The Iron Fist Of Guatemala

“I pray to God for a true reconciliation. I pray that my generation is the last of war and the next one is the first of peace.” – President Otto Perez Molina, inauguration address.

I wish I had changed my shoes. We had managed to grab fifteen minutes with Guatemalan President-elect Otto Perez Molina for Al Jazeera. He was due to meet President Calderon of Mexico that evening. We were to be his last interview of the day. Doors opened, a lush apartment. A cacophony of ornaments adorned a fireplace. An ivory parrot perching atop a gilded shelf caught my eye. I sat facing his empty chair waiting. ‘What do I call him,’ I thought out loud,  ‘Mister President perhaps?’ – ‘No,’ came an answer,  ‘just General Molina – he’s not President yet.

Even still, these shoes had no place among such finery.

Notes December 15th 2011

Mano Dura

A grim story had led us to these dusty climes. We were in Guatemala City to shoot a piece for Al Jazeera’s Listening Post strand. A journalist, Lucia Escobar had gone into hiding after receiving death threats from those she had named as complicit in an article about the disappearance of a man in Panajachel, a town in the department of Solola. We arrived a month after General Otto Perez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) had won an election for Guatemala’s Presidency. His tanned, silver haired effigy could still be spotted across billboards in Guatemala City. An ex-military man who had run on a security ticket, made promises of a sweeping ‘iron fist’ or ‘Mano Dura’ to tackle Guatemala’s horrific crime rate and the increasing penetration of Mexican drug cartels.

A skim through any number of publications, Time, NYTimes, Guardian will yield howls of disapproval. Why would Guatemala have chosen a military figure when its past was so littered with grotesque episodes? A bloody history, filled with ‘iron fists’ that had summarily choked the country of its freedoms. Indeed, the last time a military man was in office was during a military dictatorship. Efrain Rios Montt fell in 1986 after what the UN, in a 1999 truth commission report claimed, was a period where 93% of atrocities during a 36 year old civil war were carried out by the military, police and paramilitary groups. A period which the same report found that a systematic genocide against Mayan peoples took place, where at least 200,000 people were killed, over 4,000 people disappeared, more than 600 massacres took place and over 1,000,000 people were forcibly displaced. Otto Perez Molina – a high ranking military official at the time – was in charge of Nebaj, Quiche military base during the worst atrocities. Is this the kind of ‘mano dura’ Guatemalans had elected to highest office?

Yes, 57%.

Guatemala falls into that dark fringe where impunity pervades a society that refuses to look back. The veins of violence run deep under the canopy of corruption which runs back toward time immemorial. The battered body of Guatemala has in turns been raped, pillaged and consumed by conquistadors from one century to the next, Gringo ventriloquists turning it’s head this way and that, a gasp of freedom in the 1950’s when Jacobo Árbenz assumed his brief Presidency until ousted by a CIA backed coup, a Marxist uprising surged for its throat in the 1980s but were crushed by stronger fists. Military dictatorships followed all but suffocating the last breaths of democracy until the 1990’s. Its face lies now, tongue flailing, gurgling, diseased by brutal drug cartel violence pummelling it from beyond the Mexican border. Guatemala has a history that reads of passive, unequal, bordered societies, apathetic to powers manipulating its whims. A phantom state now exists, sucking up all its limited resources, a funnel in full view, siphoning moneys into pockets unknown. Everyone knows, no-one speaks, only shrugs of malcontent. After so much subjection is it no wonder small voices calling for democracy, accountability and fundamental institutions are swatted away by bullies, drug-lords and jack boots while lawmen look the other way?

Small Voices

There is a name here, besides Lucia, that we hear about constantly. A woman with an echo for a name; Claudia Paz y Paz, the thorn in the sides of the crooked. Guatemala’s first female Attorney General is doing something unprecedented. She’s putting people away, lots of people. The week before we touched down at Guatemala City, Paz y Paz had successfully convicted among the most imposing of names; General Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, an intellectual author of genocide against the Ixil people during the civil war. Another, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, head of military intelligence accused of genocide was also arrested in October. Yet another, 70 year old former military head of state, Oscar Meijia Victores is now in military hospital under evaluation for his ability to stand trial. In a country where memories are silent, hers is a voice that hollows the hearts that hide. However, despite his pronouncements of reconciliation, Molina has yet to publicly admit that a genocide even took place – it’s a position that has protected him until now but one that looks ever more vapid given that his contemporaries have now been convicted of the same.

Molina himself does not escape Paz y Paz’s sights. U.S military documents from the mid-90’s show him disappearing or ordering the disappearance of leftists guerilla leader Efraim Bamaca during the civil war. Bamaca was married to a Harvard-educated lawyer Jennifer Harbury. Harbury initiated a case against Molina in March 2011 on behalf of her long thought dead husband. There is also a story that refuses to go away; another report, this time conducted by the Catholic Church in 2008 put forward a raft of further allegations against the military of its conduct during the war. The night before this report was due to be released, Bishop Juan Gerrardi  who was head of he investigation was bludgeoned to death. Two military officers were sentenced for the assassination at the end of last year, yet there are conflicting reports that place Perez Molina himself at the scene of the crime. Time will tell. These reports provide compelling reading and episodes inherent make grim portents for the future.

Indeed Molina might find it difficult to keep his past buried. Here is a clip of from a remarkable documentary by a Finnish filmmaker Mikael Wahlforss. Skip to 7:55 and you will see a young Perez Molina, in fetching red beret, speaking to journalist Allan Nairn. Bloodied corpses are on display behind them:

Further Cycles

Human rights organisations are concerned that Molina’s inauguration heralds a new cycle of state sponsored violence. Those who pry open the passages of Guatemala’s history risk pulling threads that lead to powerful enemies. Much depends on how far the new President is willing to extend his iron fist. For example, Molina could choose to fire Attorney General Paz y Paz as soon as he begins his term, but doing so would mean alienating allies he can ill afford to lose. The indomitable human rights lawyer enjoys considerable international support and Molina has already extended a hand to the U.S for aid in his fight against the cartels. He has to keep them onside. Paz y Paz herself was awarded the Stephen J. Solarz award for Commitment to Peace, Justice and Security from the International Crisis Group in December. Awards provide precious cover, time and a reputation. If she were to disappear, she would now be missed.

The ‘Mano Dura’ this time, takes its lead from other nations in the region who have chosen to fight fire with fire. Both El Salvador and Mexico have experimented with repressive policing with varying degrees of success. But it is when we view Guatemala through the prism of transshipment that the complexities of this narrative begin to reveal themselves. Frank Smyth, a journalist who has spent years covering the region claims that:

“…every government since the military regime fell has been marked by two trends. 1) The on-going influence of different, sometimes rival cliques of military intelligence officers, 2) The endemic lawlessness that has given rise to violence and Guatemala’s increasing role as a transshipment point and now also a production point for U.S bound illegal drugs.”

According to a disclosed Wikileaks cable, Molina is identified as part of the “Operators” clique who together with the another group calling themselves “The Brotherhood” have “developed their own vertical leader-subordinate network of recognition, relationship and loyalties.” Molina has already claimed that he will use the notorious Kaibil forces to help tackle the drug cartels, and has installed former Kaibil commanders as heads of the military and police. The Kaibiles are Guatemala’s elite forces and have in the past been linked to one of the nations grisliest episodes where 200 civilians were slaughtered at Dos Erres, Peten in 1982. That these groups are to be entrusted as Guatemala’s vanguard against the cartels should give us real cause for concern. Molina’s iron fist might well resemble a vice come the end of his term. Those voices for truth, accountability and the promotion of civilian institutions might wake up one day finding themselves as collateral in an ever tightening grip.

Amplifying Dissent

“He appeared from the curated garden, hands in pockets, deep in discussion. He gave us a wave and apologised for keeping us waiting. Okay, I thought, trepidation pierced, let’s do this. Sometimes what a man is willing to broach on camera reveals what he intends to get away with. I took my seat, smiled at my shoes. – Notes 15 December

Heidi and I were here to paint a picture of media freedom in Guatemala. The consequences of the transition of power to a regime governed by a mano dura was to be the canvas. The questions I asked in the fifteen minutes we had with the man were in relation to journalism. Al Jazeera’s air date forbids me to enter into specifics of his answers here. But beyond our narrative, beyond the story of Lucia and those other small voices being trampled upon by the megaphone of collective interests, we were there because we knew that after we had finished telling the story we wanted to tell – further chapters laid await. But this time, for the time, this particular iron fist has many eyes watching him. Our eyes act as binders. We live in a world where the ubiquitous nature of social media is merging with the voices of the many. Previous iron fists has never had to deal with this. The very act of being there, asking these questions, demanding his answers means that President Molina cannot enjoy the canopies of the past. The price of democracy and liberty is eternal vigilance and for the first time because of people like Lucia Escobar, Claudia Paz y Paz and our ability to be connected to stories worth telling, there are less dark corners of the world to hide dark acts. The power we have is that we can shine spotlights upon those places that still remain dim. With this documentary for Al Jazeera we had the chance to ask questions of Molina, questions that had him state – on camera – that fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression will remain un-encroached under his presidency.

Both Lucia and Claudia are on Twitter. Here are their handles: @liberalucha@Mpclaudiapaz. Follow them and give them a message from CODOC; Their new President pledged to protect them. They are not alone and we will help them make sure he keeps his promise.

CODOC’s piece for Al Jazeera’s Listening Post will air in early 2012. Subscribe to this blog or visit http://www.codoc.org. The content of this article is my own and not that of any of my employers.

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