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Will Congress Rearm the Guatemalan Army?

Vice President Eduardo Stein, accompanied by Human Rights Commissioner Frank la Rue and Defense Minister Mendez Pinelo, will visit Washington July 21-23 to deliver a presentation on the recently reformed Guatemalan military in an effort to ease the ban on International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Regarding this visit, Pinelo told the Guatemalan Daily Newspaper, Prensa Libre, “the idea is to justify our needs in the areas of transport, communications, and technology.” After Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) visited Guatemala last month to observe the advances in Guatemala’s military, there has been broadened discussion about whether it is an appropriate time to lift the ban. Senator Leahy’s staff, among others, will meet with Stein to discuss the possibility of increasing U.S. military to Guatemala next year.

In light of the recent military reductions which were finalized June 30th, the Guatemalan government has declared the need for new equipment to both enhance border protection and combat narco-trafficking. When asked to comment on his upcoming visit, Stein stated that “we believe it is strategically very important that they [the U.S.] are aware of the military advances during the last five months and what this has done for human rights” (Prensa Libre). Despite the Berger government’s widely publicized military reduction plans, and the subsequent positive reaction from the international community, the House and Senate subcommittees on Foreign Affairs have left the ban intact for 2005–continuing the restrictions which have been in place since the 1990 murder of American businessman Michael Devine. Modified after the 1996 Peace Accords, the ban was eased to permit training in expanded-IMET (E-IMET) courses, a subsidiary of IMET. Even though E-IMET allows funding for non-co mbat courses, dealing with such topics as military justice reform and respect for human rights, the government has been pressuring the U.S. to lift the ban entirely. However, failure to comply with the Peace Accords, continuing human rights abuses, and alleged corruption on the part of current military and ex-military officials, have discouraged the U.S. government from easing restrictions.

Stein’s presentation will undoubtedly highlight the shrinkage in military forces, accounted for by the thousands of troops who accepted indemnification packages in exchange for their voluntary retirement. Despite the impressive statistics and positive international press, the human rights community is skeptical of the plans. Due to the positive correlation between unemployment levels and gang violence, many groups have expressed concern regarding the government’s failure to issue concrete reintegration plans for the thousands of troops returning to civil society. Furthermore, several groups are suspicious of the reported numbers. Marvin Perez of the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation asserts that of the 11,663 soldiers the government lists as having “voluntarily retired,” upwards of 6000 are purportedly “ghost soldiers”–imaginary troops contrived to siphon more money from the government through military salaries and food parcels. Of the remaining 5,663, 99 percent are infantry soldiers, meaning that the military officers who directed the brutal civil war (for which the military was responsible for 93% of human rights violations) are still in power (Center for Historical Clarification (CEH)). Thus, while the government boasts large reduction numbers, the military’s leadership and mentality remain unchanged.

While the military leadership stays intact, the same men, leaders of Guatemala’s clandestine, armed mafia, or “hidden powers,” will assure that these networks retain their tremendous influence over society. Led by current and retired government and military officials, these prominent men use their positions to manipulate the justice system–enjoying impunity from crimes against those who threaten the powers’ financial interests and those who seek to prosecute current or retired officials for wartime human rights abuses. The U.S. recently expressed their disapproval with these networks, citing narco-trafficking and organized crime as reasons for revoking the visas of retired Generals Francisco Ortega Menaldo, Edgar Godoy Gaitan, and retired Colonel Napoleon Rojas Mendez.

Another concern is the military’s clandestine financial records, which conceal pervasive inconsistency and embezzlement schemes. Iduvina Hernandez, director of Seguridad en Democracia (SEDEM) further criticizes the recent modifications, stating “the reduction process was done without supervision of civil society and it has only been managed by the army.” She cites the need to approve an Access to Information Law that would publicize military expense accounts, cracking down on embezzlement and the inefficient appropriation of funds. El Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo’s (GAM) June report found spending “irregularities” in 12 of the 13 ministers investigated, and continues to scrutinize the Defense Minister’s embezzlement of thousands of quetzals (Siglo Veintiuno).

The reality is that seven months into the new administration of Berger, army impunity and military-linked abuses continue. Just last year the U.S. State Department expressed concern over military-inflicted human rights abuse, noting the “continuing impunity in cases involving military participation in human rights abuses that occurred during Guatemala’s 36-year civil conflict; a recent resurgence of abuses believed to be orchestrated by ex-military and current military officials; and allegations of corruption and narco-trafficking by ex-military officers.” In January, the only high-level military officer ever definitively sentenced for a human rights violation fled the country, with the apparent help of the army. Military and ex-military officials, such as retired General Gaitan, who participated in the murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, still hold prominent positions in society. To avoid prosecution, members of the military continue to threaten and intimidate lawyers, judges, witnesses, human rights advocates, and journalists.

The government plans for military modernization include, according to Pinelo, spending “one billion quetzals in the next four years, spent on the purchase of UH-1H helicopters, A-37 planes, at least fifty land vehicles, and GPS equipment” (Prensa Libre). Despite recent offers of aid from France, Spain, and Colombia, as well as five decommissioned military bases that could be sold for profit, the military’s ambitious goals will not be realized without help from the U.S. Bruce Wharton, Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, confirms that acquiring the new equipment “will depend on the decision of U.S. congress” (PL). Given that U.S. military equipment manufacturers stand to make great profits from the lifting of the ban, this could be a critical year for the Guatemalan government to sway the State Department and Congress.

Despite the pomp surrounding the Berger government’s vague adherence to the 1996 Peace Accords, Guatemala’s major issues remain wholly unresolved. The Washington Office on Latin America states in their report Hidden Powers in Post-Conflict Guatemala: “Full compliance with the military provisions prescribed in the Peace Accords would significantly debilitate the hidden powers by limiting their sphere of influence”–yet these networks still permeate the land. Moreover, Guatemalan civil society has expressed strong disagreement with the military’s exorbitant modernization plans. Hernandez maintains that “the risk of the army achieving their goals is real, and any investment in the armed forces is money lost, not offering a single benefit to society” (Prensa Libre). SEDEM has demanded that until victims of the armed conflict are paid, the Access to Information Law is passed–forcing the army to render their expense accounts, and the government issues a reintegration plan for t he thousands of newly retired troops, the embargo should remain intact. Human rights organizations also recommend that the government be more proactive in convincing the Guatemalan legislature to permit the establishment of the Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Organizations (CICIACS). While the military continues its corrupt activities through clandestine groups and enjoys impunity for past human rights violations, the U.S., rather than offering aid in the form of military equipment closely tied to U.S. business interests, would do better to provide funding for Guatemala’s ongoing peace process, or to social services in a country where fifty-six percent of the population lives in poverty (World Bank: Guatemala Poverty Assessment).

AMY MARTIN is an intern with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission and a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She can be reached at: amymartin@wisc.edu

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