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A New Guatemalan Tragedy in the Making?
Published on Wednesday, April 26, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
A New Guatemalan Tragedy in the Making?
by Susanne Jonas
 
AS CONGRESS debates whether to approve $1.6 billion in aid to combat drugs (and guerrillas) in Colombia, many warn against the dangers of ``another Central America,'' i.e., deeper U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war.

Less visible, but equally dangerous, is the political and military re-involvement of the United States in Central America itself, threatening the precarious peace settlements that took years to negotiate.

Since the end of the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, the United States has presented itself as a friend of peace and reconciliation. But recent moves by Washington prioritize the drug war over the peace accords, even increasing direct U.S. military presence for that purpose.

The United States recently signed an agreement permitting the presence of U.S. personnel to conduct drug surveillance missions out of El Salvador's airport -- an arrangement that the left opposition party will fight to overturn in the legislature.

Even more alarming is the case of Guatemala, where U.S. troops have been working with Guatemalan army officials and units as well as the civilian police unit designated to counter drug trafficking. For the last four decades, Guatemala's counterinsurgency army has been known as the most brutal in Latin America. (This killing machine was largely a product of U.S. training beginning in the mid-1960s.) As concluded by Guatemala's Truth Commission report in 1999, that army committed 93 percent of all human rights violations during the civil war; and it carried out genocidal actions and policies during the early 1980s' ``scorched earth'' campaign that killed up to 150,000 civilians, mainly highlands Mayans, between 1981 and 1983 alone.

Given this history, the centerpiece of Guatemala's December 1996 peace accords between the government and leftist insurgents, ending 36 years of civil war and six years of difficult negotiations, was the demilitarization accord. That accord was designed to strip the army of the many functions it had appropriated for itself and to reduce its mission to external defense -- a precondition for strengthening civilian power and democratizing Guatemala.

Clearly, given Washington's long-standing role as the Guatemalan army's strategic ally and promoter, U.S. pressure would have been crucial for implementation of that accord. But before the ink had dried on the final peace accords, even as U.S. officials attended the peace signing, they were proposing to give the Guatemalan army a ``new mission'' in counternarcotics control and pressuring the government to accept U.S. equipment and training for the Guatemalan army. Subsequent reports in April 1997 confirmed U.S. plans to send troops for anti-drug training to the army, as part of ``cooperation to consolidate peace'' -- precisely the wrong message.

Furthermore, every year since the sign ing of the peace accord, the Clinton administration has sought to reinitiate full U.S. military training and aid to the Guatemalan army

--even in the spring of 1998, the very week after the bloody assassination of Auxiliary Bishop Monsignor. Juan Gerardi, architect of a major report on human rights atrocities during the 36-year war. Only congressional opposition has slowed down these plans to legitimize the Guatemalan army once again.

During his March 1999 visit to Guatemala, President Clinton made a historic gesture, apologizing to the Guatemalan people for the U.S. role in supporting the brutal policies of the Guatemalan army for the past four decades. But Clinton's gesture of recognizing U.S. responsibility in Guatemala's war was contradicted by Washington's business-as-usual relationship with the Guatemalan army.

Today, the stakes are far higher than at any time since the signing of peace. Recent U.N. reports document significantly increased human rights violations in 1999, as well as noncompliance with the peace accords by the Guatemalan government and army. And in the new government that took office in January, the major political party is led and dominated by architects and henchmen of the 1980s holocaust.

Now more than ever, pressure from the international community is crucial to gaining compliance with the peace accords. The European Union is conditioning its assistance on such compliance; and in Spain, the counterinsurgency leaders of the 1980s may be put on trial. By contrast, the United States seems less interested in peace than in a drug war that revalidates the Guatemalan army.

Today is the second anniversary of the 1998 Gerardi assassination -- a peacetime crime that remains unresolved. U.S. actions giving the Guatemalan army ``new missions'' and a new lease on life are an affront to the memory of Monsignor Gerardi. They could also end up contributing to a Central American tragedy: a lost opportunity to reform and truly democratize Guatemala through the peace accords.

Susanne Jonas teaches Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her new book, ``Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala's Peace Process'' (Westview Press), will be featured at bookstores in San Francisco, Berkeley and Santa Cruz in May.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle

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