Expanding the Empire: Trump Administration Deepens Militarization and Corporate Looting in Central America

An injured protester flees as riot police use tear gas and batons to disperse a demonstration against the Tambor mining project at La Puya on May 23, 2014. (Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez)
An injured protester flees as riot police use tear gas and batons to disperse a demonstration against the Tambor mining project at La Puya on May 23, 2014. (Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez)

In mid-June, the Presidents of the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) met with US Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly at the United States Southern Command base in Miami, Florida for the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America. The Presidents were joined by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Their meeting looked at ways to transform the Alliance for Prosperity, a 2014 policy package that has since shaped relations between the US and Central America.

The results of their meeting included plans to increase militarization of Central America while further opening the region to foreign investment. Their project involves dropping US aid to the region by roughly $300 million dollars, while combatting drug trafficking. The general approach reflects the model of Plan Colombia, originally applied by the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s and continued into today to the tune of billions of dollars.

“Essentially, this plan seeks to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras achieve what Colombia has – to regain control over territory, end the cycle of violence, corruption and impunity, win the confidence of investors, and create conditions for sustained and inclusive economic growth,” wrote Tillerson, Kelly, and Luis Alberto Moreno from the Inter-American Development Bank in an an Op-Ed published in the Miami Herald.

“The goal is to trigger a positive ‘investment shock’ – particularly in much-needed infrastructure that will improve competitiveness and generate jobs,” they add.

But critics argue that Plan Colombia, the model for this Central America policy, only worsened social strife in the country, extended bloody militarization, and exacerbated conflicts over land. They say the current plan for the Northern Triangle of Central America threatens to deepen such crises in Central America, not resolve them.

“The plan opens up the country to more investments from transnational companies,” Jesús Hernández, a political science professor at the Rafael Landívar University in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala told Toward Freedom. “It means development for companies, and more investment in projects, but all this does little for the development of communities, and will only lead to more exploitation of workers, and does little to resolve the causes of migration.”

As an example of the failure of foreign direct investment, Hernández points to the case of the Marlin Mine in Guatemala, run by the Canadian company Goldcorp. The exploitation of the open mine was met by intense protest over the impacts that the mine would have on the community’s water and land. After over a decade of operations, the mining project led to the contamination of the community’s water sources, and has left the land scared and unable to produce crops.

“The expansion of hydroelectric projects and mining has only contributed to the conflict in communities, and the communities end up poorer,” said Hernández. “What has changed after eleven years of the Marlin Mine in San Marcos? Nothing. It only brought migration from the region.”

Plan Met by Local Frustration

The recent Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America was met by frustration by the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s office, as representatives from the office were left out of the meetings, despite their critical role in the implementation of the plan.

“This generates concern at the regional level that an important initiative is being worked out, such as the Plan in which the other two Attorneys General of El Salvador and Honduras are participating, and unfortunately there is no participation of the Public Ministry of Guatemala,” Rotman Pérez, the Secretary of Political Crime for the Guatemalan MP told La Hora, a Guatemalan daily newspaper.

Even before the meeting, local communities in Guatemala raised concerns with the plan.

The first pilot projects of the Alliance for Prosperity began in September 2016 in the Guatemalan municipalities of Chiquimula, Chiquimula, Momestenango, Totonicapán, and Nebaj. The projects primarily focused on education and healthcare, and were carried out by Non-Governmental Organizations. But the development aspects of the plan have been plagued by frustrations and accusations of lack of transparency from authorities in municipalities where the pilot projects are being implemented.

“We have the understanding that in 2016, this plan arrived to our communities,” said Catarina Lynez, of the council of the municipality of Nebaj. “But all too often these plans arrive [but] the funds never arrive. All the while, the municipality has no idea what is occurring with the project. They have told us that they would have more communication and more coordination with us in the municipality, but we are still waiting. There is nothing.”

The Alliance for Prosperity also leaves out the indigenous ancestral authorities in the development of the plan. According to representatives for the ancestral authorities of Nebaj, they would be willing to support the efforts in the Ixil region if the organizations were willing to listen to their desires for development for their communities.

“This should never be kept a secret,” said said Miguel de Leon Ceto, a member of the indigenous ancestral authorities of Nebaj. “If they want to help the people, and bring development to our communities, then they should be clear. We are not against development. We just do not wish to be the experiment of the United States. We are not animals.”

Deepening Militarization, Mining, and Displacement

Even before the Conference on Prosperity and Security took place in Miami, the plan placed an emphasis on security in the Northern Triangle of Central America over human rights and community development. This raised concerns of analysts in the region.

“It startled us,” said Mauricio Garita Gutiérez, a former World Bank Economist, and current senior economist for the Guatemalan research institute, the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies. “When we began to research the plan, it was about development. But then it became more and more about security. In the end, security was receiving 60 percent of the budget.”

“Development took a back seat,” he added.

What development efforts that do exist in the plan continue the long-standing interest of the United States government and intelligence agencies of entering into regions of Guatemala that are rich in energy, mineral, and hydraulic resources. Specifically, the plan seeks to increase foreign direct investment in the region over supporting community development.

“The people continue to be poor, so they leave the country in search of the the ‘American Dream,’” said Catarina Lynez, a council member in Nebaj, Guatemala. “The state has not given priority to complying with the Peace Accords. The indigenous peoples continue to be marginalized, the corruption continues. Most indigenous peoples have not been returned to their lands where they were displaced from.”

Among the key sectors that the Alliance for Prosperity favors is the expansion of energy generation projects, such as hydro and geothermal. The State Department states that among the desired outcomes of the plan is the “full implementation of ongoing electrical interconnection projects and other initiatives aimed at making energy more affordable, cleaner, and more sustainable.”

The United States has long sought to promote the expansion of energy and the integration of electric grids in the region. The Alliance for Prosperity continues the efforts established in 2006, by Plan Mesoamerica, which grew out of the failed Plan-Puebla Panama. The plan established the fulfillment of the Central American Electrical Interconnection System and construction of the Regional Energy Market, through which the US has sought to expand foreign investment.

In 2016, US officials and the Inter-American Bank called for the doubling of energy generation in Guatemala by 2024, largely through the construction of mega-dams. These efforts also have led to intense social conflicts over energy expansion and land, which in turn contribute to both internal and external migration. Indigenous communities in the region have been hit particularly hard.

“We Are Struggling For Future Generations”

The Ixil region of the highlands of Guatemala is at the center of this expansion of energy projects. In 2012, the indigenous authorities of Nebaj took their concern over the impact of the construction of five hydro projects within their territory to the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, arguing that they were never consulted over the construction of the projects. In September 2015, the court ordered the suspension of the Vega I and II hydro projects, and stated that the communities should be consulted prior to the construction of the projects in accordance with Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

The Indigenous Authorities and the Municipal Authorities are currently working with the Ministry of Energy and Mining in Guatemala and the Spanish firm, Hidroxil S.A., to arrange the consultation of the residents of Nebaj.

The current push for more energy projects through the updated Alliance for Prosperity threatens to undermine these efforts to protect the Ixil indigenous territory.

“We hope that through the implementation of this plan, that they will come and listen to us, and dialogue with us,” said de Leon Ceto. “And that they are not coming to impose a model of development upon our communities. We know what we desire. We demand that they respect us, that they respect our relationship with the Mother Earth. We are struggling for future generations.”

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, the North American Congress on Latin America, and The Progressive. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo