Guatemala Human Rights Commission/ USA
Rethinking the Drug War in Central America and Mexico: Guatemala Section
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Rethinking the Drug War in Central America and Mexico: Guatemala Section

Current US support to the Guatemalan military encourages human rights abuses and feeds, instead of combats, organized crime.

In Guatemala, rates of violence are reaching levels only seen during the years of the internal armed conflict, and rampant impunity for these crimes continues. As the nation finally begins to address past atrocities committed by the armed forces against the civilian population, controversial “security” policies have put soldiers back onto the streets. The questionable use of the military in matters of internal security threatens to open old wounds, and places the long-term peace process in jeopardy, and with it, Guatemala’s fragile democracy.

Guatemalan governmental institutions are often ill organized and rife with corruption. While the nation boasts the largest economy in Central America, wealth distribution is grossly unequal. In fact, the World Bank lists Guatemala as the second most unequal country in the world in terms of income distribution. (1)

Impunity for Past Violence

Historic inequalities, racism, lack of democratic spaces, and the concentration of land in the hands of the wealthy elite were key factors in Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, which began in 1960 and lasted for 36 years. The war, which officially ended with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, left 200,000 dead and missing. The great majority of the victims were indigenous. (2)

The UN Historical Clarification Commission established that state forces, especially the Army, committed 93% of all acts of violence during the war, including acts of genocide. (3) The US government worked closely with the Guatemalan military during the conflict, providing funding, weaponry, training, and strategic guidance, despite clear evidence of ongoing and widespread human rights violations. (4)

Impunity for past human rights abuses prevails in Guatemala. While a few military officials have been successfully prosecuted, the overwhelming majority of those responsible for egregious violations committed during the conflict have not been held accountable. The recent ruling by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court that re-opened the discussion of amnesty for former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt – charged with genocide and war crimes – is only the most recent example of widespread official and institutional resistance to a true transitional justice process.

Organized Crime Linked to the Military

Power structures that thrived during the war linking criminal groups, the military, police, and the Guatemalan elite, have not been dismantled. According to the US DEA, Guatemalan trafficking networks in the 1980s were “composed of military intelligence officials, their subordinates and former colleagues, and informants and partners.” (5) After Peace Accords were signed, clandestine parallel power structures and organized criminal networks continued to operate, leading to the creation of the UN-backed Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). (6)

Today, investigations by the US Government and journalists demonstrate close links between the Guatemalan military and criminal organizations. 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) The Guatemalan press has documented numerous cases of weapons thefts from Guatemalan military bases, indicating a direct flow of arms from the military to criminal organizations. (8)

Civil society has raised particular concern about the participation of former members of the Guatemala’s elite counterinsurgency force, the Kaibiles, in criminal activities. The Kaibiles, sometimes referred to as trained “killing machines,” were responsible for a number of the most horrific massacres in the 1980s; numerous recent cases reveal the participation of ex-Kaibiles in other gruesome acts of violence, including massacres in Petén, Tamaulipas and Tabasco. (9) A declassified DEA document from 2005, titled “FYI on Kaibiles,” documents evidence of an alliance between the Kaibiles and the Mexican drug gang, the Zetas.

The 2012 State Department Human Rights Report raised concern about Guatemala’s security forces, noting: “Members of the police and military committed unlawful killings.” (10)

Re-militarization of public security in Guatemala

The Peace Accords placed limitations on Guatemala’s military in order to strengthen democracy and as a response to the atrocities the military committed against its own people. The Guatemalan police force, however, lacks training and professionalization. The current administration has done little with the police reform plan left by the previous government, and instead has continued to starve the institution of resources.

When Otto Pérez Molina assumed the presidency in January 2012, he became the first career military official to hold that office in 25 years. He immediately called on the army to collaborate in “neutralizing illegal armed groups by means of military power.” (11)

Since then, the army has aggressively assumed a large role in public security. Military checkpoints dot the highways, and joint military-police patrols have become the norm. During the first year of the Pérez Molina administration, at least five new military bases and outposts were inaugurated, and the role of the army continues to expand:

  • Soldiers were deployed en masse to fight crime in Guatemala City’s poorest neighborhoods. In September 2012, Pérez Molina inaugurated the Maya Task Force in Zone 18, with 1,200 soldiers and 100 police. He initiated a similar operation in Zone 12 in November.
  • In June, 2013, the government inaugurated three “citizen security squadrons” each with 500 soldiers, to support the police in Esquintla, Zacapa and Huehuetenango.
  • In July 2013, a new military Inter-Agency Border Unit, also known as Joint Task Force Tecún Umán (Fuerza de Tarea Tecún Umán) began operating along Guatemala’s border with Mexico.
  • In 2012 and 2013, the Guatemalan government declared 1 state of prevention, 10 states of emergency, and 2 states of siege. (12) These declarations, like martial law in the US, limit the rights of citizens and grant exceptional powers to the military.

Militarization extends beyond having more soldiers in the streets. According to Guatemalan security analysts, upwards of 40% of security-related government posts – as well as numerous other key public offices – are held by former military, including many who were directly involved in the counterinsurgency campaigns; some have been named in cases of crimes against humanity during the conflict.

Many of these policymakers, including Pérez Molina himself, hail from the generation that endorsed violent repression against anyone who challenged existing structures of racism, or economic and political exclusion, labeling them “subversives,” “guerrillas,” “terrorists” and “internal enemies.” This discourse is once again commonplace and government officials are quick to label community leaders as criminals and terrorists. This tendency is particularly egregious in areas where communities – principally indigenous communities – actively oppose large-scale extractive projects that have been imposed without required consultations or consent from the local population.

Under the current administration, states of siege (martial law) involving massive deployments of soldiers have also been used repeatedly to repress social movements and protests.

  • May 2013: A state of siege is declared in four municipalities in eastern Guatemala following community protests to a proposed silver and gold mine.
  • May 2012: A state of siege is declared in Santa Cruz Barillas in the context of ongoing opposition to a hydroelectric dam and the assassination of a community leader. The military arrived en masse again at the end of September 2013 in response to large-scale protests following the arrest of a local resident.
  • June 2008: A state of emergency is declared in San Juan Sacatepéquez after the assassination of a local resident amidst community opposition to a cement factory. 43 community members are arrested during the state of emergency.
  • In 2013, during the inauguration of the controversial project, hundreds of soldiers are again deployed as thousands march in peaceful protest.

Citizens in all three of the affected areas suffered threats and harassment by soldiers, theft and destruction of personal belongings, and denounced the use of martial law as a cover to execute dozens of arrest warrants without due process.

The increased use of the military and martial law have re-traumatized communities that, just a few decades ago, experienced violent repression by state forces. Furthermore, these heavy-handed tactics have had deadly consequences. A tragic example occurred in October 2012, when the Guatemalan army gunned down six indigenous protesters in Totonicapán and injured at least 30 more. The victims were part of a peaceful protest against unpopular government reforms.

Militarization has not Decreased Violence

Aside from the concerns addressed above – impunity for the military’s crimes during the war, the evidence of infiltration and coordination with organized crime at the highest levels, and a pattern of repression against social movements – a simple fact remains: the militarization of public security has failed to reduce crime and violence in Guatemala.

After dramatic increases in rates of violence between 2000 and 2009, the homicide rate leveled off in 2010 and fell in 2011-12. This was due to an effective Attorney General, important judicial reforms, and support from the UN-backed Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Yet a year after President Pérez Molina took office and re-militarized the country, violence began to increase again; in the first quarter of 2013, the murder rate grew 10% over the previous year. (13)

High rates of generalized violence are compounded by an increase in targeted attacks against human rights defenders: attacks registered in 2013 (through October) showed a 52% increase over 2011. 43 human rights defenders have been assassinated in 2013; at least 18 appear to have been directly targeted because of their work. This is a 40% increase from 2012, which, with 13 recorded assassinations of defenders, was already the most violent year on record. (14)

US Policy Reinforces Militarization of Public Security

Due to concerns about human rights violations and impunity, the US Congress has restricted military aid to Guatemala through the Foreign Operations Appropriations since 1977. Currently, FMF and IMET funding cannot go to the Guatemalan Army. Congress stipulates that funding to the army will only be considered in the future if the army can show “a narrowly defined mission focused on border security and external threats, cooperation with civilian investigations and prosecutions of cases involving current and retired officers. (15)

As we have shown, these conditions have not been met. Nevertheless, US support and direct military involvement in the region continue. And while the United States has admonished Guatemala for using the military for policing and public security, ongoing US funding contradicts those statements, particularly in light of the millions of dollars of U.S. funding and equipment currently flowing from the Department of Defense (DOD) to Guatemala.

In fact, although DOD contracts (excluding fuel purchase contracts) in Latin America as a whole decreased in 2012, the contracts for that year in Guatemala —nearly $14 million—were seven times higher than in 2009. (16)

The US Southern Command has purchased 48 jeeps and 8 Boston whalers, presumably for interdiction efforts, and has spent more than $2.8 million on Harris military radios since 2011. In 2010, more than $15 million in military aid went to Guatemala, including $9 million for intelligence analysis, training, boats, trucks, night vision devices, and a “base of operations.” (17)

These contracts include support for the Kaibil Special Forces, discussed above. For example, in 2011, the US Marines trained Kaibiles in hand-to-hand combat and “nonlethal” crowd control techniques to quell riots and protests. U.S. funds have also gone to support improvements to the Kaibil barracks and a shoot house. (18)

Last year, the US even sent uniformed troops to Guatemala. A bilateral agreement was signed in July 2012 as part of Operation Martillo that allowed approximately 200 US marines and military contractors to be stationed in Guatemala for 120 days and to participate in counter-narcotics missions. (19)

The Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) provides non-military funding for narcotics interdiction and law enforcement. (20) Yet due to Guatemala’s widespread use of joint forces and limited police capacity, many CARSI programs ultimately reinforce a militarized security model.

A perfect example of this overlap can be seen in the new Guatemalan Inter-Agency Task Force based in Tecun Uman, San Marcos, which includes both army and police. The base has received funding from CARSI and the DOD, and the Task Force was trained by US Army South, Army National Guard Soldiers from Texas, US Border Service, and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. According to the US Army, the task force “will conduct security operations throughout Guatemala via patrols, checkpoints, control of border points of entry, enforcement of judicial resolutions, and enforcement of legal orders.” (21)

As long as the Guatemalan government can count on continued US support, there is little incentive to change domestic militarization policies that have led to human rights abuses. Instead, ongoing US funding, trainings, and the emphasis on military support to combat organized crime, all directly undermine the effectiveness of the military ban and exacerbate the blurred line between the roles of the police and military in Guatemala.


A militarized approach to security has not led to a decrease in criminal activity or violence; instead, it has lead to increased repression, human rights violations, and has debilitated Guatemala’s transitional justice process.

The US Congress should:

  • Maintain the current restrictions on military funding through Foreign Operations Appropriations.
  • Withhold all DOD funding to the Guatemalan Army and Kaibil special forces until human rights conditions listed in the Foreign Operations Appropriations Report are satisfied.
  • Ensure the effective application of the Leahy Law, prohibiting funding to units and individuals involved in human rights violations.
  • Prioritize support for justice-sector strengthening, including funds to increase the investigative capacity of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, provide protection for judges, prosecutors and witnesses, and for the CICIG.
  • Increase support for human rights defenders. The $2 million appropriated to support human rights defenders through the “Instancia” and other specialized offices has had little positive impact. These funds should be reassessed to ensure they are benefiting defenders at risk, such as community leaders, justice sector workers, and other human rights activists.
  • Address organized crime not with military support, but through prosecution as well as transnational anti-money laundering efforts and gun-control initiatives.

The US government should:

  • Encourage and support trials for crimes of the past, including sexual violence, massacres, forced disappearances, genocide and other crimes against humanity.
  • Show strong public support for an independent judiciary, an effective Attorney General and the CICIG.
  • Strongly discourage the Guatemalan government from using the military to carry out police duties. Download the full report here.


[1] World Bank, cited at:

[2]Guatemala: Memory of Silence, Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification and Recommendations (CEH) (March 1999) Available online at, p. 42.

[3] Ibid., Chapter 1, para. 15

[4] This information is available in reports from the time published by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, Time Magazine, as well as newspaper headlines from Guatemalan daily papers and now-declassified U.S. documents, available online at the National Security Archive,

[5]CNA, “Criminal Organizations and Illicit Trafficking in Guatemala’s Border Communities.” Ralph Espach, Javier Melendez Quinonez, Daniel Haering, and Miguel Castillo Giron. CNA Analysis and Solutions, December 2011.:, p. 14.

[6] See

[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]According to reports by PrensaLibre, between July 2007 and January 2008, 554 weapons were taken from the Mariscal Zavala military base in Guatemala City; a report in March 2009 by journalist Julie Lopez reported that the Public Prosecutor’s Office and former President Colom confirmed that weapons 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.  In 2010, the Guatemalan daily El Periódico reported that nearly 27,000 weapons were illegally removed from a military warehouse and sold to Century International Arms and to Monzer Al Kassar, an international weapons trafficker. In September 2013 it was reported that 1,449 grenades went “missing” from a military base in the Petén:

[9] In 2010, a number of the Zetas arrested after the massacre of 72 migrants in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas were found to be former Kaibles from Guatemala. See:  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.”

[10]Guatemala Country Report on Human Rights Practices. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Western Hemisphere (2012).

[11] “Pérez Molina insta al Ejército a ‘neutralizar’ al crimen organizado”, CNN México, 16 January 2012. Accessed online 3 Nov. 2013 at

[12] Statistics presented by Commissioner Dinah Shelton during a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, October 28, 2013. Video recording available at

[13]“Asesinatos Aumentan Casi 10% en Primer Trimestre,” El Periodico, April 3, 2013, accessed May 10, 2013,

[14] “Situation of Human Rights Defenders,” UDEFEGUA, October 2013.

[15] Conditions also include cooperation with the CICIG, and public disclosure of all military archives pertaining to the internal armed conflict. See the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-74) and accompanying report language.

[16] “Pentagon Continues Contracting US Companies in Latin America,” by John Lindsay-Poland, January 31, 2013. Available online at:

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Agreement through Exchange of Letters between the Government of the Republic of Guatemala and the Government of the United States of America, in Reference to Operation Martillo”, July 16, 17 of 2012. Published August 20, 2012 as “ No 18. Tomo CCXCV.” The presence of the U.S. military was approved by the President without seeking Congressional approval, as required by the Guatemalan constitution.

[20] See “Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress,”Congressional Research Service, May 7, 2013. Accessible online at

[21] “US Army Supports New Guatemalan Inter-Agency Task Force,” Stand-To!, July 5, 2013.