GUATEMALA CITY -- Human Rights activists in Guatemala said Friday that a joint anti-drug operation between U.S. Marines and the nation's army threatens to revive memories of rights abuses during Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war.
A team of 200 U.S. Marines began patrolling Guatemala's western coast this week as part of a joint agreement to catch drug shipments.
"Rural communities in Guatemala are fearful of the military being used to combat drug traffickers because the same techniques are applied that were used in contra (counterinsurgency) warfare," said rights advocate Helen Mack, executive director of the Myrna Mack Foundation. "The historical memory is there and Guatemalans are fearful of that."
Kelsey Alford-Jones of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA noted that Guatemalan armed forces, which were backed by the U.S. during the civil war, committed more than 93 percent of the acts of violence.
It was 50 years ago when the U.S. military last sent any significant aid and equipment into Guatemala, establishing a base to support counter-insurgency efforts during a guerrilla uprising after a CIA-backed coup overthrew democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. The movement led to 36 years of civil war that ended in 1996 with the signing of a peace accords between the government and leftist guerrillas.
The conflict left more than 200,000 dead and missing, 93 percent of them as a result of the activities of state forces and paramilitary groups, a U.N. report said. The U.S. pulled out in 1978.
Guatemalan authorities say they signed a treaty allowing the U.S. military to conduct the anti-drug operations on July 16. Less than a month later an Air Force C-5 transport plane flew into Guatemala City from North Carolina loaded with the Marines and four UH-1 "Huey" helicopters.
If the Marines find suspected boats, they will contact their Guatemalan counterparts in a special operations unit from the Guatemalan navy that will move in for the bust. The Marines will not go along on arrest missions, but they do have the right to defend themselves if fired on, U.S. officials said.
"Marines in Guatemala are in a supporting role and we are providing aerial, communications and logistical support to a regional partner who is currently facing strong challenges with illicit trafficking along its coasts. This is not a new role nor the first time the U.S. military supports a partner in this capacity," said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department in an email response to an AP query.
"Though the Marine deployment is only temporary in nature, it's focused on the same mission – support to U.S. and regional authorities working to stop the flow of illicit trafficking through the Central American isthmus," Breasseale said.
William Ostick, a spokesman for the State Department's Western Hemispheric Affairs Office, said Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina is "focused on improving citizen security in Latin America." He said Guatemala's military has "made significant progress on key issues."
Guatemala has widespread institutional corruption, "including unlawful killings, drug trafficking, and extortion; and widespread societal violence, including violence against women and numerous killings, many related to drug trafficking," according to a recent State Department report.
The report said that Guatemala has been using the military to support police units in response to a rise in crime and that police involvement in "criminal activities remained a serious problem."
"This is what happens when operations about civilian security are used as a means for social control," Mack said.
The Marine operation is the largest in Guatemala since U.S. military aid was first eliminated in 1978, halfway through the civil war. Over the years, the U.S. Congress has approved limited funding for training Guatemala's military response team for natural disasters.
"The partial congressional ban on funds for the Guatemalan army remains in place because the military has not complied with even the minimum benchmarks for reform. The US `war on drugs' has become justification for rapid remilitarization at a time when Guatemala is still recovering from the trauma of the internal conflict – and Guatemalan armed forces have yet to be held accountable for past atrocities," Alford-Jones said.
U.S. law says Guatemala can regain aid once Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifies Guatemala's military is "respecting internationally recognized human rights" and cooperating with judicial investigations of former military personnel and with the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jalinek in Washington and Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, Calif. contributed to this report.