The military back en masse to Guatemala’s streets and public institutions; a former President to stand trial for genocide
Pérez Molina’s first week in office has been marked by some unexpected announcements and a seemingly schizophrenic approach to governance:
He assured the international community that he will support the rule of law, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Attorney General Claudia Paz, and yet at the same time has increased the military’s involvement in citizen security initiatives and has filled his cabinet with army officials, some accused of human rights abuses during the armed conflict.
He promoted his “mano dura” iron-fisted approach to crime fighting…and then declared his support for the decriminalization of drugs.
He stated his respect for the indigenous population during his inaugural speech, and yet promptly removed the flags from the National Palace and the Presidential offices which symbolize the indigenous peoples.
“2012 marks the beginning of a new era of peace, of prosperity, and of hope for Guatemala, cradle of Mayan civilization,” Pérez Molina declared, referring to the upcoming transition marked by the end of the current Mayan calendar. He spoke about Guatemala’s “moral breakdown” and it’s “culture of corruption and impunity” as well as challenges such as the national debt and poor infrastructure, and his plan to focus on “key values” such as honor, respect and inclusion of indigenous peoples.
Pérez Molina’s cabinet appointments, however, highlight his deep connections with the military and private sector and provide insight into his priorities. His Interior Minister, Defense Minister, National Security Advisor and Private Secretary (which deals with administrative issues of the executive branch) are all career military men. He has stacked other ministries – Economy, Energy and Mines, Labor, Health – with representatives of the business community. Despite his condemnation of corruption and impunity and words of respect for indigenous communities, his administration is poised to leap forward with deeply controversial development projects and mining licenses, working hand in hand with some of Guatemala’s most notorious human rights violators.
There is no doubt that Pérez Molina is a savvy politician, and despite the charges against him for his role in torture and forced disappearance while director of military intelligence in the early 1990s, he enjoys the support of the U.S. and European governments. However, it will be important to look past his rhetoric, and evaluate the impact of his policies and their significance for a nation with wounds still open from the civil war and increasing and violent conflicts over land rights in the face of multinational development projects on indigenous lands.
In one of his first acts as president, Perez Molina made good on his promise to use the notorious Kaibil Special Forces to combat organized crime across the country. He has also has increased the number of highway checkpoints; each will include 5-10 police officers and 15-30 soldiers. Interior Minister – and former Kaibil – López Bonilla has dismissed claims of “remilitarization,” calling the military’s presence on the street “inter-institutional support.” The checkpoints aim to restrict the operations of organized crime and trafficking networks.
Pérez Molina has also publicly requested increased U.S. funds for the Guatemalan military. The U.S. Congress has maintained a ban on direct military funding to Guatemala since 1990, which in recent years has been amended to provide funding for Guatemala’s navy, air force and army corps of engineers. While direct funding and support flows freely through other channels, such as the Department of Defense, the ban is an important reflection of the atrocities committed by the armed forces during the internal armed conflict and the lack of institutional reform after the peace accords were signed. Pérez Molina views the aid as an important tool to fight organized crime, though human rights organizations – and so far the U.S. Congress – have maintained that the Guatemalan military has not taken the necessary steps required to lift the ban.
Will there be justice? Rios Montt to appear in court, other cases flounder
Throughout his candidacy, Pérez Molina was forced to confront his role in the military during the internal conflict, and accusations against him of torture and crimes against humanity. His outright denial of the genocide which occurred in the indigenous highlands and his criticism of the UN Historical Clarification Commission report have caused great concern among those who have spent decades seeking justice for the victims and families who suffered horrific crimes during the war. His references to the conflict in his inaugural speech focus on “overcoming the past.” Despite Guatemala’s nominally independent judiciary, there is no doubt of the existence of powerful political pressure, threats and back-room maneuvering. The political will to prosecute high-level military officials will be a real test of the new administration, and initial signs point to a selective approach to justice.
The appearance in court this Thursday of former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt, accused of genocide, is truly a historic moment for Guatemala. Rios Montt oversaw the military’s intense counter-insurgency strategy and scorched earth campaign in 1982-1983 that targeted the civilian population in the indigenous highlands, and resulted in hundreds of massacres and other crimes against humanity. As a member of congress, Montt has enjoyed immunity from prosecution since 2000, but as of January 14th, he no longer holds that office. To date he maintains his innocence and his lawyer has declared that Rios Montt’s role as president was purely political, not military, and focused on “stability and development.” Two other high level officials named in the case, Hector Mario López Fuentes and Oscar Humberto Mejia Víctores, have been declared “too sick” to stand trial.
Meanwhile, the case of assassinated guerilla leader Efrain Bámaca has been in turmoil. The case, well known to U.S. audiences due to lawyer Jennifer Harbury’s decades-long quest for justice in the forced disappearance and torture of her husband, directly names Otto Pérez Molina and others in his administration for their role in his death. The allegation is based on command responsibility and Perez Molina’s direct authority over secret military detention programs as Director of Military Intelligence. Just days before Pérez Molina took office, the judge called a rush trial aiming to shut down the case, without notifying Jennifer or her lawyer until the last minute. In response, Jennifer has published her evidence against Pérez Molina, which is available here in Spanish.
“Logistical and bureaucratic” errors have contributed to the suspension of four other cases underway, including that of murdered singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral, the extradition of former president Alfonso Portillo to the U.S., and the 1982 forced disappearance of student leader Fernando Garcia.
In a positive move, President Pérez Molina announced that he will support an extension of the mandate of the CICIG for two more years, until September 2015. The CICIG works to uncover clandestine criminal networks, promotes legislation to address organized crime, and can act as a joint prosecutor in court cases. The CICIG’s work has been integral to ensuring that sensitive and complex investigations occur, to the arrest of key crime bosses, and to successful judicial proceedings in these cases.
Will new policies seek to provide security for everyone?
Robberies, gang violence and extortions are, without doubt, important problems to tackle, and necessary to providing citizen security. But some of Guatemala’s citizens most in need of security are those the Pérez Molina administration doesn’t want to talk about: community leaders, journalists, lawyers, and activists who take a stand against impunity, corruption and human rights abuses.
Last year, 19 human rights defenders were assassinated, many of whom challenged corporate interests while fighting for the environment, economic justice, and indigenous rights. Plans to move forward with mining and development projects, and ongoing impunity enjoyed by companies and their private security, will likely lead to increased violence. When it comes to mining, the Pérez Molina administration seems blatantly unconcerned by the destruction of the natural environment, the displacement of indigenous communities, or the negative impact on the health of neighboring families. Instead, the debate over mining has been reduced to one question: what percentage of profits will foreign mining companies be willing to pay to the government?
In addition to attacks, in recent years, human rights defenders have increasingly become victims of unjust criminalization that twists the courts into venues for farcical trials that serve to benefit corporate interests.
Human rights groups have hesitantly supported the President’s steps to institutionalize key governmental bodies that will analyze and coordinate responses to issues such as violence against women and attacks against human rights defenders. However, the administration’s willingness to work openly with civil society organizations is still in doubt, and GHRC is working with partners to encourage the creation of effective institutions, transparency, and ongoing consultations with Guatemalan NGOs.