Guatemala: Resisting the New Colonialism
“We don’t aspire to win the election because the left in Guatemala has been hit hard. This is about taking one step forward in articulating resistance to the new alliance between the old paramilitary/oligarchy alliances and the more recent economy based on criminal activity,” explains Mario Godínez, university professor and member of the MNR (New Republic Movement). The MNR is part of the Frente Amplio [Broad Front] of leftist organizations formed for the September presidential elections.
Godínez thinks that his country may be the scene of a coup d’état before the elections. He is a member of the environmental organization Ceiba, which has supported community resistance to transnational mining, particularly the process of “community consultations” in which more than a million people have expressed their opposition to mining megaprojects in meetings at the department, communal and canton levels.
In a recent conversation he explained what he means by a “recolonization” of Central America that dates from the signing of the free trade agreement with the United State (CAFTA), which, among other problems, has undermined food sovereignty with genetically modified “food aid” in the form of agricultural surpluses from Washington.
-The media have reported on a growing militarization of Guatemalan society, with a lot of violence linked to drug-trafficking.
-The expansion of the capitalist model is coming at us from two directions: The growth of agribusiness, above all sugar cane and African palm, and the expansion of mining, and the privatization of water that goes along with it. At the same time, the country has been turned into a drug-trafficking corridor from the south to the United States, with a huge dispute over territory on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. All this creates a complex scenario. The old oligarchies have entered into alliances with drug traffickers and with transnationals. That annuls a state that was already weak, both in terms of citizen’s rights and in terms of security. A good part of the current violence is provoked by “guardias blancas,” as we already have 60,000 private security forces and 15,000 police. In reality, this so-called private security–legal or illegal–protects the mafias through a process of re-militarizing of the country.
-Did the 1996 peace accords manage to stop the violence?
-It declined between 1996 and 2006, but a zone of militarism is being reborn in regions where natural resources are abundant and there are mega mining projects. That’s why we can say that this is militarism at the service of big multinational firms.
-How do you explain the enormous increase in violence associated with drug trafficking?
-Guatemala lived through a policy of genocide: 440 villages destroyed, thousands of disappeared, and 200,000 deaths. That accumulated violence wasn’t resolved by the peace accords. Now security has been privatized with an alliance among the criminal groups that were active in the 1980s, formed by anti-communist soldiers and youths paid to destroy the popular movement. We call these paramilitary groups “guardias blancas.” They didn’t disappear with the accords. They acquired their own power, which now appears to be linked to international gangs, the maras, who are linked to emigrants in the United States and other Central American countries. There is a division of labor: violent gangs are linked to drug sales at the retail level while the trafficking is organized by the big cartels, such as the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, which has positioned itself in Guatemala. Guatemalan soldiers, elite groups such as the kaibiles, along with Mexicans make up the Zeta cartel. They were contracted by the cartel to take care of business.
-You’re referring to the post peace accords process.
-Yes. What happened is similar to what we lived through in the 1970s: Soldiers weren’t content with maintaining order for the oligarchy and ended up in business. That’s why they took over state power. Now groups like the Zetas no longer want to provide protection for narcos, they want to participate directly in the business. Many soldiers trained by Israel during the civil war are part of these cartels, because when the army was reduced, they migrated to these new businesses and also provided security to multinational mining ventures.
-How do you see the resistance of rural communities to mining megaprojects?
-There is a strong campaign against open pit mining and the expansion of petroleum. In the San Marcos zone they’ve managed to get 30 municipalities to reject mining. The company contracted private security forces that didn’t hide the fact that they were Israeli to harass the movement. Something similar occurred with Union Fenosa [Spanish energy company], which has links to a cartel that does their dirty work. The company had a big conflict with people who had stopped paying their bills, the San Marcos Resistance Front against Transnationals, and by the end of last year, two people had been killed, assassinated by armed bands linked to the company.
-You establish a relationship between the increase in violence and mega-mining?
-I think we’re at the start of something even more serious. Retired General Otto Pérez Molina with his Patriot Party has a good chance of winning the elections. It’s the counterinsurgency of the 1980s getting involved in politics and pushing a new water appropriation law, which means a very tough confrontation.
-How do you explain popular support for the ultra-right, which provoked so many deaths during the war?
-It’s a consequence of a process that’s been going on for more than a decade. In the last five years there’s been an explosive exacerbation of violence, with attacks on bus passengers, for example, which causes people to despair. The state isn’t the least bit capable of stopping this because the police and the military are behind these violent acts. But what is most significant is that in many rural towns and villages where genocide occurred, the right wins because it’s a strategy of survival when they haven’t been able to break ties to oppression based on fear.
-How is the U.S. Southern Command project perceived in terms of military intervention on the Mexican-Guatemalan border?
-It’s nothing new, just a variation on Plan Colombia and Plan Puebla-Panama, which were met with strong resistance when George W. Bush launched them. The New Horizons [Nuevos Horizontes] missions with humanitarian objectives were launched around 2000, and in 2003 when CAFTA was signed. From that moment on, Washington had the legal arms with which to protect its investments. During the same time period a military agreement was signed with countries in the region. But with the events in Honduras, strategies changed and took a military turn. Now the U.S. ambassadors openly intervene in internal politics. In Honduras they reopened the Palmerola base, created a new one in la Mosquitia, and decided that El Salvador should be a regional office of Interpol.
-Militarization is never an object in itself.
-There’s a strong resistance to multinational mining companies, both among indigenous communities as well as campesinos. It’s predicted that in the coming years conflict will increase substantially because mining projects are going full speed ahead. In Cabañas, in El Salvador, people managed to stop mining exploration and they’re afraid that this will extend to other areas. In Guatemala there are 56 municipalities that have declared themselves to be free of mining operations because people are taking important steps, they’re now defending natural resources like water. But they could also end up declaring themselves free of a State that doesn’t represent them.
-How far could it go?
-We’re facing a backwards shift towards dictatorship, even though there are elections. In Guatemala they are trying out ways to protect investments by neutralizing the state. And it’s not just U.S. companies. There are many Canadian, European and Chinese companies that have made incursions into the coastal zone for titanium extraction and geopolitical positioning in the Pacific for off-shore drilling.
-Can this analysis of Guatemala be extended to Central America?
-All Central America is in dispute by several actors: large multi-national firms, the world’s largest military power and the emerging powers, drug-trafficking cartels. There’s a gigantic set of jaws around us. Before we knew where the repression was coming from, but now it’s much more delicate because it could be a drug cartel that’s attacking you on behalf of some company. Or it could be that same company with its private security guards. Or the State itself can say you are a criminal. There are 250 social leaders, from indigenous leaders to environmental activists, who have warrants out for their arrest because they were defending their land.
-Have progressive governments in Nicaragua and El Salvador managed to stop this from happening?
-The problem is they’re facing supra-national powers. When the financial system collapsed in Guatemala the drug-traffickers lent them money, and when it’s a matter of confronting popular sectors, they all unite. There’s a de facto alliance between old oligarchies that have now modernized, with regional capital and a regional financial system, and the big multi-national firms. That prevents any questioning of the [economic] model, because they have an enormous capacity to block the political system.
-What’s the point of running for elections in this context?
-It’s a way to challenge power, even though the left can’t win in Guatemala. It’s a way to renew contact with people who lost in the 1990s. There are many communities that are already talking about re-creating the State, at the same time that there are sectors of the middle class that are also opposed to whole transnational business project. The community consultations against mining unleashed a process of resistance that overwhelmed us, and has extended throughout the country. Something new is being constructed that is putting the breaks to the transnational project.
Government Disobeys CIDH
Refuses to Touch Mines
The government of Guatemala dismissed the idea of shutting down a Canadian mine accused of causing contamination in the zone of San Marcos, despite the fact that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) had issued an order for operations to be suspended.
Nevertheless, Vice Minster of Energy and Mies, Ricardo Pennington, told the press that there were no grounds for suspension of the Marlin I mine (subsidiary of the Canadian firm Goldcorp). That decision was made by the ministry “after consulting [Guatemalan] law” to determine whether there was cause to justify suspension.
The official report was made before the negotiating table created last year after a CIDH resolution in May 2010 ordered the closing of the Marlin mine, located in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, San Marcos, as a preventative measure. Eighteen communities alleged that they had suffered health problems as a result of pollution.
According to Magalí Rey Rosa, an environmental activist with Saviaguate, the School of Ecological Thought, the ministry’s decision is “a sign of the government’s cynicism because you comply with an order from the CIDH, you don’t debate it.”
Information from Goldcorp indicates that between 2005 and 2010, when the mine was operating in Guatemala, the company earned 1.416 billion dollars from the sale of gold and silver extracted in that indigenous zone.
Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (www.cipamericas.org).
Translated by Barbara Belejack