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.
Today’s El Periodico newspaper contains a revealing analysis of the balance of power within the Patriot Party government. Investigative journalist Asier Andrés describes an administration dominated by “The General, the Prime Minister, and the Prince”—President Otto Pérez Molina, Vice-president Roxanna Baldetti, and public works Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi. Ironically, the analysis points out that this structure closely resembles that of the previous government of President Álvaro Colóm, who shared power with First Lady (and later controversial presidential candidate) Sandra Torres and career politician Gustavo Alejos.
Pérez Molina and Baldetti are seen as controlling overlapping spheres of influence, with Baldetti “extending her influence over a broad swath of the government, especially areas responsible for public funds. Except in a handful of cases, the Vice-president has named almost all of the administrative vice-ministers and a good number of the Executive branch’s financial directors. Baldetti has filled the spaces that the President has given her, and thanks to her management of the interests of the Patriot Party’s campaign financiers and leaders, she unquestionably exercises real power.”
Alejandro Sinibaldi, the Patriot Party’s failed candidate for mayor of Guatemala City, is described as “a planet without satellites, outside of his area of influence,” although he occupies a key ministerial position which controls funds for roads, infrastructure, and public housing. Animosity between Sinibaldi and Baldetti within the Patriot Party was well known during the recent electoral campaigns. (I’ve always wondered how he responded to being described by Pérez Molina and Baldetti as “naïve” for having accepted campaign funds from the Mendoza narcotrafficking cartel, as revealed by a U.S. Embassy cable released by Wikileaks.) Up to the moment, Sinibaldi’s ministry has escaped high profile corruption scandals, though criticism of the country’s dilapidated highway system is likely to increase with the arrival of the rainy season. Tellingly, more scrutiny of corruption has been directed at ministries associated with Colom’s social populist initiatives, such as the Fund for Peace (FONAPAZ), with proposals even suggesting that the fund be eliminated entirely.
Most interesting, perhaps, is Otto Pérez Molina’s role, which goes beyond power struggles within the Patriot Party or the government itself to suggest a long-term project tending towards the militarization of public security and the state:
“Otto Pérez has reserved for himself matters in which he exercises day to day control; essentially, in security policy. His team in this area is dominated by military officers, and makes up the hard core of those loyal to the President. This group considers itself to be the only sector within the Government with a calling to service and a national project. It is them, for example, who have seduced the President with the possibility of constitutional reforms, which are already in march.”
This excerpt is worth parsing in detail. The backgrounds of Pérez Molina’s key security advisors have been scrutinized by various publications, revealing a shared ideological affinity which dates to as early as the late 70s. In a previous article for El Periodico, Asier Andrés offered an overview of the “Institutionalist” line within the military, a phenomenon also explored by researcher Jennifer Schirmer in The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy, a brilliant inside history of the Guatemalan armed forces. Schirmer and Andrés both describe the development of this tendency by a group of officers—among them Pérez Molina, his Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla, Defense Minister Ulises Anzueto Girón, and National Security Council Ricardo Bustamante—under the influence of General Héctor Gramajo. In a recent special issue of El Observador’s Enfoque magazine, analyst Luis Solano detailed several of these military officers’ links to organized crime and cases of human rights violations, including narcotrafficking in Alta Verapaz and the disappearance of guerrilla commander Efraín Bámaca.
While hardly discarding the use of repressive violence, Gramajo’s “Institutionalist” officers positioned themselves in opposition to the most hard-line sectors of the army, and sought to lead the military in shepherding Guatemala through the transition to democracy and peace, thereby cementing its central role in the state. This vision sees the military as the only institution with the training, technical capacity, and discipline required to manage key tasks of government. Pérez Molina’s presidency is in part a test of this theory: if a military-identified administration is able to deliver on its promises, especially those relating to security, the door may be opened for a long-lasting re-militarization of Guatemala’s political system. For this reason, the stakes may be very high during the next four years for individuals identified as opponents of this administration, especially including human rights activists, landless campesinos involved in land occupations, and communities opposed to mega-development.
The repression unleashed last month in the municipality of Barillas, in rural Huehuetenango, offers one vision of what such a re-militarized state’s reaction to social conflict caused by the imposition of development megaprojects looks like. An uprising following the May 1st shooting of three local leaders by men in a car identified as belonging to security guards of the Hidro Santa Cruz hydroelectric project led to the imposition of an 18-day state of siege. Dozens of community members were arrested, entire families fled into the mountains or across the border to Mexico, and local residents and organizations alleged that military-led raids included illegal detentions, sexual violence, and other abuses. The state of siege was lifted following a massive non-violent march in the departmental capital of Huehuetenango. Almost a month later, two men have been arrested for the shooting; while Hidro Santa Cruz denied that they were its employees, authorities confirmed that they are security subcontractors for the Spanish dam company.
The Pérez Molina administration has signaled its continuing loyalty to General Gramajo’s vision by christening with his name a soon-to-be opened military base in the municipality of San Juan Sacatepequez. The base is to be opened in a region also wracked by social conflict surrounding an industrial complex owned by one of the most powerful families in Guatemala—where former president Alvaro Colóm’s government also declared a state of siege and cracked down on the resistance of Kaqchikel communities. That military officials are central to the administration’s new move to advance constitutional reforms may be the next concrete step in the implementation of this long term “national project”. Pérez Molina has explicitly denied that any changes to Presidential term limits will be included in the constitutional reform proposal, which is to be presented later this week.