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Obama’s Got the Guatemalan Militia’s Back

By: Steve Hecht and David Landau - Dec 16, 2015, 10:35 am

EspañolAt the end of November, a curious report appeared in a Guatemalan newspaper. US Ambassador Todd Robinson announced that he intended to seek a commitment from President-elect Jimmy Morales.

The ambassador wanted Morales to promise that he would satisfy the Guatemalan people’s wish for a “thoroughgoing change in the political system in order to oppose corruption and impunity.”

The ambassador was playing rough. Truth to tell, the fact is President Morales has been a carbuncle on the rear end of the Barack Obama administration. Obama and his people are touchy about realities that cross their preconceptions, and Jimmy Morales was not part of the US plan.

Sandra Torres, the former first lady and Guatemala’s answer to Hillary Clinton, was much more to Obama’s liking. When folks at the US embassy loosened their girdles and talked about 2016, it was Torres and others like her that they mentioned. But then Jimmy Morales came from nowhere and beat Sandra Torres in both rounds of the presidential election.

The first answer from Jimmy’s detractors was to spread the story that his political party was under the influence of the “Guatemalan military.” In the world of the politically correct, that is the equivalent of leprosy — far worse than being identified as a jihadi. Indeed, it is the politically correct — not Morales’s supposed friends — who keep in step with the global jihad.

The people at the US embassy are likely to find that statement beyond the pale. How could anyone suggest that their viewpoint is close to that of the global jihad?

In case of doubts, let’s consider the world that Ambassador Robinson, his two immediate predecessors, and two secretaries of state have been helping to build in Guatemala since 2009.

As of today, extensive areas of the countryside are governed by armed militias which have no legitimacy under the nation’s laws, and which law enforcement agencies are almost powerless to control. That is a situation in which the United States is broadly culpable.

The militias are well described by the phrase “illegal security groups and clandestine security structures” whose removal is the stated purpose of the United Nations commission in Guatemala, or CICIG. But the CICIG has been doing the opposite. It has been backing the militias, which it terms “human-rights groups.” And all the while, the United States has been backing the CICIG.

The issue appeared with perfect clarity in 2012 when a justice ministry prosecutor, Gilda Aguilar, attempted to indict 10 people for militia violence. The country’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, removed her from the case, telling Aguilar that the militia was a “human-rights group” and that, according to UN policy, such groups were entitled to “special considerations.”

Aguilar underwent a brutal disciplinary process at the ministry. On top of that, her vehicle was ambushed on a mountain road; several dozen bullets were fired at the car, and a security guard was seriously wounded.

From the outset, the Justice Ministry obstructed the investigation of the attempted assassination, treating it as a non-crime. But while the case was still red-hot, two US citizens — one of them Steve Hecht, the co-author of this article — procured a meeting with US Ambassador Arnold Chacon.

The two Americans offered to bring Aguilar herself into their conversation. Chacon had a fondness for meeting with Guatemalans on his own terms, but he showed a distinct aversion to the idea of seeing Aguilar.

To the attorney general, and apparently the ambassador as well, Aguilar was persona non grata for working to expose the operation of the militias.

The CUC, or Committee of United Campesinos, whose corruption Aguilar had uncovered, is precisely the kind of organization — heavily armed, working outside the law — which Guatemala’s peace accords of 1996 intended to eliminate. But the CUC and others like it are now riding high through much of rural Guatemala.

The militias are direct descendants of the guerrilla armies that tried to seize power during the lengthy insurgency of the last century. Today, they justify themselves as indigenous authorities, environmental activists, and purveyors of social justice. These are the kinds of deceptive labels the Obama administration is fond of using.

The militias are adamantly opposed to development projects, which they characterize as invasions of their native communities. Militia soldiers attack the properties of large enterprises and coerce their personnel, while police stand down because they are outgunned and are mostly forbidden by their superiors to enforce the law.

That too, the disempowerment of police, is a reality which Obama has labored successfully to bring to American cities.

The militias offer local citizens cash premiums to take part in their protests. If citizens refuse, the militias impose fines on them in the same amounts. Locals who refuse to join the militias or to pay the fines are ordered to perform “community labor.”

Those who reject all of it are threatened, assaulted, and even jailed by the militias, whose sordid clandestine prisons many people have been unfortunate enough to experience firsthand.

We ourselves went to a town in western Guatemala occupied by another militia, the Front for the Defense of Natural Resources (FRENA). We spoke to a large number of inhabitants who expressed their unhappiness at having to live under the FRENA’s rule.

Citizens were distressed that the local hydroelectric project had been blocked for four years, and that police were unable to protect the citizens from the militia — a circumstance that the police were decent and honest enough to confirm to us.

When we asked the FRENA’s leader for an interview, we were given — in place of the promised meeting — a taste of the militia’s intimidating power. We were surrounded in the main plaza and subjected to a harangue about the rights of indigenous peoples — complete with a reference to the UN convention (169) on the subject.

We caught the whole exchange on a digital recorder; it sounds like a scene from one of the Godfather films.

The police were just a few feet away, but we knew we were on our own, and we had no doubt that things would have gone much worse for us had we been locals, without a resource in the wider world.

In May of this year, Ambassador Robinson made a tour to the interior and commented publicly about the “tragic, very tragic, very sad” conditions he had seen in the rural areas of Guatemala, which he attributed to “theft of resources.”

The authors of this article, US citizens, are quick to take note when such a ray of light appears. Steve Hecht wrote to the ambassador and offered a second time for Gilda Aguilar to brief US officials on how the militias keep the countryside underdeveloped and oppress its inhabitants — a subject she knows as an expert.

After a few exchanges with embassy staffers who said they would arrange a meeting, the contact went dark. We moved on to other things, forgetting an important rule: even if you pay no mind to the dark, the dark might be looking for you.

Steve Hecht and David Landau Steve Hecht and David Landau

The authors have worked together in Guatemalan political matters for 20 years. Steve Hecht (pictured), a businessman with two degrees from Columbia University, has lived in Guatemala for more than four decades. David Landau, based in San Francisco, cut his journalistic teeth as managing editor of the Harvard Crimson. He is an expert on Cuba and publisher of Pureplay Press. Follow @shecht6.