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What Guatemala's new president wants from the US

Former Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who will be inaugurated as Guatemala's president today, plans to push for renewed US military aid, raising concerns among critics of his legacy from Guatemala's civil war.

By Staff writer / January 14, 2012

Guatemala's President-elect Otto Perez Molina poses for news photographers in Guatemala City, Thursday. Perez Molina, a former general, takes office as Guatemala's new president Saturday.

Moises Castillo/AP

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 Former Guatemalan Gen. Otto Perez Molina will be inaugurated today as the first military official to lead the country since its return to democracy 26 years ago.

Topping Mr. Perez’s list of priorities as he takes office is overturning a longstanding ban on US military aid to Guatemala, which he aims to use to contain and deter drug-related violence in the country. Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the Western hemisphere and is increasingly plagued by high crime and violence linked to drug trafficking in Mexico, reports the Guardian. Many citizens voted for Mr. Perez based on his “iron fist” campaign that promised to crack down on crime.

Yet  his hopes of overturning the ban worry observers who are critical of his involvement in Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war. Perez garnered international attention during his run for office due to accusations of his involvement in massacres, kidnappings, and other human rights abuses during the civil war, which has strong ties to US military training and funding.

During Guatemala's long civil war, violence primarily targeted rural areas where family members were killed, children kidnapped, and crops destroyed. Further military training my not be the appropriate answer for a country still struggling with impunity and justice reforms, writes Tim Padgett in an op-ed for Time magazine.

“[T]he fear is that Pérez, despite all his talk of a mano dura, or “iron fist,” isn’t the man to bring rule of law to Guatemala, which is one of the world’s most lawless countries today. Guatemala, along with El Salvador and Honduras, is part of Central America’s northern triangle – which U.S. military leaders call “the deadliest zone in the world” outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Guatemala’s murder rate is more than eight times the U.S.’s, largely because violent drug and extortion gangs have overrun the country.

“But equally troubling is the notion among Guatemala’s political and business elite that the military is the answer. Armies don’t fight crime, professional police do – and like Mexico, which has also had to employ its military against drug cartels because it can’t rely on its cops, Guatemala is paying for centuries of unpardonable neglect of public security.” 

The US Congress ended military aid to Guatemala in 1990 after the death of a US citizen at the hands of the Guatemalan Army and years of ongoing concern over military-led human rights abuses. The US played an active role in the conflict, first backing a military coup in 1954 to overthrow the democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, who was viewed as a communist threat.  Fear of the Central American country falling to communism continued as left-wing guerrilla groups began fighting for land reform, battling military forces. Guatemala’s indigenous populations bore the brunt of the nearly four decades of violence, largely because they lived in rural communities where leftist groups were believed to seek refuge.

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