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Otto Pérez Molina, Guatemalan President-Elect, with “Blood on his hands”

November 14, 2011

President-elect Otto Pérez Molina, photo courtesy of

On November 6, 2011, Guatemalans elected retired General Otto Fernando Pérez Molina as their president, the first former military officer to be elected since the country’s return to democracy in 1986. Today, the National Security Archive is revisiting previously posted documents that detail Pérez Molina’s military career and link him to human rights atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 36-year internal conflict. The documents provide evidence of the retired General’s involvement in “scorched earth” campaigns in the 1980s and an account of his rise to high levels of influence and power within the Guatemalan intelligence apparatus.

Pérez Molina and his generation of military officers are “progressives that grew up with blood stains on their hands,” reported a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) cable in 1994. They rose through the ranks of the army’s intelligence directorate (D-2) during the worst years of the violence in the early 1980s “when the D-2 carried out extrajudicial executions.” The cable identified Pérez Molina – who by then was a colonel and chief of the Presidential General Staff – as part of the army’s “democratic” faction and observed that there was “no direct evidence linking former D-2 director Pérez Molina” to violent human rights crimes, although its author conceded that it not clear to what extent he and his fellow officers were still “influenced by their past” [see document here].[1]

After his promotion to major in 1982, Pérez Molina went on to participate in former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s counterinsurgency and “scorched earth” campaigns in the Quiché region, specifically in the Ixil Triangle. In a DIA cable from 1991, Pérez Molina is described as a hand-picked, capable officer recruited for intelligence work during his career “to serve in key operations and troop command assignments, especially positions related to planning and conducting operations against the guerrillas.”[2] While internal Guatemalan  army records known as “General Orders” name  Pérez Molina as serving in one of the country’s military high schools in 1982, other military documents, photographs, and videos place Pérez Molina in the Quiché, where some of the worst atrocities of the war took place during that period. [3] In the military document Operación Sofía, a report on page 320 indicates that on July 22, 1982, Pérez Molina and Major Arango Barrios were out with a patrol group when they encountered a large group of people called “the enemy” in the report. The encounter resulted in the death of four civilians and the capture of 18 adults and 12 children.

Otto Pérez Molina talking to reporter Alan Nairn near Nebaj, Quiche, circa 1982. From the documentary, Deadline: Guatemala.

After Pérez Molina’s service in Ríos Montt’s scorched earth operations, he continued his career by attending military schools in the U.S. and Colombia in the late 1980s, gradually working his way up the ranks in the army’s intelligence divisions. From January 1992 to June of 1993, Pérez Molina held the influential position of director of the D-2 Directorate of Intelligence. The D-2 was one of the army’s two principal intelligence-gathering entities during the internal conflict, along with the Estado Mayor Presidencial, or ‘Presidential General Staff’. A DIA cable from 1990 noted the “D-2’s reputation as an effective and dangerous entity.”[4]  The Commission for Historical Clarification published a report in 1999 concluding that Guatemalan military intelligence “played a decisive role in the militarization of the country,” assuming “functions beyond those normally assigned to intelligence systems within the framework of the democratic rule of law.” These duties included the infiltration of social organizations “where many activists subsequently became the victims of grave human rights violations.”[5]

After years of serving in Guatemala’s military, the retired general has shifted to politics, where he says he intends to use his military experience and “la mano dura” or “iron fist” to fight drug trafficking and reduce Guatemala’s high violent crime rate. Pérez Molina’s steady rise through the ranks of the armed forces and his recent election as president reveal him to be a military man who is also very “effective at dealing with the political end of the spectrum,” as the Defense Intelligence Agency once wrote of him.[6] At this crucial moment in Guatemala’s history, when several emblematic legal cases are underway charging the military high command with committing war crimes during the internal armed conflict, civil society will be watching closely as this General-turned-President balances his military past with his presidential future as Commander-in-Chief beginning in January 2012.

*For more information see Mica Rosenberg and Mike McDonald’s Reuters piece, here.

**Special thanks to Amanda Kistler and Claire Navarro for their research assistance in the production of this post.

[1] This document was previously published in the National Security Archive’s report, “The Guatemalan Military: What the U.S. Files Reveal,” June 1, 2000, available here.

[2] “Why the “Tanda” Phenomenon does not Exist in the Guatemalan Military,” August 27, 1991, Defense Intelligence Agency, confidential cable, [see document here].

[3] See the National Security Archive’s report, “The Guatemalan Military: What the U.S. Files Reveal,” June 1, 2000, available here. (See Volume I of report for references to Pérez Molina’s specific assignments and promotions.)

[4] Defense Intelligence Agency secret cable, February 16, 1990, “Intelligence Directorate (D-2) of the Guatemalan National Defense General Staff”, from the DNSA collection Guatemala and the U.S.

[5] National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, “Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada”, February 14, 2000 (available here); and Commission for Historical Clarification Report, “Memoria y Silencio”, February 1999.

[6] Defense Intelligence Agency, secret cable, “Academy Class Number 73–Its Strength and Its Future”, December 7, 1993.

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