Tracing the Evolution of Military-Criminal Networks in Guatemala, El Salvador

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Recent legal actions against former military officials in El Salvador and Guatemala illustrate how the shadowy military networks currently operating in these countries have their roots in criminal rings that stretch back decades.

Guatemalan authorities arrested 18 former military officials on January 6 for their alleged involvement in massacres and disappearances during the country’s bloody civil war, reported The New York Times. The Times said the arrests “pose a direct challenge to the president-elect,” Jimmy Morales, whose political party, the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional – FCN) was founded by ex-military personnel.

The list of accused officers includes Edgar Justino Ovalle, co-founder of the FCN, who was not arrested because of the immunity he receives from his position as a newly elected legislator, according to the newspaper. Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office is reportedly seeking to strip Ovalle of his political immunity.

Meanwhile, in El Salvador, the Attorney General’s Office has accused retired Major Miguel Ángel Pocasangre Escobar of trafficking at least 16 military weapons to prominent organized crime figures, reported La Prensa Gráfica

Pocasangre Escobar allegedly sold a rifle to convicted drug trafficker and money launderer Daniel Quezada Fernández for $1,000 in 2005. Prosecutors say the retired major also peddled an AK-47 rifle that same year to Douglas Cisneros Rodríguez, the brother of notorious gang leader José Misael Cisneros Rodríguez, alias “Medio Millón,” who was placed on the US Treasury’s drug “Kingpin” list in 2013.  

InSight Crime Analysis

The arrests and accusations are a reminder that military-crime links in Guatemala and El Salvador frequently go back decades, with their roots reaching back to each country’s civil war era. 

“We don’t pay as much attention to the criminal role of the military during the civil wars, as we tend to focus on the human rights violations,” Mike Allison, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Scranton, told InSight Crime. “At the same time, we think [the militaries] got deeply engaged in criminal activities.”

Indeed, the origins of many of Guatemala’s criminal organizations lie in the country’s brutal civil war from 1960 to 1996, including those operating in the military and intelligence agencies that collectively became known as the Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS).

SEE ALSO: Coverage of CIACS

These military-criminal networks are sometimes referred to as the “hidden powers” within Guatemala’s government, and their influence can still be felt today. The massive fraud network that authorities uncovered in the customs agency last year, known as “La Linea,” was an extension of another customs fraud ring run by military personnel that began operating in the 1970s. Last August, prosecutors implicated President Otto Perez Molina — who is also an ex-military general — and arrested former Vice President Roxana Baldetti for their alleged roles as the heads of La Linea. Both are currently in jail awaiting trial. 

Despite the social uproar that followed these revelations of corruption, the military remains a significant player in the upper echelons of Guatemalan politics.  A former comedian, Guatemalan president-elect Morales ran as a political outsider and presented himself as a break from the status quo of corruption that Perez Molina’s administration represented. However, Morales’ own connections to shadowy military figures, such as Ovalle, raise concerns about the influence the military continues to wield over Guatemala’s highest political office.

In El Salvador, the accusation against Pocasangre Escobar follows a long history of former and current military officials involved in arms trafficking. Arms caches left over from the country’s civil war became a major source of black market weapons for criminal groups, and at least one military official arrested in recent years was a high-ranking officer during the war.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

The selling of military weapons on the black market is also believed to be fueling El Salvador’s current conflict. Last October, authorities arrested a top official within the military’s special brigades unit for siphoning off arms to an alleged gang member. Increasing gang violence and confrontations with security forces created a vortex of violence that made El Salvador the Western Hemisphere’s deadliest nation in 2015, with a homicide rate of over 100 per 100,000 residents. 

To be sure, the role of the military in Guatemala’s underworld differs from that of El Salvador’s, and these dyanmics have evolved over time. Still, much of the current military-sponsored criminal activity in Guatemala and El Salvador has its roots in criminal style networks from previous generations, linking old conflicts with the new.

“The things we are seeing now, we have been hearing about for 20 or 30 years,” Allison told InSight Crime.

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