Budget Cuts and Revolving Doors

The Guatemalan military will be heavily reduced in size and funding over the next few months. The major restructuring of the military was agreed to in the 1996 Peace Accords, but since 1998 this has only been met with a constant increase in both troops and budget. President Oscar Berger has decided to act on the reforms, however, cutting 35% of positions and one-third of the military budget by June. While this move will not be without negative repercussions, it will most probably prove to be a major step in the consolidation of peace in Guatemala.

On April 1, 2004, Oscar Berger announced that 12,109 positions would be cut from the Guatemalan military, the equivalent of 35% of current numbers. The cuts are spread across the ranks, relieving 7,289 troops, 3,810 specialists, and 1,200 officers of their positions. Half of the current ten military bases will also be closed. Finally, the 2004 military budget will be reduced from the approved Q1.2 billion ($150 million) to Q780 million ($97 million), slightly less than the maximum 0.33% of GDP called for by the Peace Accords.

The recent history of the Guatemalan military is quite likely the most brutal in Latin America. By 1982, a civil war begun in 1960 had grown out of control, as military power had swelled to absolute impunity and troops were given the green light to massacre at will in the Mayan-populated Western Highlands. After a March 1982 “reformist” coup, General Efrain Rios Montt set about reigning in the military for more systematic and coordinated elimination of suspected guerrilla support bases. In addition to selective mass killings, villages designated “red zones” were subjected to complete massacres, with every inhabitant brutally killed: hacked, raped, tortured, shot, beat, smashed against trees or rocks.

Outside of the army-labelled Killing Zones, and right up until the mid-1990s, tens of thousands of suspected “subversives” were abducted, tortured for information, and killed. Approximately 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared during the 36-year conflict, and a post-war historical clarification commission found the military responsible for 85% of all violent acts and human rights abuses.

The military itself prepared a return to electoral democracy in 1985, rewriting the constitution and protecting their own continued power, impunity, and lucrative business interests. After not holding direct power for over 10 years, and slipping in actual power in relation to the opposing economic elite, the military returned in 2000.

General Rios Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) political party gained the presidency through Alfonso Portillo, and the military once again had preferential status in government. Not only did the FRG ignore the Peace Accords by increasing military funding, they significantly added to budgets by transferring funds from other sectors. The proposed Q836 million ($104 million) for 2001 rose to Q1.5 billion ($187 million) after transfers, and Q950 million ($118 million) became Q1.2 billion ($150 million) in 2003.

Alongside the loss of the presidency to the economic elite, Berger’s announcement of a more than 30% reduction in funding and personnel will not go over well with the Guatemalan military. Still, the likelihood of a coup is very low, almost impossible. The military itself designed and set in motion the democratic transition, which it continues to support with good reason.

By the mid-1980s, not only was the military unchallenged in Guatemalan politics, it had become a major player in national and international business. Finances earned, embezzled, or stolen during the armed conflict were reinvested in, among other areas, the national telecommunications monopoly, the Bank of the Military, media outlets, and various industrial enterprises. The project for democratic transition was intended to repair Guatemala’s image abroad, co-opt the remaining social movements, and, above all, manage business and political power from behind the scenes. The project has been successful over all, and while a reduction in funds and positions in the military will not be appreciated, it strikes only at the institution of the military. The most relevant sources of power remain untouched, and that the military would jeopardize these through a coup is highly unlikely.

Berger’s reordering of the military may not cause major political backlash, but there will still be serious consequences for Guatemalan society. Letting go of 12,000 members of the institution that abducted, tortured, and murdered innocent Guatemalans for decades will most likely lead to an increase in organized crime. At the height of military corruption in the 1980s, officers had already gained control of the country’s major narcotics rings. Today in Guatemala, drugs continue to be linked to retired members of the military, as do kidnapping, car theft, and other crime rings. Even during the war, G-2 military intelligence agents were known to “contract out” for killings and to move cocaine across the Guatemalan borders. One G-2 member stated in an interview in the 1990s that “the government count say ‘it must stop’…but the G-2 elementos have grown accustomed to kidnapping and killing and continue to do so.”

Encouraged under the Portillo administration, and with dozens of its members and supporters implicated, organized crime is soaring. Violent crimes are up nearly 200% from 1999, more than 250 people were kidnapped in 2003, as opposed to just 35 in 2001, and over 200 women were abducted and killed in 2003, many showing signs of torture. The displacement of thousands of men who did such work professionally until 1996 can only push the numbers of organized and street crime higher.

Organized crime and benign military discontent aside, Berger’s decision to follow through with the promises of the Peace Accords is a positive step forward. Acting against Guatemala’s most powerful and violent sector is no easy task, but the time is right for its achievement. With the military involved in its own corrupt and often illicit promotion of formal democracy, the balance of power can be swept out from under the feet of that increasingly irrelevant institution. Much remains to be done in Guatemala, but the peaceful erosion of the military is clearly a necessary first step.