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Human rights groups protest Guatemala-U.S. drug operation

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 4th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

An operation that utilizes 200 U.S. Marines to patrol Guatemala's western coast to catch drug shipments is not sitting well with human rights activists here. They say it brings back the ghosts of that nation's rights abuses during the 1960-1996 Civil War.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - "Rural communities in Guatemala are fearful of the military being used to combat drug traffickers because the same techniques are applied that were used in contra (counterinsurgency) warfare," rights advocate Helen Mack, executive director of the Myrna Mack Foundation says. "The historical memory is there and Guatemalans are fearful of that."

Guatemalan armed forces, backed by the U.S. during the civil war, committed more than 93 percent of the acts of violence, notes Kelsey Alford-Jones of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission.

It was half a century ago when the U.S. military last sent any significant aid and equipment into Guatemala. The plan then was to bolster counter-insurgency efforts during a guerrilla uprising after a CIA-backed coup overthrew democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954.

This, in turn led to 36 years of civil war that ended in 1996 with the signing of a peace accords between the government and leftist guerrillas.

The war claimed 200,000 human lives - many of whom still remain missing, 93 percent of them as a result of the activities of state forces and paramilitary groups, a U.N. report said. The U.S. finally withdrew in 1978.

Guatemalan authorities say they signed a treaty allowing the U.S. military to conduct the anti-drug operations on July 16. An Air Force C-5 transport plane flew into Guatemala City from North Carolina loaded with the Marines and four UH-1 "Huey" helicopters less than a month later.

If Marines find boats suspected in drug shipment, they will contact their Guatemalan counterparts in a special operations unit from the Guatemalan navy that will move in for arrests. The Marines will not go along on arrest missions -- but they do have the right to defend themselves if fired on, U.S. officials say.

"Marines in Guatemala are in a supporting role and we are providing aerial, communications and logistical support to a regional partner who is currently facing strong challenges with illicit trafficking along its coasts. This is not a new role nor the first time the U.S. military supports a partner in this capacity," Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department said in an email.

"Though the Marine deployment is only temporary in nature, it's focused on the same mission - support to U.S. and regional authorities working to stop the flow of illicit trafficking through the Central American isthmus," Breasseale said.

Guatemala has a long and widespread tradition of internal corruption, "including unlawful killings, drug trafficking, and extortion; and widespread societal violence, including violence against women and numerous killings, many related to drug trafficking," according to a recent State Department report.

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