Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Rights under siege: the remilitarisation of Guatemala

The Peace Accords were intended to heal a country once riven by civil war, but have enabled the government to put indigenous communities under military occupation. Resistance is growing, however

“There were around 2,500 police and army in the region,” Francisco tells me. “With tanks and trucks and everything it seemed as if they were coming to war.”

Since the construction of the Escobal silver mine in the neighbouring village of San Rafael las Flores, Francisco Enrique López and Eddy Zuleta Hernández, leaders of the Organised Civil Society of Mataquescuintla (SCOM), have seen their once-peaceful agricultural community in the Xinka indigenous zone of southern Guatemala transformed. Water sources have dried up, prices for their produce have dropped for fears of contamination and violent confrontations have flared between between local people and mine workers.

In April 2013, amid rapidly escalating tensions and the eviction of a protest camp near the mine entrance, several locals were shot and wounded by private security guards working for the Canadian mining firm Tahoe Resources.

The response of the government was unequivocal. Within days, four municipalities surrounding the mine were placed under a State of Siege, Guatemala’s highest state of military alert prior to war. In the month of martial law that followed, freedoms of movement, association, protest and expression were all suspended and dozens of members of the resistance arrested.

“They entered houses at 4am, 5am, waking the children and telling them that if their father didn’t appear they would take their mother,” Eddy remembers. “Tell me how you’re not going to be afraid of that system?”

Today, almost two years after the official end of martial law in the communities surrounding the Escobal mine, the locals have not been allowed to forget this fear. Two military garrisons are stationed permanently in the region, and the distinctive black pickups and armed officers of the National Civilian Police (PNC) maintain a conspicuous presence among the snack vendors and neatly trimmed borders on Mataquescuintla’s town square.

“We’re afraid to go out, to ask questions,” says Amalia Lémus Solaris, of the Committee in Defense of Life and Peace of San Rafael las Flores. “There are a lot of traumatised children who tell their parents ‘don’t go out, because they’re going to take you prisoner’.”

The government claims that the military presence is intended to provide public security in times of intense social unrest. Yet the armed forces, brutally efficient in their arrests of protesters, have proved markedly reluctant to investigate allegations of attacks by agents of the mine. Amalia’s eyes are glossy with tears as she describes how a pickup with tinted windows attempted to run her down as she returned from church with her mother and young daughter. She reported the attack to the PNC, but no investigation took place.

“What kind of public security do [the armed forces] offer?” Eddy demands. “None. They are simply here for the interests of transnational businesses. Rather than creating public security, what the government is doing is creating fear.”

The return of the army

Guatemala is a country whose recent history is permeated by fear. The 1996 Peace Accords marked the end to a 36-year civil war during which an estimated 200,000 people were killed and 50,000 disappeared, the vast majority of them indigenous. One of the conditions of the Peace Accords was that the army, which a later truth commission found to be responsible for at least 93% of the war’s atrocities, be reduced in size and its role restricted to external security. The responsibility of civilian law enforcement was assumed by the newly created PNC.

Subsequent years, however, have witnessed the progressive erosion of these protections. The separation of the army from internal policing was reversed in 1999, to be replaced by new protocols for military collaboration with the chronically underfunded and corrupt PNC. By 2014, the Guatemalan Ombudsman for Human Rights reported that the number of soldiers deployed in “support” of the PNC was over 40% of the size of the police force itself, and warned of the implications of this for the strengthening of civilian power.

The army was found to be responsible for at least 93% of the war’s atrocities.

The escalation of remilitarisation has been particularly dramatic since the 2012 election of the president, Otto Pérez Molina, himself a former military commander notorious for his proximity to genocidal attacks against Mayan communities in the 1980s. The first year of his presidency saw the construction of five new military bases and the deployment of over 21,000 troops in internal security operations, as well as the increasing breakdown of the Peace Accords’ separation of the military from politics. Currently, around 40% of security-related posts in the administration are filled by former army officers – many of them also veterans of brutal civil war regimes.

In an alarming symbol of this trajectory, 2012 marked the first army-perpetrated massacre since the Peace Accords, in which seven Ki’che Mayans were killed and over 30 injured after military units opened fire on a peaceful protest outside the town of Totonicapán. Although Pérez Molina expressed regret for the massacre, he fast retreated from his initial promise to cease deploying soldiers to demonstrations. Rather, he has continued the practice established under previous administrations of responding to intense social protest with the declaration of “states of exception” (or the more extreme “states of siege”), in which constitutional rights are suspended and targeted communities are occupied by the army.

The effective impunity enjoyed by the armed forces during these periods of martial law has allowed numerous accusations of human rights violations, including violence, looting and sexual assault, to go uninvestigated.

“Because there is no freedom of expression, you can’t say what is happening,” Eddy Zuleta explains. “They are looting your house and abusing your family, and you can’t report them. In a State of Siege you have to be silent. See, and be silent.”

Guatemala’s “shock doctrine”

While human rights advocates have been quick to denounce the aggressive remilitarisation of Guatemalan public life as a violation of the Peace Accords, on another level the seeds of current developments can be found within the peace process itself.

“The Peace Accords were a shock doctrine,” asserts Guatemala-based independent journalist Jeff Abbott, referring to Naomi Klein’s analysis of how transnational economic and political elites use the disorientation caused by crises to introduce drastic free-market reforms with minimal public debate.

Although the Peace Accords ended more than four decades of violence and contained historic concessions to the left-wing guerrilla movement in areas such as demilitarisation and the recognition of indigenous rights, they failed to meaningfully tackle issues of land reform and inequality that had been at the heart of the conflict. They thus failed to shift the balance of power away from the country’s oligarchic elite of large landowners, which itself has long-standing ties to the military. Furthermore, the Accords were introduced in parallel with a raft of neoliberal reforms that allowed the oligarchy to reap the selective benefits of integration into the global economy, setting the course for Guatemala’s current development trajectory.

Alongside numerous privatisations, the new legislation included the 1997 Mining Act, which set the royalties charged of foreign extractive industries at only 1%.

In the two decades following the Accords, international agreements have consolidated this trajectory. The 2006 implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) further laid open Guatemalan resources for exploitation by transnational corporations, while obliging the Guatemalan state to suppress any local opposition that threatened international investments in such projects.

Closely linked to CAFTA is the regional development initiative known as Plan Mesoamerica, described by the Guatemalan human rights organisation NISGUA as “a multi-billion-dollar series of mega development projects to construct massive physical and industrial infrastructure for corporate development throughout Mesoamerica”. This includes new highways to facilitate resource extraction, the privatisation of communal land for industrial monocropping, and the construction of huge hydroelectric projects to provide energy for the region.

Despite the fact that Guatemala is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, which guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples to be consulted on projects that have a severe impact on their lands and culture, local consultations which reject such projects are routinely ignored.

World Bank statistics continue to rank Guatemala among the 20 most unequal countries in the world.

Of the States of Exception implemented under the Pérez Molina administration, all have been in communities where indigenous people have expressed resistance to extractive or infrastructural projects on their ancestral lands. In the northern department of Huehuetenango, for example, resistance to the construction of the Santa Cruz dam and its resultant displacement of communities has been met by a State of Siege in 2012, permanent militarisation of the area, ongoing arrests of resistance leaders, and censorship of local independent media. In San Juan Sacatepéquez, similar tactics appear to have crushed resistance to a cement mine altogether.

“The government says that the people should not be consulted,” says Eddy Zuleta, reflecting on the state’s overruling of a referendum prior to the Mataquescuintla State of Siege in which 98% of local residents rejected the Escobal mine. “That the projects must go ahead because they bring development. But what kind of development do they bring us?”

Figures support his scepticism. Two decades after the Peace Accords, World Bank statistics continue to rank Guatemala among the 20 most unequal countries in the world.

The new “internal enemies”

Pérez Molina has never made a secret of his militaristic style of leadership. His electoral campaign included a pledge to negotiate the restoration of US military aid to Guatemala, and among his first actions on assuming the presidency was to call on the army to collaborate in “neutralising illegal armed groups by means of military power”. Even the logo of his Patriot Party – a raised, clenched fist on an orange background – speaks proudly of the party’s mano dura (hard hand) politics.

However, Pérez Molina has struggled to balance his hardline rhetoric against the niceties of international politics.

US military aid to Guatemala has been suspended for three decades, in recognition of the human rights violations committed by the army during the civil war. Its restoration is contingent on Guatemala complying with the demilitarisation protocols stipulated in the Peace Accords.

Pérez Molina’s vision for national development thus hinges on him proving to the US that he is reducing the role of the military, in order to acquire the funds to expand the role of the military, largely to enforce the terms of international agreements propelled by the US. The contradiction has led him into a 21st century reframing of alarmingly civil-war era logics.

While the military excesses of the civil war were justified through the construction of a communist “internal enemy” consistent with Cold War paranoia, the “illegal armed groups” Pérez Molina promises to “neutralise” through contemporary remilitarisation are those associated with organised crime. The rhetoric appeals both to his electoral base in the gang-ridden capital city, and to current international logics of the war on drugs and war on terror.

While restrictions continue on direct military aid, funds from the US Department of Defense continue to be apportioned to the Guatemalan army through the Central American Regional Security Initiative’s counter-narcotics programme. According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, “Pentagon counterdrug aid to Guatemala amounted to more than $25 million in FY2011-2012, more than five times the aid of the two-year period in FY2008-2009”.

The Guatemalan Ombudsman for Human Rights reports that of the 14 States of Exception declared in the period 2008-2014, only two (both in 2011) were in response to a credible organised crime threat. Yet the spectre is regularly invoked to justify the criminalisation of communities engaged in land or resource struggles.

At the time of the State of Siege in the Escobal mine region, the government announced to national and international media that the army was being sent in to combat a criminal network linked to the infamous Mexican drug gang Los Zetas.

In Mataquescuintla, I meet two of these supposed cartel associates, Oswaldo Anavizca Dominguez and Humberto de Jesus Rodriguez. They are shy and scrupulously polite, apologising needlessly for their clothes, which are still muddy from working in the fields.

Oswaldo was dragged from hospital after the reactivation of a charge he had been cleared of just weeks before.

Seven months after the end of the State of Siege, Oswaldo was dragged from hospital after an operation on his shin and left in jail for a week without treatment for his injury, after the reactivation of a charge he had been cleared of just weeks before. Humberto struggled to provide for his cousin’s family for almost a year, after the man was arrested in a night raid on his house and jailed for 10 months until his eventual release for lack of evidence.

When I ask what the men had been accused of, Humberto answers simply: “What they always accuse us of – of terrorism, of kidnapping, of drug trafficking.”

Solidarity and resistance

In November this year, Guatemalans will go to the polls to elect the president who will take power in January 2016. As the constitution prohibits any president from serving more than one term, it seems that Pérez Molina’s rule is drawing to an end.

The fact elicits little optimism from the residents of Mataquescuintla.

“There is an oligarchy that says where and how to do things,” explains Danilo Zuleta, one of the younger leaders of SCOM, pointing out that States of Exception were already being used to criminalise environmental activists before the escalation of militarisation under Pérez Molina. As long as the interests of the oligarchy remain aligned with neoliberal capitalism, he insists, the rotation of political parties will make little difference.

Guatemala is one of the few countries in Latin America where indigenous groups still make up almost half the population. Considering this, it is perhaps surprising that since the Peace Accords, no unified indigenous movement has emerged able to use this numerical advantage to advance a common set of socioeconomic interests. Undoubtedly, poverty and vote-buying is partly to blame.

Yet even during the civil war, the relationship between indigenous and left-wing movements was ambiguous, with indigenous groups accusing revolutionary leaders of co-opting them into a struggle whose socialist goals presupposed a centralised national project at odds with their own vision of decentralised government and cultural rights. Since the Peace Accords, these tensions have never been satisfactorily resolved. While the Accords’ provisions for multiculturalism appeared progressive, some commentators allege that their covert purpose was to satisfy the particularist cultural demands of the country’s multitude of indigenous groups, thus dividing the pan-Mayanist movement and weakening the pressure for stronger socioeconomic reforms.

“The education system in our communities has taught them to be obedient,” argues Bibiana Ramirez, a representative of the Mayan Peoples’ Council (CPO). “The system has divided us politically into territories to co-opt the few leaders that have dared to defy it.”

However, as the detrimental effects of neoliberal capitalism on indigenous communities become ever clearer, there are signs that Guatemala’s left-wing and indigenous movements are rediscovering their common ground.

“The neoliberal project is a violent, exploitative, racist project,” a coalition of groups including the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), the Campesino Committee of the Altiplano (CCDA) and the Mayan rights organisation Waqib Kej asserted in a joint press release last year. “It has exacerbated the social problems in the communities of the indigenous peoples.”

The efforts of these groups have been instrumental in some prominent successes of the indigenous movement in recent years. The hated “Monsanto Law” for instance, which criminalised farmers who used a variety of privatised seed types (even if the usage was accidental, through contamination), was defeated in 2014 through an upsurge of coordinated peasant mobilisation. The Committee for Campesino Development (CODECA) has been proactive in stimulating grassroots, participatory programmes for rural development and fighting for the land rights of communities facing eviction. The Mayan Peoples’ Council (CPO) has campaigned to strengthen the community consultation process prior to the installation of transnational projects, offering legal expertise to ensure that the constitutionality of the referendums is unquestionable. The Council is also forging new alliances with the fragmented political parties of the left, in the attempt to consolidate a platform for the participation of indigenous peoples in formal politics.

While these national initiatives are encouraging, the leaders of SCOM consider that there is still a long way to go towards articulating a political project capable of coordinating the disparate resistance movements around the country, while recognising community autonomy.

“The purpose of the state must now be born from the communities,” insists Danilo, “from us who are suffering the invasion, because this is an invasion.”

The Mataquescuintla resistance has already taken its first step in this direction. At the time of my visit, the SCOM leadership is flushed with the success of the Continental Conference against Mining and for Sovereignty, organised by the community with the support of CUC, CCDA, Waqib Kej and the CPO. The conference attracted participants from across four continents, including hundreds of resistance leaders from resource conflicts around the country.

Francisco, Eddy and Danilo talk animatedly about the wealth of new contacts they’ve made and the possibilities afforded by the internet and new media for forging greater coordination between parallel struggles, both nationally and internationally.

“I think that the continent is going to unite forces,” Eddy declares. “And is going to refuse, and is going to fight. And if we die for this, we’re going to die on our feet.”

Two weeks after my visit to Mataquescuintla, Telésforo Odilio Pivaral González was gunned down by unknown assailants a few kilometres from the mine site. He died immediately after receiving five bullets to the cranium, face and neck. Like Amalia Lémus Solaris, he was an active member of the Committee in Defense of Life and Peace of San Rafael las Flores, and had worked with SCOM in the organisation of the Continental Conference against Mining and for Sovereignty.

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