The armored jeeps were lined up single file along a Guatemala City street on August 31 in an ominous queue. By mid-morning, images began circulating of the jeeps outside the offices of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission that has played a key role in bringing down corrupt officials. More jeeps were spotted in the vicinity of the National Palace, along with military personnel. In a country with a not-so-distant past of military coups and massacres, the photographs and videos spread like wildfire, raising alarm as people scrambled to find out what was going on.
To Feliciana Macario, the show of force evoked the worst years of military rule in Guatemala, during the 36-year armed conflict between the U.S.-backed military and paramilitary forces and left-wing guerrilla groups. Macario is one of the national coordinators of CONAVIGUA, a national human rights organization founded by women whose husbands were killed or disappeared during the conflict.
“It creates the threat of a return to the 1980s,” said Macario, an Indigenous Maya Kiche woman who works with victims and survivors of conflict-era state violence.
The armed conflict left more than 200,000 people dead and another 45,000 disappeared. More than 80 percent of victims were Indigenous Maya civilians, and the military was the perpetrator in the overwhelming majority of cases. A U.N.-backed truth commission and now two Guatemalan courts have determined that the military committed genocide in the early 1980s. Peace Accords ended the armed conflict in 1996, but Macario said that Guatemala’s current president, Jimmy Morales, is violating the terms.
“One of the Peace Accords that we highlight is the accord on the role of the army within society. It says that the army has to reduce its numbers, its budget, and everything. But on the contrary, what Jimmy Morales is doing is militarizing. He is increasing the army’s budget and wants to remilitarize the country,” Macario told The Intercept.
Roughly two hours after the jeeps were first spotted outside the offices of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala — CICIG, by its Spanish acronym — Morales stood inside the National Palace flanked by military and police officials and announced that he would not renew CICIG’s mandate, sparking legal challenges, protests, and an ongoing political crisis. The deployment of the jeeps deepened concerns among many Guatemalans about Morales — all the more so when the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala revealed that the vehicles had been donated by the United States for use in border regions, not the capital. Morales and his backers have been courting the support of the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers against CICIG, and there are signs that the U.S. government’s longstanding support for the commission is weakening.
“They were donated by the United States to combat drug trafficking on the borders and they were used to intimidate CICIG, violating everything the agreement says.”
Two months after the jeeps lined the street outside the CICIG offices, the official justification for their use on August 31 is as murky as ever. It was a routine patrol to combat criminal activity, said the Minister of the Interior. It was to protect public institutions and buildings, according to police documents. It was to deter possible violent protests, said the president. Nearly every time a government official makes a statement or a new document comes to light regarding the Jeep J8s, the story becomes a little bit — or a lot — different.
Regardless of the shifting rationales, one thing is now clear: The Guatemalan government violated an agreement with the United States regarding the latter’s donation of Jeep J8s. Both the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Defense confirmed to The Intercept that the vehicles were donated for use by specific Guatemalan interagency task forces for counternarcotics operations in border regions. Their transfer or use outside of those parameters would constitute a violation of the donation agreement, both departments indicated to The Intercept. However, Guatemalan police documents obtained by The Intercept show a pattern of such J8 transfers and use in the months leading up to and including the August 31 deployment in Guatemala City.
“They were donated by the United States to combat drug trafficking on the borders and they were used [August 31] to intimidate CICIG, violating everything the agreement says,” said Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman Jordán Rodas, who has challenged the August 31 deployment in Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.
The public standoff between Morales and CICIG has been brewing for over a year. CICIG has operated alongside the Office of the Public Prosecutor for more than a decade, but its success with high-profile cases has soared over the past few years, during the tenure of head commissioner Iván Velásquez, a Colombian former prosecutor and judge. Thanks to their joint investigations, dozens of politicians, lawyers, and corporate executives are now behind bars for corruption, including one former president.
Morales, a former television comedian with hard-line right-wing military backers, was elected president in late 2015 on a wave of anti-corruption fervor and promised to support CICIG throughout his presidency. Within a year and a half of taking office, however, that promise went out the window after Morales, two of his relatives, and his political party all became the subjects of criminal investigations. In August 2017, Morales tried to expel Velásquez from the country, but was blocked by the constitutional court. This time around, Morales acted while Velásquez was outside the country. His declaration barring Velásquez has also been declared unconstitutional, but Morales and several members of his cabinet have spoken of illegal orders and international manipulation, and stated that they would not permit Velásquez to return. The Ministry of Defense and the army announced that they would respect the court rulings, but Morales and his closest allies remain in open defiance of the Constitutional Court. With U.N. support, Velásquez continues as CICIG head commissioner from abroad.
“What Jimmy Morales is doing is militarizing. He is increasing the army’s budget and wants to remilitarize the country.”
As political instability and protests mounted, government officials’ stories about why the J8s were in front of CICIG immediately before Morales announced plans to shutter the commission shifted. At a press conference early on, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, Foreign Relations Minister Sandra Jovel, and others claimed that the J8s were out on a routine patrol, part of ongoing operations to combat crime. A Ministry of the Interior report drawn up after the fact obtained by The Intercept shows plans for Guatemala City operations extending a month prior to and after August 31. However, the specific task scheduled for August 30 and 31, according to the document, was different from other days. The task was to monitor and protect government institutions and buildings. Officials highlighted a version of this reasoning in later statements.
Then, in an October 3 radio interview, Morales publicly contradicted his ministers — and reports from his own office obtained by The Intercept — and stated that the J8s had been sent to CICIG in case of violent protests.
Ministry of Defense spokesperson Oscar Pérez referred The Intercept to the Ministry of the Interior for all questions regarding the J8s, including a request for comment on the contradictions between statements by other officials. Pérez repeatedly declined to answer the question of whether any soldiers or army personnel were present in the August 31 operations involving the J8s. The jeeps and task forces are under civilian command, he said. Spokespeople for the Ministry of the Interior and Morales did not respond to The Intercept’s repeated requests for comment.
The State Department is closely monitoring the use of the U.S.-donated jeeps, a State Department spokesperson told The Intercept in an email, noting that the embassy expressed its concern in a public statement when the jeeps first appeared. “The US government, including the State Department, takes allegations of misuse of U.S.-donated vehicles seriously and will respond appropriately once the review into the alleged misuse is complete,” according to the spokesperson.
According to another State Department spokesperson, the documents specify that the J8s are to be used for counternarcotics operations. They also specify that the task forces focus on eliminating criminal activity, especially drug trafficking, on Guatemala’s borders, according to the official. The Department of Defense highlighted the same point, but in more detail.
“The J8 Jeeps were provided between 2013 and 2018 to support the operations of three Guatemalan Interagency Task Forces (IATFs), Tecun Uman, Chorti, and Xinca that are combined police, military, and tax authority border interdiction units led by a senior police officer and under the control of Ministry of [the Interior],” Department of Defense spokesperson Johnny Michael told The Intercept in an email response to a series of questions.
“The documents under which these vehicles were donated specify that the IATFs focus on eliminating criminal activity, in particular narcotics trafficking, on Guatemala’s borders, and that the J8s are expected to be used in a manner that prioritizes border security and high-crime areas. The donation documents specify that the J8s are to be used for counternarcotics operations,” wrote Michael.
The Guatemalan government has not notified the United States of any transfer or change in mission for the donated jeeps, but the Department of Defense is investigating “comments insinuating an apparent transfer for varying uses of the Jeep J8s” and is consulting with the State Department on any further actions, according to Michael.
There is no question that transfers occurred. The Intercept obtained more than 100 pages of national police and Ministry of the Interior documents and reports filed with the Constitutional Court in fulfillment of a court order requiring the institutions to explain and justify the presence of Jeep J8s outside CICIG on August 31. According to police reports, J8s were deployed in Guatemala City beginning in April 2018 “with the goal of reducing the crime rate.” The transfer of four J8s each from the Chorti and Xinca interagency task forces was ordered on April 23 for a two-day Guatemala City citizen security initiative. Police officials continued to transfer even more Jeep J8s from the task forces to a variety of police initiatives and operations all over the capital over the course of the next four months, leading up to August 31.
“Is it ‘three strikes you’re out’? Is it a freeze on future aid? We don’t know.”
In fact, as the pattern of transfers to and between other capital city police operations demonstrate, J8s have been used outside the scope of each of the three major points the State Department and Department of Defense highlight with regard to the donation documents: purpose (combat drug trafficking), geography (border regions), and control (interagency task forces).
Details on how the U.S. government monitors its donations to foreign security forces can be hard to come by, according to Adam Isacson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America’s defense oversight program. Between 1990 and 2005, there was a total restriction on U.S. government aid to Guatemala’s army due to past human rights violations.
Since then, according to Isacson, most aid to Guatemala’s army, including the join task forces, has come from the Pentagon. “Specifically, one Defense Department program. They used to call it Section 1004 and now they call it Counterdrug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime, and as the name implies, that aid can only be used for that,” Isacson said.
The Department of Defense has fewer reporting requirements than State, he added. Often the program’s only reporting even to Congress is a periodic spreadsheet containing just the country name and category, with no further details on the aid.
“We have not seen the end use monitoring agreements. We never really do. They keep those classified usually as a matter of course,” said Isacson. As a result, the specific consequences of agreement violations are unknown. “Is it ‘three strikes you’re out’? Is it a freeze on future aid? We don’t know,” he said.
On the afternoon of August 31, Rodrigo Batres, a researcher working with the El Observador political research and analysis association, showed up to an impromptu rally in the capital city’s central plaza just hours after Morales’s announcement.
It was not the first time that citizens protested their government’s attempts to derail the anti-corruption commission, and some people had pro-CICIG signs ready to go. Others were waving Guatemalan flags when the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issued its statement about the jeeps being donated by the United States. Earlier in the day, the embassy had responded to the news that CICIG’s mandate would not be renewed.
The U.S. was “aware” of the decision, the initial statement said, noting that the U.S. government believes CICIG “is an effective and important partner in fighting impunity, improving governance, and holding the corrupt accountable in Guatemala.” But then the embassy stated that the U.S. “will continue to support Guatemala’s fight against corruption and impunity” and views that fight as an integral part of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. For many Guatemalans, the lack of a clear condemnation of Morales’s decision and the continued support for Guatemala’s efforts to combat corruption — without CICIG — amounted to an endorsement of Morales.
“I think that statement is key. The statement says [the U.S.] respects the government’s decision and that it will continue to support the struggle against corruption. I think it is a huge show of support for the government, and that the change happened when the government changed up there in the U.S.,” Batres told The Intercept.
The U.S. has been CICIG’s biggest funder, providing $44.5 million between 2007 and 2017, which amounts to more than a quarter of the commission’s total budget. In the past, the U.S. has joined the other main donors — Canada and the European Union — in vocal support for CICIG, but it was conspicuously absent from donor country joint statements lamenting the Guatemalan government’s decision to bar Velásquez from entering the country. Observers suspect that the change in tune may be due to aggressive lobbying by Morales and his supporters, who have positioned Morales as a key U.S. ally in the region.
Guatemala was one of just a handful of countries that supported U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital — and it relocated its own embassy to Jerusalem just days after the U.S. did so. Morales was also slowest among Central American leaders to condemn the Trump administration’s policy of family separation at the U.S. border. Claims from Guatemala’s right-wing that CICIG is an agent of radical foreign elements also gained traction with U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who placed a freeze on $6 million in CICIG funding in May. (The hold on the funds has since been lifted.)
Following the initial August 31 statements from U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, Trump administration officials have reiterated their support for the Guatemala government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did so the following day in a tweet that read “we greatly appreciate Guatemala’s efforts in counternarcotics and security,” with no mention of CICIG. Pompeo then called Morales on September 6 to express U.S. support for Guatemala’s sovereignty and “continued United States support for a reformed CICIG,” promising to work with Guatemala to implement the reforms in the coming year, according to the State Department. The details of those reforms were never specified.
Batres expects the trend of U.S. support for Morales to continue, despite lip service to efforts to combat corruption and impunity. “Even though they support institutionality, they are not going to stop supporting one of the main subordinate governments in the region,” he said, raising his voice over the protesters’ chants and noisemakers in the background.