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Israel’s shadowy role in Guatemala’s dirty war

Part 4 - Belligerence at the border

The Israeli military-security complex casts a long, intercontinental shadow over Guatemalans who are still fleeing the consequences of the dirty war.

In some areas along the US-Mexico border, such as in Texas, the numbers of migrants hailing today from Central America (but only from the countries combusted by US intervention – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) – has begun to outpace the number coming from Mexico.

According to information provided to this author by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office in Arizona, many Guatemalans who have perished while crossing these desert borderlands originated from among the indigenous Mayan areas hit hardest by the 1980s genocide: El Quiché, Huehuetenango, Chimaltenango.

Southern Arizona has also seen a spike in undocumented Guatemalan migration. US firms and institutions have been collaborating with Israeli security companies to up-armor Southern Arizona’s border zone.

The Israeli weapons firm Elbit won a major government contract to provide 52 surveillance towers in Southern Arizona’s desert borderlands, beginning with the pilot program of seven towers currently placed among the hills and valleys surrounding Nogales, a border town split by the wall.

More towers are slated to surround the Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest Native American reservation in the US. Already the number of federal forces occupying permanent positions on Tohono O’odham lands is the largest in US history.

Alan Bersin, a senior figure in the US Department of Homeland Security, described Guatemala’s border with Chiapas, Mexico, as “now our southern border” in 2012. That “southern border” was heavily militarized during Barack Obama’s eight years as US president.

We can safely expect that militarization to continue during Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s anti-migrant rhetoric during the presidential election campaign suggests it is likely to be intensified.

During the dirty war, tens of thousands of Guatemalans fled over this border into Southern Mexico. Today, Israel assists the Mexican authorities in Chiapas with “counterinsurgency” activities largely targeting the indigenous Maya community.

Though media reporting on Guatemala’s connection with Israel has dissipated, Israel’s enterprising efforts in the country have never diminished. Today, Israel’s presence in Guatemala is especially pronounced in the private security industry which proliferated in the years following the so-called Guatemalan peace process of the mid-1990s.

Ohad Steinhart, an Israeli, relocated to Guatemala at this opportune moment, originally working as a weapons instructor. Roughly two years after his 1994 move to Guatemala, he founded his own security firm, Decision Ejecutiva.

Steinhart’s modest 300-employee company is small compared with the colossal Golan Group, Israel’s largest and oldest private security conglomerate in Guatemala.

Founded by ex-Israeli special forces officers, the Golan Group has also trained Department of Homeland Security immigration agents along the US-Mexico border. The Golan Group has employed thousands of agents in Guatemala, some of whom have been involved in repressing environmental and land rights protests against mining operations by Canadian firms. The company was named in a 2014 lawsuit by six Guatemalan farmers and a student who were all shot at close range by security agents during a protest the previous year.

Guatemala’s use of Israeli military trainers and advisers, just as in the 1980s, continues. Israeli advisers have, in recent years, been assisting the current “remilitarization” of Guatemala. Journalist Dawn Paley has reported that Israeli military trainers have shown up once again at an active military base in Coban, which is the site of mass graves from the 1980s. The remains of several hundred people have so far been uncovered there.

The mass graves at Coban serve as the legal basis for the January arrests of 14 former military officers. This past June a Guatemalan judge ruled that the evidence is sufficient for eight of those arrested to stand trial. Future arrests and trials are likely to follow.

Scholars Milton H. Jamail and Margo Gutierrez documented the Israeli arms trade in Central America, notably in Guatemala, in their 1986 book It’s No Secret: Israel’s Military Involvement in Latin America. They worded the title that way because the bulk of the information in the book came from mainstream media sources.

For now, Israel’s well-documented role in Guatemala’s dirty wars passes largely without comment. But Guatemalans know better than most that the long road to accountability begins with acknowledgment.

Yet it is unclear how long it will be before we hear of Israeli officials being called to Guatemala to be tried for the shadowy part they played in the country’s darkest hours.

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