Springfield, Massachusetts - Fifteen years after ending its brutal internal conflict, Guatemala is beset by gang violence, drug trafficking, an intolerable crime rate and near complete impunity for the atrocities committed during the war. Retired army general Otto Perez Molina, elected on an "iron fist" platform by Guatemalans weary of unrelenting violence, will take office on January 14. Despite his victory, questions remain unanswered both about his past and about the methods he will use to suppress the country's escalating disorder.
The 1999 United Nations Truth Commission report condemned the US role in Guatemala's dirty war. Bill Clinton subsequently expressed regret for the US government's unconditional support for successive military regimes in Guatemala, which contributed to the brutal slaughter of more than 200,000 unarmed civilians, the vast majority of whom were indigenous Mayans. Clinton declared that US support for "forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression … was wrong", and further vowed that "the United States must not repeat that mistake. We must, and we will, instead continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala".
President Obama made a congratulatory call to Perez Molina. According to the White House, the men discussed "the shared responsibility for enhancing citizen security in Guatemala and underscored the importance of institutional reforms, respect for human rights, and inclusive economic growth in advancing the well-being of all Guatemalans". Given the sordid US history of meddling in Guatemala, the US must be vigilant in ensuring that these commitments are honoured.
In deciding how closely to embrace the new president of Guatemala, the US should be mindful of credible allegations that Perez Molina committed war crimes. Evidence demonstrates that Perez Molina was a military commander in the Ixil Triangle during the period in which the UN found that the army had committed genocide, and 70-90 per cent of the villages in that region were razed.
A particularly damning piece of evidence is a videotape of Allan Nairn interviewing General Tito, said to be Perez Molina's nom de guerre, in which he stands over the battered bodies of four insurgents. Perez Molina had ascended to the head of the military intelligence division when Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, husband of US lawyer Jennifer Harbury, disappeared in 1992. Harbury's tenacious and gutsy campaign for truth and justice later revealed that Bamaca was captured, detained and tortured by military intelligence for more than two years, after which he was extra-judicially assassinated. (cont'd...)