $310 million (US) compensation program.
This multi-faceted violence has culminated on the eve of the elections. The FRG attack and intimidate for votes, clandestine groups murder opposition candidates, and the ex-PAC kidnap journalists to pressure for compensation. But through this cloud of violence shines the fact that many of the aspects of remilitarization are merely proposals, and the violence surrounding them only points to their contested, rather than consolidated, nature. The ex-PAC only recently began organizing, clandestine groups resurfaced in the context of the elections, FRG violence is largely a ploy for continued power, and the precedent of military withdrawal has already been established under the peace accords. The rejection of Ríos Montt and the FRG could avoid proper solidification of these emerging trends.
Thus, in spite of living in the worst environment since the end of the armed conflict, Guatemala is experiencing its second period of hope. Grassroots organizing and unity have been strengthened under these conditions, and voter turnout is expected to reach new heights. The Guatemalan centaurs are soon to have their future decided, the beginning of their dusk or dawn.
SIMON HELWEG-LARSEN writes frequently from Guatemala, where he works with human rights organizations. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org