Guatemala: Political, Security, and Socio-Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations*

By Taft-Morales, Maureen | Current Politics and Economics of South and Central America, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Guatemala: Political, Security, and Socio-Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations*


Taft-Morales, Maureen, Current Politics and Economics of South and Central America


POLITICAL SITUATION

Guatemalan national elections for president, Congress, and local officials were held on September 11, 2011. Former army general Otto Pérez Molina of the rightist Patriot Party (Partido Patriota, PP) was inaugurated as president of Guatemala on January 14, 2012. He succeeded President Álvaro Colom of the center-leftNational Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de Esperanza, UNE) coalition. Pérez Molina is a controversial figure. He commanded army troops during the violent counterinsurgency campaign of the 1980s, was director of military intelligence during the 1990s, and has been linked by international human rights groups, the press, and others to human rights violations, including death squads and major political assassinations.1 Pérez Molina is also known as a military moderate who opposed then-President Jorge Serrano's autogolpe (self-coup) in 1993, and was the military's negotiator for the Peace Accords that ended Guatemala's 36-year civil war in 1996. As a member of the Guatemalan Congress, he has advocated for legal and security reform, but has also been accused by the banking regulatory commission of involvement in the siphoning of state funds.2 In March 2011, U.S. citizen Jennifer Harbury filed the first step to trigger an investigation of Pérez Molina for his alleged role in the disappearance and murder of her husband, guerrilla leader Efrain Bámaca, in 1992. Pérez Molina responded at the time that the case had gone nowhere before, and that the new effort had to be politically motivated.3 During his campaign, Pérez Molina pledged to combat crime with a -mano dura," or iron fist, generally interpreted in Latin America to mean the use of repressive tactics. The party he created, the second-largest bloc in the previous legislature, generally opposed reforms proposed by the government under former President Colom, such as laws on rural development and the Law against the Illegal Accumulation of Wealth and Budget Expansion.4

The Perez Molina Administration

Since taking office, Pérez Molina has taken several actions that, as one analyst put it, show -surprisingly liberal inclinations,"5 in their support of judicial, social, and fiscal reform. Pérez Molina kept in office Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who began to pursue aggressively cases against former military officials while she served the Colom Administration, and has continued to do so under the Perez Molina Administration. On March 12, 2012, a former Kaibil special forces officer was sentenced to over 6,000 years in prison for participating in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre of 201 men, women, and children. The Kaibiles, an elite special forces unit of the army, allegedly committed extensive human rights violations during Guatemala's civil war.

On March 14, 2012, the government opened the trial of four former members of the Civil Self-Defense Patrols and a military commissioner, on charges of involvement in another 1982 massacre that killed 256 Mayan Guatemalans.6 While human rights groups and other observers applaud such efforts, they remain concerned that efforts to prosecute former military officials for human rights abuses face opposition from powerful elements in Guatemalan society. They also are wary that efforts might eventually founder under President Pérez Molina, who has repeatedly denied that the army committed genocide, and has come under increased scrutiny as a result of the trial of former de facto leader Efrain Rios Montt.7

Landmark Trial of Former Dictator Rios Montt

On January 26, 2012-shortly after Pérez Molina took office-a Guatemalan judge ordered Efrain Rios Montt, dictator from the most violent civil war period from 1982 to 1983, to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Within 16 months, on May 10, 2013, a Guatemalan court found the former general guilty on both charges. Rios Montt, who is 86 years old, was sentenced to 80 years in prison: 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. …

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