Strategies of a New Cold War: US Marines and the Drug War in Guatemala


US Marine helicopter in Guatemala.*
US Marine helicopter in Guatemala.*

Nota en español : Estrategias de una Nueva Guerra Fría: Marines de Estados Unidos y la Guerra Contra las Drogas en Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY—The news broke in the United States during the lazy summer days of late August: 200 US Marines were stationed in Guatemala as part of the war on drugs.[1] The deployment of US combat troops to Guatemala was part of Operation Martillo, a military plan meant to disrupt cocaine trafficking routes that pass through Central America on their way from Colombia to the United States.


Fighting organized crime and drug trafficking is the most recent justification for US incursions in Guatemala, also serving to justify the increased activity of Guatemalan military around the country. This militarization is taking place in areas where there are fierce social and land conflicts related to the imposition of mega-resource extraction projects, such as in mining and oil industries. In addition, communities that resist displacement and the extractive industries have been tarred with accusations that they are involved in the organized crime; in some cases entire peasant villages have even been labeled “narco-communities.”



“We have the sense that [fighting narcotrafficking] is a pretext to return to the level of military deployment that was maintained during the height of the armed conflict, which resulted in acts of genocide,” said Iduvina Hernandez Batres, of the Guatemala City-based NGO Security and Democracy (Sedem). The Guatemalan Army, which is still formally ineligible for receiving US military assistance, was responsible for the vast majority of the 200,000 killed and the 50,000 disappeared during the internal armed conflict, which officially ended in 1996.


The Guatemalan army was called upon “to put an end to the external threats and contribute to neutralizing illegal armed groups by means of military power,” by Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina the day after his inauguration in January 2012.[2] Pérez Molina, a former General and head of army intelligence, also promised to increase military spending. So far, he has kept his promise. According to Plaza Publica, a Guatemalan investigative journalism outlet, projected spending on military and security equipment in 2013 alone will surpass all such spending between 2004 and 2012.[3]



The arrival of US Marines in Guatemala represents more than a military maneuver to disrupt drug trafficking. It demonstrates that in allied countries like Guatemala, the US can champion a military invasion under the discourse of the war on drugs with little fanfare or criticism. The deployment of US troops to Guatemala is arguably the most blatant example of an evolving strategy that the US military establishment is betting on in order to expand and exercise control in the hemisphere, all within an international framework of formal democracy and law and order.


“The predominant hemispheric security challenges no longer stem principally from state–on-state conflict, right-wing paramilitaries, or left-wing insurgents,” reads the US’s Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement, released in October of 2012. “Today’s threats to regional peace and stability stem from the spread of narcotics and other forms of illicit trafficking, gangs, and terrorism, the effects of which can be exacerbated by natural disasters and uneven economic opportunity.”[4]


Guatemala, and Central America as a whole, is a testing ground for one iteration of the US military’s new strategy of control, which is being applied unevenly throughout the hemisphere. Here, it includes the presence of US combat troops – something the US can’t get away with in Mexico. It also includes the involvement of military officials from Canada, Chile, and Colombia as trainers in regional security matters.[5]


Events in Guatemala are taking place in the context of an ongoing escalation of the US-backed drug war in Mexico, which has pushed the number of murders to around 100,000 over the past six years, according to some estimates.[6]



While Mexico has been a central focus for US anti-narcotics funds and media attention, its neighbors to the south have already seen their share of action. The deployment of US Marines to Guatemala came just two months after a controversial massacre of civilians in Ahuas, Honduras, when US backed anti-drug efforts there went awry. According to human rights groups, Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Honduran police shot from State Department Helicopters killing four Indigenous people in the country’s northwest in May.[7]


“The aircraft that were used in that operation were at that time piloted by officials of the Guatemalan Army,” said Sedem’s Hernandez. “Later, [Operation Martillo] appeared publicly in Guatemala, getting its official start midway through this year, but the operations had already begun.”



According to official sources, between July and October, members of the US Marine Corps Forces, South —the naval component of the US Southern Command— flew helicopters destined for trafficking interdiction efforts in Guatemala out of Santa Elena, Petén, and aircraft out of La Aurora in Guatemala City, Retalhuleu, and Puerto San José, as well as coordinating with the Guatemalan Navy in Puerto Quetzal, on the Pacific Coast.[8]


Beyond a handful of wire stories, news of the deployment of active duty US combat troops in Guatemala made barely a blip in the media.[9] It also seemed to go largely unnoticed in the Central American nation. Few outside military and security research circles were aware of the details of the agreement between the US Embassy and Guatemala’s Foreign Relations Ministry.



Nineth Montenegro, the second vice president of Guatemala’s congress, told Toward Freedom she found out about the operations through reports in the newspaper.


“There was no discussion in congress. It was an agreement [made by the executive] that the President approved,” said Montenegro. “Some here think there was a violation, because legislative power is independent and it is the only [power] which can authorize the arrival of troops or military or support. It never went to congress.”



A Quiet Agreement


Instead of moving through constitutional channels, on July 16th, 2012, the US Embassy in Guatemala delivered a verbal note to the Minister of Foreign Relations, proposing the conditions for the regularization of US defense personnel in Guatemala. The note from the Embassy, which was later transcribed and published in Guatemala’s Congressional Gazette, makes reference to military and aviation cooperation agreements signed between the two countries in 1949, 1954, and 1955.[10] One of the documents referenced in the agreement was signed by Castillo Armas, a military dictator who took power after the US backed coup against President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Such references make it clear that the legal elements permitting present day US military engagement in Guatemala were created in the wake of the coup in 1954, and have been maintained ever since.



The day after they received the request from the US Embassy, the Guatemalan government responded in the affirmative. Toward Freedom obtained the exchange of notes between the US and Guatemala which legalized the presence of US troops and private security contractors hired by the US Department of Defense in Guatemala for 120 days, beginning July 17th. [11]


The agreement allows US personnel to carry arms, to import and export goods without inspection or taxation by the Guatemalan government, to freely transit into, out of, and throughout the country without interference by the Guatemalan government, and to make free and unlimited use of radiofrequencies.[12] US soldiers and contractors are granted immunity from prosecution in Guatemala should injury or death of civilians or military personnel result from the operation.



According to members of the US Navy, their mission in Guatemala, led by the Joint Interagency Task Force South out of Key West, Florida, represents a move back to what the organization has traditionally done.


“For decades, the Marine Corps has supported engagement in Central and South America with the intent of building partnership capacity and improving interoperability,” wrote Captain Greg Wolf on the Marine Corps official website. “In recent years, though, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have curtailed some of that engagement. The Marines of Detachment Martillo relished the opportunity to partner with Guatemalan authorities and strengthen ties in the region.”[13]




According to New York University history professor Greg Grandin, whose book Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Empire documents the US military’s shift from Vietnam and South Asia to Central America in the late 1970s, the discourse of the US military today masks a continued attempt to control local armies and police.



“We’ve come a long way from the robust language of the cold war — which hailed Latin American death squads and dictators as ‘freedom fighters’ on the frontline of a global anticommunist crusade – to the anodyne babble of ‘building partnership capacity and improving inter-operability,’” noted Grandin in an email to Toward Freedom. “But basically the goal has remained the same, to coordinate the work of national security forces on an international level subordinated, either directly or indirectly, to Washington’s directive.”


That said, Grandin thinks the reach of the US in the hemisphere has shrunk, making the importance of what takes place in countries like Honduras and Guatemala even greater.


“What is different is the degree that the US’s reach has been reduced, from all of Latin America to basically a corridor running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico,” wrote Grandin. “But even there, US’s hegemony is threatened by a degree of independence that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, whether it be in Juan Manuel Santos’ Colombia or Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua.”


The steadfast allegiance displayed by the Government of Guatemala towards Washington, as well as the presence of US troops in Guatemala –both overt and clandestine – has a strong historical precedent.


In 1960, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) coordinated directly with Guatemala’s right wing president José Miguel Ramón Ydígoras Fuentes, who offered support for the Bay of Pigs invasion against Fidel Castro in Cuba. According to declassified CIA documents, “Not only did Guatemala sever official relations with Cuba, but before the end of February 1960, President Ydígoras offered the use of his territory to support propaganda activities directed against Castro; and he also made a special offer through the CIA ‘to groups favorably regarded by us [of] training facilities in the Petén area of Guatemala.’”[14]



The US continued to be openly involved in all manner of military operations in Guatemala through to 1978, when official military aid to Guatemala was cut off by US congress after evidence of massacres, rapes, and disappearances by the army became insurmountable.


Extrajudicial assassinations and other scandals continue to dog the Guatemalan military. In October of this year, six people were murdered when soldiers fired on Indigenous demonstrators protesting high electricity prices, changes to the teacher training program, and constitutional reforms in Totonicapán.[15]



Of late, US assistance to the Guatemalan army has come in the form of supports for anti-narcotics initiatives, including the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a nearly $500 million program started in 2008, with assistance, equipment and training going to Central American police and armies.




The presence of US troops in Guatemala on non-combat missions is ongoing, consisting of one special deployment after another. Beyond the Horizon, a series of “U.S. Southern Command-sponsored, joint foreign military interaction/humanitarian exercises” in Honduras and Guatemala, ended two days before Marines arrived in Guatemala for Operation Martillo in July.[16] Two days after Operation Martillo soldiers left the Guatemala, members of the United States Navy construction battalions deployed to Coban, Alta Verapaz, as part of a “theater security cooperation mission” with local troops.[17]


But there is a new twist to the engagement of US Marines in Guatemala for Operation Martillo. “This is the first Marine deployment that directly supports countering transnational crime in this area, and it’s certainly the largest footprint we’ve had in that area in quite some time,” Marine Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes told AP shortly after news of the deployment broke in the US.[18]



Or, as Wired magazine put it, it was “Marines vs. Zetas,” in reference to the Mexican narco-paramilitary group known for mass kidnappings, extortions, and massacres of civilians throughout Mexico and in Guatemala.[19]


Unlikely Allies in an Uncertain World



In an October 2012 speech in Virginia, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta outlined his army’s plan in the face of budget constraints, explaining that rotational deployments and joint exercises with local militaries are to become an increasingly important element of US defense strategy.


“We build new alliances, we build partnerships, we build their capacity and capability to be able to defend and provide their own security,” said Panetta. “So we’re gonna do that. We’re gonna do that in Latin America. We’re gonna do that in Africa. We’re gonna do that in Europe. We’re doing it in the Pacific. Just have a rotational deployment of Marines going into Darwin. We’re gonna develop the same capability in the Philippines. Gonna do the same thing in Vietnam. Gonna do the same thing elsewhere.”[20]


The U.S. Southern Command, operating from a new $400 million headquarters just west of Miami, is responsible for all US military activities in Central and Latin America.[21]


“The military’s role is not to act as a law enforcement force, but the unfortunate reality is that it has been called upon to deal with this problem on an interim basis in several countries,” said U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs Frank Mora in June. “When asked to do a job that many of them do not want to do—which is to do law enforcement, like in El Salvador and Guatemala—they have tried to do it the best that they can.”[22]


One of the least acknowledged difficulties of increasing US cooperation with the Guatemalan armed forces is the role the army has played and continues to play in drug trafficking. The Guatemalan army is widely documented to have been involved in drug trafficking, but that hasn’t stopped the US from partnering with it and providing it with technology and training aimed at controlling the flow of narcotics.


“Evidence from various sources, including information from U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports, indicates that beginning in the 1980s, Colombian traffickers gained access to trafficking networks along key routes throughout the south and west of Guatemala,” reads a publicly available research paper prepared by Navy-linked CNA Analysis and Solutions. “These networks were composed of military intelligence officials, their subordinates and former colleagues, and informants and partners—including military commissioners.”[23]



By the mid 1990s, Guatemala’s top drug lord was Byron Berganza, a former soldier whose “security detail was comprised exclusively of military officials,” according to a 2010 report by the Woodrow Wilson Institute.[24] At that time, Berganza was also a DEA informant and the Guatemalan go-between with Colombian drug trafficking groups. Berganza was extradited to the US in 2003, opening up a power vacuum in the country’s drug transshipment market, eventually filled by members of a handful of powerful Guatemalan families.


Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched the war on drug trafficking organizations there in December 2006, Mexican drug traffickers have increasingly staked out territory in Guatemala.




“This has a lot to do with the beginning of the war in Mexico and interests of territorial control on the part of actors who didn’t involve themselves in territorial control because that was the job of local narcotraffickers,” said Claudia Virginia Samayoa, who coordinates UDEFEGUA, a group dedicated to defending activists in Guatemala.



These days, according to activist and writer Jennifer Harbury, the rising violence in Guatemala “is being carried out by military leaders who took their uniforms off after the war, created large mafias to run drugs, and hired and trained gangs such as the Zetas—that’s very well documented—to help them run the drugs.”[25]


It was a former Kaibil (member of Guatemala’s elite Special Forces) who was accused of directing the single most violent act in Guatemala yet linked to drug trafficking. Hugo Gómez Vásquez was accused of supervising the massacre in Finca Los Cocos, Péten in May 2011, where 27 farmworkers were killed, allegedly as part of a land dispute between Otto Salguero, a local landowner, and the Zetas.[26]


Some Kaibiles trained in the US, as did some of the first members of the Zetas, who defected from the GAFEs, an airborne unit of Mexico’s elite special forces, in the late 1990s. Kaibiles have also trained the GAFEs, and have been involved in training with US Marines.[27]


“It has become normal that when they find an official on active duty among Zetas, or a Kaibil who is still in active service, two or three days go by and the army claims ‘it’s that they deserted’, but the internal process regarding what discipline was applied, and what disciplinary procedures there are aren’t documented,” Hernandez told Toward Freedom.


Regardless of evidence of collaboration with the Zetas and other drug trafficking groups and a history of participation in massacres, Guatemala’s Kaibiles maintain a privileged relationship with the US military.


Drug War Capitalism, From Guatemala to the Caribbean


“These guys, the Marines, they aren’t just here to control narcotrafficking, but to train the Guatemalan military for what I call the continuation of the cold war,” said Kajkok Maximo Ba Tiul, a Maya Poqomchi’ analyst and university professor based in Coban, Alta Verapaz. “A cold war that’s more refined, more academic, more intellectualized, if you’d like. But one that will be just as brutal and damaging for all of us here in Guatemala, and which I don’t think is destined only for Guatemala.”



The positioning of new military bases in areas of heightened social conflict has raised alarm bells for local activists. One of the new bases is in San Juan Sacatepequez, which is the site of a major struggle against a highway project and a cement company, another in Panzós, near a proposed nickel mine in El Estor and surrounding areas, which are steeped in land conflict related to the industrial production of African Palm, and the third in Peten, the huge northern region of the country which is currently undergoing a wave of oil investment and development.[28]


“In less than 10 months, this government has inaugurated three new military bases, and there’s talk about a fourth that could be up and running by the end of this year or the beginning of next, all with the argument –and this is what worries us– of the supposed fight against drug trafficking, this has been the pretext for the participation of the army in civilian law enforcement,” said Hernandez, who proceeded to point out that each of the new bases is located in a resource rich area.



Indeed, if the drug war in Mexico and Guatemala continues to play out as it has in Colombia, the notion of what “success” means in this war must be expanded to include the provision of new opportunities and guarantees for investors and transnational corporations, whose operations may also eventually benefit from increasingly militarized police forces and a beefed up prison system capable of controlling dissent within a “democratic” law and order framework.[29]


It is clear that the US backed war in Mexico is what transformed the narco-landscape of Guatemala. Similarly, there is little doubt that pushing traffickers out of the waters of the Pacific Coast, as Operation Martillo seeks to do, will make the Caribbean Sea a more transited route.



It is widely known that consumers in the first world fuel the drug trade. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2010 that 85 per cent of the gross profits of the $35 billion cocaine market are generated in the United States.[30] Yet it is also important to consider the ability of the US armed forces to manipulate an enemy, now called transnational organized crime, created by that same demand. The US and other countries have strategic interests in the Caribbean that would be well served by the application of the drug war there.


In fact, last October, just two days after the US Marines departed Guatemala, US drug war tsar William Brownfield arrived in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. “All of us,” Brownfield declared, “agree that in the months and years to come, the problem, the threat and danger of illicit drugs will increase, but the fault lies not with the Dominican Republic or its people.”[31]



Taken in context, it reads almost like a sad repetition of the past. Just as Guatemala served as a staging ground for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1960, it has potentially again served as a base to facilitate the transfer of the drug war back to the Caribbean. If only, like before, the invasion would fail.



Dawn Paley is an investigative journalist from Vancouver, BC. More of her work can be found on her website at, or follow her on twitter @dawn_.






*Photo source: US Southcom

[1] Ruiz-Goireina, Romina, Mendoza, Martha. “200 US MARINES JOIN ANTI-DRUG EFFORT IN GUATEMALA.” August 29, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2012 from:


[2] CNN Wire Staff. “Guatemala’s president calls on troops to ‘neutralize’ organized crime.” January 16, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2012 from:


[3] Baires Quezada, Rodrigo. “Presupuesto: más represión que investigación y justicia.” Plaza Publica. November 7, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2012 from:


[4] Department of Defense. “Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement.” October 2012. P. 6. Retrieved November 24, 2012 from:


[5] Department of Defense. “Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement.” October 2012. P. 8. Retrieved November 24, 2012 from:


[6] Steller, Tim. “Years of killing hard to add up in Mexico.” Arizona Daily Star. Retrieved December 10, 2012 from:


[7] Bird, Annie; Main, Alex. “Collateral Damage in the Drug War: The May 11 killings in Ahuas and the impact of the U.S. war on drugs in La Moskitia, Honduras.” August 2012. Pp. 20. Retrieved November 11, 2012 from:


[8] Hernández, Carlos. “Estados Unidos concluye “Operación Martillo” en el país.” Diario de Centro América. October 23, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2012 from:


Further information on the whereabouts of US Marines during Operation Martillo is based on visual evidence posted by the US Southern Command and the US Embassy in Guatemala. Note that the image of Santa Elena is mislabeled with the dateline RETALHULEU:


The same dateline issue appears here:


Puerto Quetzal:


Guatemala City:


[9] The media silence around the deployment of US combat troops to Guatemala has been deafening. By way of example, an LA Times article purporting to review US involvement in anti-narcotics activities in Central America left it out entirely. See: Wilkinson, T., Fausset, R. “U.S. gingerly expands security role in Central America.” LA Times, December 4, 2012. Retrieved December 10, 2012 from:,0,7198665,full.story


[10] The original 1949, 1954 and 1955 original agreements (in Spanish) are available here:


[11] Organismo Ejecutivo. “Acuerdo por Canje de Notas entre el Gobierno de la Republica de Guatemala y el Gobierno de Estados Unidos de America Relativo a la Operacion Martillo.” Diario de Centro América. No 18 Tomo CCXCV. August 20, 2012. Retrieved November 10, 2012 from:


[12] Organismo Ejecutivo. “Acuerdo por Canje de Notas entre el Gobierno de la Republica de Guatemala y el Gobierno de Estados Unidos de America Relativo a la Operacion Martillo.” Diario de Centro América. No 18 Tomo CCXCV. August 20, 2012. Retrieved November 10, 2012 from: Recall that in February 2011, a US Air Force cargo plane arriving in Argentina for joint police training exercises was discovered to contain weapons and morphine that were not declared by the US soldiers. CNN Wire Staff. “Cargo sparks dispute between Argentina, U.S.” February 16, 2011. Retrieved November 24, 2012 from: The agreement for the arrival of US Marines to Guatemala prevents Guatemalan agents from revising the contents of aircraft or other vehicles arriving to the country.


[13] Wolf, Greg. “After partnering to disrupt trafficking, Detachment Martillo departs Guatemala.” October 16, 2012. Retrieved November 13, 2012 from:


[14] Central Intelligence Agency. “Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation: Participation in the Conduct of Foreign Policy” Volume II. October 1979. Pp. 13-14. Retrieved November 9, 2012 from:


[15] Paley, Dawn; Watts, Jonathan. “UK owner of Guatemalan energy firm urged to act after protest deaths.” October 12, 2012. The Guardian. Retrieved December 10, 2012 from:


[16] United States Southern Command. “Beyond the Horizon, New Horizons 2012.” June 19, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2012 from:–New-Horizons-2012.aspx


[17] Southcom. “Seabees,-Preventive-Medicine-Specialists-Team-Up-in-Guatemala.” October 23, 2012. Retrieved November 12, 2012 from:


[18] Ruiz-Goireina, Romina, Mendoza, Martha. “200 US MARINES JOIN ANTI-DRUG EFFORT IN GUATEMALA.” August 29, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2012 from:


[19] Beckhusen, Robert. “Marines vs. Zetas: U.S. Hunts Drug Cartels in Guatemala.” Wired. August 29, 2012. Retrieved November 9, 2012 from:


[20] Panetta, L. “Speech: Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.” October 19, 2012. Retrieved November 24, 2012 from:


[21] US Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, is responsible for Mexico, as well as the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Canada and the US.


[22] Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. “12 Questions for Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs Frank Mora.” January, 2012. Retrieved November 24, 2012 from:


[23] Espach, Ralph, et al. “Criminal Organizations and Illicit Trafficking in Guatemala’s Border Communities.” December, 2011. CNA Analysis and Solutions. Retrieved November 22, 2012 from:




Pp. 151. Retrieved November 22, 2012 from:


[25] Democracy Now! “Genocide-Linked General Otto Pérez Molina Poised to Become Guatemala’s Next President.” Septemer 15, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2012 from: In March of 2011, Harbury filed a lawsuit in Guatemala against President Pérez Molina, alleging his role in the disappearance, torture and assassination of her husband, guerrilla commander Efrain Bamaca. See: Orantes, Corelia. “Jennifer Harbury acciona contra Pérez Molina.” Prensa Libre. March 23, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2012 from:


[26] Siglo21. “Fiscal dice que ex kaibil capturado dirigió massacre.” May 19, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2012 from:


[27] Gibler, John. To Die in Mexico. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012. Pp. 59.


Negrete, D. “Marines Sweat It Out With Guatemalan Kaibiles.” US Marines. September 18, 2010. Retrieved December 10, 2012 from:


Padgett, Tim. “Guatemala’s Kaibiles: A Notorious Commando Unit Wrapped Up in Central America’s Drug War.” July 14, 2011.Time Magazine. Retrieved December 10, 2012 from:


[28] Paley, Dawn. “Conflict, Repression, and Canadian Mining & Oil Companies in Guatemala.” May 14, 2012. Retrieved December 12, 2012 from:


Paley, Dawn. “The Spoils of an Undeclared War.” August 1, 2012. Briarpatch Magazine. Retrieved December 10, 2012 from:


[29] Paley, Dawn. “Drug War Capitalism.” Against the Current. August 1, 2012. Retrieved December 10, 2012 from:


[30] UNODC. “World Drug Report, 2010.” United Nations, 2010. Pp. 18. Retrieved December 10, 2012 from:


[31] Dominican Today. “U.S. pledges long term help for Dominican Republic‘s war on drug trafficking.” October 16, 2012. Retrieved November 23, 2012 from: