In the small nation of Guatemala, military might has been used with fatal repercussions against its indigenous population involved in peaceful protests.

It has been sixteen years since Guatemala signed the Peace Accords that ended its violent internal conflict. But even now as TV screens are fixed on the ever-present quakes of extremism in the east, little attention has been noted on the public Richter scale with regard to Guatemala. Even during the process of researching this article, I would ask friends and family what they knew about Guatemala. Many responses included, “that one country in South America?” Incorrect, but nearly there. Another was, “Is that near Cancun?” So close, and yet still incorrect. In all fairness, I did receive some ‘ah yeah, the one with the trees’ responses, but little was to be said about the tiny nation in Central America. Roughly the land size of England but with only 14 million residents, it also has about as much cultural diversity (and syphilis – but more on the US affecting Guatemala later) as the beaches of Koh Samui on a full moon.

Image courtesy of US Army South, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Cultural separation within Guatemala is not a new issue; civil wars in decades past have pitted the military against indigenous residents more than a few times. By the 1970s and through to the early 80’s, guerrilla groups and the Guatemalan military were burning land and causing human rights groups headaches with more torture than one would see in a single episode of ’24’.

1996 marked a significant achievement between government and guerrilla forces, officially ending the conflict and bringing in democratic-style elections and hopefully providing some peace of mind.

On a geographically related note, Mexico’s issues could rival the conflicts in Libya twice over, and have an influence on Guatemala. Drug cartels in Mexico are responsible for generating billions of dollars in revenue from illegal substances and account for 90% of illegal drugs within the United States alone. Another problem is one of the reigning drug cartels, Los Zetas. Los Zetas is, by anyone’s standards, one of the most sophisticated criminal organisations in the world. Hacking (both computers and bodies) are common, along with prostitution, kidnapping, and extortion of government officials and the police. In order to create even more influence, they have spread their trade into neighbouring Guatemala.

Operating on an “Iron Fist” platform against crime, President Otto Perez Molina was sworn into presidency much to the chagrin of human rights organisations. Underlining Molina’s prior service as General and head of military intelligence, these organisations wanted to reiterate the particular “aggression” taken in the Ixil Triangle under his watch. What was seen following his ascension into presidency was a hard-line approach against crime, and also the legalisation of illicit drugs, which really didn’t make sense to anyone, either to Guatemalans or to the rest of the world. Rising militarism to combat criminal activities – drug-related or otherwise – provided an expansion of executive power in the name of national security.

What was seen on October 4th of this year, however, marked a turning point in the relative complacent-ness other states have had towards Guatemala. Military forces in the Totonicapán region of Guatemala killed eight indigenous protestors; their offence was blocking the Pan American Highway to protest the proposed Constitutional changes that affected energy prices, among other things.

Immediately following the attack, President Molina stated that the reports were false, and that his men were only armed with tear-gas. After evidence later indicated otherwise, Molina argued that the military only fired on protestors after they had been attacked. This incident greatly affected the state of Guatemala, bringing back memories of military aggression against its indigenous population (which makes up about 40 per cent of the population). Even still, the indigenous community in Totonicapán are highly regarded across the nation and are known for solving disputes between the government through open engagement. What strikes a chord with Guatemalans is that the military had been used to violently suppress protests and violate basic human rights.

Indeed, the rise of aggressive military tactics in the past few months by Molina’s regime has sparked outrage across the state and across its borders for heavily relying on the military to appease matters of civilian involvement that should technically be handled by an organised police force.

The events in Totonicapán provide a window to the past, revealing military solutions to civil problems. The fragile transition to democracy only further indicates Central and South America’s habit of militarism against the civilian population and incites fear of a military dictatorship not unknown to Guatemalans.

The indigenous community has suffered a long battle between government and private companies regarding natural resources. In the past, government officials were legally required to consult with these communities if any excavation or mining activities were proposed near their land. But in recent months, communication has suffered as desperation for economic development grew. Environmental degradation is now a problem within these areas, as water is being contaminated and lives risked.

Reponses to any dissent against these government actions has been to criminalise it. In the past months, national security interests have slowly evolved into military repression of civic voices. President Molina has ushered in an administration of fear and has exploited communities for money and power.

The US has acknowledged its complicity in past conflicts, and under light of recent events in the region, the US has scaled back its military aid in order to place added pressure on Molina’s regime to respect the human rights of Guatemala’s population.

Despite the progress made since the 1996 Peace Accords, Guatemala was once seen as a beacon of hope for a region engulfed in conflict and crimes that has changed over the past year. If anything can be learned from the events in Totonicapán, Guatemalan’s should not underestimate military might, while Molina should not underestimate the intolerance Guatemalan’s have towards violence.