America as “policeman of the world”: U.S. marines deployed in Guatemala for anti-drug smuggling operations (Updated August 31)

Updated August 31, 2012

Recent News Reports

“U.S. Marines begin ‘Operation Hammer’ in Guatemala; The Marines intend to help the Guatemalan military curb drug trafficking during the two-month operation,” The Tico Times (San José), August 24, 2012.

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena and Martha Mendoza From (AAP), “US Marines fight drugs in Central America; A team of 200 US Marines have started patrolling Guatemala’s western coast in an unprecedented operation against drug traffickers in the Central America region, a US military spokesman says,” The Australian, August 30, 2012 (10:51AM).

For anyone familiar with the last 70 or 80 years of Guatemalan history, the news that the United States has deployed 200 marines within Guatemala to patrol for drug-smuggling activities must have had a stunning, jaw-dropping effect.

In 1954, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency backed a coup that overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz in that country.

The ensuing guerrilla war (1960-1996) that pitted leftist movements and large sections of the indigenous peasantry against right-wing military dictatorships, in which over 200,000 people were killed, including a particularly brutal peiod of repression in the early 1980’s under General Efraín Rios Montt, did not come to an end until 1996 and a U.N. brokered peace agreement.

By the presidential elections in 1985, the conflict had become greatly attenuated.  In 1986, Vinicio Cerezo became the first democratically-elected president since the 1950’s. A struggling democracy with periodic elections has had its ups and downs since then.

Still, the social and ethnic divisions in Guatemala remain among the sharpest in the world. U.S. military assistance to Guatemala has been a particularly senistive subject, given the military’s responsibilities for widespread human rights abuses involving murder, disappearances and torture.

Guatemalan governments have become increasingly unable to face down the challenge of drug gangs. In 2010, Attorney General Conrado Reyes was removed by the Constitutional Court after only two weeks in office, following allegations that he had close ties to drug traffickers.

See Elizabeth Malkin, “Guatemala Attorney General Ousted,” New York Times, June 10, 2010.

So, it has come to this. Guatemala is almost a failed state, if it has to call in the U.S. marines to exercise its police functions.

As it turns out, Guatemala is in fact only one of several Central American states which are under tremendous challenge from drug cartels.

Moreover, the appeal of leftist politicians, often hostile to the U.S., is rebounding. Daniel Ortega, who with his Sandinista party inspired Ronald Reagan to back the counter-revolutionaries known as the contras and even to conduct direct attacks on Nicaraguan ports and harbors in attempts to overthrow the government of Nicaragua in the 1980’s, is once again in power in Managua following elections.

A left-leaning president of Honduras, José Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown by a military coup with the backing of the Honduran congress on June 28, 2009, which led to prompt suspension of Honduras from the Organization of American States, and the subsequent election of Porfírio Lobo in elections boycotted by Zelaya’s supporters. The elections were applauded by the U.S., but not by other democratic governments in Latin America. In 2011, following a deal which allowed Zelaya to return from exile in the Dominican Republic, Honduras was readmitted to the OAS.

Dana Frank, in an op-ed column in the New York Times, reported in 2010,

It’s time to acknowledge the foreign policy disaster that American support for the Porfirio Lobo administration in Honduras has become. Ever since the June 28, 2009 coup that deposed Honduras’s democratically elected president, José Manuel Zelaya, the country has been descending deeper into a human rights and security abyss. That abyss is in good part the State Department’s making.

–Dana Frank (op-ed), “In Honduras, a Mess Made in the U.S.,”New York Times, January 26, 2012.

Frank paints a disturbing picture of the human rights situation under the Porfírio Lobo administration.

Two key points regarding this most recent news about the deployment of marines in Guatemala need to be stressed. The first is that U.S. officials responsible for its design and execution could well be oblivious to the historical resentments which lie just beneath the surface in countries like Guatemala.

The second is that the deployment of marines to the territory of Guatemala, in apparent violation of its Constitution, also suggests that the State Department is not doing a very good job managing its Latin American portolio. This plan has all the earmarks of a decision by military and security officials narrowly focused on interdicting drug shipments to the United States, without the guiding input of State department officials (outside State’s INL–the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs) who might bring to bear some of the broader historical and diplomatic considerations that call into question this kind of operation.

See Constitution of Guatemala, as amended, Articles 171-172:

Other Powers of the Congress

Article 171. It is also among the powers of the Congress to do the following:…

Article 172.
Qualified Majority.

To approve before their ratification, with a vote of two-thirds of the total number of deputies who make up the Congress, treaties, agreements, or any international arrangement (arreglo) when:

a. They refer to the passage of foreign armed forces through the national territory or the temporary establishment of foreign military bases;

These officials don’t seem to have learned from their experience in Bolivia, where U.S. officials undertook an increasingly active role in fighting drugs within the country, only to be thrown out of Bolivia following the election of Evo Morales in 2005. Bolivia has become one of the leading anti-American countries in South America, together with Venezuela and Ecuador.

The policeman of the world?

President Obama, despite all of his talk of “red lines” in Syria, or with respect to Iran, doesn’t seem to grasp the fundamental principle that the United States may advise and train foreign government officials, but it should never cross what is a really clear line, between an advisory and an operational role, in order to literally act as the world’s “policeman” within the territory of another state.

This term used to mean acting as the world’s policeman by intervening to topple or install governments. Now, it appears that what U.S. security and drug enforcement officials have in mind is that U.S. marines and other forces should operate literally as the “policemen” of foreign countries.

The history of U.S.-Latin American relations has left a strong residue of anti-American feeling, often deeply submerged in the minds of today’s Latin Americans. But it is still there.  Those opposed to the U.S. will try mightily to reactivate it. The U.S. should always bear this in mind.

Could programs implementing this approach of acting as “policeman” to the world fuel nationalism and anti-American sentiment, complicating U.S. relations with the country in question in the future?

It’s a question that merits serious reflection, and public discussion.

The Trenchant Observer

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