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.
Earlier on HuffPost:
Captions courtesy of Reuters:
May 13, 2012
Suspected drug gang hitmen dumped 49 mutilated bodies, stuffed in bags, on a highway outside the northern industrial city of Monterrey. <em>Caption: Federal police stand guard on a vehicle behind a forensic truck containing bodies found on the highway connecting the northern Mexican metropolis of Monterrey to the U.S. border, along the Reynosa-Cadereyta road, in the town of San Juan near the city of Monterrey, Mexico, Sunday, May 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Christian Palma)</em>
May 4, 2012
The bodies of nine people were found hanging from a bridge and 14 others found dismembered in the city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the U.S. border from Laredo, in Texas. <em>Caption: Four of nine corpses are seen hanging from a bridge in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state, early morning on May 4, 2012. (RAUL LLAMAS/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Feb 19, 2012
A fight between rival gangs at a prison just outside Monterrey in northern Mexico leaves 44 dead. <em>Caption: Araceli Guevara Ontiveros, the sister of Francisco Guevara Ontiveros --one of the 44 dead in a riot at The Apodaca prison-- is comforted while crying on his coffin during his wake in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on February 21, 2012. (Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Nov 24, 2011
More than 20 bodies are found in cars in Mexico's second city, Guadalajara, a day after the burned bodies of 16 people are found in the home state of the country's powerful drug lord, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman. <em>Caption: A member of the forensic service carries one of the 26 corpses found this morning in three vehicles abandoned in Mexico's second most populous city of Guadalajara, Mexico, on November 24, 2011. (HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Oct 6, 2011
Mexican security forces find 32 bodies at several locations around Veracruz, just two days after the government unveiled a plan to bolster security in Veracruz state. <em>Caption: Mexican army soldiers walk towards their vehicle after seven bodies were found inside a vehicle in the Gulf port city of Veracruz, Mexico, late Friday Oct. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)</em>
Sept 20, 2011
Thirty-five bodies are found abandoned in two trucks on an underpass in the eastern Gulf city of Veracruz, which had been largely untouched by the violence. <em>Caption: Mexican marines stand guard in streets of Veracruz State, Mexico on 24 January 2012. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 25, 2011
Masked gunmen torch a casino in Monterrey, killing 52 people, most of them women. The attack takes less than three minutes. <em>Caption: Relatives of victims cry in front of the Casino Royale, in Monterrey, Mexico, on August 27, 2011. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 20, 2011
Five headless bodies were found in Acapulco, taking the number of people killed in the popular Pacific resort to at least 25 in that one week. <em>Caption: Forensic personnel move the corpse of a person murdered in a hotel at the La Guinea neighbordhood in the town of Acapulco, Guerrero state, Mexico on August 24, 2011. (Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Officials unearthed the first of what turned out to be more than 450 bodies buried in mass graves in the northern states of Durango and Tamaulipas. <em>Caption: Forensic personnel unload at the morgue bodies of people killed execution-style in Matamoros, Tamaulipas State, Mexico, on April, 11, 2011. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 25, 2010
Marines found the bodies of 58 men and 14 women at a ranch near the Gulf of Mexico in Tamaulipas state, 90 miles from the Texas border, after a firefight with drug hitmen in which three gunmen and a marine died. <em>Caption: A worker wearing protective suit and boots walks between two refrigerated trucks parked outside a funeral home where the bodies of 72 men and women that were allegedly killed by the Zetas drug gang, are kept in San Fernando, just 100 miles from the the Mexican border with the U.S. near the city of Matamoros, Thursday Aug. 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)</em>
July 24, 2010
Police unearthed 51 bodies in a grave outside Mexico's business capital, Monterrey, in northern Mexico over several days. Some corpses were burned beyond recognition. <em>Caption: View of the remains of two burnt bodies found in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on October 20, 2010. The bodies were found under burnt wooden pallets. (Dario Leon/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
July 18, 2010
Gunmen burst into a birthday party in the northern city of Torreon, using automatic weapons to kill 17 party-goers and wound 18 others. Mexican authorities said later those responsible were incarcerated cartel hitmen let out of jail by corrupt officials. The killers allegedly borrowed weapons and vehicles from prison guards and later returned to their cells. <em>Caption: Police officers patrol a street in Torreon, in the Mexican northern state of Coahuila, Monday, July 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Ramon Sotomayor)</em>
June 28, 2010
Suspected cartel gunmen shot and killed a popular gubernatorial candidate in the northern state of Tamaulipas in the worst cartel attack on a politician to date. Rodolfo Torre, 46, and four aides from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, were ambushed on their way to a campaign event for the July 4 state election. <em>Caption: A billboard with the portrait of the candidate for Governor of Tamaulipas state for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Rodolfo Torre, and reading 'A leader forever' is seen during his funeral at the Polyforum in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on June 29, 2010. (LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
March 13, 2010
Hitmen killed three people linked to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez in March, provoking "outrage" from U.S. President Barack Obama. <em>Caption:The U.S. national flag flutters at half-mast at the entrance of the consulate of the United States in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on March 15, 2010. (Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Jan 31, 2010
Suspected cartel assailants killed 13 high school students and two adults at a party in Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas. <em>Caption: Students enter a high school in Ciudad Juarez, a city ridden by homicidal violence along Mexico's border with Texas. (Tim Johnson/MCT via Getty Images)</em>
Sept 15, 2008
Suspected members of the Zetas drug gang tossed grenades into a crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day in the western city of Morelia, killing eight people and wounding more than 100. <em>Caption: From left to right: Julio Cesar Mondragon Mendoza, Juan Carlos Castro Galeana, and Alfredo Rosas Elicea, are members of a group of hitmen called the 'Zetas' shown to the press at the General Attorney's office in Mexico City, on September 26, 2008. The three gangsters confessed that they are the authors of a grenade attack that killed eight people during the celebration of Independence Day in Morelia, western Mexico. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)</em>