With a corruption investigation hanging over his head, on August 31 Guatemala’s embattled president, Jimmy Morales, made his move. Surrounded by dozens of military officers, Morales defiantly announced that he would not renew the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed prosecutorial body that has spearheaded many investigations of corrupt officials since its 2007 founding. Four days later, Morales declared the CICIG’s commissioner, the tireless Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, a “public security threat” and prohibited him from re-entering Guatemala.
In a country that ranks 143rd of 180 places on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the move against CICIG escalates an ongoing backlash. Corrupt elites who benefit from Guatemala’s status quo—in business, in government, in organized crime—struck a severe blow, potentially undoing years of reform.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that an ethically challenged president and his allies would do this. But it’s deeply disappointing to see that Guatemala’s armed forces have unambiguously joined the forces of backlash and corruption.
In the widest-angle photo available online of Morales’s defiant August 31 announcement, 75 people appear in the frame, including Morales. Sixty-eight of them are in uniform; at least fifteen wear the maroon beret of the Army’s feared Kaibiles Special Forces. The clear message: the high command supports Morales’s move against the CICIG in the strongest terms. Sixty officers standing behind the president is more than just checking a box to comply with an order from the commander in chief.
Even more blatant was a show of military force outside CICIG’s headquarters on the morning of the 31st. A convoy of military transport vehicles, helmeted gunners poised at their machine-gun turrets, drove through the CICIG’s prosperous, well-guarded Guatemala City neighborhood and circulated several times around its offices. Vehicles pulled up outside the U.S. embassy and those of other countries known to support CICIG, and near the homes and offices of prominent human rights defenders.
These vehicles were donated to Guatemala through U.S. Defense Department accounts legally authorized only to help the military and police interdict drugs or combat organized crime. Some bear the title “Trinational Task Force,” denoting a unit, created with U.S. assistance, meant to operate at Guatemala’s borders, far from the capital. At four points along Guatemala’s borders, military-police-prosecutorial Interagency Task Forces, created with over US$40 million in aid from the Defense Department’s Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime account, have been operating since 2013. The Pentagon has provided them with hundreds of vehicles like these.
Since then, military personnel have also deployed, at times menacingly, in areas where protesters might gather, like the Plaza de la Constitución in Guatemala City’s core. “On Wednesday the 12th, the president needed to surround himself once again with the Army,” writes Iduvina Hernández, one of the human rights defenders whose offices were along the military vehicles’ August 31 itinerary:
“This time, soldiers of the Presidential Guard with Kaibil berets and assault rifles surrounded the legislative palace. The military officers were accompanied by more than two thousand agents of the National Civil Police concentrated in the capital city, at the expense of security in the departments, where they were transferred by government order.”
A statement from 28 victims’ and human rights groups—including some that have engaged in dialogues with the military in recent years—laments “the political and menacing role that the Army is currently playing,” which “violates the commitments made in the Peace Accords, in which the State committed itself to reducing the role of the military to safeguarding the country’s borders.”
Unless something changes soon, the Guatemalan armed forces’ aggressive support for Jimmy Morales’s rollback of anti-corruption reforms has set their institution on a path back to its darkest periods. It extinguishes a hopeful moment in which Guatemala’s Army, with U.S. government accompaniment, took a few halting steps toward legitimacy.
By the end of the 1960-1996 civil war, Guatemala’s military was above the law inside the country, but could hardly have been further from legitimacy. A 1999 UN-backed truth commission report, which employed the word “genocide” in its text, found the Guatemalan state responsible for 93 percent of human rights violations and acts of violence, with the Army playing a role in 85 percent. In 1990, after Guatemala’s army killed U.S. innkeeper Michael Devine, the George H.W. Bush administration stopped military aid (other than $5 million to $7 million per year through CIA transfers, at least during the 1990s).
U.S. military aid was reinstated in 2005, after President Oscar Berger reduced the size, and some roles, of the military. “I’ve been impressed by the reforms that have been undertaken in the armed forces,” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the time.
For nearly a decade afterward, though, U.S. aid to the Army could only flow through the Defense Department budget, and could only be used for certain types of counter-drug aid. The annual State Department and Foreign Operations appropriations laws, which are the largest source of foreign aid in the U.S. budget, banned the Army until 2014. Legal conditions—including the Leahy Law, which bans aid to military units that violate human rights with impunity—have continued to impede some forms of U.S. assistance.
Some U.S. officials chafed under these conditions; they wanted to work with Guatemala’s army on counter-drug programs, and the Southern Command considers it a principal mission to engage with as many Western Hemisphere militaries as possible. “I’m—at least on the military side—restricted from working with some of these countries because of limitations that are, that are really based on past sins. And I’ll let it go at that,” Southern Command’s commander at the time, Gen. John Kelly, complained to a congressional committee in 2014.
Despite the conditions, though, aid to Guatemala’s military grew increasingly robust, especially during the Obama administration’s second term. The largest outlay, most of it through the Defense budget, went to the Interagency Task Forces, set up to carry out border-security tasks: Tecún Umán and Jaguar along Guatemala’s border with Mexico; Chortí along the border with Honduras; and Xinca along the border with El Salvador.
At the same time, though, the Defense Department embarked on an ambitious effort to professionalize Guatemala’s military, with the stated goal of making it more respectful of civilian control and human rights. The Defense Institution Reform Initiative, a new Pentagon program, spent over US$1 million in Guatemala in 2014-15 on events and advisor missions “to support the development of defense policies, transparent defense budget and execution processes, and professional military education.” The Defense Institute of International Legal Studies gave seminars and workshops on international humanitarian and human rights law and the development of a military justice system. Southern Command’s Human Rights Initiative involved the Guatemalan military in a series of human rights conferences and discussions, at times including representatives of major human rights and victims’ groups.
The effect of all these efforts was unclear, even before Jimmy Morales enlisted the military for his clampdown on the CICIG. While WOLA has heard almost no human rights complaints about the Interagency Task Forces, we’ve seen almost no reports of operational results, either, and a 2015 Rand Corporation study, commissioned by the Defense Department, found several serious unmet challenges.
The military-reform effort was showing some initial promise. Guatemala’s army appeared to be bucking a regional trend by assenting to a plan to withdraw from citizen-security duties by the end of 2018. The recently appointed Minister of the Interior, Enrique Degenhart, has since dismantled the progress to strengthen Guatemala’s national police, opening the door for the military to regain control of citizen security.
U.S. officials told WOLA in 2017 that Guatemala was considering appointing a civilian defense minister. (Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are the only Latin American countries whose defense minister is still an active-duty military officer.) Courts condemned a handful of former military officers for their roles in some of the civil war’s worst human rights abuses.
Jimmy Morales’s 2015 election, though, raised flags. A well-known television comedian, he was recruited as a candidate by a small political party, the National Convergence Front (FCN), founded by hardline former military officers who fiercely opposed human rights trials.
Morales’s ascendance raised a danger of re-politicizing the armed forces, especially if the president ended up under an ethical cloud. He quickly did.
Morales faces mounting allegations of campaign finance violations, which Guatemala’s Attorney-General’s Office, together with CICIG, has been investigating. With the charges came a strong and disappointing increase in the military’s politicization. On August 31st, as Morales moved against the CICIG, the armed forces sided not with the prosecutors trying to clean up the political system, but with the corrupt sectors mounting a vicious backlash against it. And they lent themselves to the backlash in a very conspicuous way.
Were the officers following orders? Perhaps. But merely “following orders” would not require a massive display of military backing, including the visual of Morales standing at a lectern in front of 68 officers—a visual that recalls photos of Gen. Efraín Rios Montt announcing his 1982 coup during the bloodiest moments of Guatemala’s civil war.
This, combined with the display of force using U.S.-donated vehicles, goes well beyond “following orders” or respecting civilian authority.
It shows complicity and politicization, undoing years of timid but important progress in Guatemalan civil-military relations.
What can the U.S. government do about this now? The short answer is, a lot more than it has been doing.
The extent of the Trump administration’s public response has been a tone-deaf tweet from Secretary of State Pompeo praising “Guatemala’s efforts in counter-narcotics and security,” followed by a statement that Pompeo communicated to Morales the U.S. government’s support for a “reformed CICIG,” whatever that means.
On the Guatemalan military’s behavior, the U.S. government has said and done nothing, even though the menacing deployment of U.S.-donated military vehicles on August 31 was an unauthorized, and possibly illegal, use of assistance provided through a funding account that Congress established only for counter-drug and counter-organized crime missions.
The U.S. government response to the CICIG crisis needs to be stronger. A Guatemala in which the corrupt have little to fear from investigators is certain to be a country that sends more cocaine, and expels more desperate migrants, to the United States.
It makes zero sense to meekly accede to a backlash against Guatemala’s historic effort to reduce endemic corruption.
Because of the Guatemalan military’s disappointing behavior, the administration’s response to the CICIG crisis must also have repercussions for U.S. military assistance. Here, the response should be clear and swift: