Friday, June 27, 2008

Drug raids or social repression?

Originally Posted on NISGUA website in September 2006

Further information on incidents in Ixtahuacán Chiquito and beyond
by Olimpia Boido (NISGUA/G.A.P. accompanier, with Breaking the Silence network) and NISGUA staff

Two surprise military incursions, supposedly geared at combating the drug trade, occurred in the Ixcán recently. The affected communities relived the fear and horror experienced during the war, as soldiers dropped out of helicopters with their guns pointing toward the ground and otherwise intimidated inhabitants. Children have been plagued by nightmares, and adults are thinking of selling their land and leaving. The remote municipality of the Ixcán in the department of Quiché was hard-hit during the civil war and is currently slated for several large-scale, corporate-driven projects including hydroelectric dams, oil drilling, and highway construction. The majority of the Ixcán's inhabitants are small-scale farmers of Q'eqchi' and other Maya ethnicities. The municipal government is headed by the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity (URNG) party.

In a related note, the Guatemalan government has declared an "estado de prevención" (state of prevention) in five municipalities of San Marcos, restricting constitutional guarantees such as the freedom of assembly and the right to protest, with the stated aim of catching drug traffickers and seeking poppy fields. The social movement and the Human Rights Procurator/Ombudsman (PDH) have criticized this suspension of civil rights.

The Military Incursions and Their Impact on the Local Population On August 11, five army helicopters landed in the community of Ventana del Cielo and Finca Chailá; soldiers with covered faces reportedly broke into and ransacked the homes of workers employed on the plantation. The helicopters that approached Ventana del Cielo circled the community at very low heights, pointing their machine guns down towards the community. Neither the soldiers nor the community attempted to establish dialogue. The soldiers holding their arms remained in the community for about an hour. This incident received minimal public or media attention.

On August 21, seven army helicopters landed in the community of Ixtahuacán Chiquito while three airplanes circulated the area, including the communities of Cuarto Pueblo and Los Ángeles. Soldiers jumped from the moving helicopters, heavily armed and with their faces painted. They surrounded the local school, forcing students to stay inside. They also blocked the various entrances to the community, impeding the return of farmers to their homes. One man on his way home was tied up and forced to lie on the ground. The soldiers threatened women with their weapons and entered into approximately a dozen homes where they took farming tools. They then proceeded to a sacred mound in the center of the community and began four small excavations. Upon receiving a radio transmission, the soldiers abruptly ended the excavation and left the area by helicopter. The intervention lasted about four hours. The State agents apparently acted illegally by failing to present search warrants or any other documentation authorizing their actions in the community. Some residents of Ixtahuacán Chiquito and nearby communities fled temporarily into hiding. Between 20 and 30 families from neighboring Fronterizo 10 de mayo left for Mexico and returned the next day.

Actions and Accompaniment

The communities and the municipal mayor Marcos Ramírez Vargas lodged two separate formal complaints about the incident to the Public Prosecutor's Office, and a regional commission is investigating further legal actions. Ramírez and community leaders from Ixtahuacán Chiquito and Ventana del Cielo were in the capital last week to demand an official explanation and raise awareness of the incidents. A paid ad denouncing the raids is in the works. At the community's request NISGUA, within the Coordination of Accompaniment in Guatemala (CAIG), are providing human rights accompaniers to Ixtahuacán Chiquito.

The accompaniment is constant for the time being, and its duration will be determined as events unfold. As a returned refugee community, Ixtahuacán Chiquito had received international human rights accompaniment until 2001 via the Guatemala Accompaniment Project (G.A.P.) and other organizations. DEA Involvement The Ixcán operations took place within the context of a strong U.S./Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) presence in anti-drug work, including the "Maya Jaguar Plan" that provides support to the Guatemalan military.

A State Department representative told NISGUA that no DEA agents were present in Ixtahuacán Chiquito, but that the DEA had taken part in an incident in the region on August 9. Both the U.S. and the Guatemalan governments acknowledge collaboration between the DEA and the Guatemalan military. The DEA is participating in the aforementioned San Marcos operations. There is concern in both the Guatemalan Congress and the human rights community about the lack of information regarding the whereabouts, timing, and extent of the DEA's participation.

In Search of an Explanation Government officials from the National Police, the Presidency, the Minister of Defense, and the Interior Minister have provided varying explanations for the intervention in Ixtahuacán Chiquito. Some stated that the soldiers were looking for notorious drug traffic leader Otto Herrera. Others indicated that they were seeking a hidden cache of firearms, weighing over 3.5 tons, that had been left by the guerrillas and that was being used in narco-trafficking. Analysts have questioned the logic of these two explanations; neither Otto Herrera nor weapons were found. At least one agent involved in the Ixtahuacán Chiquito incident attested that the maneuver was for training purposes. Sources cited by the different authorities also vary, ranging from a phone call made to the police with the information days before, to data provided by military intelligence investigations since 2004. These contradictory explanations raise questions and hypotheses about the incident's true motives.

Luis Solano, in an article published by Infopress, proposes that pressure from the U.S. to intensify the fight against drugs could have pushed the Guatemalan government to undertake a poorly-planned endeavor, such as the one in Ixtahuacán Chiquito, with the expectation of obtaining quick results that would place Guatemala in the good books of the United States' drug control bodies. The U.S. ambassador recently stated that the fight against drug trafficking in Guatemala was not bearing the expected results, as only 81 kilos of an expected 900 kg of drugs have been seized in 2006. Meanwhile, the National Front for the Struggle in Defense of Public Services and Natural Resources has connected the intervention with the Xalalá dam project.

The project, currently in the planning stages, would displace communities and damage the ecosystem, and has already generated substantial opposition. The recent incursions in the Ixcán, contends the Front, seek to intimidate the communities and inhibit organizing against the dam and other mega-projects.

In a similar vein, Arnoldo Villagrán, from Incidencia Democrática, posits that the government is attempting to legitimize the repression of various sectors of the society through the use of psychological tools in which guerrillas, drug-traffickers, and other 'enemies of the people' become an all-encompassing and omnipresent rival. (In fact, the raids have the effect of portraying community members in a negative light: as guerrillas, drug traffickers, and arms dealers - or at least their sympathizers.) Since this threat could take any shape, it justifies military interventions anywhere.

In this scenario, the Ixcán operations were aimed at creating a public display of military prowess. In so doing, asserts Villagrán, the State seeks to intimidate a population that increasingly demands answers from an increasingly unpopular government. Sources Press conference by members of the community, surrounding communities, and the mayor of the municipality

Prensa Libre and El Periódico newspapers Villagrán, Arnoldo. 'Las mentiras de la guerra psicológica' August 25, 2006.

Solano, Luis. 'Error político en operación antidrogas resucita fantasma del terror.' August 25, 2006. Infopress Edition 1670.