In Crash, Guatemala Loses Third of its Active Helicopter Fleet

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The loss of a single helicopter in last week’s deadly crash wiped out a third of Guatemala’s active fleet, illustrating the difficulty some Central American governments face in making full use of military equipment donated by the US.

After a civilian helicopter crashed in the remote Peten region on February 28, injuring three, the Guatemalan military sent a helicopter to rescue the survivors. Due to bad weather conditions, the second helicopter crashed as well. All 10 crewmembers and passengers were killed instantly.

In addition to the tragic loss of life, the incident was a major setback for the Guatemalan Air Force. At a press conference last week, Defense Minister Ulises Anzueto’s words cast the state of Guatemalan air power in a sorry light.

Anzueto told local media that the air force only had three active helicopters prior to the crash, and had thus lost a third of its fleet. According to the defense minister, although the Guatemalan military has another four and five smaller helicopters, they are in need of costly repairs which the institution can’t afford. Anzueto claimed that all of these are at least 20 years old, which means that they were likely donated by the US during the country’s civil war.

Anzueto’s remarks highlight a common problem with US military aid transfers to Central America: the lack of resources to effectively establish full ownership of military equipment, which is referred to as “nationalization.”

US officials have long complained to InSight Crime about the difficulty of equipment nationalizations in Central America, where both parts and technical expertise are in short supply. The issue, they say, is that these countries may never be able to take full ownership of these programs, particularly the helicopters, which require superior flying, technical and maintenance skills.

What’s more, domestic will to pay for these programs is weak, as Central American elites are famously resistant to tax hikes. The Federation of Central American Chambers of Commerce, an influential regional business federation, issued a strong rejection last year against tax hikes to pay for security drives. Efforts to levy such “security taxes” failed in both Nicaragua and Honduras. This unwillingness to pay could mean that the US never fully hands over these programs to the host nations.

This is especially problematic given the tension between the current budget debate in the US and the State Department’s commitment to funding security efforts in the region through a package known as the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Although the US Vice President Joe Biden recently pledged $107 million in security aid to Central America in financial year 2013, it is unclear whether this request will make it through Congress.

The State Department budget for the next fiscal year is already getting pushback in the Senate, with the Senate Appropriations Committee recently informing Secretary Hilary Clinton that the department’s 2013 request is unlikely to be approved. The lack of capacity in Central America to assume full responsibility for donated military equipment provides one more reason for congressional “budget hawks” to question CARSI funds.

In Guatemala’s case, Anzueto’s lamentations may be politically motivated. Considering that the Guatemalan military had a budget of $160 million last year, it is unlikely that they are completely incapable of paying to have their helicopters fixed or even buying a handful of new UH-1 Huey helicopters, the price of which generally runs at around $5 million per unit. It is probable, then, that Anzueto’s remarks have to do with the current president’s push for the resumption of US military aid to the country, which was halted in 1990.

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