AS CONGRESS debates whether to approve $1.6 billion in aid to combat
drugs (and guerrillas) in Colombia, many warn against the dangers of
``another Central America,'' i.e., deeper U.S. involvement in
Colombia's civil war.
Less visible, but equally dangerous, is the political and military
re-involvement of the United States in Central America itself,
threatening the precarious peace settlements that took years to
Since the end of the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, the
United States has presented itself as a friend of peace and
reconciliation. But recent moves by Washington prioritize the drug
war over the peace accords, even increasing direct U.S. military
presence for that purpose.
The United States recently signed an agreement permitting the
presence of U.S. personnel to conduct drug surveillance missions out
of El Salvador's airport -- an arrangement that the left opposition
party will fight to overturn in the legislature.
Even more alarming is the case of Guatemala, where U.S. troops have
been working with Guatemalan army officials and units as well as the
civilian police unit designated to counter drug trafficking. For the
last four decades, Guatemala's counterinsurgency army has been known
as the most brutal in Latin America. (This killing machine was
largely a product of U.S. training beginning in the mid-1960s.) As
concluded by Guatemala's Truth Commission report in 1999, that army
committed 93 percent of all human rights violations during the civil
war; and it carried out genocidal actions and policies during the
early 1980s' ``scorched earth'' campaign that killed up to 150,000
civilians, mainly highlands Mayans, between 1981 and 1983 alone.
Given this history, the centerpiece of Guatemala's December 1996
peace accords between the government and leftist insurgents, ending
36 years of civil war and six years of difficult negotiations, was
the demilitarization accord. That accord was designed to strip the
army of the many functions it had appropriated for itself and to
reduce its mission to external defense -- a precondition for
strengthening civilian power and democratizing Guatemala.
Clearly, given Washington's long-standing role as the Guatemalan
army's strategic ally and promoter, U.S. pressure would have been
crucial for implementation of that accord. But before the ink had
dried on the final peace accords, even as U.S. officials attended the
peace signing, they were proposing to give the Guatemalan army a
``new mission'' in counternarcotics control and pressuring the
government to accept U.S. equipment and training for the Guatemalan
army. Subsequent reports in April 1997 confirmed U.S. plans to send
troops for anti-drug training to the army, as part of ``cooperation
to consolidate peace'' -- precisely the wrong message.
Furthermore, every year since the sign
ing of the peace accord, the Clinton administration has sought to
reinitiate full U.S. military training and aid to the Guatemalan army
--even in the spring of 1998, the very week after the bloody
assassination of Auxiliary Bishop Monsignor. Juan Gerardi, architect
of a major report on human rights atrocities during the 36-year war.
Only congressional opposition has slowed down these plans to
legitimize the Guatemalan army once again.
During his March 1999 visit to Guatemala, President Clinton made a
historic gesture, apologizing to the Guatemalan people for the U.S.
role in supporting the brutal policies of the Guatemalan army for the
past four decades. But Clinton's gesture of recognizing U.S.
Guatemala's war was contradicted by Washington's business-as-usual
relationship with the Guatemalan army.
Today, the stakes are far higher than at any time since the
signing of peace. Recent U.N. reports document significantly
increased human rights violations in 1999, as well as noncompliance
with the peace accords by the Guatemalan government and army. And in
the new government that took office in January, the major political
party is led and dominated by architects and henchmen of the 1980s
Now more than ever, pressure from the international community is
crucial to gaining compliance with the peace accords. The European
Union is conditioning its assistance on such compliance; and in
Spain, the counterinsurgency leaders of the 1980s may be put on
trial. By contrast, the United States seems less interested in peace
than in a drug war that revalidates the Guatemalan army.
Today is the second anniversary of the 1998 Gerardi assassination -- a
peacetime crime that remains unresolved. U.S. actions giving the
Guatemalan army ``new missions'' and a new lease on life are an
affront to the memory of Monsignor Gerardi. They could also end up
contributing to a Central American tragedy: a lost opportunity to
reform and truly democratize Guatemala through the peace accords.
Susanne Jonas teaches Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her new book, ``Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala's Peace Process'' (Westview Press), will be featured at bookstores in San Francisco, Berkeley and Santa Cruz in May.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle