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Central America: Return of the death squads

Responding to drug-related violence is a convenient pretext for the region’s elites to achieve some rather different objectives, writes Annie Bird

August 6, 2012
7 min read

Guatemalan campesinos protest against criminalisation, evictions and mining on a nine-day march to the capital city in March this year. Photo: James Rodriguez/MiMundo.org

On 23 August last year, around 300 campesinos from the Nueva Esperanza community, near the Laguna del Tigre Natural Park in northern Guatemala, were evicted from the lands to which they held title and forced across the border into Mexico. Interior minister Carlos Menocal justified the action by claiming the families assisted drug traffickers, though he presented no evidence.

While drug trafficking corridors have proliferated through Central America’s natural reserves over the past decade, Nueva Esperanza’s real crime appears to have been that it was located in the way of the Cuatro Balam mega-tourism project. Cuatro Balam is a planned 14,000 square mile tourism complex amid the Maya Biosphere cluster of natural reserves and an array of Mayan archaeological sites. They are to be united by a proposed electric train and linked to Chiapas, Mexico, via a new highway.

Three years before the eviction, Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom announced plans to clear the area of ‘invaders and drug traffickers’ to make room for Cuatro Balam. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) began funding the project in 2009 and on 30 June 2010, Colom inaugurated Cuatro Balam, announcing that six military posts would be installed in Laguna del Tigre.

Nueva Esperanza is just one of dozens of communities across Central America that have recently been evicted, threatened, or repressed by powerful interests promoting large-scale development projects, including tourism corridors, open-pit mines, biofuel plantations, hydroelectric dams, carbon-credit forests and more. The violence has come from the state, in the name of the ‘war on drugs’ that is spilling over from Mexico and Colombia, and from multinational corporations bent on advancing investments. The result is the same: communities that suffered through the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s are again faced with violence as they defend their land against international interests.

Close collaboration

Corporations employ large private security forces that work in close collaboration with the military and the police. In Guatemala’s Polochic Valley, Mayan communities report that the Chabil Utzaj sugarcane corporation, owned by the Pellas Development Group of Nicaragua, enlists armed gangs linked to drug trafficking. These are the same groups that threatened and assaulted communities in the 1980s, also over land rights disputes. This represents the resurgence of the business- and government-backed death squads of the 1980s, which were responsible for the murder and disappearance of thousands.

Killings, intimidation and violence against indigenous and environmental activists have been widespread in places such as Cabanas in El Salvador; the Polochic Valley, San Miguel Ixtahuacán and San Juan Sacatepéquez in Guatemala; and the Siria Valley, the Río Plátano and the Aguán Valley in Honduras.

Over the past two years, around 60 land rights activists have been killed in Aguán, due to conflicts with African palm oil producers Dinant and Jarimar. Private security forces work closely with the police and military. Death squad-style killings of land rights activists began with the militarisation of the region in March 2010. Farmers report that the soldiers and security guards swap uniforms depending on the context, and that security guards have been trained in the 15th Military Battalion. The Honduran daily La Tribuna has reported that the US Army Rangers has conducted training for the 15th Battalion.

In the Polochic Valley, 14 communities were violently evicted in March 2011 by Chabil Utzaj, also involved in ethanol production. In the same valley dozens of Kekchi Maya communities await eviction by the Fénix nickel mine, until recently owned by Canada’s Hudbay Minerals. At least four Kekchi land rights defenders have been killed since 2009, and arrest warrants exist for the heads of the Chabil Utzaj and Fénix security forces. Nevertheless, the security forces continue to collaborate openly with the police and military, and all signs are that militarisation, under the framework of the ‘war on drugs’, will add fuel to the fire.

Role of the US

In early 2011, the Central American Integration System (SICA), a 19-year-old regional bloc, announced that it was establishing a regional security strategy, backed principally by the United States and the IDB. The project builds on the groundwork laid by the US in Mexico.

In a June 2011 SICA conference in Guatemala City, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced an annual budget of about £620 million for SICA’s security strategy, including £180 million from the US. The IDB plans to disperse 22 loans for the strategy and promote what it calls the ‘Colombian model’ of police reform. Though the IDB claims militarisation is not part of the plan, the reality in the region shows this to be untrue.

On 30 November, the Honduran congress passed a law permitting the military to perform police functions. Under US pressure, the same month, left-wing Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes named former general Munguía Payés to head the interior ministry. Guatemala’s new president, former general Otto Pérez Molina, has posted former military operatives and members of the Kaibiles special forces unit to key positions, even in the national reparations programme for victims of war crimes.

Despite surprising comments in support of legalising drugs, Pérez Molina has promised to employ the military, particularly the Kaibiles, in anti-drug activities. His announcement came despite the April 2011 report from Guatemala’s vice minister of security that current and former Kaibiles were training Zetas drug cartel members in northern Guatemala and participating in drug smuggling.

In 2011 two regional security operations and training centres were opened in Panama. An operations centre for SICA, in the former Rodman marine barracks, will receive military and police representatives from throughout Central America, and logistical support from the Joint Inter Agency Task Force-South (JIATF-S), which coordinates actions between the US military, Coast Guard, Border Patrol, the State Department, the Department of Justice and others. A regional training centre for security forces from throughout Central America, which opened in December, will be run by US and Colombian forces.

Direct US security presence in the region is increasing. On 18 January, Honduran president Porfirio Lobo went on a surprise visit to meet with high-level Obama administration officials, who announced that the US would send personnel to assist in security operations in Honduras. State Department security specialist Oliver Garza was among the first to go on 7 February, as special adviser to Lobo. US Army Rangers, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the FBI, and the Border Patrol have all been carrying out direct operations and training in the region. Five years ago the DEA launched Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Team (FAST), a programme that deploys teams special agents to engage directly in security actions.

Resource conflicts

The militarisation of the region has been concentrated where there are conflicts over control of land and resources. In other words, it is less about controlling crime than ensuring access to natural resources.

In September 2006, for example, the DEA participated in raids in northern Guatemala close to the Mexican border. This coincided with protests and municipal referenda in indigenous communities opposing the installation of the multimillion-dollar Marlin gold mine, owned by Montana Exploradora de Guatemala, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Goldcorp.

On 30 January, Panamanian Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous activists began six days of protests against hydroelectric dam and mining concessions on their land, blocking the Inter-American highway in the departments of Veraguas and Chiriquí. On 5 February Panamanian security forces violently evicted their occupation. One teenage protester was shot and killed, 32 were wounded, and 41 were arrested.

The end of Central America’s brutal wars and repression in the 1990s was followed by a flood of international investment, neoliberal development initiatives, such as Plan Puebla Panama, launched in 2001, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, largely passed in 2005. Unfortunately, much of the transnational investment has come at the expense of indigenous and impoverished communities. Now, with the support of the US government, the failed policies of fighting crime and drug trafficking in Mexico and Colombia are being launched in Central America and they appear to be the pretext for another round of violence and massive internal displacement.

Annie Bird is co-director of Rights Action in Washington

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