Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: US Restores Military Aid After 15-Year Hiatus

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Mar 25 2005 (IPS) - The restoration of U.S. military aid to Guatemala 15 years after it was suspended for human rights abuses was assailed late Thursday by several rights groups, who said the move was premature.

On a visit to the Guatemalan capital earlier in the day, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the George W. Bush administration was releasing 3.2 million dollars in aid to reward the government of President Oscar Berger for reforming the armed forces whose human rights record in the 1980s was considered the worst in the Americas.

“I’ve been impressed by the reforms that have been undertaken in the armed forces,” Rumsfeld told reporters. “I know it is a difficult thing to do, but it’s been done with professionalism and transparency.”

But rights groups did not agree with his assessment, although they did give Berger credit for making efforts in the right direction.

“Despite its commitment to ending impunity and combating clandestine groups, the Berger administration has demonstrated a lack of political will and ability to make progress in establishing an effective mechanism to investigate and dismantle clandestine groups,” according to a joint statement by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights, and other groups.

It noted that these clandestine groups or illegal armed groups, which were supposed to have been dismantled after the signing of the historic 1996 Peace Accords, are believed to have ties to Guatemala’s military intelligence apparatus, which is also widely believed to have become increasingly active in drug trafficking and organised crime.

The rights groups, which also included the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) and the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, added that at least 26 human rights defenders have been threatened or attacked, presumably by or at the instigation of the clandestine groups, so far this year after a reported 122 attacks in 2004.

“The clandestine groups have become a serious obstacle to the peace process, rule of law, democracy, and the respect for human rights and must be stopped,” the groups declared.

Despite the relatively small dollar value of the package announced by Rumsfeld, the resumption of U.S. military aid marks a real landmark in U.S. relations with the Guatemalan armed forces, which it actually put in power in a 1954 CIA-directed coup d’etat against the civilian government led by President Jacobo Arbenz.

The record of U.S. complicity with a succession of military governments is relatively complete due to the release of thousands of secret documents obtained by the independent National Security Archive (NSA), which helped Guatemala’s U.N.-backed Historical Clarification Commission conduct a major study in the late 1990s.

The Guatemalan commission, set up under the 1996 U.N.-mediated peace accord, found the country’s military guilty of “acts of genocide” against the Indian population during the 36-year civil war and of 93 percent of the estimated 200,000 killings which took place.

It also found that Washington, particularly through its spy agencies, “lent direct and indirect support to some illegal state operations.”

So thorough was the documentation that U.S. President Bill Clinton felt compelled to apologise during an informal gathering of leaders from Guatemalan civic groups during a four-day tour of Central America in 1999.

“For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression, of the kind described in the report, was wrong,” he said. “The United States must not repeat that mistake.”

One 1966 report obtained by the NSA revealed how U.S. personnel advised Guatemala’s military intelligence on setting up a safe house in the presidential palace to coordinate counter-insurgency operations.

That office, at which a CIA officer also worked until well into the 1970’s, evolved into an operation which Amnesty International denounced in 1980 as the headquarters for political murder in Guatemala and was finally officially dissolved only two years ago.

State Department, CIA and Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) officers reported in detail about specific operations, including kidnapping, torture, and murder, carried out by the Guatemalan army and its paramilitary auxiliaries over more than 30 years.

The documents also revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies knew about specific massacres committed by the army in the early 1980s, even while senior officials of the Ronald Reagan administration assured Congress that reports of such atrocities were disinformation spread by solidarity groups and Amnesty International.

Congress forbade most military aid to the government during the period, but Washington spent millions of dollars on covert support to Guatemala’s army during the period, halting it only in 1990 when it was disclosed that an army colonel on the CIA’s payroll had been responsible for the murder of a U.S. innkeeper and the torture-killing of a guerrilla leader who was married to a U.S. lawyer.

After the peace accords, rights abuses have generally diminished, but activists, particularly those involved in investigating notorious massacres and assassinations of the 1980s, have repeatedly been threatened and occasionally assaulted or even murdered. Judges and prosecutors were also subject to threats from clandestine groups.

According to the final report of the U.N. Verification Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA) published in January last year, “attempts to investigate and prosecute security forces members for atrocities committed during the conflict have been generally unsuccessful; those who try have been subject to threats, violence and years of judicial obstruction.”

Rights groups agree that some advances have been made, particularly under Berger’s administration. Among other things, the armed forces have been reduced to 15,000 soldiers from 27,000 and have adopted a new military doctrine that emphasises defence against external attack, rather than counter-insurgency.

“The shadows that have plagued our army have disappeared,” Berger said Thursday.

But the rights groups complain that the military continues to participate in joint police-military operations in direct violation of the Peace Accords. They note that a landmark agreement signed in January 2004 to establish a U.N.-led Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Armed Groups and Clandestine Security Apparatuses, an initiative supported by Washington, was struck down as a result of a court decision.

New proposals put forward last November to revive it have so far not moved forward, according to the rights groups.

But the Bush administration, increasingly concerned about drug-trafficking through Guatemala in particularly, has decided to restore funding now. Almost three billion of the 3.2 million dollars that is being restored will be used to upgrade Guatemala’s air force and small navy for use in drug-interdiction operations.

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