Former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt will face a second genocide trial on the civil war-era Dos Erres massacre after Judge Carol Patricia Flores Blanco issued her ruling last week.
After a marathon hearing that lasted more than 10 hours, a packed court saw relatives of civil war victims as well as human rights activists celebrate the decision. Under international pressure to resolve excesses of the 36-year civil war, Guatemala will become the first country in Latin America to place a former president on trial for genocide.
In January, Judge Blanco ruled there was a case to answer for Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity and the genocide of Maya-Ixil during Guatemala’s civil war in the Nebaj region.
Challenges to the Ministerio Público prosecutors’ claims and evidence have thus far kept the trial from beginning; it was supposed to get underway in March.
Last week Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina lifted the state of siege on Santa Cruz Barillas in which 17 residents were arrested for public disturbances. But tensions still remain high weeks after community members first demonstrated their opposition to the building of the new Hidralia Energia dam in this primarily Indigenous town close to the border with Mexico.
Pérez Molina declared the state of siege on May 3 and sent in an initial force of 260 troops and national police to Santa Cruz Barillas to “restore order” after a group of 200 men armed with machetes and guns took over a military base in the area. He justified martial law on the grounds that rioters’ ties to the Zetas drug trafficking cartel contributed to the disturbances.
Despite lifting martial law, Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez said 150 troops would remain behind to “guarantee security and avert new disturbances.” Many Guatemalans, however, backed the residents of Santa Cruz Barillas. Guatemala City resident Brenda Hernández said, “We want the government to respect the pueblo.”
At the height of martial law, an estimated 850-army and national police officers were deployed in Santa Cruz Barillas. Thousands marched in Huehuetenango, the regional capital on May 15 to denounce governmental action. Protester Juan Juarez, a 70-year-old resident of Ixcán Playa Grande, Quiché said to citizen journalist website HablaGuate, “Santa Cruz Barillas is suffering repression by the government of Pérez Molina. We worry because the government of Guatemala is defending the interests of the hydroelectric company more than Santa Cruz (Barillas).”
Clashes first arose after the death of community leader Andrés Francisco Miguel who had opposed the hydroelectric dam. Subsequent attacks on other community leaders left two seriously injured. It was the culmination of years of protests over the building of the dam, which protesters said they were not consulted about; they called for a suspension of the company's license.
According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, UDEFEGUA (the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit), the Dioceses of Huehuetenango and the Renovated Democratic Freedom Party had denounced the state of siege in Barillas and demanded it be lifted. There have been numerous reports of violations of community members’ rights such as the illegal entry into homes and the destruction of private property in the search for weapons.
But the Spanish company Hidralia Energia wouldn’t budge and stated that the project met all environmental and legal requirements.
Local residents have historically been opposed to the dam. In 2007, 46,000 residents voted against allowing mining or hydroelectric companies to operate in the area. Hidralia Energia, whose local company is Hidro Santa Cruz, did not enter into negotiations with the locals who believe construction would harm the Cambalan river ecosystem. Tensions between the locals and the company increased with allegations that Hidralia Energia was using landmines and Claymore-type bombs to protect their equipment.
This latest incident is unfortunately part of Central America’s long history of conflict between hydroelectric companies and Indigenous groups that are often forcibly removed to make way for the dams.
In 1976, the Guatemalan government announced plans to move Achi Indians (who were living along the Chixoy River) in order to build a hydroelectric dam. The village of Rio Negro, the only one that had refused to relocate without adequate compensation, was attacked by soldiers in 1979. Three years later, in February 1982, 73 villagers were ordered to report to Xococ by the local military commander. Only one woman returned; the rest were raped, tortured and murdered by the local Civil Defense Patrol (PAC) in Xococ.
A month later, 177 Achi women and children were killed at the massacre of Rio Negro by Xococ patrolmen. Three members of the PAC were sentenced to death in 1998 for war crimes; in 2008 five more former paramilitaries were sentenced to 780 years in jail each for their role in events in Xococ.
In Honduras, the El Cajón dam has been an environmental and financial disaster. Finished in 1985, the resulting soil erosion has led to lower water quality, negatively affecting the surrounding flora and animal population. Resistance against the project was so fierce that an army base was constructed at its entrance to ensure its safety.
At the crux of the problem is Central America’s energy crisis—a result of ageing infrastructure and demand that is increasing by an average of 5-6 percent per year. Guatemalan government reports from 2011 warn that the country could reach full capacity by 2015. That is part of the government’s urgency in building the plant in Santa Cruz Barillas, which is estimated to provide 10 percent of Guatemala’s electricity demand once operational.
Still, actions such as the recent governmental siege are not a long-term solution for balancing local needs with development priorities. A new approach is needed to meet the country’s competing interests and demands.
Photos and additional reporting by Brenna Goth.
*Nic Wirtz is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. A freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years, his work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost and he edits the website Vozz.
In the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Development Bank published various reports indicating that El Salvador and Guatemala had the highest homicide rates in Latin America. Fast-forward sixteen years later and these two countries form, along with neighboring Honduras, the most violent region in the world by all accounts.
With a combined population of 28 million, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador constitute the northern triangle of Central America; a sub-region that has experienced almost twice-as-much violence as Mexico has since 2006, when Calderon’s war on drugs started. According to official data, approximately 50 thousand people have been killed in Mexico since 2006. In contrast, the northern triangle, with a population four times smaller than Mexico, has endured nearly 90,000 murders during that same period. But while Mexico, with an annual homicide rate of 18 deaths per one hundred thousand inhabitants, is a tragedy, the northern triangle, with average homicide rates surpassing 60 per one hundred thousand, is a catastrophe.
Many believe that the appalling rates of violence in the sub-region are the result of the penetration of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. According to this argument, in their effort to control the drug routes from South America to the United States, criminal organizations are not only bringing unparalleled violence to Central America, but also taking over highly fragile public institutions. The logical extension of this argument then is that this relentless assault of transnational gangs can only be addressed with greater police and military force.
Although the presence of criminal cartels has undeniably contributed to the skyrocketing violence in the northern triangle, the fundamental problem of security in Central America does not have to do merely with drug traffickers—or social conditions, for that matter. It has to do with government institutions. It has to do with local political and criminal-justice organizations that are extremely corrupt. It has to do with institutions that have been historically pervaded by local criminal lords, death squads, crooked politicians, and vicious paramilitaries who were present long before the Mexican Zetas or the Colombian syndicates began crowding the illegal enterprises of the region.
During last year’s presidential campaign in Guatemala, many were wary of what a government headed by a former military officer, then-candidate Otto Pérez Molina, would look like. Specifically, the concerns centered on if Guatemala could retrogress to the era of abuse and totalitarianism that ruled the country from 1954 to 1986.
To the surprise of many, however, things appear to have turned out quite the opposite. President Pérez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) has thus far helped restore confidence in government institutions in a country plagued by high levels of organized crime and impunity.
The president has governed pragmatically, particularly by way of his progressive stance on drug decriminalization: an issue that dominated the media coverage of the Sixth Summit of the Americas earlier this month in Cartagena, Colombia. His decriminalization position represents a major shift in a country with strong traditional and religious values and a highly conservative economic and political class.
The hemisphere is listening. At the summit, Organization of American States (OAS) member-states agreed for the regional body to investigate the prospect of decriminalizing drugs—a notable breakthrough from previous regional conferences. Although some believe this is a political strategy to pressure Washington to boost aid in Guatemala, Pérez Molina’s push has brought results, including President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to increase security cooperation in Central America.
With today’s release of its Spring 2012 issue, Americas Quarterly has unveiled a new index that measures social inclusion in the Americas. This ranking evaluates 15 different indicators and compares them across 11 countries in the hemisphere. The variables include a country’s economic competitiveness, percent of national GDP spent on social programs, level of political and civil freedoms, and citizen perception of personal empowerment and government responsiveness in that country.
Out of a maximum of 100, Chile came out on top with a score of 71.9, while Guatemala ranked lowest at 7.5. The index praises Chile’s “consistently high rankings across almost all indicators” and cites “severe inequalities by race and ethnicity” in the case of Guatemala, adding that “Indigenous and Afro-Guatemalans lag far behind” socioeconomically. Uruguay and Brazil ranked second and third, respectively.
For four variables—enrollment in secondary school, percent of population living on more than $4 per day, access to adequate housing, and percent of population with access to a formal job—Americas Quarterly uses data collected by the World Bank in household surveys and disaggregated by race and gender.
According to the index, social inclusion is defined as “the concept that a citizen has the ability to participate in the basic political, economic and social functioning of his or her society. It includes not just economic empowerment, but also access to basic social services, access to infrastructure (physical and institutional), access to the formal labor market, civil and political participation and voice, and the absence of legally sanctioned discrimination based on race, ethnicity or gender.”
Access the full results of—and methodology behind—AQ’s social inclusion index.
Survey results released yesterday show that 82 percent of Guatemalans consider President Otto Pérez Molina’s performance during his first 100 days in office “good” or “acceptable,” while 11 percent consider it “bad.” Approval of the formal military general, who represents the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) was highest (87 percent) in the capital, falling to 82 percent in rural areas and 81 percent in other urban areas.
The survey of 1,201 Guatemalans was conducted between April 10 and 15 by the private firm Prodatos and published yesterday by the newspaper Prensa Libre. It had a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of 2.8 percent.
Pérez Molina’s stance on education, security and decriminalization appeared to be among the factors most strongly influencing Guatemalans’ perceptions of his administration. Manuel Pérez Lara, an analyst and dean of the Universidad del Istmo, said, “My sense is that [the citizenry] recognizes a certain leadership in the new government, in that its lines of action have been clear and defined from the beginning.” Eight-two percent of those surveyed approved of the government’s performance on education issues, 81 percent supported its fight against delinquency, 71 percent responded favorably to its initiatives to combat narcotrafficking, and 67 percent supported its efforts to fight corruption. In contrast, 12 percent of survey respondents said the president’s efforts to decriminalize drugs are “the worst” thing he has done.
The survey results also show that Guatemalan citizens recognize that much remains to be done, although they are on the whole positive about their current leadership and the future. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they thought things would improve in Guatemala in the next few months, compared with 23 percent who believe things will stay the same and 29 percent who say they will get worse. The majority of respondents consider President Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti “hard-working,” “well-intentioned,” “honest,” “sincere,” and “open to dialogue.”
In an interview with Prensa Libre, Pérez Molina said he would rate his first 100 days an “eight,” although he acknowledged that the period is a short one from which to evaluate his administration. He cited fiscal reform and the Hambre Cero program to combat malnutrition as signal accomplishments.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Dilma Rousseff in Washington; Sixth Summit of the Americas on Saturday; Chávez possibly seeking treatment in Brazil; Maras and Zetas reportedly joining forces; and Boudou under investigation.
Dilma in Washington: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff begins a three-day visit to Washington today, where she will meet with her U.S. counterpart Barack Obama. This is Rousseff’s first visit to the U.S. since taking office in January 2011. Aside from meetings at the White House, Rousseff will speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce later today, and give a public speech at Harvard University tomorrow. In the Financial Times, Moisés Naim calls for the two countries to agree to a trade deal as a tangible outcome. Adds AQ Editor-in-Chief, Christopher Sabatini, “There will be plenty to discuss, from improving bilateral commerce and investment, Brazil’s recent flurry of legislation favoring local content and business, Iran, and—I hope—the upcoming presidential elections in Venezuela.”
Summit of the Americas on Saturday: Cartagena, Colombia, will host this weekend the Sixth Summit of the Americas, the regional conference of heads of state organized under the aegis of the Organization of American States. This year’s theme is “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.” But will the summit yield any significant results? Notes Sabatini: “While this will be a great opportunity to show off how far Colombia has come in the 18 years since the summit process started, there is really very little the summit can accomplish beyond speeches and vague promises.”
Chávez May Seek Treatment in Brazil: Although Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez landed in Havana on Sunday to receive his latest round of radiotherapy, Brazilian media has been reporting that Chávez may seek further treatment at Sírio-Libanês hospital in São Paulo. This is the same hospital where former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last year successfully recovered from cancer surgery. Specifically, O Globo has reported—citing anonymous sources—that Chávez’ cancer has metastasized and may spread to his liver. Although the Venezuelan embassy in Brasília has denied the reports, pay attention to how this story develops over the coming days.
Maras-Zetas Alliance: Guatemalan authorities this weekend reported that the deadly Mara Salvatrucha gang, which dominates Central America’s Northern Triangle, has formed a pact with the equally dangerous Zetas group in Mexico for control of key drug transit routes from South America to the United States. In an already violence-plagued Central America, the alliance spells bad news for counternarcotics officials and may bolster the positions of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina—a proponent of drug legalization—at this weekend’s Summit of the Americas. “An alliance between two of the region’s most feared criminal networks yet again reinforces the critical need for a real regional approach to reducing insecurity. The drug traffickers don’t respect borders and neither should counternarcotics efforts,” notes AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak.
Future of Boudou: Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou is now under investigation by federal authorities for his actions as economy minister—in the two years prior to assuming the vice-presidency—specifically that he helped printing company Ciccone Calcográfica get out of bankruptcy. Boudou has denied the charges and still has the full support of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her administration. After a raid of Boudou’s apartment last week, there may be new developments this week on the ongoing investigation.
Small countries like Guatemala hold little leverage in global energy markets; not surprisingly, Guatemalans are also strongly feeling the adverse effects of rising petroleum prices in their daily activities.
As the saying goes, good business trumps politics—and Guatemala proves the maxim true. Although firmly opposed to acceding into the Petrocaribe agreement with Venezuela in 2008, President Otto Pérez Molina is now looking south to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ Petrocaribe organization for any possible relief. He is left with few choices as fuel prices hover closer to 40 quetzales ($5.15) per gallon.
Guatemala has tried to position itself as a Central American petroleum hub through efforts to get off the ground construction of a possible regional refinery and by attracting investments into the exploration and production of its designated drilling blocks. But despite these efforts, Guatemala has not been able to finalize any refinery deals nor has it attracted much international interest in its oil exploration activities.
More recently, in 2011, to the dismay of government officials, only two natural resource companies submitted bids for the four drilling blocks made available to investors that year. With up to 12 potential onshore and offshore oil areas currently available for exploration, Guatemala will have to raise the country’s profile in key global energy hubs. Another key challenge for bringing in energy investment is putting forth clear and more investment-friendly laws.
Over the past weeks, an unprecedentedly open debate has arisen over the wisdom of prevailing anti-drug policy in the Western Hemisphere. The present U.S.- led strategy, which relies heavily on aggressive interdiction and law enforcement, is being openly called a failure and even counterproductive by some Latin American leaders, who are asking for renewed discussion of other options, including, most notoriously from the U.S. perspective, the legalization of consumption. The heavy emphasis of anti-drug policy on repression, say these critics, has encouraged the domination of the drug trade by well-organized, heavily armed, ruthless and extremely violent cartels, with horrifying effects.
Not coincidentally, the epicenter of the debate is Central America, a transshipment center for up to 80 percent of drugs headed for the U.S., where criminal gangs have overwhelmed weak governments and helped make some of these societies—especially Honduras and Guatemala—among the world’s most dangerous. One of the most interesting aspects of the debate is that the argument for legalization is being promoted most forcefully by Guatemala’s newly-elected president, Otto Pérez Molina, a right-leaning ex-general and former director of military intelligence during the country’s civil war: nobody’s idea of a naïve idealist.
The U.S., whose treasure, power and prestige has been invested in the war on drugs (a term now officially abandoned) since the Nixon administration, has reacted defensively to criticism. The Obama administration sent Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on a tour of the region to attempt to tamp down opposition, while Vice President Joe Biden met with the regions’ presidents soon after. Biden said last week that while the U.S. was not opposed to discussing the merits of drug policy, there was no chance that the U.S. would change its position against legalization. In the end, Biden mentioned in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last week only that the Obama administration was asking the U.S. Congress for $107 million in continuing security assistance for the region in the coming year.
Guatemala’s recently passed fiscal reform, scheduled to take effect in 2013, raises taxes for upper-middle-class and wealthy earners.
Fiscal reform is an issue of particular importance in Guatemala, a nation with one of the world’s greatest gaps in income distribution. While Guatemala’s annual GDP is the highest in Central America, tax rates have consistently hovered around 10 percent, the lowest in the entire region. The international community has long encouraged fiscal reform as an obvious step toward reducing debt and inequality. In a visit to the country in 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed firm support for the measure.
As part of the 1996 Peace Accords ending Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, the government agreed to raise tax revenues as a percentage of GDP from 8 percent to 12 percent by the year 2000. The previous administration, under President Álvaro Colóm, made repeated efforts to pass a fiscal reform only to be blocked by resistance from congress and the private sector.
However, last month the fiscal reform package passed in expedited fashion as a matter of national urgency: with more than 105 of 158 representatives supporting it, Guatemala’s Congress was able to hold an immediate vote, bypassing a lengthy debate process. It passed in Congress with 102 votes, a near two-thirds majority.
The reform will allow Guatemalans earning less than 48,000 quetzales (US $6,200) yearly to pay nothing in taxes; currently all earning above 36,000 quetzales (US $4,645) are obliged to pay. Those earning over 300,000 quetzales (US $38,709) annually will pay 7 percent income tax, up from 5 percent. Middle-class earners making between 48,000 and 300,000Q will pay 5 percent.