The news from Guatemala, especially from Alta Verapaz, is something to dread in this year of election, especially with the notion that this will impact on the popular vote come November. The situation provides the ideal opportunity for someone to present themselves as the ‘hard man’ of Guatemalan politics in becoming the answer to the threat of violence unleashed by the incursion of the Zetas and the response of the Guatemalan state. Many commentators have described these events as a widening of the Drug Wars that were initiated in 2006 by the Mexican government of Felipe Calderón, and supported by, if not at the behest of, the United States. This is a war that has claimed more than 30,000 lives in Mexico and its measure of success seems to be on the number, still very few, of gang leaders either caught or killed. The number of dead seems to be unaffected by these ‘successes’. These, though, do seem to get the media into a bit of a lather. The beheadings, rapes, and other forms of violence dominate the news pages for the briefest of times before disappearing to await the next worthy capture or bout of monstrous brutality. Now the news is that Guatemala, that failed State to the south, has been invaded and taken over by the drug gangs. At least, that’s the story.
Referring to the ‘invasion’ of Alta Verapaz by the Zetas, commentators have taken the lazy approach and linked it all to an escalation and widening of the Mexican drug war – or to put it more pertinently, the US drug war against the drug cartel. The Guatemalan government announcing a State of Siege in the Department only adds to the nature of ‘war’. According to The Guardian, ‘Narco gangs have opened a new front in South America’s expanding drug war by seizing control of parts of northern Guatemala, prompting the government to suspend civil liberties and declare a state of siege in the area’ and that ‘the mayhem has deepened alarm that Mexico’s drug war has spilled across southern neighbours and corrupted state institutions that are proving no match for well-funded, ruthless crime syndicates’. This is all very ‘tabloid lazy’ from a media organisation that prides itself on its intelligence and its liberal values.
An article posted on Latin America Bureau, from The Miami Herald, was slightly more nuanced. The author writes that ‘In Guatemala, the cartels have found a country with a state designed to be weak and ineffective by a rapacious oligarchy. Only 15,000 soldiers and 26,000 police patrol its rugged terrain, though there are more than 100,000 active private security personnel. Scaled down after the country’s 1996 peace accords following decades of atrocities, today’s numerically small and poorly trained Guatemalan security forces have made way for the armed enforcers of the country’s various criminal monarchies.’ He goes on to say, ‘Fourteen years after the end of Guatemala’s civil war, successive governments have failed to break the stranglehold of corruption and impunity on the country. For many poor Guatemalans who survived that conflict, the very concept of Guatemala as a country at all was mostly a theoretical one until the army came calling.’ At least we are getting a little something by way of background to the situation.
Another article on the Latin America Bureau, taken from Upside Down World certainly provides very good insight into the situation in Guatemala especially from a historic perspective. The writer places the drug trade into context with the war against communism which has so blighted Latin America. Specifically, from the viewpoint of Guatemala, the reality of a failed state is never far away. The State is incapable of providing security for its citizens and effectively handed over power to parallel bodies, although some may suggest that these parallel powers didn’t have to have it handed to them – they already controlled it in various guises. The bleak reality, however, is that ‘terror is a constant in everyday life in Guatemala. Reports of tortured bodies and massacres fill the print media and airwaves, everyday. Guatemalans have come to expect increased levels of violence over the holidays and in the months leading up to elections; today Guatemala is facing both.’ This is now becoming the everyday experience of Guatemalans, especially in the capital. Recently, a bomb was thrown onto a bus and resulted in the deaths of at least seven people. Regarding Alta Verapaz, of interest is the fact that there is a high level of social movement struggle – over land, natural resources and indigenous rights. The article states that, ‘community organizations and human rights activists point out that Alta Verapaz has one of the highest levels of agrarian conflict in Guatemala. Much of this conflict is between campesino and indigenous communities and large landholders, often with ties to organized crime that control and manipulate the justice system and the security forces; forces that could take advantage of a State of Siege to repress human rights and community defenders.’ In addition, ‘it is also significant that over the past several months, municipalities in Alta Verapaz have been carrying out community consultations, expressing their opposition to hydroelectric dam projects that are planned throughout Alta Verapaz, without the consent of affected Qeqchi communities. The State of Siege prohibits assembly, making such consultations impossible.’
Building on this comes an interesting article from Al Jazeera which talks about the lack of trust that the Government faces in Alta Verapaz and the given, though not necessarily accepted, reasons why there is a State of Siege. ‘No one disputes the power, corrupting influence or horrific violence projected by the cartels…..but in farming villages, church halls and independent research offices, there is deep scepticism about the government’s actions.’ Says one social activist, ‘“the state of siege is a strategy of the government to attack social movements”’, and at least two activists have been arrested in Alta Verapaz under the pre-text of the siege. ‘He thinks the siege is staged and simply an excuse for repression, rather than a legitimate attempt to battle traffickers. "There are agrarian conflicts in much of Alta Verapaz," he says. "The government is trying to silence groups organising for land reform and against mega-projects like hydro-electric dams and palm oil plantations."’
This is all due to the State absenting itself from one of its poorest Departments since the Peace Accords meant pulling the military out. Now that they have returned, is it any wonder that people are sceptical? Especially when understood in terms of the social movements that are active in the area in those things that directly confront power in the country, namely land and natural resources.