Home / Robert Farley / Shifting Attitudes Towards the Military in Guatemala and Haiti?

Shifting Attitudes Towards the Military in Guatemala and Haiti?


Interesting pair of articles on Latin American military institutions.  First Guatemala:

They burned villages, killed children and, just a winding road away from here in 1982, the Guatemalan military also massacred hundreds of Mayan peasants, after torturing old men and raping young women. But now, all across these highlands once ravaged by a 36-year civil war, the region’s bloodiest anti-Communist conflict, Guatemalans are demanding the unthinkable — a strong military, back in their communities.

That is how desperate this country has become as gangs and Mexican drug cartels run fever-wild, capturing territory and corrupting institutions so that Guatemala will remain a safe haven for cocaine, guns, money laundering and new recruits…

Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday could represent a turning point. The three top contenders have all called for a stronger, crime-fighting military, borrowing heavily from the Mexican model of attacking the drug cartels head-on, even though that strategy has claimed more than 40,000 lives without yielding peace.

Then Haiti:

The military was disbanded over human rights abuses in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after years of political turmoil, making Haiti one of a handful of countries without an army.

But now President Michel Martelly is pledging to revive it, pressing forward with a plan to reconstitute the Haitian military as a kind of national guard or civil defense force to supplement the weak national police.

His $95 million proposal calls for an initial force of 3,500 personnel to patrol the border, help put down civil unrest and provide badly needed employment to legions of young people. It sets aside $15 million to compensate former soldiers who have long complained they are owed a pension.

I don’t know a ton about either case, but a couple thoughts. First, the stance of the United States matters for concerns about military intervention in politics. During the Cold War, the US explicitly valued friendly regimes over democratic regimes, and rightist military officers responded to either direct suasion or plentiful hints. Now, the US is considerably less friendly to direct military intervention in politics, even if (as in Honduras) the US response is relatively tepid. Broadly speaking, this means that the threat of a politicized military doesn’t loom as large as it did in the1980s.

Second, global norms of appropriate military behavior have shifted in the direction of deference to civilian control since the 1980s, in a development that’s not unrelated to the end of the Cold War. This has tended to make coups less common and less bloody, and also means that concerns about the having the military play a direct role in politics and law enforcement may not raise as many red flags as it once did. In the Haitian context, it probably does make sense to rebuild a military institution capable of reacting more capably than the police to disasters, and so forth.

All that said, it’s appropriate to be concerned about direct military intervention in a drug war, because of course the military may become inclined to employ the same method that drug cartels use. Moreover, it hardly seems impossible that the military will develop an interest in a piece of the action through the process of becoming familiar with the trade, attacking cartels, and so forth. I can appreciate the frustration that Guatemalans feel regarding the cartels, but asking for greater intervention from the military seems to be a recipe for trouble.

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  • redrob

    The military to be corrupted by drugs? Back in the ’80s I recall reading a joke that gave the Guatemalan Army’s officer ranks as “lieutenant, captain, major, colonel, millionaire, general”.

  • (the other) Davis

    Anything that provides the potential for steady employment in Haiti is probably an improvement over the status quo.

    Also, the statement that Aristide disbanded the army because of civil rights abuses is fairly laughable, especially in light of the subsequent abuses he perpetrated through the chimeres — the gangs his party controlled.

    • Whatever Aristide’s crimes are, they pale in comparison to the atrocities committed by the ex-army men and right-wing paramilitaries (e.g. death squads) that overthrew him.


      Plus, the violence that was committed by “chimeres” were largely in reprisal to assaults by ex-Macoutes and ex-FRAPH members who killed thousands of Aristide supporters during the first coup in 1991.

      • (the other) Davis

        …the atrocities committed by the ex-army men and right-wing paramilitaries…

        Your cite doesn’t say what you claim it says: “Those responsible included Haitian police, United Nations peacekeepers and anti-Lavalas gangs.”

        Here’s the only mention of army responsibility for killings: “We had — the largest number of perpetrators for most of the violations were criminals, indicating that there was high rates of criminal activity. But also, we also had a number of assassinations that were done by members of the Haitian National Police, as well as killings by UN soldiers and killings by demobilized soldiers from the ex-Haitian army that was disbanded by President Aristide in 1995.”

        I’ll note that the National Police was Aristide’s creation. I’ll also note that “ex-army men” seems to be pretty low on this list, and “right-wing paramilitaries” is nowhere to be seen. I’m not even sure what “right-wing” is supposed to mean in the context of Haitian politics, which by and large have been a matter of using government resources to enrich politicians and their supporters.

    • wengler

      It’s pragmatic to disband a group of armed thugs that intend to kill you and your supporters at the earliest possibility.

      • (the other) Davis

        If the antecedent assumption were true then your conclusion would follow, but Aristide seemed more concerned that the army was a locus of power over which he did not have direct control. (I.e., the army would have been an obstacle to his subsequent efforts to kill and/or intimidate his opponents and their supporters.)

        • wengler

          Yes of course, I don’t quite understand what your point is though. The way these things work in Latin American is that the army will be the tool of a dictator and usually has ties to foreigners whose interests are economic.

          It’s very hard for new leaders to reform these institutions if they are trying to change a country to address interests other than enriching the elite and foreign interests.

          • (the other) Davis

            And the way things work in Haiti these days (which currently bears little resemblance to the rest of Latin America) is that each successive government extracts whatever it can for those in power and their supporters, until enough people get upset to knock them out of power and take over — starting the cycle all over again. Aristide was no different in this regard, which is why he found himself deposed. (Ironically, some of the Haitian dictators did more to benefit the populace than any of the elected leaders.) Aristide had no reasonable fear that the army was going to kill him; he just knew they would prevent him from doing whatever he wanted while he was in power.

            It’s very hard for new leaders to reform these institutions if they are trying to change a country to address interests other than enriching the elite and foreign interests.

            The attempts to impose some sort of Chomskyan narrative on Haiti only make sense if you know little to nothing about the country. The central government of Haiti is basically a joke. Step outside Port-au-Prince, and in most places you wouldn’t know that the country even had a government; there are no institutions left to “reform,” as they all crumbled away some time ago. (Disbanding the army simply contributed to this problem.)

            Any success the elites have in enriching themselves comes largely from siphoning off foreign aid. And I’m not even sure what foreign interests are supposedly enriching themselves on, given that the most significant source of wealth in the country is in the form of remittances sent from abroad.

  • wiley

    When the military is being beat by the drug lords, it is particularly disheartening, it’s probably better to use police action. There is a scene in “Blood Diamonds” in which the military surrenders to a bunch of rebels, then is executed. It sent chills down my spine. It was one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve seen in a political movie.
    A dictatorship is more stable and secure than a failed state, so it would behoove governments to not invite such abject failure.

    • Hogan

      Yeah, it sounds to me like what they want is a national police force, and “the military” is the closest analogy they have in their experience.

  • NBarnes

    It worries me that nominally strong states close to our border are in, for many practical purposes, a state of civil war.

  • While ambivalent, I do think the Haiti one does make sense on two fronts. As you note, providing rapid response and employment is good. The other thing noteworthy in there is setting aside the money to pay military members present and past. Certainly, discontented and unpaid military forces have caused all kinds of problems for civilian rule the world over, and efforts to set aside money to prevent military involvement in civil power seems like an understandable idea.

    Regarding Guatemala, I think another issue at play here is the “softening” of the memory of violence under military rule. Certainly, people still remember the level of suffering in the 1980s, but this wouldn’t be the first time I heard people from some country that once went through a brutal dictatorship and who spoke of its horrors still pine for a stronger military to “restore order” in the present (and seemingly ignoring or forgetting what they’d just said about brutal dictatorships immediately beforehand).

    But in Guatemala, I’m also more hesitant towards a strengthened military presence in politics, and not just because of the legacy of the civil war. In the cases of Mexico, Colombia, and Rio de Janeiro, it’s becoming increasingly common to see national police and military forces increase their presence ostensibly to root out drug lords and remove drug gangs, but to then engage in the drug trade itself, setting up a parallel paramilitary militia structure that is just as violent towards civilians as drug gangs had been, if not moreso. Certainly, Guatemala is smaller than Mexico (and it’s barely bigger than Rio de Janeiro city), but at first glance, I don’t see any reason to think that increasing the military’s strength against the drug trade is going to turn out any better in Guatemala than it has in Mexico, Colombia, or Brazil.

    • I really agree with you about the softening of the memory of violence in Guatemala. I find it disturbing that this mentality would exist in the highland Maya regions as these areas suffered horribly during the dictatorships post-Arbenz. On the other hand at least they’re not nostalgic for Rios Montt . . .

      I assume your comment about Guatemala and Rio de Janeiro refers to the population and not land area.

      I disagree with you about Haiti. Haiti needs a well-trained decently paid, well-screened national police force a la Costa Rica, not an army. It faces no military threats that I’m aware of and whatever issues there are should be handled via law enforcement.

  • Pingback: On Increasing the Military’s Authority in Haiti and Guatemala « Americas South and North()

  • Anonymous

    Mexico has had no real success with using the military as law enforcement.

  • MikeJake

    I don’t understand the “Mexican” model of law enforcement, with a strong and effective military coupled with a weak, ineffective, underpaid, and easily corrupted/intimidated police force. It’s akin to the FDNY having one gigantic fire station in Manhattan to cover the entire city. They would be able to respond in force to any bad blaze, but they’d be late to countless smaller fires. Have they thrown up their hands at even trying to address the police problem?

    • wengler

      It’s not exactly a military vs. police problem. The Zetas are probably the most hardcore drug cartel in Mexico and they are ex-military.

      There is a 1 percent problem in Mexico just as surely as there is here. The military going into towns and cities and disrupting the power balance between cartels leads to a ton of bloodshed. I fail to see how shifting the power dynamics(through killing thousands of people) of one of Mexico’s biggest industries is helping.

  • I think you guys might be missing the point: The militaries are noticing how profitable the ‘war on drugs’ is to police departments, and they want to add the portfolio to their current majority stake position in the ‘war on terror’.

    This isn’t law enforcement or peacekeeping, it’s mergers and acquisitions.

    • (the other) Davis

      That may be applicable to Guatemala (though I’m altogether doubtful of your explanation), but not to Haiti — which has had no military since 1995, and hence no stakeholder in place to push for this change. If anything, the Government of Haiti is going to struggle to come up with the money to fund this proposal (rather than profit from it).

      • Good point…

        Possibly the mercenaries who will be doing all the preliminary organization and training for the nascent Haitian forces are seeing a marketing opportunity?

        Or did you think nobody is sitting on the prime ministerial shoulder and whispering about how easily they could solve this problem for him, for just a few hundred million dollars?

  • Eliza

    Regarding Guatemala: The military is already involved in the drug trade, and has been labeled a part of clandestine criminal networks. Half of the Guatemalan population is too young to know about the genocide wrought by the military. Many people are still too afraid to speak of it, and too traumatized to be able to speak of it. Many in the City deny that it ever happened.

    The US still supports undemocratic military regimes and governments which are democratic in name only. Don’t be naive. Nothing has changed. The US government is still about supporting US business interests abroad. If we were really interested in helping countries like Guatemala, we would legalize drugs and invest in people getting treatment rather than being incarcerated.

    We continue with the School of the Americas (not WHINSEC) in Fort Benning, GA, which actively trains the militaries of Central and South American countries, not always with human rights centrally in mind. There is a reason why the US has not released the names of SOA graduates of the last several years. Check out the most heinous narcotraffickers in Mexico etc., and you will find that many are ex-military people who attending the SOA. I mean the ones who have no qualms about beheading people, etc.

    I’ll leave it at that.

    • Robert Farley

      “The US still supports undemocratic military regimes and governments which are democratic in name only. Don’t be naive. Nothing has changed.”

      Does the government of Guatemala count as an undemocratic regime or a government that is democratic in name only? It is governed, as Andrew notes below, by a center-left coalition. During the Cold War, I have strong doubts as to how long such a coalition could have survived. This implies that things have changed…

      “The US government is still about supporting US business interests abroad. If we were really interested in helping countries like Guatemala, we would legalize drugs and invest in people getting treatment rather than being incarcerated.”

      Yes… but there may be other (very bad) reasons that the United States refrains from legalizing drugs than a desire to screw over the people of Guatemala. Indeed, I doubt that the interests of the people of Guatemala weigh very heavily at all in the US consideration of drug legalization…

    • I heard once that things sometimes happen in other parts of the world for reasons having nothing at all to do with the United States.

      I sure hope it isn’t too terribly naive of me to pass on this rumor.

  • I can’t help but think that this Serious Political Science Scholar desire to not sound Chomskyian is keeping people from pointing out the obvious fact that Haiti is still controlled by a small oligarchy and until that is addressed there is no way a national military will be anything but a bludgeon to maintain an unjust status quo.

    Guatemala, being governed by a center-left government and facing violence from drug cartels, is a bit more complex.

    • (the other) Davis

      Haiti is still controlled by a small oligarchy and until that is addressed there is no way a national military will be anything but a bludgeon to maintain an unjust status quo.

      But the National Police already exist to serve that role. And they’re under the president’s control (which was why Aristide created them and disbanded the military, who claimed loyalty to the country rather than the president), and they have been used as a bludgeon effectively since their inception.

    • Robert Farley

      Doesn’t take Chomsky to point out that the creation of a military in Haiti will reinforce the capabilities of the central government; any serious political science scholar is pretty comfortable with that. Moreover, the quoted portion of the article includes the phrase “put down civil unrest” which rather suggests that no one is trying to keep anything secret here.

      I do wish hippies weren’t so desperate to feel like they’re being punched…

  • wengler

    Reading articles like this makes me question how many New York Times reporters are co-employed by the CIA.

    First, they low ball the amount of people killed in the massacres in the ’80s in Guatemala(hundreds? try tens of thousands). Second, it is almost as if everything old is new again, and these countries are discussed as if they are not horribly fractured societies, but instead are talked about like their policies are made by some sort of consensus among all their people.

    I’m not going to criticize Farley for this one. I’m just going to ask people to look at the labels on their clothes. Chances are you are going to find a lot of Made In Haiti and Guatemala. The question should be ‘does a stronger military mean that these countries will be less or more likely to be the cheapest sweatshop labor in the Western Hemisphere?’ If you can honestly say less, then you need to start reading more than compromised news sources like the New York Times.

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