DEMOBILIZING GUATEMALA’S COMBATANTS

Program 9744
November 4, 1997

Guests

Eduardo Stein, Foreign Minister, Guatemala

Leaders and members of the former guerrilla movements and the army’s military police

Johanna Mendelsohn, Office of Transition Initiatives, USAID

Raquel Zelaya, Peace Secretary of the Presidency of Guatemala

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.


MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: Guatemala: the site of Central America’s longest and bloodiest
civil war. Unbeknownst to most Americans, this war only recently ended in December of 1996.
Now, the combatants have put down their arms and are planning their new lives in a country at
peace.

AMILKA: (translated) We believe that the end of the war opened up spaces for political
participation and allows us to have a voice where we didn’t before. We have better opportunities
economically as well. We’re being trained and helped to be able to go out on our own.

DAVIDSON: The question now in Guatemala is whether the peace accords, which ended
nearly four decades of war, have adequately addressed the problems in Guatemalan society that
gave rise to the conflict.

JOHANNA MENDELSOHN: We all know in post-conflict situations that creating stability and
security are the most important factors. Taking away guns and giving people an opportunity to
get a new start is basic to rehabilitation in any war-torn society. Certainly Guatemala is a
war-torn society, 36 years of war left a tremendous amount of disarray and destabilization.

DAVIDSON: During this half-hour of Common Ground, we continue our series of
programs on Guatemala, this time looking at two key elements to making this a lasting peace:
the army and the former guerrillas. Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the
people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson

(With Spanish-speaking voice in background) Avilio Ysidro Porras is in school in Guatemala
City learning to be a hair dresser. It’s a big career change for him after eleven years as an
explosives expert in the Guatemalan Army. The 31-year-old Porras, still wearing his military-issue
boots, was a member of an infamous military police unit accused of numerous atrocities during
Guatemala’s 36 year war. Porras is now enrolled in a vocational training program designed to
give the former combatants some useful skills for civilian life.

AVILIO YSIDRO PORRAS: (translated) It’s been a difficult transition, going from being
in the military and fighting a war. My dream was always to be a soldier and I’m proud I could
fight in the war and make my country better. And freer. The work I’m doing now is easy and
it’s enjoyable, but the transition is difficult, and it’s definitely a change. I’m glad they
signed the peace accords. It’s definitely a positive move for Guatemala, especially after such
a violent war between brothers. And after having to live in the mountains, with all the risks
we were exposed to, it’s a great move. I feel the risks are gone and I can live a calmer, more
peaceful life. I wanted to go into the business of hairstyling because it’s what my father did.
Some of my friends say, “Wow, it must be difficult to do that.” But it’s not. What’s hard is
adapting to civilian life.

DAVIDSON: In another part of the school a group of women are learning to sew. They too,
worked for the military police, but mainly in the kitchen and the laundry. For most of these
women, including Raina Arias, it’s apparent it was a job like any other, but the benefits were
better.

RAINA ARIAS: (translated) When we worked for the military police we would work one day
and then we’d get a day off. Now, working every day is a heavy load because I have to take a
bus from my home, which is 60 kilometers from Guatemala City and I am a single mother of three
children. When I worked for the police I earned about $150 a month, plus I was given meals and
a place to sleep, so my entire salary could be used for my family. God willing I will earn
more once I start working on my own. I’m learning new skills and to make such a variety of
clothes that I think I will probably be able to earn more in the long run.

DAVIDSON: Far from Guatemala’s capital city, in the humid coastal region, is another
vocational training center, this one for Avilio Ysidro Porras’s former enemies, the guerrilla
fighters of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit. Nearly 3,000 identified members of the
rebel group have laid down their arms, and several hundred have taken part in training programs
such as this one at an experimental agricultural station called “Los Brillantes,” in the
Guatemalan jungle. Antonio Pirir spent most of his life in the jungles and mountains of
Guatemala fighting the government army. Now he’s learning to farm these same lands.

ANTONIO PIRIR:(translated) The most difficult thing for us is our lack of formal
education. We also need to find a final destination and land to cultivate. We don’t know where
we’ll live and work. Those of us still here in the shelter have no homes to go to. We were
only supposed to be here for 3 months, but nothing has been decided yet. And we had to negotiate
with the government to stay here longer. The majority of us are peasants and our hope is to
work the land and to raise some livestock. Another very important thing for us housing. What
we’d like to do is establish a colony or settlement of former guerrillas who will work together.
This settlement will be a place where all of us friends can live and work together. We want
to farm and keep livestock, bees, fish and poultry, so we need good fertile land, with access
to water. We want to stay together and work in a collective manner.

HANK MORRIS: It’s interesting that we’re in this very spot now; we’ve been doing this
since 1989 in different countries: Nicaragua, El Salvador, and we’re here. And the reinsertion
process has really, really improved from our part. Not, you have to ask the ex-combatants, but
I think the international community is working much better, much better together; the donors
are; and I think collectively we’re better prepared to be able to accompany and help the ex-combatants
help themselves.

DAVIDSON: Hank Morris, a Canadian, is Chief of the United Nations Verification Mission
for the demobilization of the former combatants from both the Army and the rebel groups. When
I spoke to Morris in late September, nine months after the signing of the peace accords, the
reinsertion program was running into some delays.

MORRIS: There’s definitely a lapse, there’s a loss of momentum in the integration
process, for various reasons, most of them sort of out of anybody’s control. One, we believe
the very short concentration period, 60 days, which was really we think, too short to get all
the information that you need for the follow-on courses and capacitation that they need, or
training. And secondly, the foundation itself, the UNRG Foundation, has taken a long time to
spool up. It’s not used to being a civilian organization; it’s more of a guerrilla organization
and it’s a whole new change for them. And then I think the third thing is just the whole thing
of working together. This is a kind of a new process, where everybody is working together, has
taken a bit longer than usual. Those are the three things that strike me. Right now, it’s only
delayed. It’s certainly proceeding, but obviously, as you can see, this place was supposed to
have been finished—the people were supposed to be out and in their, doing useful work in
their houses—at the end of August. And now, maybe not even in the beginning of November.
Hopefully in the beginning of November they’ll be able to be reinserted.

DAVIDSON: Back in the field, which the former rebels have cleared of jungle underbrush,
and recently planted with corn, is a 17-year-old boy who goes by the name Freddie. He says he
joined the guerrilla movement when he was 12.

FREDDIE: (translated) In those years there was lot of repression from the army, and
we had no choice but to go to the mountains and take up the armed struggle.

DAVIDSON: Are you satisfied with the resolution of the war?

FREDDIE: (translated) Yes. For the most part I am satisfied because I think the peace
accords provide a basis for a better future.

DAVIDSON: Working next to Freddie is another former guerrilla, busy cutting out weeds
with a machete. “Amilka,” the name he goes by, has children Freddie’s age and older. He hasn’t
seen his wife or children for 16 years because they left the country when the fighting got bad.

AMILKA: (translated) Since 1986 I’ve been communicating with my family abroad. But
it’s not up to me whether we will be reunited. We’ve been apart for 16 years and I’ll have to
talk it over with my wife now. When I joined the guerrilla movement my wife was very
supportive, and was even involved herself in our work. But then she decided that she and the
children would be better off out of the country.

DAVIDSON: Amilka says he’s optimistic about the future, especially because the peace
accords allow for the former guerrillas to convert their political-military forces into a
legitimate political party that will operate within the Guatemalan legal system.

AMILKA: (translated) We believe that the end of the war opened up spaces for political
participation, and allow us to have a voice where we didn’t before. We have better opportunities
economically as well. We’re being trained and helped to be able to go out on our own. One of
the things that started the war was the extreme poverty in our country. Now, with the opening
of political spaces and more participation, and with the training we’re getting, we’ll be able
to make a better life for ourselves economically and socially. We’ll increase our standard of
living and there will be a greater sharing of the wealth.

DAVIDSON: Are you fully aware of what was in the peace accords, and are you satisfied
essentially with their contents?

AMILKA: (translated) In general I know the contents of the peace accords. I think they
are the basis for beginning a process of change in our country, to increase the standard of
living, to allow for more participation. However, they don’t meet the original objectives of
the guerrilla movement to take power and make this process of change much more quickly. With
the national and international pressure that a peace accord be signed, because of all the
lives being lost, we felt it was time to really negotiate and be willing to sacrifice some
part of our objectives, and to at least agree with the government to begin a process of change.

DAVIDSON: You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation.
This is Part Two in a series about Guatemala—it’s 36-year civil war and the efforts to
rebuild the country since a peace accord was signed in December of 1996. Common Ground
is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts
a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program.
At the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you details on how you can order.

DAVIDSON: The vocational training program at Los Brillantes, and at several other sites
around Guatemala, are funded in part by the United States government and the United Nations
Development Program. Johanna Mendelsohn is a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Agency for International
Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives.

MENDELSOHN: The US government, since 1985, when a transition occurred in Guatemala, has
actively supported the democratic opening that occurred. That is, the election of a civilian
president and the continuation of a succession of civilian presidents in the last decade. What
gave a new opportunity for USAID was really the signing of the peace accord in December of
1996, which created the grounds for a more aggressive policy by the international community to
accelerate the process of peace. For the United States government, our interest was really in
the emergency phase of that operation. Right now, in year one, under the terms of the peace
accord, we are in an emergency operation. And that emergency operation will end in May of 1998.
What this initial phase consists of is the demobilization of both the URNG, the guerrilla
forces, which have so far gone very well and successfully and now the beginning of the
demobilization of the military police, which the accords mandated as well. The US government
has an Office of Transition Initiatives which deals with emergency post-conflict reconstruction
and rehabilitation needs. That office deals with areas that are normally not handled under the
traditional development umbrella. By those we mean demobilization of armies, reintegration of
people back into civil society, as well as support for the immediate emergency operations. And
that is what USAID did in the days following the peace accord. In record time, with the cooperation
of the United Nations Development Program, we set up eight camps in six sites for demobilizing
the URNG. And this was done around Christmas time, which is quite a feat in itself. The demobilization
was only one month off schedule but ended in time. People were processed through centers,
given training, and sent out into the field. Those people who had no homes were actually given
half-way houses or half-way house locations in which to live. I’m happy to say that at this
time, in the fall of 1997, the process is moving so well that those people in training are
extremely happy with the kind of programming they are getting.

DAVIDSON: Dollarwise, how much money is the United States putting into this emergency
program?

MENDELSOHN: The emergency demobilization program costs very little. The United States
government did a 50-50 cost share with the United Nations Development Program. The initial
cantonization of the rebels, that is putting them into camps, was about a $3.5 million project,
of which the United States government contributed $1.7 million and the UNDP contributed $1.7
million. But that included building structures. What’s interesting about this program is that
when the buildings were taken down, the materials did not go to waste. We set up a program to
give the materials that were used in construction to communities surrounding these camps so
that they could take the siding, or the roofing, or the toilet fixtures, or the kitchen
facilities, and use them. So there has been nothing that has gone to waste. And it also
supports the sense that a change has come to the countryside.

DAVIDSON: And why is the US putting money into this demobilization program? What is
the importance of that?

MENDELSOHN: We all know in post-conflict situations that creating stability and
security are the most important factors. Taking away guns and giving people an opportunity to
get a new start is basic to rehabilitation in any war-torn society. Certainly Guatemala is a
war-torn society: 36 years of war left a tremendous amount of disarray and destabilization. So
there is a vested interest in our own hemisphere to ensure that Guatemala can advance in a
democratic path. And after a long and sad history it certainly looks like it’s moving in the
right direction.

DAVIDSON: Now you’ve met with guerrillas and members of the army who are involved in
these programs. What changes have you seen occur in them, both in terms of their skills and
did you see any attitude changes?

MENDELSOHN: Well I think the attitudinal changes have occurred over time. The ability
to have come to a peace negotiation table was, of definition, a change in attitudes. But
clearly the ability to get people who’ve never talked to each other into the same room was
essential in this process. Right now you do see changes, even in the ability to create consensus
and compromise. The peace negotiations have stopped formally. But there are sub-commissions
that continue to work in Guatemala that are formal negotiating processes. But it is a process
where people can talk in the same room. They don’t have to use a gun to force a process. They
can vet their concerns, they can have them shared among international donors, and they can
understand the bottom line that there are certain finite resources to move the agenda forward.
And the goal is always to keep people looking ahead as to what the future will be, by putting
these resources in a very strategic way.

DAVIDSON: And are you confident that this is a lasting peace in Guatemala?

MENDELSOHN: The direction in Guatemala looks very positive. It’s the last country in
Central America that has yet to negotiate a peace accord and complete the peace accord. It
augurs well because of the size of the country, the size of the potential economy that it can
have. But there are challenges. It’s a country with a large Indian population that must be
integrated into the national mainstream. It’s a country where there is still large-scale
violence that takes place. And these are challenges to the elected government. But they do
have a democratically-elected government. They are incorporating people from the war into
civil society, and the vibrancy of civil society is very much evident when you visit the
country. And these are all positive signs and indicators that peace is at hand.

DAVIDSON: For 30 years Guatemala was ruled by a series of military dictatorships. The
army carried out a counter-insurgency campaign during that period to root out anti-government
guerrillas. The job ahead, according to Guatemala’s Foreign Minister, Eduardo Stein, is to
completely overhaul the army, its mission, and its personnel.

EDUARDO STEIN: I would say that there is an expected restlessness within the army, in
terms of what the new, concrete missions are for them. How to change from one institution that
for over 30 years was organized for counter-insurgency performance. Even the physical
installations that they had, the geographical locations of their bases, they were all designed
and devised for the counter-insurgency war. All of the intelligence apparatus. All of their
resources, the training they had—everything. Now, it’s undergoing very important changes. The
President has set up a mixed team comprised with civilians and military commanders to revise
even the curricular activities of their training. But this is going to take some time.

DAVIDSON: How would you describe the new mission of the army?

STEIN: Well, I think it’s both going back to the original definition in our Constitution,
as well as going forward to a more modern conception of what a military force should be in a
country like ours, in a world like ours. We would like to better specify an aim which has
already been stated, for the army to take care of the border areas, but not in the 19th-century
conception of defending us against an attack from Mexico, or from Honduras or El Salvador,
which is most unlikely, but rather what are the true dangers today for our countries? Well,
Guatemala, to put it succinctly, is a corridor for people trafficking—let me say a corridor
for narcotics trafficking. There is also a problem with archaeological sacking of our Mayan
sites, as well as the colonial art, which is being stolen and taken out of the country illegally.
And also there is an important element in taking care of our own natural resources. Central
America as a whole, as an isthmus, has a biodiversity rarely matched in the rest of the planet.
Just to give you a couple of examples, in Costa Rica, or Guatemala, or Panama, alone, in each
country, there are more bird species than in the United States and Canada put together. Just
in one tree in our tropical rain forest there coexists over a hundred species of insects. So
this biodiversity, which is yet to be fully explored and taken advantage of without damaging
the environment, is something that we also should take care of. And there are areas which are
so remote that maybe, just with modern redeployment of special forces, these can be taken care
of.

DAVIDSON: The police force will also be restructured. Right now Guatemala is in the
midst of a massive crime wave, a phenomenon common to many newly-emerging democracies. There
are a lot of weapons floating around after the war, and the need for a new civilian police
force is great. Raquel Zelaya, the President’s Secretary for Peace, explains the difficulties
they’ve encountered while trying to create a new national civil police that is in compliance
with the terms of the peace accords.

RAQUEL ZELAYA: (translated) We’re facing many difficulties. We’ve been criticized a
lot, but it’s very difficult to create a new police force when we can’t meet certain requirements
put forth in the peace accords. For example, we’ve been accused of having police with backgrounds
of human rights violations. Right now the government is investigating what kinds of violations
they are and whether they really took place. Sometimes people are accused falsely. The
government is investigating these charges, along with the Presidential Commission on Human
Rights, and doing background checks. Guatemala has particular social characteristics that
affect the type of police force we have. Sometimes we’re criticized by countries with much
higher levels of development. The peace accords require that police officers be members of the
community they serve. Guatemala has a very high rate of illiteracy and many police candidates
don’t have high school diplomas. If we required diplomas of everyone, then we’ll be criticized
for not hiring police from the community. That they don’t represent the community and they may
not speak the local language. So, we’re trying to create a new police force with what we have.
There are training programs for the police, literacy programs, and accelerated courses. It’s a
slow process but we’re trying to work towards meeting all the requirements of the peace
accords.

DAVIDSON: That’s Raquel Zelaya, the Guatemalan Secretary for Peace. When we continue
our series of programs about Guatemala, we’ll look at the situation for Guatemala’s indigenous
people and the need to uncover the truth about what happened during Guatemala’s war. For
Common Ground I’m Mary Gray-Davidson.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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