Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Guatemala: Reopening of military base will bring back pain of over more than 100 massacres

By Danilo Valladares

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Town that Suffered Military Terror Fights Reopening of Base

GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 20 (IPS) - People in the town of Ixcán in northwestern Guatemala could relive the pain of the country's 36-year civil war if the army reopens a military base in the area, where more than 100 massacres of indigenous villagers were committed during the armed conflict.

Army spokesman Byron Gutiérrez said the army's plans for a base there are aimed at fighting the high levels of crime in that part of the northwestern province of Quiché and at protecting the Franja Transversal del Norte, or FTN highway, which is to run through an area of vast sugar cane and African palm plantations and abundant minerals and water resources.

The multi-lane FTN, which will start to be built at the end of this month, will stretch 330 km across north-central Guatemala, from Mexico to the west through Huehuetenango and Quiché in the northwest and Alta Verapaz and Izabal in the northeast, to Honduras and the Caribbean Sea to the east.

The highway is part of the Plan-Puebla-Panama, a mega-project that is to create a "development corridor" running from Puebla, Mexico to Panama, opening up southern Mexico and Central America to private foreign investment to attract industry and agribusiness and expand natural resource extraction. The project has the support of multilateral lenders like the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

According to the army announcement, the 1,000-plus members of the Sixth Infantry Brigade will be deployed on Oct. 29 to the installations of the old Military Zone Number 22, in Ixcán, where a health centre and a branch of the public University of San Carlos de Guatemala currently function.

The decision has drawn opposition from indigenous and human rights organisations and other civil society groups, which fear that the reopening of the army base is part of a militarisation policy that could be extended to other areas of the country.

"First of all, the local population was not consulted about the revival of the military zone," social activist Alfredo Cacao told IPS. "Ixcán was devastated, and so many families were affected by the terror that the army sowed in this area.

"Seeing them (the soldiers) on the streets again brings back everything that happened," he added.

The town and surrounding rural villages of the frontier municipality of Ixcán, which is bordered by the Mexican state of Chiapas to the north, were among the areas that bore the brunt of the 1960-1996 armed conflict.

Between 1979 and 1988, 102 massacres were committed in Ixcán, with a total of 2,500 victims, and a full 96 percent of the population was forcibly displaced from the municipality, according to the United Nations-sponsored Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH).

The Commission's final report, "Guatemala: Memory of Silence", published in 1999, found that Maya Indians accounted for 83 percent of the 200,000 victims of the civil war, and that 93 percent of the atrocities committed during the conflict were the work of the armed forces.

The massacres included the wholesale destruction of around 440 indigenous villages in the country, as part of a scorched earth counterinsurgency policy applied in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Cacao is not convinced by the assertion that the army is coming back to Ixcán to fight crime. "If that was the reason, they would strengthen the presence of the National Civil Police," he said.

In the municipality of Ixcán, which has a total population of 80,000, there are just 11 police officers, only four of whom are on duty at any one time. "What can four police officers do in a municipality of 1,500 square kilometres?" asked Cacao.

Defending corporate interests

In the view of Cacao and other activists, the real reason the army troops are coming back is to protect the investments by foreign companies that will flow in with the FTN highway. "The purpose of remilitarising this area is to defend the interests of the big companies, because this is an area of gold mines, African oil palm and hydroelectric dams," he said.

Local indigenous leader Reina Caba told IPS that "economic development comes hand in hand with militarism, the displacement of local communities and the criminalisation of the struggle of peasant farmers for the right to land."

That is why people in this area of Maya indigenous communities are afraid, she said.

"People associate the return of the military with the terror and massacres of the past. When we talk about the situation, people still cry, because they have not even received reparations," said Caba.

In the book "Masacres de la Selva" (Massacres in the Jungle), published in 1992, Jesuit priest Ricardo Falla, an anthropologist, described in detail the slaughter committed by the army between 1975 and 1982 in Ixcán villages like Xalbal, Mayalan and Pueblo Nuevo.

The government should increase the number of police officers in the area and fight poverty if it really wants to curb crime, said Caba.

"People need housing, health care and education, because the poverty is really bad," she said.

More than 88 percent of the population of Ixcán live below the poverty line and 36.5 percent live in extreme poverty, making the district one of the 125 poorest municipalities in this Central American country of 13 million, according to Secretariat of Planning figures.

By means of dialogue and peaceful protests, the people of Ixcán will try to convince the authorities not to send troops back in to the area, according to local leaders like Caba.

Aura Elena Farfán, an activist with Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala, told IPS that her group has documented massacres committed by the army in Ixcán.

"We have worked in former military posts where victims were taken, and where their bodies were later found in clandestine cemeteries," she said.

The Defence Ministry, meanwhile, says it has received 150 requests to install new military bases in the area, to fight crime. And social democratic President Álvaro Colom has plans to raise the number of military troops from 15,000 to 25,000.

Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America: 47 per 100,000 population in 2007, according to the 2008 U.N. Development Programme's Statistical Report on Violence in Guatemala.

But the militarisation of Guatemalan society "runs counter to the 1996 peace accords," said Farfán.

Under the 1996 peace agreement that put an end to the civil war, the armed forces were gradually downsized from 28,000 to 15,000.

Saturnino Figueroa, president of the Association of Indigenous Mayors and Authorities, said the commitments assumed by the state when the peace deal was signed must be fulfilled.

Figueroa was specifically referring to the Accord on the Strengthening of Civilian Power and the Functioning of the Army in a Democratic Society, which reinforced the role of the police and redefined the functions of the army, limiting them to safeguarding national sovereignty.

"We don't believe security conditions will improve by reinstalling military bases," Figueroa told IPS. "On the contrary, it brings back the fear and terror."

What is needed, he said, is a stronger police force and recognition of the justice system of indigenous people, who make up a majority of the population in Guatemala.

Arturo Chub, assistant director of the non-governmental Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, said the deployment of troops in places like Ixcán "weakens the security forces, rather than strengthening them."

He said the number of police should be increased and they should be better trained and better paid, while the investigation of crimes should be strengthened.

Indigenous leaders in Ixcán, meanwhile, are trying to negotiate with the government to prevent the return of the military at any cost.

The town had already spoken out against investment projects in the area in the past. In 2007, 94 percent of nearly 20,000 townspeople who voted in a non-binding referendum came out against a series of oil drilling and hydroelectric projects in the municipality.

The vote was organised by the Q'eqchí' Environmental Roundtable (MAQ), a coalition of indigenous and environmental groups, and administered by local authorities. They demanded that the country's Constitutional Court respect and guarantee the vote, adhering to International Labour Organisation Convention 169 on indigenous rights, which states that native communities must be previously consulted about investment projects in their territories.

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