Dawn Marie Paley

Communities in the Crosshairs: The Drug War in Guatemala

Posted in Guatemala, Mexico, Mining by dawn on 21/12/2012

I recently produced a 29 minute radio documentary titled “Communities in the Crosshairs: The Drug War in Guatemala” for Free Speech Radio News, which will air in the US on December 25, 2012. Click here to listen to the audio version online. Big thanks to Shannon Young and the team at FSRN for their help with editing, production and tech. The music you hear in the documentary is from “Time for Marimba” [Minoru Miki], performed by DHernDniz. I hope to have a Spanish version of the documentary ready in the new year.

A transcript of the documentary is available after the jump, just click the “more” button to the right.

Transcript of “Communities in the Crosshairs: The Drug War in Guatemala”

This is Free Speech Radio News for Tuesday, December 25th, 2012. In Los Angles, I’m Dorian Merina. Today we bring you a special documentary from Guatemala. Please stay with us.

Last summer, 200 US marines arrived in Guatemala to disrupt the operations drug traffickers on the pacific coast. President Otto Perez Molina, inaugurated in 2012, is a retired general who rose to become head of intelligence of the Guatemalan Army. He’s talked about de-criminalizing drugs at international forums, and embraced the militarization of drug trafficking domestically. During his term, Perez Molina promised improve security by cracking down on crime, and to promote development through energy projects and the extractive industries. But there’s a hitch: Throughout the country, communities are rising up and saying no to mining, dams, and mega projects. Across the country, these struggles are increasingly militarized. 

In this special documentary for FSRN, journalist Dawn Paley reports on resources, militarization, and the war on drugs in Guatemala.


Downtown Cobán, Altaverapaz. Ice cream vendors take advantage of the warm temperatures to make a sale. Young couples wander hand in hand. A light breeze rustles the leaves of tall trees in the central park. You’d never know this is a city at the centre of the US backed war on drugs.

CHANNEL 4 NEWS: “It’s a violence that is spreading beyond mexico’s borders as the drugs cartels track their contraband through neighbouring Guatemala en route to the United States.”

AL JAZEERA: “This remote mountainous area near Guatemala’s poorest border with Mexico, has provided a perfect base for the zetas trafficking gang.”

Today, Cobán is relatively calm. International troops and police train at a military base on the edge of town. Soldiers patrol the streets.

Drug trafficking has long been a reality in Guatemala. Involving members of the military and a handful of powerful families, drugs moved through the country for decades with little fanfare.

RODOLFO X: “It was a family business. When they started fighting over territories, and when other organizations arrived, that’s when everything started to become hellish.”

Though the history of drug trafficking is common knowledge in parts of the country like Cobán, some, like the person whose voice you just heard, preferred to remain anonymous when talking to journalists.

Mexican groups like the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, and later the Zetas are reported to have begun moving en masse into Guatemala after 2007, after the US funded drug war in Mexico disrupted existing trafficking routes there.

Sixteen years after the end of Guatemala’s bloody internal armed conflict, the war on drugs and organized crime has become a rallying cry for increased militarization.  Some, however, contest the idea that drugs are what’s really at stake.

KAJ’KOK BA TIUL: The state needs something to make the population believe that there needs to be militarization, in order to control everything. That something had to be invented, and it’s called drug trafficking.

Kaj’kok Ba Tiul lives a short drive from Cobán’s town centre. He’s a Maya Poq’omchi anthropologist and university professor.

KAJ’KOK BA TIUL: Narcotraffickers aren’t an enemy of the state. The enemy of the state are the communities, the people.

For Ba Tiul and others, the militarization justified under the discourse of the war on drugs represents a renewed push by transnational corporations and powerful nations to control natural resources, not just in Guatemala but throughout Latin America.

A few hours drive from Cobán lies Rabinal, where a Mayan priest prays for those killed in a series of massacres in the early 1980s, the deadliest years of Guatemala’s armed conflict. In the municipality of Rabinal, approximately one fifth of the population was assassinated between 1981 and 1983. Here, the majority are Mayan Achi people.

Efraín Osorio Chen is from Rio Negro, a community in Rabinal. He was 10 years old when he survived the massacres that killed his family.  I met him in Pacux, at a monument to the dead.

EFRAÍN OSORIO CHEN: I am a survivor, I lost my whole family. They killed my father, my mother, an older brother, two sisters, and a younger brother. When they killed my mother, she was pregnant.

Survivors like Osorio were later forced to settle in the model village of Pacux. Displaced People throughout the country were forced into military controlled model villages, built with Israeli government advice.

After the massacre that killed his family, Osorio spent two years hidden in the mountains, sleeping under trees and eating plants to stay alive. Members of his community were labeled guerrilla supporters and communists to justify the massacres.

The people of Rio Negro suffered five massacres. Beside the memorial sits Pacux’s one room community hall where the walls are painted with even more names of people killed.

JESUS TECÚ OSORIO: We’re talking about approximately 700 people, because what you see on the list are about 450, but there are people who were disappeared, children, we still don’t know if maybe there are some people who live nearby but who won’t come back to Rabinal out of fear.

Jesus Tecú Osorio was a boy when he witnessed the killings of his relatives by the army and the Civilian Patrol in 1982. He says the genocide against his people, the Maya Achi, was carried out to make way for the construction of the Chixoy Dam, a project funded by the World Bank.

JESUS TECÚ OSORIO: “What was labeled as Communism, in Rio Negro, was the community’s opposition and defense of their territories. The fight was because the peasants were defending their territories, and the government was responding to the demands of transnational corporations with interests in building the dams.”

In Guatemala, the story of Rabinal was repeated throughout the internal armed conflict. The Truth Commission says that over 200,000 people were killed and another 50,000 disappeared during the 36-year war. At that time, Guatemala was heavily militarized, with the army being the only wing of the state that had a presence throughout the entire country.

Peace accords, signed in 1996, promised to cut the military budget and reduce the army’s power and control. Demilitarization, however, remains a distant promise. Since 2000, the army has been back patrolling in the streets, on the premise of fighting organized crime.

OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: “There’s a saying that is very true, that the civilian population is to the guerrillas what water is to fish. In this case, the guerrilla can’t exist if it doesn’t have the support and collaboration of the people.”

That was the voice of Otto Pérez Molina, recorded at a model village in Nebaj, Quiché, in 1983. At that time, Pérez Molina was a Major in the Guatemalan Army. He eventually became a general and received training at the School of the Americas.

Nearly 30 years later, in September 2011, former-general Pérez Molina was elected president.

LUIS SOLANO: “He heLd very important positions inside the military high command in these settings, therefore even if he did not participate directly in a massacre, he obviously made decisions and directed and coordinated military actions, operations which led to massacres.”

Luis Solano is a Guatemalan journalist and economist who has written extensively on Otto Pérez Molina and the country’s military and economic elite.

LUIS SOLANO: “I think after his presidency, there could be legal cases around that. But right now he’s politically and legally protected as president, and no one would dare do any such thing against him right now. It doesn’t make sense, it’s better to put others on trial, those who do not have the same kind of protection.”

During his presidential campaign, Pérez Molina talked hands, head and heart: an iron fist against crime, a head for development, and a heart in support of the poorest Guatemalans.

OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: Hard line against violence and insecurity, hard line against corruption, hard line for those who respect the law, of course the head for planning, to develop to be able to do the things that are lacking, and heart to help the poorest people in the poorest areas.

With an ex-general as President, Guatemala has entered a new phase of militarization. Instead of fighting communism, however, today’s military build up is justified by the war on drugs.

Iduvina Hernandez Batres works from an unmarked office in Guatemala City’s old downtown. She’s the director of Security and Democracy, an independent organization that maintains careful watch over the armed forces.

IDUVINA HERNANDEZ BATRES: In less than 10 months, this government has inaugurated three new military bases, and there’s talk about a fourth that could be up and running by the end of this year or the beginning of next, all with the argument – and this is what worries us – of the supposed fight against drug trafficking, this has been the pretext for the participation of the army in civilian law enforcement,

Hernandez points out that the construction of new military bases is taking place in areas already steeped in social conflict. One of the new bases is located in an area where a proposed nickel mine has caused controversy

IDUVINA HERNANDEZ BATRES: While it is true that there is narco activity on the Atlantic Coast, the military base there isn’t in that area of the territory, but below, right near a community in the area of Panzós… Where there are intense conflicts in the community because of the presence of a nickel mining company, in the community, this company has already had serious record of human rights violations, including suspicions that there have been extrajudicial executions. And it’s in this area that the base is being installed. We think that it’s a pretext to return back to the level of militarization that existed during the harshest stage of the armed conflict, which resulted in acts of genocide.

The road to El Estor, near the new military base in Panzós, is long and winding. El Estor is a bustling town built on the shores of Lake Izabal, which feeds out into the Caribbean Sea. Most of the people in this part of the country is Maya Qeqchi.

MARIA MAGDALENA CUC CHOC: Here there are mining companies, oil companies, companies that plant monocultures like African palm, there are also rubber companies. So we enter into conflict dynamic, because we want to recuperate the land… They displace us from our properties.

Maria Magdalena Cuc Choc lives in a palm-roofed house not far from Lake Izabal in El Estor. For her, this new wave of militarization hits close to home. Her brother-in-law was killed by private security for his activism against a proposed nickel mine. Her brother is in jail for the same reason.

MARIA MAGDALENA CUC CHOC: When we were removed from our lands, or when communities are displaced, the first thing they do is bring in the armed forces of the state, which are members of the army, Kaibiles, as they’re called, the national civil police, but in addition to that, the companies, or their owners, or large landholders, they contract our Qeqchi brothers who have already served in the military, they contract them as security guards, and then the also contract others, people that we could call private forces, they give them guns, they give them machetes, they give them ski masks so that they can go and displace people, kill people, abuse people – all of this equipment that they give them is like a way of saying ‘go do whatever you want, no one will recognize you.’

Hers isn’t the only community feeling the crush of militarization.

Amilcar de Jesus Pop Ac is a lawmaker and head of the congressional transparency commission. He was voted in for the first time in the same elections that brought Pérez Molina to power. Pop Ac the lone representative of Winaq, a left Indigenous party. Pop thinks national security policy in Guatemala is driven by the extractive industries, not opposition to drug trafficking.

AMILCAR DE JESUS POP AC: This government especially, which is of military persuasion, bases Guatemala’s national security policy on the needs and desires of social control dictated by the extractive industries, all the industries linked to extractives: hydroelectric projects, mining, oil, now generate the directives of national security policy. We’re seeing that the army has detachments in all of the physical spaces where these industries and companies are setting up.

Solano says Pérez Molina’s government is seeking to empower an army weakened by the peace accords and improve an image left tarnished by decades of counter insurgency war.

LUIS SOLANO: “In the case of the current government, it seeks to consolidate and reposition the army as a political actor, as a powerful group with which the most important economic groups have to negotiate.”

The government of Guatemala isn’t militarizing social and land struggles on it own. Instead, as in the time of the internal conflict, its doing so with the help of other countries, including the US.

IDUVINA HERNANDEZ BATRES: I would way that all of the defense ministers, or if not all the ministers than at least one of the highest ranking military commanders, in a continual way over the last 20 years in Guatemala were, in some way or another, part of units trained in the School of the Americas, trained by the US Army, by the US defense department, and what this has meant, in Guatemala is that there is a tendency for military authorities to have a training oriented towards identifying their own society as the enemy.”

The School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is a military training facility at Fort Benning, Georgia. Its alumni include some of Latin America’s most infamous human rights violators.

Beyond training, in 2008, the US government launched CARSI, the Central America Regional Security Initiative. Until now, nearly half a billion dollars has been spent on the program. According to the State Department, CARSI includes money for equipping police, beefing up border patrol and helping Central American armies fight drug cartels.

The aid comes despite an ongoing ban of Defense Department assistance to Guatemala’s army.  That ban, however, doesn’t apply to the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s relationship with the army.

CLAUDIA SAMAYOA: “The DEA cooperates with the Guatemalan army as it does with all other armies, through funding, for example, for boats, for helicopters, airplanes, of training for members of the military, and information sharing especially regarding the seizure and confiscation of drugs.”

Claudia Samayoa is the coordinator UDEFEGUA, a group dedicated to monitoring attacks and threats against activists.

CLAUDIA SAMAYOA: “Unfortunately we haven’t been able to convince the DEA that narcotrafficking shouldn’t be fought using the army, because it generates a series of legal problems and generates impunity.”

Of late, US assistance to Guatemalan forces has gone beyond training and equipment purchases. In August, the US Navy announced that 200 Marines had been deployed to Guatemala to fight drug cartels off the Pacific Coast.

The agreement between the US and Guatemala to allow US combat troops in the country didn’t go before congress. It was formalized just two months after four Indigenous people in Ahuas, Honduras were killed when State Department helicopters steered by Guatemalan pilots and carrying US Drug Enforcement Agents – opened fire on a boat carrying civilians.

MARIO POLANCO: Look, I don’t think a little country like Guatemala is on Obama’s priority list. He likely knows how to find it on the map, but I don’t think it’s a priority for him… But the head of the Southern Command, for example, he has a much clearer idea of the details.

Mario Polanco, from Guatemala City’s Mutual Aid Group, met with members of the US military’s Southern Command earlier in 2012.

MARIO POLANCO: What they told us was that it was like an action to hit the boats, boats that possibly, that they suspect were carrying drugs, pushing them, like hitting them with a hammer, right, towards Guatemalan territory, towards Guatemala’s maritime territory, where they would be caught. At this point, I’m not sure if it has worked. I also am not aware of soldiers on land in Guatemala, well, I think there’s some… I’ve seen a few of those very large helicopters, but we haven’t felt any concrete impacts.

The US Embassy in Guatemala claims that the Marines left on October 14th. Local media reports that they were responsible for the intercepting 10 shipments of narcotics, and the arrest of 14 people. US troops do have an ongoing presence in other parts of the country, however. In particular, they’re active in Cobán, at a Regional Peacekeepers Training Force Centre operated by the Guatemalan Army under the auspices of the United Nations.

Over the past years, US Marines have regularly carried out medical brigades in communities near the base…BUT Kajkok Ba Tiul says Marines also visited areas in Alta Verapaz where anti-dam protests took place.

KAJK’OK BA TIUL: 17 kilometers from here in the community of El Rancho, Southern Command came and built a hospital. Why did they build a hospital there? Months before we had blocked the highways there to prevent the construction of two dams. We were removed from the side, and later the Southern Command came and said ‘hey, we’re going to build you a hospital.” Now what’s going on there? Who looks bad? You guys, because you got us to block highways, you didn’t give us anything, unlike the gringos, it’s a lie that the gringos are bad, look, they built us the best health centre we have.

Local people I met with were happy to receive medical attention from US Marines, but they didn’t want to go on the record.

Ba Tiul, who spent decades in exile during the war, thinks it is clear that today, Indigenous people and communities are once again seen by officials as “insurgents” in Guatemala.

KAJK’OK BA TIUL: The insurgent today isn’t someone who is armed against the state, but that community or that person who is challenging the state for the control of the goods of nature or of natural resources.

Increasing militarization tends to come with heightened social polarization. In October, soldiers opened fire on a group of Mayan Kiche people protesting against high energy prices, constitutional reforms and changes to the teacher training program in Totonicapan., leaving at least six dead.

Members of the business elite and government officials initially defended the actions of the army – including the President.

OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: “What we understand at this time is that it was provoked by a private security guard who opened fire.”

Pérez Molina’s claim that it a security guard was responsible came the day after the shooting, and flew in the face of eyewitness testimony. Nine soldiers have since been jailed for the shooting.

The massacre at Totonicapan sent a strong message to activists throughout the country. Just outside of Guatemala City, dozens of community members have been holding a permanent camp against a Nevada based mining company. Yolanda Oquelí, one of the most visible public figures of their struggle, was shot and nearly killed in June.

YOLANDA OQUELÍ: “I worry about what has been taking place in other places, like recently in Totonicapan, it’s very worrying, very difficult, we put ourselves in their place, because we are also here resisting and we don’t know in what moment the aggression could come for us.”

As women prepared lunch for the people present at the protest camp, Oquelí spoke out against the government of Otto Pérez Molina.

YOLANDA OQUELÍ: This government has been a very repressive government, a very arrogant government, which has always tried to provoke a fight, so that they can do what they want, together with the extractive companies.”

Even after 36 years of intense counterinsurgency war, and an ongoing reality of threats and killings of those who speak out, communities continue to resist displacement and assimilation. According to human rights monitor Claudia Samayoa, some of these same communities have been presented as criminal elements in the context of the war on drugs.

CLAUDIA SAMAYOA: “The strongest impacts in terms of Human Rights, which also occurred during the national security doctrine which here led to genocide, is the idea that an entire community can be criminal.”

It is clear that the state could play a different role in communities impacted by the drug war. The root causes of community cooperation with narco-traffickers: structural impunity and violence, the marginalization of poor communities, and a lack of basic services and opportunities, are not addressed through the militarization of the drug trade. On the contrary, these situations can be aggravated by a militarized approach to drug trafficking.

CLAUDIA SAMAYOA: “I think it is very complicated, to make a criminal matter, and much worse to create a situation of combat against an internal enemy, out of a situation that is connected to the state and failures of the state. These communities could be rescued if the state provided services and generated rule of law instead of persecuting them and calling them, as has happened in a reoccurring way in our countries, narcotraffickers.”

Today’s documentary, “Communities in the Crosshairs: The Drug War in Guatemala” was produced by Dawn Paley in Guatemala City. Shannon Young is our documentary editor and Jeanne Etter is our technical production team at KPFA in Berkeley.

To hear this and other FSRN documentaries online, visit our website at fsrn.org. We’ll be back tomorrow with our regular newscast. Thanks for listening. In Los Angeles, I’m Dorian Merina. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: