Guatemala to Open 3 Military Bases in Drug Trafficking Hotspots

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The Guatemalan government will open three new military bases intended to combat drug trafficking along its borders, another sign of the country’s military-heavy response to organized crime.

The bases, located along Guatemala’s western and northern borders with Mexico, and in Puerto Barrios, the country’s main Caribbean seaport, are heavily trafficked by criminal groups, presidential spokesman Francisco Cuevas said in a September 3 press conference.

The three new headquarters will increase to five the number of military bases that President Otto Perez has installed since he was elected in 2011, El Periodico reported.

The president’s announcement followed the arrival of about 170 US marines in late August, part of a US-Guatemala joint counternarcotics operation known as “Operation Martillo”–a change in former US policy to solely provide training for Guatemalan troops.

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Human rights groups have warned against Guatemala’s use of the military in its fight against organized crime, saying Perez’s “iron fist” security approach stirs memories of human rights abuses committed by the army in the country’s bloody 1960-1996 civil war. The army was responsible for 93 percent of the violent acts from that period, Kesley Alford-Jones of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA told the Associated Press in August.

The military bases may be particularly unwelcome in the areas where they’ll be stationed, which are heavily populated by indigenous groups who suffered the brunt of the army’s human rights violations during the civil war.

“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 told the AP.

Despite concerns about the human rights implications of Guatemala’s growing dependence on the military, the country’s security policies have had marginal success in recent years. Its homicide rate dropped by about 2 percent in the first half of 2012, with police drug chemical seizures up by 22 percent. Perez, the first ex-military president to be elected since the civil war, has also started his first term with some promising policy decisions: he kept on Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who helped bring the judicial system’s conviction rate for murders up from 2 percent in 2007 to 9 percent in 2011. He has also created a series of special task forces charged with investigating kidnapping, robbery, femicide, extortion, and homicide in Guatemala.

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