WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP/Moises Castillo

20 Oct 2022 | Commentary

The U.S. Announced a New Military Aid Donation to Guatemala. Here’s Why it is a Mistake

“The United States donates 95 vehicles to the Army of Guatemala,” announced an October 13 release from the U.S. embassy to the Central American country.

  • The 95 vehicles are “Toyota Hilux vehicles, Hino 5- and 12-ton trucks, Toyota Land Cruisers, and Suzuki off-road motorcycles, valued at $4.4 million.”
  • The handover “concludes the U.S. Fiscal Year 2019 proposal to donate equipment to support border security efforts in Guatemala,” and “to protect Guatemala against drug trafficking and transnational organized crime,” the release read.
  • Recipient units are the Reconnaissance Companies of the Guatemalan Army’s Second, Third and Fifth Infantry Brigades. These units operate on Guatemala’s border with Honduras in the department of Zacapa, its border with El Salvador in the department of Jutiapa, and its border with Mexico in the department of Huehuetenango.
  • The handover ceremony took place at the Mariscal Zavala military base in Guatemala City, with the participation of U.S. Ambassador William Popp and Guatemalan Defense Minister Gen. Henry Reyes Chigua.
  • The donation was funded through a Defense Department foreign military “capacity-building” authority established in 2017 as Section 333 of Title 10, U.S. Code.

While “95 vehicles” seems innocuous, the timing of this grant is unfortunate. Beyond concerns with the Guatemalan military’s human rights record that go back at least to 1954, there are six reasons why this military-aid transfer is ill-advised right now.

1. It’s for “borders,” which means Guatemala’s armed forces may end up using the assistance to block migrants attempting to transit the country. Soldiers are already taking part in joint operations along the Honduran border to repel migrants, including many asylum seekers. This donation will likely enhance that mission which, as it requires minimal use of force with a vulnerable population, is not a proper activity for combat-trained soldiers. The human rights risk is elevated.

2. It’s happening amid a vicious crackdown on media and anti-corruption prosecutors and judges. Guatemala had a hopeful moment in the mid-2010s when a team of anti-corruption prosecutors and judges, helped by a UN-backed mission, won convictions against dozens of corrupt officials. That moment is long over. An October 2022 series of reports from the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group, and the Guatemala Human Rights Commission now finds the country in a “Downward Spiral.”

An intense backlash from corrupt officials, elements of the business elite, and military hard-liners has undone anti-corruption gains and sent prosecutors and judges to prison or into exile—many are now living in the United States. The president of one of the country’s few independent newspapers has been in prison since July on specious money-laundering charges. And the U.S. government has placed corruption sanctions on the country’s attorney-general, who won a second term, with the president’s backing, in May.

Amid this appalling backdrop, photos of a U.S. government representative presenting 95 vehicles to the armed forces are jarring. They leave the impression that the Biden administration is uncoordinated and doesn’t speak with a single voice, or that it somehow believes that Guatemala’s military is an oasis of moderation and probity (it’s not), or that its proclaimed will to curb corruption and strengthen democracy takes a backseat to other interests.

3. It’s using a Defense Department program to provide the sort of assistance that Guatemala cannot receive from the State Department’s main military aid program. The U.S. embassy noted that the vehicles were funded by “Title 10, Section 333.” That is a Defense Department program established in 2017, using money from the defense budget—not from the annual foreign assistance appropriation.

This matters because Section 333 is functionally very similar to a State Department-run program that, under current law, may not be used to aid Guatemala. That program, Foreign Military Financing (FMF) is the largest non-drug military aid program in the annual foreign aid appropriation. Because of human rights and corruption concerns, the 2022 foreign aid appropriations bill (in section 7045(a)(2)(D)) prohibits FMF assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The administration appears to be using Section 333, the defense-budget program, to skirt this prohibition. FMF can’t buy vehicles for Guatemala’s military. Section 333 can.

4. The last big Defense Department donation of vehicles to Guatemala went badly. During the early 2010s an earlier Defense Department counter-drug account, which was later rolled into Section 333, provided hundreds of vehicles to the above-mentioned Inter-Agency Task Forces operating along Guatemala’s borders. Those got misused badly.

On August 31, 2018, then-president Jimmy Morales, speaking in front of an assemblage of military officers, moved to close the UN-backed anti-corruption mission, the CICIG. At the same time, a convoy of military vehicles—including many donated to the Inter-Agency Task Forces—drove menacingly around the CICIG’s headquarters in Guatemala City, with helmeted gunners poised at their machine-gun turrets. They also buzzed past the U.S. Embassy and homes of prominent human rights defenders.

Though the Trump administration went on to deliver more vehicles, the incident eventually triggered a partial suspension of military aid to Guatemala, and U.S. support for the Inter-Agency Task Forces never recovered. Despite that, the Army went on to misuse the vehicles again in 2021, deploying them against an indigenous community protesting an environmentally disastrous nickel mine backed in part by Russian investments.

5. The aid is ostensibly to combat drug trafficking. But here, too, the track record is poor. A significant majority of U.S.-bound cocaine—as much as 90 percent—passes through the Central America-Mexico corridor, including Guatemala. That has been the case for many years, and U.S. assistance to Guatemalan units has done little to change it.

In fact, there’s a bit of a “Groundhog Day” aspect to the new aid package. Over an eight-year period, Guatemala had to disband two U.S.-backed police counter-drug units due to rampant corruption, including the 2005 arrest of a unit’s top leaders after their invitation to the United States. In the early 2010s, the Defense Department helped Guatemala stand up “Inter-Agency Task Forces” of soldiers, police, and prosecutors along Guatemala’s borders; these achieved few results and the program is now moribund.

After so many years of counter-drug investments, results remain mediocre. The State Department’s latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report narrates between 7 and 15 tons of cocaine intercepted by Guatemalan forces during the first nine months of 2021 (the report’s narrative isn’t clear on the overall number). That is a fraction of the amounts seized by Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, or Panama. (While drug seizure tonnage is not the best measure of drug policy success, it is a big part of the Guatemalan recipient military units’ ostensible mission.

6. Guatemala’s government could have paid for these vehicles. In fact, it’s about to give about 100 times as much money to retired soldiers. For years, veterans who fought for Guatemala’s army during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war have been clamoring for a financial bonus.

On October 12, they got what they wanted. Guatemala’s Congress passed a law to give each veteran the equivalent of $4,500 U.S. dollars. The bonuses will be handed out with no regard for war crimes and crimes against humanity that the ex-soldiers may have committed during the conflict. (A 1999 Truth Commission report attributed 93 percent of human rights violations during the conflict to the security forces and related paramilitary groups.)

The law appears to be another step away from democracy: “it seeks to give legality to the ongoing process of dictatorship and authoritarian regression,” reads a declaration from nine prominent Guatemalan human rights groups.

Reasonable estimates find that this law may commit Guatemala to pay out $450 million to the ex-soldiers over four years. The government does not appear to have a plan to pay for it. In this context, though, a $4.4 million gift from the U.S. embassy is especially ill-timed. It looks like an indirect, in-kind subsidy.

There are many ways that the U.S. government could have more effectively spent $4.4 million to achieve its aims in Guatemala. It could have made at least a small additional dent in the acute food insecurity—with half a million people suffering Phase 4 (“emergency”) hunger levels—that’s driving many to migrate. It could have funded community-level violence prevention programs that, USAID has found, deliver some of the most cost-effective reductions in the violent crime that drives much migration.

At least as important would have been resources to renew the 2010s efforts to strengthen Guatemala’s judiciary, which had been on the right track. Whether the challenge is corruption draining the economy, the power of organized criminal networks, the embeddedness of gangs, or the prevalence of human rights abuse, the road to any solution runs through a revitalized, independent justice system. Prosecutors, investigators, and judges must have the tools, resources, and security to do their job. While they do not, as a recent WOLA-LAWG-GHRC report makes clear, U.S. resources should prioritize programs to protect remaining civic space, along with State and Treasury department investigations of corrupt and abusive officials.

These are the best options. Handing off trucks and motorcycles to a troubled army’s border brigades shouldn’t even be on the menu of options.