Guatemalan military impunity, the US, and the roots of corruption

By Richard Brown

“Project X was [a] program to develop an exportable foreign intelligence training package to provide counterinsurgency techniques learned in Vietnam to Latin American countries.” US Defense Department memo, 1991.

[Part I]

President Morales’ closest campaign advisor, Coronel Edgar Ovalle, and 18 other ex-military leaders had arrest warrants issued in January, most for alleged involvement in massacres and disappearances in the area of Cobán in the 80s. Twelve of the accused graduated from the School of the Americas (SOA), including Ovalle, who remains free because he was elected to Congress on Morales’ ticket and enjoys Congressional immunity. The SOA is a US military training academy for foreigners founded in 1946.

Guatemalan military men like Ovalle and jailed ex-president Pérez Molina often claim they are the men the country needs to fight corruption. In fact, the weakness of Guatemala’s judiciary and other institutions that has led to today’s corruption is a result of military policy designed by the US and enforced by Guatemala’s successive governments during the country’s 36-year armed conflict.

Among the 11 SOA graduates arrested is Gen. Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, Director of Intelligence during some of the bloodiest years of the armed conflict that claimed around 250,000 lives. He was arrested specifically for the “disappearance” of one person. Emma Thiessen was arrested in 1981 for carrying Communist literature. She was tortured and repeatedly raped in Xela’s military base (later converted into the Centro Intercultural), but escaped. Soldiers went to her family’s home and carried off her 14-year-old little brother, Marco Antonio, in a bag. He never reappeared. Callejas y Callejas’ tenure also coincides with dozens of rural massacres and the murders of dozens of professors and union leaders. He graduated twice from the SOA, in 1964 and 1970, and in 1988, the US State Department inducted him into the SOA’s “Hall of Fame.”

In 1994, the Washington Post reported, “Until the early 1980s, the U.S. military ran an intelligence training program in Latin America and elsewhere using manuals that taught foreign officers to offer bounties for captured or killed insurgents, spy on nonviolent political opponents, kidnap rebels’ family members and blackmail unwanted informants… The manuals, known as Project X, were written by U.S. Army experts starting in 1965.”

In 1996, the US government released a report showing that manuals based on “Project X” materials were still in use. This was revealed in part because American Catholic nun Dianna Ortiz had been fasting outside the White House. She writes, “I believed the Guatemalan people had a right to know why an American was the head of a Guatemalan torture squad.” She had been abducted in 1989 in Guatemala. She was gang raped and horrifically tortured. When her torturers’ boss “Alejandro” saw her, he cursed in English and gave orders in American-accented Spanish. He took her out of the prison, and told her he’d take her to a friend who worked with the US embassy. He told her in Spanish, “We tried to warn you.”

This level of runaway military abuse and impunity was created through the implementation of the National Security Doctrine, imported by US advisors. The UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission writes in its report on the armed conflict:

“Anticommunism and the Security Doctrine were part of the United States’ anti-Soviet strategy in Latin America. In Guatemala they were first anti-reformist, then anti-democratic, and, finally, counterinsurgency turned criminal…

“The Guatemalan military, following the National Security Doctrine, institutionally defined, planned, and implemented the militarization of the State and society… this was one of the factors that fed and incentivized armed conflict, as it profoundly limited the exercise of basic rights…”

The US now supports the UN organization (CICIG) that is helping Guatemalan law enforcement indict corrupt ex-military leaders like ex-president Pérez Molina. This support is important and includes a recent $5 million donation. But a 2015 report on the CICIG from the Washington Office on Latin America reminds us that corruption rings and other “criminal networks of parallel power emerged from the intelligence and paramilitary apparatus of the armed conflict.” Today’s prosecutions are necessary because war criminals and elites enjoyed a US-sponsored system of runaway military powers and impunity.