Guatemala Human Rights Commission/ USA
GHRC and Partners Reaffirm Importance of Current Military Ban to Guatemala
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GHRC and Partners Reaffirm Importance of Current Military Ban to Guatemala

Current Concerns regarding the Guatemalan Army

Why Restrictions to Guatemala’s Military Assistance Remain Important

May 2012

A.     Failure to Advance Sufficiently in Prosecuting Human Rights Violations

While a limited number of investigations into human rights violations committed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict have moved forward and led to prosecutions, and Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has made greater efforts than her predecessors, several important obstacles remain.

The verdicts handed down in the last couple of years are a positive step forward, yet the majority of abuses and atrocities committed during the war remain in impunity. In its 2012 World Report, Human Rights Watch noted that of the 626 massacres documented by the Historical Clarification Commission, only four have led to a conviction.[1] Few of the remains of the more than 40,000 victims of forced disappearance have ever been found and only three cases of forced disappearance have led to prosecutions resulting in the conviction of former military or police officers.

Moreover, as many human rights organizations point out, very few high-ranking military officers have been prosecuted for human rights atrocities. The assassinations of Myrna Mack and Bishop Juan Gerardi are the only two cases in which top-level officers have been sentenced for human rights violations. In the case of Bishop Gerardi, it still remains unclear who masterminded the killing, and in the death of Myrna Mack, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio went into hiding following the 2004 Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the conviction. He remains at large. With regards to recent cases against senior military officers, with the exception of former head of state Mejía Victores who has been declared mentally incompetent, the trials against former General López Fuentes and former Director of Military Intelligence José Rodríguez Sánchez for genocide and crimes against humanity have been indefinitely postponed. In the case against former General Efraín Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity the defense has filed two constitutional complaints, three requests for recusal of judges and more than 20 other petitions to delay the prosecution.

Legal obstacles: Guatemalan human rights organizations that represent survivors of these crimes continuously point to the indiscriminate use of judicial remedies, most notably Guatemala’s Injunctive Relief Law (Ley de Amparo), by the defense lawyers of military personnel accused of these crimes as a way to paralyze criminal proceedings against them. The amparo actions and other legal challenges usually take years to be resolved and thus impede human rights and others cases from moving forward. In the case of the Dos Erres Massacre, for example, from 1996 through 2012, the defense has filed at least 52 amparo actions.[2] The case against current President Pérez Molina for the forced disappearance, torture and death of Efraín Bámaca, husband of US lawyer Jennifer Harbury, was dropped in a process plagued with irregularities soon after the election of the President.

International experts have repeatedly called for the reform of the Injunction Relief Law. In 2003, the Inter-American Court, in the case of Myrna Mack Chang vs. the Republic of Guatemala, ruled that the Guatemalan government needed to modify the Injunctive Relief Law in accordance with the Inter-American Convention.[3] In October 2008, the first package of proposed legal reforms submitted by the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) included the reform of the amparo law. Yet, efforts to amend the law have repeatedly been stalled in Congress due to pressure from influential interests.

Lack of cooperation with judicial authorities: The Guatemalan military has failed to fully cooperate with investigations into human rights violations committed by members of the Guatemalan armed forces. For example, the Defense Ministry continues to hinder access to the exhumations taking place on the Cobán military base in Alta Verapaz. To date, 151 bodies have been unearthed from 18 graves, and some estimate there could be hundreds of bodies of victims of torture and forced disappearance from the internal conflict. Access for family members of the disappeared has been extremely limited, and the press is routinely denied entrance. The forensic anthropologists conducting the investigation and exhumation have denounced that 6 of the 18 graves were ransacked sometime after the initial internment and before the current exhumation. Five books containing thousands of official military documents from the region of Santa Rosa were also found near the area where the graves were discovered.[4]

B.      Failure to publicly disclose military archives pertaining to the internal armed conflict

Key military documents from the 1980s, essential to uncovering the truth of the atrocities committed during the internal armed conflict and to the advancement of justice for these crimes, have not been declassified. In fact, in February 2012, the President’s party in Congress, the Patriot Party, tried to advance a 2011 bill that would permanently deny access to these documents.

Non-compliance with Constitutional Court’s ruling on military archives. In 2007, the Guatemalan prosecutor in charge of the genocide cases appealed to the Defense Ministry to hand over two campaign plans (Victoria 82 and Firmeza 83) and two military operation plans (Plan Sofia and Operation Ixil) that contain important information on the strategies employed during the armed conflict and the role of the Guatemalan High Command in planning and executing these strategies.  Then-Defense Minister General Ronaldo Cecilio Leiva denied this appeal, arguing that these documents are protected as state secrets. In December 2008, the Constitutional Court declared in an important ruling that state secrets do not apply to military documents and that they should be handed over to the public ministry.

To date the Defense Ministry has not fully complied with the Constitutional Court’s ruling. The Guatemalan prosecutor’s office received a certified copy of plan Victoria 82 and a summary of Firmeza 83 from the Defense Ministry but the Ministry argued that the others had disappeared. A copy of Plan Sofia was leaked by an unknown source to the National Security Archives. The Operation Ixil plans have not been provided.

The Presidential Declassification Commission process was considered by experts to be flawed. In July 2011, the Military Archive Declassification Commission, established by former President Álvaro Colom to organize and analyze secret and top secret military documents from 1954 to 1996, released to the public approximately 12,200 documents. National and international non-governmental groups have raised concerns about the documents made available by the Defense Ministry to the Commission for review, and the small number of documents, particularly those made available from 1980-1985, the period that the Truth Commission classified as being the years in which the majority of the human rights violations by the Army took place. Concerns have also been raised about the lack of transparency regarding the criteria and methodology used to justify the decision to keep 55 archives classified and to only partially declassify 589 other documents. Article 24 of Guatemala’s FOIA Law requires documents linked to human rights abuses or crimes against humanity to be made public. In its most recent report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights notes that “the standards found in the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to information were not applied in the process of declassifying the military archives. Additionally, obstacles to and limitations on accessing the archives persist.”[5]

The military’s new public archive is considered by national and international experts to contain little of substance.  The Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) raised concerns about the archives after a visit in August 2011, including the inclusion of a large number of documents not from 1954-1996 and others that should not have been classified secret or top secret (press clippings, congressional records, etc.), as well as constant surveillance by members of the military.  According to an expert from the National Security Archive who visited in February 2012, the archive presents many problems, including: no index, catalogue or other guide, no public communications, and demonstrates “no understanding of what an archive is.”[6] Such measures have led many local and international organizations to question the commitment of the Guatemalan military to transparency and accountability.

Push to reverse access to information. In January 2011, the Colom Administration submitted to the Guatemalan Congress a proposal to reform the Freedom of Information Law (Bill 4328), which would make confidential “information related to the military and diplomatic affairs.” If adopted, it would imply complete secrecy for an undefined period of time, a step that reverses the advances made during the last three years. In early February 2012, the President’s party in Congress made a push to send the bill to the floor for discussion. Although the proposed reforms were taken off of the agenda due to local and international pressure, they could resurface in the future.

C.      Military Involvement in Drug Trafficking and Clandestine Criminal Structures

According to US defense contractor CNA’s December 2011 report, there is “an abundance of evidence that criminal organizations engaged in trafficking have penetrated even the highest levels of the Guatemalan military and police.”[7]

Members of the military have been linked to organized criminal organizations and criminal activities.

According to reports, between July 2007 and January 2008, 554 weapons were taken from the Mariscal Zavala military base in Guatemala City.[8] In 2009, another 85 weapons were believed to be stolen from the Adolfo V. Hall military academy in the department of Chiquimula.[9] In March 2009 the Public Prosecutor’s Office and former President Colom confirmed that weapons from the lot stolen from the Zavala armory were found in a training camp believed to be run by the Zetas in northern Guatemala. Some of the stolen weapons were also found in a warehouse operated by the Zetas in Amatitlán in late April 2009.[10] An investigation conducted by the CICIG uncovered the participation of retired and active military officers in the theft of the 639 weapons.[11]

In 2010, the Guatemalan daily El Periódico reported that nearly 27,000 weapons were illegally taken out of the military warehouse and sold to Century International Arms and to Monzer Al Kassar, an international weapons trafficker.[12]

Concerns have also been raised about the participation of ex-members of the Special Forces Unit, Kaibiles, in criminal activities. Numerous cases reveal the participation of ex-Kaibiles in massacres and other egregious acts of violence.[13]

Despite growing concerns about the involvement of members of the military in organized crime, US funding through the Department of Defense has been used to train and support Guatemalan soldiers, including the Kaibiles. According to Guatemalan Army Spokesperson Rony Urizar, military training of the Kaibiles started in 2007 in the Northern department of El Petén. The US military has provided heavy weapons to the Kaibiles and trained them in air assaults and small unit tactics.[14] In 2009 the US Army Corps renovated barracks for the Kaibiles in Poptun, where their training facility “El Infierno” (“The Hell”) is located. In leaked US Embassy cables, Embassy officers visiting the facility commented on the counter-drug operations and the training provided by the US military to the Kaibiles. As part of Continuing Promise (a humanitarian civic assistance operation), a contingent of 40 marines was sent to the same training base a year later as part of an exchange with the Kaibiles.[15] The same small, rural town of Poptun, El Petén, where the Kaibiles training base is located, has been identified by Guatemalan authorities as a center of operations for Los Zetas.[16]

D.     Expanding Military Role into Law Enforcement Functions

The Guatemalan military has repeatedly been called into law enforcement functions, citing high levels of crime and deficiencies in police performance.  In Guatemala, since 1996, successive governments have turned to the army to provide support to the police through joint patrols.   As many experts have noted, the involvement of the military in public security activities not only blurs the line between the structure and functions of both institutions but also detracts attention and resources from efforts to strengthen civilian and police institutions.  It places the army in roles that can lead to abuses, given that the army is not trained in proper law enforcement procedures, nor has legal jurisdiction to enforce the law.

Under current President Otto Pérez Molina, the Army has engaged in roles beyond external and border security, and become more involved in law enforcement functions, as evidenced by:

The installation of internal military checkpoints: In early 2012, highway checkpoints were installed across the country aimed to restrict the operations of organized crime and trafficking networks. The government reported that the checkpoints were to be comprised of police and military officers. However, these checkpoints are designated officially as military checkpoints, and many, according to eye-witness testimony, have no police present (despite the fact that the military is supposedly there only to “protect police”).

The ongoing use of “combined forces” (military and police) for policing activities.

The establishment of new military bases in the country’s interior, particularly in areas with serious land conflicts such as in San Juan Sacatepéquez.

The appointment of retired military to key citizen security related positions.  Various top-level positions in civilian intelligence and security planning institutions have been assigned to retired military, including: Minister of Interior (General Mauricio López Bonilla), Technical Secretary of the National Security Council – CNS (General Ricardo Bustamante), Inspector General of the National Security System – SNS (General Manfredo Martinez de Leon), Director of the National Institute for Strategic Security Studies- INEES , which trains security officials (Coronel Mario Merida), Secretary of Administrative and Security Issues – SAAS (Coronel Miguel Angel Martinez), Assistant Secretary of the Secretariat of Strategic Intelligence – SIE[17] (General Jose Luis Barrientos Pau), Director of the General Directorate of Civilian Intelligence – DIGICI (Coronel Manuel Alvarado), Director of Penitentiary System (Coronel Luis Alberto Gonzales Perez), and Chief of Airport Security (Coronel Pimentel).  This is worrisome given the possibility of military-style approaches permeating key citizen security institutions and their strategies and policies to address crime and violence.

The involvement of the military in public security occurred in the previous administration as well.  Here are some of the concerns this has raised:

The army has regularly been used in the eviction of indigenous and peasant communities, such as in the Polochic Valley in March 2011. Over the course of three days, hundreds of soldiers and members of the special forces participated in the eviction of over 800 Q´eqchi´ families. One community member was killed (allegedly struck by an object launched by the police) in the initial evictions.  The military has been present in numerous forced evictions that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, violate international human rights regulations. The evictions left communities without access to food, housing, or physical security.

In one of these cases, the military was involved in the rape of 11 Q’eqchi’ women in the community of Lote 8, El Estor in 2007, during a forced eviction to clear land for a nickel mining company. The victims have brought a case against the Canadian company (private security guards were also involved), but the Guatemalan government has not carried out an investigation into the role of the military. To date, no one has been held accountable.

According to the Guatemalan government, in recent years there have been 19 states of siege decreed. The government claims this designation is only used to address organized crime, but concerns have been raised regarding the use of states of siege to repress social movements and opposition to development projects. For example, a state of siege was declared in San Juan Sacatepéquez in June 2008 reportedly in response to communities’ organization against the installation of a cement factory. During the state of siege in Alta Verapaz (Dec. 2010- Feb. 2011), peasant organizations denounced that raids were performed in indigenous communities such as Se’ Job’ Che’, which was not linked to any illegal activities. Fearing military intrusion, the villagers left their homes and upon their return found their crops and properties in ruins. Two land reform activists were also arrested.

The use of states of siege have continued under the current government. On May 1, 2012, just three months after taking office, President Perez Molina instituted a state of siege in Barillas, Huehuetenango, which has experienced social conflict over a proposed hydroelectric project, declaring a situation of “insecurity and un-governability.” The President later claimed the protesting community members had connections to organized crime, though no evidence has surfaced to that effect.

According to the UN Human Rights Committee, Guatemala has not consistently complied with its obligation to report states of siege. A state of siege limits civil rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of association, and grants special powers to the military and security forces, such as search and seizure without a warrant.


For more information contact:

Adriana Beltrán, Senior Associate for Citizen Security or Maureen Meyer, Senior Associate for Central America, WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America), or, Tel: 202-797-2171.

Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director, Latin America Working Group Education Fund,, Tel: (202) 546-7010

Kelsey Alford-Jones, Director, Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA,, Tel: 202-529-6599

[1] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012: Guatemala, January 2012.

[2] Interview with Human Rights Lawyer Edgar Perez, May 2012.

[3] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Caso Myrna Mack Chang vs. Guatemala, Sentencia de 25 de noviembre de 2003.

[4] Communication with Director of Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), May 2012.

[5] Human Rights Council, Nineteenth Session, Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Activities of her Office in Guatemala, January 30, 2012, A/HCHR/19/21/Add.1, p. 9.

[6] Kate Doyle, director of the Evidence Project, National Security Archives.

[7] Espach, Ralph, Melendez Quiñonez, Javier, Haering, Daniel and Castillo Girón, Miguel, Criminal Organizations and Illicit Trafficking in Guatemala’s Border Communities, CNA Analysis and Solutions, December 2011, p. 14.

[8] Orantes, Coralia. “Estructura criminal roba armas del ejército” Prensa Libre, February, 5, 2010.

[9] Ibid.

[10] López, Julie. “Guatemala’s Crossroads: Democratization of Violence and Second Chances.”

[11] Orantes, Coralia. Op. Cit.

[12]  “26,994 armas salieron del almacén del Ejército ilegalmente” El Periódico, February 18, 2010.

[13] In May 2011, an ex-kaibil was charged with having commanded and participated in a massacre in which 27 farm workers were brutally beheaded in Northern Guatemala. See CNN “Guatemala’s President Declares ‘Stage of Siege’ After ‘Massacre’”  In the same month, the Governor of the State of Tabasco, Mexico, reported that ex-Kaibiles were responsible for the killing in a Cardenas auto shop which left ten people dead. See: “Guatemala Ex-Special Forces Arrested Over Mexico Massacre.” See also: “Kaibiles, autores de la masacre en Tabasco, afirma Granier”.

[14] “United States Trains Guatemalan Military Personnel”. See also: “USG Assistance Positively Impacting Poptun; Playa Grande a Playground for Narcotraffickers.”

[15] Cpl. Negrete, Daniel, “Marines Sweat It Out With Guatemalan Kaibiles.” September, 18, 2010.

[16] Hurtado, Paula, “Los Zetas: El dolor de cabeza del próximo presidente,” El Periódico, November 2, 2011.

[17] Secretary of Strategic Intelligence (SIE) is the civil organism that takes the place of military intelligence and reviews and compiles information gathered by the three entities that make up the National Intelligence System.