Greetings from Guatemala!
First of all I'd like to say that I'm usually quite impressed by the analytical papers published by COHA, and I often link to them from my personal blog.
However I was disappointed by the analysis "Guatemalan Presidential Election on Sunday", prepared by COHA Research Fellow Thomaz Alvares de Azevedo e Almeida. It appears that the author has a fairly shallow understanding both of Guatemala's recent past and current climate of violence.
A few points that I would call into question:
1. Guatemala's internal conflict lasted for 36 years, not 30.
2. The phrase "leftist rebel death squad forces" is simply incorrect. The death squads in Guatemala, by all accounts, were right-wing counterinsurgent groups that formed part of the Guatemalan State's security forces.
3. Referring to the armed forces as "violence prone" is like referring to the night as "darkness prone". According to the The Commission for Historical Clarification -CEH- (Guatemala's nonpartisan Truth Commission), the State (which includes "the Army, security forces, Civil Patrols, military commissioners and death squads") was responsible for 93% of the human rights violations and acts of violence during the armed conflict. The guerillas were deemed responsible for 3%, and the remaining 4% rests with "unidentified armed groups, civilian elements and other public officials".
4. The thesis that the current climate of violence can be directly attributed to demobilized former combatants and their "culture of using violence for one’s livelihood" is the kind of false generalization that can only result from the most superficial analysis of Guatemala's recent past. Although this conclusion might make "eminent sense" to the author, it is wholly unsubstantiated and woefully simplistic. The various causes of the growing violence in the decade following the signing of the Peace Accords should be the subject of serious study, and not reduced to the facile cause-and-effect cited by the author. In other, more substantive, articles concerning violence in Guatemala the authors tend to cite these as some of the possible causes: extreme poverty, unemployment, youth gangs, the drug trade, the proliferation of unregistered handguns, a National Police organization rife with corruption, the deficient legal system (the lack of the "rule of law"), the influence of organized crime in all branches of the government, and the weakened State in general.
5. The statement that "the low-rank fighters largely had been left in the dark about the whole (peace) process" is also incorrect. I cannot speak to the Army's efforts, but I was witness to many facets of the reintegration process for the URNG ex-combatants. This included workshops in the guerilla camps, long before the final Accords were signed, on the importance of the peace process and methods to ease the reincorporation into civilian life. Post-conflict, the Guillermo Toriello Foundation (FGT) was established with the task of conceiving and implementing projects to facilitate the reincorporation of ex-guerrillas. I'm not in a position to evaluate the effectiveness of all of these programs, but to claim that the only option open to the former URNG fighters was to find "new and darker markets for their talents" is erroneous and borderline libelous.
6. I can understand why the former combatants were not "in the least bit interested in a proposed land-gun exchange." To the best of knowledge, this proposal never existed in Guatemala. (Granted, a few years ago President Berger implemented a "trade your guns for household appliances" program which obviously, in light of our conversation here, failed to make any impact whatsoever on crime and violence.)
7. As for the former combatants following "the classic strategy of working as mercenaries—increasingly under the command of Mexican drug lords", the author should be more precise. Two years ago the story broke that deserters from Guatemala's elite Kaibil counterinsurgency unit (renowned for their brutal human rights violations during the war) were working with the "Zetas" a heavily-armed group of former Mexican army commandos who act as hired guns and hit men for the Gulf drug cartel. Again, the author's careless use of the phrase "the classic strategy" ignores the critical details of this particular story. And as the saying goes: the devil is in the details.
8. As for former combatants "recruiting from the streets an army of gunslingers among the fearless and hopeless of the forgotten youth".... well, I don't even know where to begin with that one. Granted, it's very poetic. If only it were accurate. To say that this army of gunslingers "explain the rapid increase in organized crime in urban areas, and its emulation by the maras" is absurd. The maras (street gangs) were born in the 80's in U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, and composed of immigrants from war-torn countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. In the mid-1990s U.S. immigration laws tightened and California implemented the "three strike" legislation. According to Foreign Affairs magazine, "as more and more hard-core gang members were expelled from Los Angeles, the Central American maras grew, finding ready recruits among the region's large population of disenfranchised youth."
I don't believe that the maras emulate anyone, much less these supposed gunslinger gangs. On the contrary, evidence suggests that organized crime (often run by retired military officers, not lowly ex-combatants) is increasingly reaching out to the gang structures for its own purposes.
9. "Guatemala may be experiencing a novel era of 12 years without a military coup." Wrong. Guatemala has had democratically-elected presidents since Vinicio Cerezo won the 1985 elections. The last military coup happened in 1983, when General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores took power. (In 1993 civilian president Jorge Serrano Elias performed an self-coup, when he suspended the constitution, dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court, and severely curtailed civil rights. He resigned on June 1st and fled the country.)
10. "More than 40 political candidates and campaign workers have been gunned down since the beginning of the electoral campaign." Close enough, but most recent reports put the number near, or above, 50 deaths.
11. Finally... I feel that the article, apart from the errors, missed the mark. The story in Guatemala is that yet another candidate seems poised to take the elections based on a "mano dura" ("iron fist") platform. The most recent polls now put General Otto Perez Molina of the Patriot Party in a tie with Alvaro Colom of the National Union of Hope party. While Guatemalan voters are no doubt sympathetic to the plight of the bus drivers, campaign workers, and candidates, they are also concerned for their own lives. Guatemala's murder rate of 47 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006 is the second-highest in the Americas, after Colombia. And that's not even taking into account common crime: rapes, robberies, extortion, muggings etc. People are tired of feeling like victims... fear, anger and frustration will be the emotions behind the vote on Sunday.
That, for me, is the real story.
Thank-you for your time and patience in reading this extended letter. As I said earlier, I greatly respect the work of COHA and that is why I felt compelled to write. I hope that the evident factual mistakes can be corrected, and that the opinions stated in this letter will be considered as constructive criticism.
Keep up the good work!
Guatemala City, Guatemala