Analysis: Perez Molina and Guatemala’s murky human rights record

Sebastiao Martins 3 December 2011

As Guatemala opened its polls on Sunday 6 November, 7.3 million people were expected to cast their votes and hopes for ‘change’, ‘future’ and ‘progress’ in the country’s second and final round of presidential elections.

The results were announced at around 8.30 p.m. local time, with Perez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party – PP) the victor of the electoral bout, claiming 54 percent of the votes and becoming the first (retired) military officer to rise to the presidency since the country’s brutal civil war.

The election of this self-proclaimed champion of taking the crime-bull by the horns reflected the trend of previous polls which hailed security as the primary concern for 7 out of 10 Guatemalans – with the country witnessing “wartime” death rates (an estimated 52 murders for every 100,000 people) – whilst currently half of the population is estimated to live in poverty.

Molina was undoubtedly the most controversial presidential candidate in recent years, having been part of the same military regime under which an estimated 200,000 people were killed between 1954 and 1996.

He is also a graduate from the US Army’s infamous School of Americas – offering training in interrogation, intelligence and counter-intelligence techniques – along with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (1983-1989), Argentinean dictator General Roberto Viola (1981-1982) and Ecuadorian dictator General Guillermo Rodriguez Lara (1972-1976).

On 6 July, 2011, three human rights defenders wrote a complaint to the UN’s Office of the High Commission of Human Rights, claiming that there was “strong evidence that he was in a command position in the Ixil triangle in 1982, when acts of torture, terror and genocide were daily events in that region.”

The report was accompanied by graphic documentary footage of the then Major Perez Molina being allegedly interviewed by a journalist in the region, among the dead bodies of Guatemalan peasants.

However, Molina is described as a key-player in the 1996 peace treaty which put an end to the country’s civil war and to its military rule.

Last week, two months ahead of Otto Perez Molina being sworn in as President of Guatemala, several high profile members of his future cabinet were announced.

The Interior ministry will be helmed by former intelligence officer and PP campaign manager Manuel Lopez Bonilla, charged with everything from security policy to counter-narcotics efforts.

The president-elect is looking to increase cooperation between police forces and the military; extend criminal sentences and video surveillance; and lower the age of criminal responsibility.

In addition, according to Wall Street Journal earlier last week he “would welcome U.S. troops to battle drug gangs” in the country, many of which are part of Mexican cartels which have spread into Guatemala. However, a recent report presented before the US Congress by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission voiced concerns “that his proposals for increased military presence and ‘iron fist’ policies will lead to unjust criminalization, abuse of state power, and repression of indigenous communities”.

Sebastiao Martins