WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
8 Jun 2012 | Commentary | News

Why Restrictions to Guatemala’s Military Assistance Should Be Maintained

  • Continued allegations of involvement of former and current members of the military in corruption and organized criminal activities
  • Lack of sufficient progress in prosecuting human rights abuses
  • Lack of cooperation with investigations and unwillingness to fully disclose military files pertaining to the internal conflict
  • Continued use of the military for policing activities

*Information for this memo was gathered by the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)

In 1990, the United States Congress instituted restrictions on military aid to Guatemala due to serious human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan military during the internal armed conflict, including massacres, forced disappearances, and rape, and their continued role in maintaining impunity in the country. In 2007, assistance to the Guatemalan Air Force, Navy, and Army Corps of Engineers was partially restored to provide parts and equipment for drug interdiction and for increased disaster preparedness. The ban on military assistance to the Guatemalan Army has been maintained. Restoring military assistance has been contingent on respect for human rights; cooperation with civilian investigations and prosecutions of current and former military members for human rights violations; providing access to information relevant to cases, including the military archives from the internal armed conflict; cooperation with the UN-led International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG); and limiting the role of the military to addressing border security and external threats.

Since retired-General Otto Perez Molina became president in January 2012, his government has requested to have the restrictions dropped completely in order to combat drug trafficking in the country, a request also made by his predecessor. WOLA believes the ban on military assistance should remain in place given serious concerns about the failure of Guatemala to fulfill the necessary requirements.

There has been insufficient progress in prosecuting past and current human rights violations, there are allegations against former and current members of the military of involvement in organized crime, and there has been a lack of cooperation with investigations and a failure to disclose relevant information. Additionally, there are serious concerns about the continued use of the military to address issues of citizen security and a lack of concrete strategies for establishing an effective, modern, and rights-respecting police force.

Military Involvement in Corruption and Organized Criminal Activities

Various reports note links between members of the military and criminal activities. For example, there are increasing reports about the participation of groups inside and outside the military in the theft of military weapons that have found their way into the hands of various criminal organizations, including the Mexican criminal group, the Zetas. An investigation conducted by the CICIG revealed the participation of active and retired officers in the theft of 639 weapons from the Guatemalan military. Another investigation done by the Guatemalan newspaper El Periódico found that nearly 27,000 firearms had illegally been taken from the Guatemalan Army from May 2006 – May 2007 and sold to Century Arms Inc. and international arms trafficker Monzer Al Kassar, and various high level officials were reportedly implicated in the theft.

Impunity for Past Abuses and Failure to Prosecute

Although a limited number of investigations into human rights violations committed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict have moved forward and led to prosecutions, and Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has made greater efforts than her predecessors, several important obstacles remain. Despite verdicts handed down in the last couple of years, the majority of abuses and atrocities committed during the war remain unpunished, with only four of the 626 massacres having led to a conviction. Few of the remains of the more than 40,000 victims of forced disappearance have ever been found and only three cases of forced disappearance have led to prosecutions resulting in the conviction of former military or police officers. Moreover, as many human rights organizations point out, very few high-ranking military officers have been prosecuted for human rights atrocities.

In addition, human rights cases continue to languish in the courts. Defense lawyers abuse the system by routinely employing numerous delaying appeals and motions to avoid human rights trials from advancing. For example, in the case against former General Efraín Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, the defense has filed two constitutional complaints, three requests for recusal of judges and more than 20 other petitions to delay the prosecution. Despite an Inter-American Court ruling in 2003 that required Guatemala to reform its Injunctive Relief Law (Ley de Amparo), a motion routinely used to impede a case from moving forward, and a similar 2008 recommendation by the CICIG, efforts to amend the law have repeatedly been stalled in Congress due to pressure from influential interests.

Recent actions by the Guatemalan government officials raise questions about their willingness to bring justice to grave human rights violations. For example, in an April hearing before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) for the case “Gudiel Álvarez and others (Diario Militar) Vs. Guatemala” concerning 27 people disappeared during the internal armed conflict, Secretary of Peace Antonio Arenales Forno argued that Guatemala should implement an amnesty for human rights violations committed during the war, which goes against international human rights laws, rulings by the IACHR, and rulings by Guatemalan courts.

Failure to publicly disclose military archives pertaining to the internal armed conflict

Key military documents essential to uncovering the truth of the abuses committed during the internal conflict have not been declassified, raising serious concerns about the government’s commitment to transparency and accountability. In July 2011, the Military Archive Declassification Commission, established to organize and analyze secret and top-secret military documents from 1954-1996, released 12,200 declassified documents. International and national experts have raised concerns about the process and the documents made available to the Commission for review, including the small number of documents (six) released from 1980-1985, the most brutal period of the conflict when the majority of human rights abuses took place. Moreover, despite Constitutional Court rulings that the Defense Ministry hand over two campaign plans and two military operation plans from the 1980s, the Defense Ministry still has not fully complied with the order, withholding key information that could be useful in identifying the chain of command for ordering the massacres and human rights abuses.

In February 2012, the President’s party in Congress, the Patriot Party, tried to advance a 2011 bill introduced under President Colom that would permanently deny access to many of these documents by making all information related to the military and diplomatic affairs confidential. This would represent a serious setback to the current Freedom of Information Law and would severely limit the ability to address past human rights abuses committed by the Guatemalan military.

Recently, actions taken to restructure the Secretariat of Peace (SEPAZ) have further underscored the lack of commitment within the Guatemalan government to truth and justice. On May 31, 2012, Secretary Arenales Forno announced that the government was effectively closing the Peace Archives by dismissing the 17 investigative staff members and moving the documents to various other institutions. The Peace Archives contain two million documents with the names of the disappeared and information about human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict. The investigators that are being dismissed frequently served as expert witnesses in human rights cases, including the current case against former dictator, General Ríos Montt. They have also published nine books dealing with various human rights issues from the conflict, including illegal adoptions, disappeared youth, the Diario Militar, and the Police Archives.Their dismissal and the lack of a central location for these documents will severely limit future human rights prosecutions.

Expanding the Military Role into Law Enforcement

The Guatemalan military has repeatedly been called into law enforcement functions. Since 1996, governments have frequently turned to the military to provide support for the police, citing high levels of crime and deficiencies in police performance. As many experts have noted, the involvement of the military in public security activities not only blurs the line between the structure and functions of both institutions but also detracts attention and resources from efforts to strengthen the police and other law enforcement institutions. For effective reform, there needs to be a serious commitment to overcoming institutional weakness and professionalization of the police demonstrated by political support and sufficient financial resources. In a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, the author argues that the United States should resist calls to give funding to the Guatemalan military to respond to rising levels of crime, and that they should instead focus on “enhanced training and professionalization within the police, judiciary, and public prosecutor’s office.”

Relying on the military for internal security places the army in roles that can lead to abuses, given that the army is not trained in proper law enforcement procedures, nor has legal jurisdiction to enforce the law. The use of the military has continued under President Otto Perez Molina, and the military has engaged in roles that go beyond border security and disaster response.

Recently, several top-level positions in civilian intelligence and security planning institutions have been assigned to retired military personnel, which raises concerns about the possible adoption of a military-style approach to security. To cite a few examples, the Guatemalan government has continued to use combined military-police patrols, and in early 2012, various highway checkpoints were installed across the country aimed to restrict the operations of organized crime and trafficking networks. These are sometimes comprised only of military personnel even though their stated mission is to provide support for the police.

There are also concerns that the military is being used to force indigenous communities off their land and to suppress social movements. The military was involved in the large-scale evictions in Polochic in 2011, during which hundreds of soldiers and members of the Special Forces forcefully evicted over 800 indigenous Q’eqchi families from their land, killing one community member.

Adriana Beltrán, Senior Associate for Citizen Security
[email protected]