Guatemalans wary of military aid

The US and other regional countries agreed last week to form a relief force.

Two graveyards are nearly all that is left of this Maya Indian village in the highlands - and they frame locals' views of the Guatemalan military.

Authorities declared an entire hillside a graveyard last week when they gave up the search for dozens of poor villagers buried in a mudslide triggered by hurricane Stan's rains. The other cemetary, whose gravestones stick out of the mud, contains the bodies of 13 locals killed in a 1990 massacre perpetrated by the Guatemalan army.

This and numerous other abuses committed here during the country's 36-year long armed conflict has left locals with an acute distrust for government security forces. So they were wary when troops showed up after the mudslides to offer assistance to the victims.

"People are scared because of what the army did here in the past," said Manuel Sisay Sapalu, former mayor of Santiago Atitlán, the municipality that includes Panabaj.

The Guatemalan military took steps toward mitigating those fears while playing a key role in responding to the disaster provoked by Stan, which forced over 140,000 Guatemalans to evacuate their homes. At least 663 people have died in Guatemala as a result of floods and mudslides provoked by the hurricane.

But at a time when military aid has been crucial for relief efforts in recent natural disasters from the Gulf Coast of the US to Pakistan, governments and citizens of affected areas are increasingly faced with questions as to the limits of appropriate military action. How long should the military stay? Should troops take a more active police role?

Questions like these were tackled at a two-day meeting of defense and security ministers from seven Central American countries and the US in Key Biscayne, Florida last week. With the recent devastation of parts of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American countries fresh in their minds, the ministers - including US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld - agreed to speed up plans for a rapid reaction force for use in disaster relief efforts, and discussed the possibility of creating a joint force to battle crime and narcoterrorism.

"I think coordinating disaster response is a good idea," says Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America. This issue is separate, she clarified, from the idea of creating a rapid response force to deal with regional security threats.

"Where the [Guatemalan army] most helps us is in terms of transportation," says Benedicto Giron, spokesman for the National Disaster Reduction Coordinator, the government's disaster-response unit. Military helicopters, planes, and trucks are being used to deliver emergency food and supplies to populations affected by the storm.

Two-thirds of the country's army personnel have been directly involved in disaster relief for the past two weeks, according to army spokesperson Colonel Jorge Antonio Ortega Gaytán. Nine helicopters on loan from the US Southern Command are also being used in relief efforts.

But, when it comes to creating a regional force, some critics question the idea of expanding the powers of Central American militaries with poor records in human rights and transparency.

"The problem is that their range of action is easily extended," says Arturo Chub, an analyst at the Guatemalan non-governmental organization, Security in Democracy. Mr. Chub and other critics say the Guatemalan military has traditionally been involved in a range of abusive and lucrative activities outside of its mandate.

A UN-sponsored truth commission found the army responsible for 85% of human rights violations committed during the country's bloody civil war. More than 200,000 people were killed in the war, which pitted leftist guerrillas against a repressive military state backed by the US. The vast majority of the victims were poor and indigenous.

The peace accords signed between the government and insurgents in 1996 called for cutting the military's budget and personnel. The accords also strictly defined the military's purpose as defending sovereignty and ensuring territorial integrity.

Still, the military and government authorities have been criticized for expanding the army's role to include an array of tasks, from delivering school lunches to carrying out joint security patrols with the national police.

At the same time, numerous accusations of corruption have been made in recent years against high-ranking military leaders, including retired general Enrique Ríos Sosa, son of former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Sosa is accused of helping divert millions of dollars from the Ministry of Defense into private, foreign bank accounts when he served as head of army finances in 2001. The case is still under investigation.

Some worry that potential financial cooperation for organizing a regional security force could be misused.

"International funds have sometimes ended up enriching a few military officers," says Mario Polanco, director of the Guatemala-based Mutual Support Group, which monitors human rights and military spending. "What we should be doing is improving coordination among governments and strengthening civil institutions," he adds.

Nevertheless, Mr. Polanco and other critics of the military said the army should be involved in disaster relief.

Chub, from Security in Democracy, agrees but says the military's participation in disaster relief should be brief and its expenditures should be strictly monitored.

But some victims of the mudslide in Panabaj were still cautious about welcoming military aid.

"If they come to help that's fine, as long as they don't do anything else," says Juana Ixbalan Vásquez, who lost her home in the mudslide. Former mayor Sisay Sapalu said soldiers were welcome to help rebuild the village, as long as they left their guns in the barracks.

"If people see the army constructing and not destructing, there's going to be a change in this country," he says.

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