Guatemala's 'Iron Fist' President, Otto Perez Molina Assumes Power

Taking up about one-third of the country’s entire landmass, the department of Petén sits on top of the rest of Guatemala like an unwieldy hat – bordered to the west and north by Mexico and to the east by Belize. Best known as the home of the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, Petén gained notoriety in May of last year as the site of one the worst massacres to hit Guatemala since the end of the country’s civil war in 1996.

Sometime in the middle of the night between May 14 and 15, a large group of gunmen working for Mexico’s Zetas drug cartel drove up to the Los Cocos farm and demanded to see owner Otto Salguero. When they found that Salguero wasn’t home, the Zetas bound the workers by their hands and hacked them to death with machetes. When the slaughter ended hours later, 27 people, including two women, lay dead – many decapitated.

Hiding among the dead and waiting until the Zetas left, was one survivor. "I thank God I am still alive," the man who has not been named, told AFP news agency. "I played dead when they stabbed me in the stomach. Then I hid and left at around 5 a.m. and I came across a pile of human heads.”

Otto Pérez Molina was central to the scorched earth campaign that resulted in the massacre of thousands of Guatemalans. The evidence is fairly clear.

— Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive

The Petén massacre was shocking even for Guatemala – a country that saw around 200,000 people killed during its 36-year civil war - and left many in the nation concerned about the soaring violence. Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America, with approximately 42 murders a week reported in Guatemala City alone during the first seven months of 2011, according to the U.S. State Department:

"…this fear was Otto Pérez Molina, the former military man who is now Guatemala’s new president.  On the campaign trail during the massacre, Pérez Molina preached on a “mano dura” approach toward security.  A retired general and ex-chief of intelligence who was stationed during the civil war in a region that saw some of the conflict’s worst atrocities against civilians, Pérez Molina’s heavy-handed approach toward security and his hazy human rights record have both enthralled and worried Guatemalans wary of the military yet fearful of the violence engulfing the country today."

“He comes with a mixed bag,” said Gert Rosenthal, Guatemala’s ambassador to the United Nations. “I hope he makes the best of it.”

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Pérez Molina came of age in the Guatemala of the 1960s, a time when the country was struggling to maintain a semblance of democracy following the 1954 CIA-backed coup that overthrew then-President Jacobo Arbenz . He graduated from military school in 1969 and quickly rose through the ranks of the Guatemalan Army.

Unlike many of his peers who believed the country should be under military rule, Pérez Molina tended to view the armed forces as a necessary tool for keeping order but not to govern. “He was always outspoken and relatively progressive in terms of the Guatemalan military,” said Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive.

Paralleling Pérez Molina’s rise through the military was the escalation of violence in Guatemala’s long-standing civil war. By 1982, three years after U.S. President Jimmy Carter banned all military aid to the Guatemalan Army because of the ubiquitous, systematic abuses of human rights, Pérez Molina was helping the military in its scorched-earth campaign against guerrillas in the northwestern Quiché department.

While he denies that he was in the region during the time when the worst massacres took place, documents and video evidence place Pérez Molina in Quiché during the violent summer of 1982. Guatemalan military papers uncovered by the NSA reveal that by 1982 the armed forces had secretly tapped Pérez  Molina for operations in the Ixil Triangle – a region of Quiché that saw 2744 people killed between January 1982 and late December 1983.

“Otto Pérez Molina was central to the scorched earth campaign that resulted in the massacre of thousands of Guatemalans,” Doyle said. “The evidence is fairly clear.”

A video shot in 1982 and posted on YouTube shows the alleged then-Major Pérez Molina garbed in fatigues and sporting a thick, neatly-trimmed black beard with soldiers standing near four, bloodied bodies sprawled out on a patio.

“We just brought them and presented them to the Major, and the major interrogated them so that they’d say something,” one of the soldiers said in the video. “But no, they wouldn’t say anything, nothing. For better or for worse.”

In another scene, Pérez Molina is seen reading from a notebook allegedly taken from one of the dead men.

“So here it’s saying the army killed people, right?” the reporter asked Pérez Molina.

“Exactly,” Pérez Molina replied. While the government documents,  online videos and witness testimonies position Pérez Molina as a commander in the Ixil Trinangle, he has adamantly denied any allegations that he committed abuses and no evidence has ever been presented that has led to his prosecution. "I can tell you it is totally false," Pérez Molina told Reuters about the allegations. "I have nothing to hide."

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As the civil war carried on into the late 80s and 1990s, Pérez Molina continued to climb in rank, heading at different times both Guatemala’s intelligence agency and a school for the feared Kaibiles Special Forces unit. As talks for the peace accords got underway in the mid-1990s, General Otto Pérez Molina took the lead in the negotiations.

“I think it was very sincere, he was always interested in the process of peace negotiations,” Doyle said, adding that the process was almost an educational experience for Pérez Molina.

“It helped him become the public figure he is today,” she said. “He was able to nurture his public image.”

Part of Pérez Molina’s public image has always focused on the idea of security in Guatemala, and by the 2006 presidential race he positioned himself as the candidate that could solve the country’s violent situation.  Pérez Molina lost that race to Alvaro Colom, but spent the following years building his base and watching Guatemala’s security situation crumble as Mexico’s cartels made deeper headway into their southern neighbor’s territory. With the Petén massacre and similar incidents still fresh in voters’ minds, Pérez Molina pressed forward with a “mano dura” approach to security throughout his campaign.

“He ran on a platform of law and order,” Ambassador Rosenthal said. “I think that is the reason he got elected.”

While Pérez Molina’s iron fist approach to security may have gotten him elected president, it also raised scrutiny over his past human rights record and a general concern that the more sinister tactics of the civil war could make a resurgence as Guatemala begins to combat drug trafficking more forcefully. “Given Pérez Molina’s background with the military responsible for massive atrocities, his promise to rule with an iron fist does not bode well for the future of the country,” said Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch.

In November, Pérez Molina promised to send the Kaibiles Special Forces unit to combat the Zetas drug cartel. Many Kaibiles have been implicated in war crime trials including the 1982 Dos Erres massacre where 200 people were killed as part of the scorched earth campaign. The other concern is that the Kabiles will turn to trafficking themselves as the Zetas did in Mexico.

Pérez Molina has tried to assuage concerns within Guatemala and the international community that the “mano dura” approach will not lead to massacres and extra-judicial killings. During the lead-up to the presidential elections, Pérez Molina asserted that the “mano dura” policy was meant to capture drug traffickers and bring them to justice in courts.

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“The concept of mano dura that we have is far from the concept that one might have, of capturing gang members and not putting them before a judge, but giving them the coup de grace somewhere… It’s totally different to that which they, without saying that it was mano dura, they believed was the way to defend the population,” Pérez Molina told Guatemala’s Plaza Publica website. “We’re going to create inter-agency task forces that are supported by the attorney general and the PDH [Human Rights Ombudsman], in order to verify that we are following the law.”

Many see the job security of Guatemala’s current attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, and the UN International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) as the litmus test for the sincerity of Pérez Molina’s intentions of ruling by law. Assuming the office after Guatemala’s previous attorney general Conrado Reyes was found to have links to drug traffickers; Paz y Paz became the country’s first female attorney general and immediately began pursuing cases against former military members for crimes committed during the civil war.

While former military members are lobbying Guatemala’s congress to pass a blanket amnesty for those who fought in the civil war and allegations have been made that relatives of Paz y Paz were involved in left wing guerrilla groups, Pérez Molina has said that he plans to keep Paz y Paz in office until her term ends in 2013, as she has gained the support of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

As Pérez Molina takes office, human rights experts see Guatemala reckoning with a dire need for internal security despite a justice system that still allows for impunity among members of the military and police forces.

“If in fact [Pérez Molina] is committed to containing organized crime and strengthening rule of law,” Wilkinson said, “it’s necessary that he fully supports the work of the attorney general and CICIG.”

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