After a recent speech at a seminar session* with high-ranking military officers, members of defense ministries, military experts, and diplomats from Latin America, I could tell the question-answer segment wasn’t going to go well. Immediately, an officer from Guatemala stood up and asked if I was the same person who had written a required reading in this seminar on human rights and media relations. I hadn’t known this roomful of military experts had read a chapter in my book that identified various countries as dangerous to journalists.
I’d singled out Guatemala as the most dangerous country in Central America.
Waving photocopies of my chapter at me, with obvious displeasure, once the officer had heard from me that I indeed took responsibility for the writing, he launched into a critique, which lasted for several long minutes. He wanted to know why I’d made the Guatemalan military responsible for the violent anti-media mood in the country. He noted most of the cases I’d cited had no direct connection to the military but had to do with incidents such as security guards firing guns indiscriminately at protestors and journalists. I had mentioned corruption in the military but had provided little direct evidence, and the cases about the military I had cited had not been confirmed by international journalism groups that monitor such violence. So why was I holding the military responsible?
And during my speech, I had noted human rights concerns and free speech issues related to military abuses had been reduced in Latin America during the past decade. So was I also trying to have it both ways?
Although I didn’t back down from what I had written, I now wonder if I gave that officer the answer he should have heard. I said I stood by what I wrote and that it was accurate eight years ago, but that Guatemala had improved its human rights record and general reputation in the global community. Since my book was published, the country has held two elections, including the election of the first center-left government in 60 years. I noted that Guatemala’s attorney general had taken on various controversial cases dealing with the military and those who had carried out some of the past abuses during the country’s civil war now faced prosecution rather than impunity. Not wanting to get bogged down on just one country when there was a hemisphere of countries to address, and hear from, I thought, at the time that was the best answer.
But that answer really didn’t sit well with me later. After the session, I re-read my book chapter, and I did some additional research. Upon further reflection, if anything, I let the Guatemalan military off a bit lightly in my book, and although it would have proved distracting I should have dressed down this officer for trying to defend an institution that still hasn’t adequately dealt with its history of genocide against Guatemala’s indigenous Mayans. Any incidents of intimidation or violence aimed at the media pale in comparison to the 200,000 people Guatemala’s military slaughtered during the country’s 36-year-long civil war.
The truth is Guatemala’s military is responsible for creating a mood of impunity where certain groups — indigenous groups and journalists among them — became open targets for those in authority to assault or worse. And although the country signed peace accords 15 years ago, some human rights organizations report that what Guatemala has is a cold peace, where violence and abuses continue at levels equal to the civil war years. This was a point I had taken up in my book and it remains so today. (So to answer the officer correctly, Guatemala is one of the outliers, it has made advancements but not at the same levels as many of its neighbors; the country is an exception to an improving human rights record across Latin America in the past generation.) Certainly, many of the current problems can be pinned on street gangs and drug cartels, which seem to be running rampant through Guatemala and other parts of Central America. However, the culture of using violence to control groups that might challenge Guatemala’s elites or authorities became a repeated pattern during the war years by a military that was not above using coups to retain absolute power. That culture of violence is still endemic to Guatemala.
After the war, Guatemala’s military intelligence units continued to wield independent power; some experts wondered if that power was greater than the country’s president. President Alfonso Portillo complained often during his presidency that corrupt and dark forces were often more powerful than the Guatemalan state. (Those statements are ironic now considering Guatemala has agreed to extradite Portillo to the U.S. to face charges of money laundering.) Although the peace accords called for the dismantling of some of these secretive military intelligence groups, it took more than seven years before that was accomplished. Even with that, during the past decade, Guatemala has faced violence from groups that look to be descendants of the death squads of the civil war era: unholy alliances between former members of the military and drug cartels, sometimes referred to as the fuerzas ocultas.
And now with Otto Perez Molina, a former general during the civil war, just weeks away from being sworn in as president, human rights groups wonder if Guatemala is going backward. Perez Molina was part of Guatemala’s elite special forces. Some of those specialized units were responsible for some of the worst massacres in indigenous villages during the war. Is this a valid concern that Guatemala could return to a state of fear, impunity, and self-censorship under an ultra-conservative president with direct ties to the military, or is it merely guilt by association?
- Human rights groups have filed a complaint with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture against Perez Molina, accusing him of leading soldiers who tortured prisoners in the Ixil region of the Department of Quiche in the 1980s. Also, Perez Molina headed military intelligence during the controversial disappearance and murder of rebel leader Efrain Bámaca in the 1990s. Some believe Perez Molina had knowledge of Bámaca’s killing and was involved in the cover-up, but the former general denies any involvement.
- Perez Molina has appointed Col. Ulises Noe Anzueto Giron as his Defense Minister. Anzueto not only is a former commander of special forces, like Perez Molina, but he also has ties to the Bámaca case. U.N. documents show a former Guatemalan special prosecutor accused Anzueto and other soldiers of intimidation in 1995 as the civil war wound to a close, after the prosecutor began investigating the Bámaca disappearance and murder. The prosecutor said Anzueto and others threatened to kill him unless he returned to following the proper ideological line. Anzueto was never formally charged.
- Finally, Perez Molina has appointed Mauricio López Bonilla as the new Minister of Interior, controlling the National Police and prison system, among other powers. López is also another former military intelligence officer.
Optimistically, one must hope that Guatemala’s dark days are done and that the country’s new administration will break with the past. But the country’s justice system has just started to deal with the civil war’s legacies and hold those who supported a system of genocide and impunity accountable.
The real answer to the questions posed at this military seminar is that current and former members of Guatemala’s military establishment (often a group that includes members of the secretive and shadowy defense-intelligence community) haven’t allowed the country to deal squarely with the war crimes of the past. This is unlike other Latin American countries, which have tried to cleanse their authoritarian pasts through trials and truth commissions. The atmosphere spawned by the excesses of the civil war period have caused a cycle of self-censorship and harassment of the media and human rights defenders. The culture of violence the military initiated continues to haunt Guatemala to this day. And that is why the military must take some of the blame for acts committed to limit free speech and other human rights, even if current members of Guatemala’s military are not directly involved.
*This post has been altered from its original form because leaders of the seminar program felt posts in this blog may have been too descriptive and included information that could identify participants, even if they were listed anonymously in the original version. The intent of this short series of stories was never to single out individual participants for their views but rather to make general comments on these themes.
(The photo is from the Guatemalan Army’s official website and is in the public domain. To listen to a recent edition of Latin Pulse dealing with Guatemala and human rights, please check below.)