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

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    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.
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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.

Recommended: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz.

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.

A 1995 US press report revealed that although overt US military aid to Guatemala was halted in the early 1990s, millions of dollars in CIA funding continued to enter the country and support Guatemalan armed forces during the next five years, according to the National Security Archive at George Washington University.  The US has approved limited aid over the years for training Guatemala’s military response team for natural disasters.

Today, Mexican drug traffickers have taken over regions of Guatemala bordering Mexico, and Perez is says he is seeking military equipment such as helicopters and training to battle the drug trade which is increasingly carving routes through Central America. 

But whether the US will entertain the request is unclear. Some believe the US is taking a “wait-and-see” approach, given Perez's military past.  President Obama took two weeks to congratulate Perez on his election victory last fall, a decision some read as a “chilly sign," reports the Associated Press.

Guatemala must meet a number of US stipulations in order for US defense funding to resume, such as guaranteeing that the military is “respecting internationally recognized human rights.” Several former Guatemalan presidents have attempted to get the US to resume defense aid, including outgoing leader Alvaro Colom, who met with the US to outline six conditions that must be met before the partial resumption of US military aid would be considered, reports Prensa Libre (Spanish).

Greater military transparency is among the conditions, reports Insight Crime, an organization that conducts research and analysis on organized crime in Latin America.

“The condition which might prove the most difficult for Perez's government requires the release of all military documents related to Guatemala's civil war,” reports Insight. “There is little chance that Perez will prove willing to do so, considering his level of support from the military. He has also faced accusations of committing human rights violations during the conflict.”  

Other steps include renewed support for a United Nations anticorruption team, CICIG, which has not always received full cooperation from the Guatemalan government in the past, as well as reforming the weak justice system.  A UN-sponsored truth commission following the civil war found that state forces and paramilitary groups were responsible for the majority of the conflict’s killings. Few of those responsible, however, have been tried and brought to justice, reports the AP.

In December, Perez told the leading Guatemalan newspaper, Prensa Libre, that the issues surrounding US military funding have become exaggerated. “This has become more of a myth than anything else.  We have not relied on the US for weapons these last 30 years, and it seems that in this country many have realized that the Guatemalan Army has changed a lot in every way,” he said.

If the US government does not provide the assistance needed by Guatemala to improve its law enforcement efforts, the Guatemalan government will seek military aid from other countries, a Perez adviser told the AP. “This may be a subtle reference to the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is set to attend Perez's swearing in ceremony,” reports Insight.

Recommended: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz.
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