GuateSec: Operation Hammer lifted, rumblings from Totonicapán and Tajamulco

GuateSec is intended to provide a regular focus on issues relating to security and justice in Guatemala and the surrounding region, offering commentary and synthesis of key news reports and expert analysis.

Operation Hammer leaves Guatemala

According to Guatemalan’s Prensa Libre and the U.S. military, the 200-strong Marine detachment associated with Operation Hammer has finished its counter-narcotics mission and left the country. Military press releases describe U.S. participation in “more than 250” airborne and naval detection sweeps off the Pacific coast in collaboration with Guatemalan security forces, resulting in several arrests and seizures of at least $40 million dollars worth of cocaine.

The announcement of the finalization of Hammer on October 14 came just days after the Guatemalan military’s massacre in Totonicapán; and also following the blockage by Senator Patrick Leahy of some U.S. military aid to Honduras due to concerns stemming from DEA involvement in the Ahuas massacre, which is reported to have caused the cancellation of the complementary Operation Anvil. Witness for Peace and other human rights organizations in Honduras and the U.S. are calling for the immediate suspension of aid to the country’s abusive military and police.

In Guatemala, Operation Hammer’s closure leaves the broader contours of U.S. anti-drug policy unclear. Are future troop deployments planned under the Central American Regional Security Initiative? What was the full cost of the deployment of U.S. troops? Was Hammer was intended from the start to be limited to a 60-day stint, or  is the U.S.  backing away from the Guatemalan military? Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta mouthed concern regarding the use of military forces for internal security in recent remarks on Latin America, which were likely influenced by the events in Totonicapán as well as Honduras. In any case, Hammer serves as a step towards increased capacity for continued U.S.-Guatemalan military collaboration, and the Guatemalan military looks to have no plans to reduce its role in internal security, with 10 new military bases to be inaugurated soon, most of them in the interior of the country and in territories with high levels of social conflict stemming from inequality, marginalization, and the imposition of megaprojects.

10 new military bases opening in Guatemala. (Source: Guatemalan National Defense Ministry; Investigation: Jerson Ramos, El Periodico)

10 new military bases opening in Guatemala, with Operation Martillo departing from Retalhuleu. (Source: Guatemalan National Defense Ministry; Research: Jerson Ramos, El Periodico, 30 October 2012)

Totonicapán: Protester reported disappeared found dead, security policy changes announced

The aftershocks of the Totonicapán massacre are still being felt a month later, and are likely to have further repercussions as cases move through the justice system. The most dramatic recent news was the discovery on October 27 of the corpse of Domingo Puac, a 49-year-old weaver and musician reported missing by his family when he did not return from the protest. His family has declared that his body displayed signs of torture, but this and initial reports that Puac had been shot were not confirmed by the National Forensic Institute, which also calculated that he was killed days after the protest. Representatives of the 48 Communities of Totonicapán have called for further investigation and expressed solidarity with the family.

Security policy is also likely to be affected in the wake of Totonicapán. President Otto Pérez Molina has committed, at least verbally, to curtail the use of the military in controlling protests, though this change does not appear to be codified in the newly approved Inter-institutional Activities Protocol: Army Support for Civil Security Forces (Acuerdo Gubernativo 285-2012, Protocolo de Actuación Interinstitucional: Apoyo del Ejército a las Fuerzas de Seguridad Civil). The new protocol is presented as a means of streamlining the procedure by which police chiefs request army support, implementing checks including approval at several levels of government and the presence of official human rights observers in emergency situations and when judicial orders have not been secured.

GuateSec will be alert for further analysis by Guatemalan security and human rights experts, but several initial questions arise: Will the military truly be subordinated in practice to police authority, since a key factor in the Totonicapán massacre appears to have been Col. Chiroy Sal’s flouting of police recommendations? Will legal limits be established regarding situations in which the army is prohibited from participating in internal security? Will military forces continue to participate in actions such as forcible evictions? Although the new rules call for army support “when the capacity of civil security forces has been overwhelmed, in situations of insecurity provoked by organized and common crime,” the state’s tendency to criminalize protest raises doubts as to whether the army’s repressive role (not to mention that of the National Civil Police itself) will be diminished.

Other recent security shakeups include shifts within the Interior Ministry and National Civil Police. Vice-minister of Security Julio Rivera Clavería was transferred to the Inspectoría General of the Interior Ministry, and will be responsible for internal oversight of the Ministry. His replacement, in a key security position which oversees joint police-military Task Forces, will be a retired military officer, Col. Edi Byron Juárez Prera. Prera was previously seen as a potential nomination for Minister of Defense, and has been a close adviser of Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla. Prera was also Pérez Molina’s assistant in the General Staff of General Gramajo during the 80s. Prera has in the past been accused of involvement in military organized crime networks via his marriage into a family associated with the drug trade; as well as his time serving under Jacobo Salán, who as chief of security for former President Alfonso Portillo was charged, like Portillo himself, with embezzlement and money-laundering.

A final policy change worth noting, though unrelated to Totonicapán, is the transferal of responsibility of local security committees from the National Civil Police to Departmental Development Committees (CODEDEs). The “juntas locales,” now denominated “Citizen Security Commissions”, are para-police bodies which had received police support for self-organized neighborhood security initiatives. In practice these have involved vigilante patrols, social cleansing killings, and corruption, with cases in Panajachel and Ciudad Quetzal resulting in arrests and charges including extorsion, kidnapping, murder, and disappearance. It is unclear whether the previous juntas will be dismantled or simply inherited by civil authorities, and the move raises concerns due to the lack of accountability and corruption often inherent in local political bodies like CODEDEs, which will now have their own official para-police powers.

Rumblings of social conflict in Tajamulco, San Marcos

Today the international press reported on a strong earthquake off the coast of Guatemala, with major damage and deaths reported in the western department of San Marcos. Last week, however, it was a shudder of social conflict which wracked the region, centering on the community of San José La Paz on the slopes of the volcano Tajamulco where nine people were detained by community-members demanding the release of a local leader accused of illegally charging for electrical service. The detained included police, a representative of a campesino organization, a mediator with the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, and two sub-contracted employees of the company Energuate. The mediator and campesino representative reportedly escaped during the night of the 29th, and the other captives were released at the initiative of the community-members on the 30th.

Riot police deployed near the community of San Jose La Paz, Tajamulco. (Photo: El Periodico)

Riot police deployed near the community of San Jose La Paz, Tajamulco. (Photo: El Periodico)

In addition to deep-seated conflict stirred by resistance to Goldcorp’s Marlin mine in the north of San Marcos, the department has been the site of social movements calling for the re-nationalization of electric utilities, privatized under the administration of President Alvaro Arzú. Communities denounced the previous private energy distributor, DEOCSA, property of the Spanish conglomerate Union Fenosa, for abusive price increases. DEOCSA was sold to the British company Actis and is now known as Energuate, and its policies were also at the center of grievances expressed by the communities of Totonicapán on October 4. Resistance against the energy multi-national has generally followed a pattern of communities refusing to pay electrical bills and reconnecting to the grid when services are cut by the company. FRENA, an organization which has coordinated with communities resisting electricity privatization, suffered the assassination of eight of its members during a wave of repression in 2009 and 2010; during the recent conflict, FRENA called for mediation by former Bishop of San Marcos Álvaro Ramazzini, while Interior Minister Lopez Bonilla accused former guerrilla members of involvement in the detentions and in organized crime, and President Pérez Molina characterized calls for the nationalization of electricity as “an excuse to engage in illegality.”

Pérez Molina threatened the imposition of a State of Siege if the detained persons were not released, and reports indicated that hundreds of security agents were mobilized, with the detained human rights mediator indicating that military forces were also readied. Nevertheless, negotiation prevailed in the resolution of the immediate incident, perhaps due to the security forces adopting a light touch following Totonicapán. Conflict is likely to arise again in the future if ongoing issues afflicting communities in San Marcos are not resolved, and the government has announced that it continues to analyze the declaration of a State of Exception in the region.

Map of natural resources in San Marcos, with Tajamulco area indicated. (Map via Resistencia de los Pueblos)

Map of natural resources in San Marcos, with Tajamulco area indicated. Green areas denote mining exploration licences, red denotes exploitation licences, including the Marlin mine at top right. Purple codes for national protected areas, yellow for agro-industrial plantations including sugar and oil palm, and energy symbols represent hydroelectric projects. (Click for full map via Resistencia de los Pueblos)

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About cascadiasolidaria

Human rights and solidarity activist from Cascadia, North America, writing about issues of justice and security in Guatemala and Central America from a perspective of solidarity with human rights and social movements.
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One Response to GuateSec: Operation Hammer lifted, rumblings from Totonicapán and Tajamulco

  1. Pingback: GuateSec: Scrutiny of security gains and privatization initiatives | Cascadia Solidaria

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