Otto Pérez Molina and Militarization in Guatemala

NAOMI GLASSMAN: President Otto Pérez Molina is starting his presidency amid consideration of Guatemala’s violent past and militarized future. Anita Isaacs, Professor of Latin American Studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, says that Otto Pérez Molina is an inherently complicated politician.

ANITA ISAACS: He is kinda this enigmatic character, both a war-time commander during a conflict that was genocidal and a peace negotiator.

GLASSMAN: Guatemala is still recovering from the effects of a 36-year civil war ending with the Peace Accords signed in 1996. Pérez Molina was a commander in the violent Ixil (ee-sheel) region of Guatemala during the internal armed conflict. Perhaps related to his military background, Pérez Molina is developing an increasingly militarized response to growing drug violence and organized crime in the country. Human rights activists worry that the militarization is exacerbating existing problems with violence and corruption.

ISAACS: The security situation in Guatemala is dire and it has been dire for an awfully long time.

GLASSMAN: Mike Allison, author of the Central American Politics blog, reports on the high levels of violence in Guatemala.

MIKE ALLISON: The country itself maintains one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world. The city of Guatemala City itself ranks just outside the top 10 of most dangerous cities in the world.

GLASSMAN: But this violence is nothing new. Guatemala is still struggling with the effects of their civil war between leftist grassroots insurgents and a repressive state military. The United Nations truth commission report presented in 1999 called the conflict genocidal in its treatment of the indigenous Maya population, reporting that over 200,000 people were killed and 83% of the victims were Mayan. The total human cost was almost 2% of Guatemala’s population at the time.

President Pérez Molina was an infantry commander during the civil war. Isaacs points out that Pérez Molina served in areas of the country with extreme violence and human rights violations, such as the scorched earth policy in effect in the Ixil triangle.

ISAACS: He undoubtedly therefore had his hands dirty, extremely dirty.

GLASSMAN: Regardless of his role during the war, observers expect that Pérez Molina’s military background will play a crucial role in his presidency. Bridget Brehen works for the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, or NISGUA, which is based in Guatemala City and provides international human rights observers in particularly violent regions of the country.

BRIDGET BREHEN: There’s no doubt that he has major connections to the military as an institution and many of the people that he has nominated to high posts within his government are people that are either from military background or military intelligence officials or right wing technocrats.

GLASSMAN: Molina’s military background is definitely a contributing factor in his mano dura, or hand hard or iron fist, approach to battling crime. This strategy, which applies to a range of tough on crime measures, defined his recent campaign and also characterizes the drug war in Mexico But Allison explains that militarization is not a simple strategy, especially given the historically corrupt nature of the armed forces.

ALLISON: So I know president Pérez wants to add 10,000 new police and probably is gonna have to add maybe 15,000 while at the same time continuing to remove officers who are already on the force who should no longer be on the force.

GLASSMAN: Peréz Molina plans to spread the new forces throughout the country, especially on roads and borders. Human rights groups, such as Brehen’s NISGUA, covering indigenous organizations are particularly worried about the effect of increased militarization on so-called megaprojects. Indigenous people have been protesting these megaprojects, such as the construction of the Xalalá (sha-lah-lA) hydroelectric dam and the GoldCorp mine, and now fear that a greater military presence will ensure the continuation of the environmental destruction. Brehen’s organization believes that the megaprojects prioritize transnational corporations at the expense of indigenous rights and territorial demands.

BREHEN: The concern of many rural indigenous groups is also that this will increase local militarization as local social movements organize against these megaprojects and in fact Otto Pérez Molina has already stated that he supports mining and supports these types of megadevelopments.

GLASSMAN: One risk of focusing on militarization is the failure to address other social issues. Even if military force improves the surface issues of widespread violence, overall citizen security involves strengthening the police, judicial system and social programs. Adriana Beltrán, at the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy thinktank, worries that the coercive nature of the mano dura policies will aggravate issues of inequality and discrimination.

BELTRÁN: Issues related to how to you deal with youth at risk, job creation programs, prevention programs, educational system and the like. The concern of many is that with his iron fist approach it’s going to be very heavily focused on repression and short term repressive tactics that don’t really address the root causes of violence.

GLASSMAN: Beyond concerns that militarization is not an appropriate strategy, the logistics of adding and deploying thousands of additional troops could be difficult. And Pérez Molina has yet to really say where the money will come from. Possibilities, according to Isaacs, include both an internal tax reform and international assistance. While some believe he may be successful with passing a fiscal reform, Isaacs believes the potential of US military aid is a powerful motivating factor: the US military aid is dependent on progress on human rights

ISAACS: He’s requested the resumption of US military aid to Guatemala. That And the US and international community more broadly has responded by insisting that that aid be conditioned on an improvement in the human rights situation and a willingness to continue to pursue justice and combat impunity.

GLASSMAN: The mention of impunity, or the exemption from punishment usually for someone connected to the state, highlights one of other critical issues remaining from the Guatemalan civil war. Even with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated and reported on what actually happened during the war, and the continuation of the mandate for the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, to investigate and prosecute serious crime, the justice system is still remarkably weak and ineffective. Brehen believes the weak justice system intensifies instability.

BREHEN: The foundation upon which this wall of impunity has been built since the ending of the internal armed conflict and so near impunity for almost any crime has a severe impact on the ability of the justice system to function

GLASSMAN: But even with such pessimism, there are still some causes for hope. In late January, former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was indicted and is now on trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war. The current trial could exemplify a stronger justice system. But Isaacs remains skeptical about a notable expansion in war trials.

ISAACS: I’m not sure that Pérez Molina would mind making Ríos Montt a sacrificial lamb.

GLASSMAN: It is only the beginning of Pérez Molina’s presidency and a lot remains to be seen. He has even suggested the possibility of drug decriminalization in Guatemala. Pérez Molina faces a difficult balancing act in keeping his connections to the military from dominating his policies.

You can find Allison’s blog online at and contact Brehen’s organization at For War News Radio, I’m Naomi Glassman.

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