A Military Comeback in Guatemala's Elections?

Ivan Briscoe

Alleged links to three high-profile assassinations, experience in a scorched earth counterinsurgency operation and rumoured ties with a cocaine-driven criminal underworld would not appear to constitute the ideal qualifications for a presidential candidate. Retired Army General Otto Pérez Molina, however, appears to have surmounted these obstacles, and it would seem safe to say that history is failing to haunt his fellow Guatemalans.

Earlier in the year, Pérez Molina was well adrift from the center-left candidate Álvaro Colom, but the 54-year-old former general now appears poised to beat his rival by a slim margin in the second round of elections on November 4. Just over a decade on from the country’s peace accords, his victory would place Central America’s most populous country in the hands—dirty or otherwise—of a pure Cold War–warrior.

“There was not a single military intelligence officer from Otto Pérez’s generation who was not involved in atrocities,” explains Edgar Gutiérrez, a former Guatemalan foreign minister and coordinator of a landmark report into the crimes of the country’s 36-year war.


Pérez Molina on the campaign trail.

Anxiety over the ramifications of a Pérez Molina presidency is not restricted to the candidate’s military past. His open calls for mano dura (firm hand) policing—the campaign logo is a fist set against the official campaign color (bright orange)—are geared towards the battle he promises to wage against rampant crime. His proposals, laid out to a panel of journalists from the newspaper Prensa Libre in August, include a militarized police force, new planes for the air force, and declarations of what he terms “exceptional states” in lawless areas, which will then be controlled by “special task groups.”

Taken together, this combination of past misdeeds and future strategy would appear to augur a return to a well-known Central American methodology: death squads. Local human rights groups have noted the renewal of “social cleansing” operations, particularly in the capital, but also in indigenous areas such as Lake Atitlán, where four illegal groups are believed to be responsible for over 30 killings this year alone. For many Guatemalans, the perpetually unruffled Pérez Molina represents “courage and decisiveness.” In a country with feeble institutions, a corrupt judiciary, and stark inequalities, these supposed virtues might also signify something more dubious: a massive bypass of the law and the state.

A Murky Past

So far, Pérez Molina and his aides in the Patriotic Party (PP) have done a fine job of keeping the details of his military career under wraps, leading The Economist to declare that the candidate “has not been accused of any of the many atrocities committed by the security forces.” With the polls turning against him, Colom has responded with daily assaults on the Guatemalan army’s skewed concept of pacification, supposedly reincarnated in the general’s candidacy. “A clenched fist is only useful for hitting,” he recently observed.

Colom’s aides have gone further, insinuating that Pérez Molina, or the so-called Comandante Tito—no one appears to know why he earned that particular soubriquet—was immersed in the most brutal action of the civil war, during which a total of 200,000 people were killed. Here the evidence is almost all circumstantial, since both the official truth commission (CEH) report and that of the archbishopric refrained from naming individual culprits beyond the main political and military leaders. This proviso was evidently not sufficient to spare Archbishop Juan José Gerardi a savage stoning to death in 1998, just two days after his report was made public.

What, then, can we say about the career of the man who may become president? It is known that he was a commander in Nebaj, in the country’s indigenous heartland, Ixil. According to a human rights activist who has explored the war record in that region, the period between 1981 and 1983, the most bloody of all, saw 32 massacres in that district along with 80% of the region’s population displaced. The activist in question is reluctant to speak of Pérez Molina’s direct involvement. “It’s delicate,” he admits.

“I applied policies of rapprochement with the population,” the candidate told the Prensa Libre newspaper in September, adding that he had never killed anybody.

A top member of the UN-sponsored truth commission, however, is more outspoken. Pérez Molina was allegedly not just “Tito,” but also Comandante Cenizas (ashes), known as such after he burnt down 70 villages in the process of moving the indigenous population into closely monitored “development poles.”

“The press doesn’t criticize him for this because he’s a general,” explains the former commission member. “It’s ancestral, unconscious fear. They think: perhaps he’ll punish me.”


Children beneath the PP flag.

The wariness could well be justified. In 1985, Pérez Molina attended the School of the Americas (SOA) and thereafter continued his ascent through the military ranks with alleged CIA support, a path that led him through both wings of Guatemala’s military intelligence, which were key elements in the counterinsurgent strategy. Before serving in Washington as a military attaché and, briefly, as defense minister, he also played a prominent role in the peace talks leading to the 1996 accords. In 2000, differences with incoming right-wing populist president Alfonso Portillo, led to his retirement, and subsequent entry into political life.

His time as an intelligence chief is certainly crucial for a complete understanding of what Pérez Molina now signifies. Three high-profile assassinations were allegedly carried out by men working directly under the general’s command: that of guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca Velásquez in 1992, Judge Edgar Ramiro Elías Ogaldez in 1994, and, most controversially, Archbishop Gerardi himself four years later. The general for his part has strenuously denied involvement in the latter case, accusing Francisco Goldman, author of a recent book revisiting the horrific post-war killing (to be published as The Art of Political Murder in English next year), of manipulating his involvement in the case for partisan political reasons. “I’m going to sue him!” Pérez Molina told El Periódico.

Clandestine Links

Yet it is the economic flank of his military trajectory that is perhaps Pérez Molina’s greatest enigma. In the words of ex-Foreign Minister Edgar Gutiérrez, which are echoed off-the-record by numerous analysts and political veterans, the general “formed links with the heads of the most important corporate groups, like no one else in the army… He has connections with retired officers, and also with civilians who have obscure economic interests.”

No one in Guatemala doubts that the last years of the civil war sparked a mass military migration into business life, little of it licit. Even before then, the army had decided to compensate its hard counterinsurgent labors with the creation of more reliable income streams. “The army acquired a television station, industry, a parking lot, insurance,” a consultant involved in the country’s peace talks told the British academic David Keen. “This was the legal part. But, especially as the war emerged, parallel to that—stealing cars, kidnapping, paid-for assassinations, corruption and the biggest, narcotrafficking.”

In the aftermath of war, these clandestine networks of retired officers, serving military, bankers, and politicians thickened. The names of the key players are known: judicial action began against five military kingpins in 2002, while the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) produced a report in 2003 listing many of them and their various rackets. But judicial efforts have petered out. Retired officers now seem to play a key part in the nation’s underground economy, bloated by cocaine, yet no political or judicial institution seems able or willing to detain them.

Military Cliques

Considering his military background, it might be expected that Pérez Molina would at least entertain such clandestine powers. But the candidate has recently come out strongly against such shady dealings. Earlier this year, after the narco-tinted killings of three Central American parliamentary deputies, their driver and the four police officers arrested of their murders, it was his party that denounced alleged death squads operating under a semi-official, anti-kidnapping unit run by Venezuelan émigré Víctor Rivera.

Pérez Molina also showed support for the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a new UN criminal investigative body that will start operating in January under the former Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castresana.


Colom's official campaign poster.

Pérez Molina has repeatedly accused Colom’s party of being riddled with drug money. But it has also been reported that six former military intelligence officers are employed on his campaign staff. On the other hand, Pérez Molina has openly hostile relations with certain key figures from the ex-military underworld—most notably, Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo, alleged chief of a major drug cartel.

Indeed, this tension with other, more overtly criminal former generals is perhaps the essence of Pérez Molina’s standing and outlook. Government negotiator in the 1990s peace talks and leading political analyst Gustavo Porras has argued that the virulence of the insults exchanged between the two candidates is largely due to the rival military advisers behind them. “The basic dispute could be between two army structures emanating from military intelligence,” said Porras.

Seen in this light, a victory for Pérez Molina in November, which is by no means assured, could represent the assumption of power by one of those military cliques. His own allegiances, according to WOLA, are to a military network known as El Sindicato, while the very nature of the appeal to mano dura and to inter-institutional, extra-legal “task groups” is redolent with traditions of massive organized violence.

“They are going to need an ‘invisible’ or parallel command structure to direct this,” says Gutiérrez. “The basic team in which Pérez Molina will trust his project to ‘pacify’ the country will be the one he formed in Military Intelligence and then in the Presidential General Staff (EMP), and which has followed him until now.”


Ivan Briscoe is a senior researcher in peace and security at the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE) in Madrid, Spain.
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