The Fate of Reform Under Arzú and Portillo, The

Guatemalan Military Since the Peace Accords: The Fate of Reform Under Arzú and Portillo, The

Ruhl, J Mark


The Guatemalan military dominated the country’s politics for nearly half a century, but its political power declined during the 1990s. Democratically elected presidents Alvaro Arzú (1996-2000) and Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) subordinated the armed forces to their authority and thereby gained an unprecedented opportunity to reduce the role of the military and institutionalize democratic civil-military relations. Unfortunately, neither of these tasks was accomplished. An analysis of the level of democratic control, combining Alfred Stepan’s military prerogatives indicators with a newer system of measurement and classification designed by Samuel Fitch, shows that the armed forces retained substantial institutional autonomy and de facto legal immunity when Portillo left office in 2004. The role of the military in Guatemalan society, moreover, expanded again under Portillo after declining under Arzú. This study finds that the lack of sufficient civilian commitment to reform, rather than resistance from the armed forces, was the principal cause of these disappointing outcomes.

Few Latin American political institutions have been more widely condemned than the Guatemalan armed forces. Guatemala’s military is infamous for its domination of the country’s politics, beginning in the 1950s, and for its brutal repression of the nation’s indigenous population, particularly during the counterinsurgency campaigns of the late 1970s and early 1980s. When the army finally set in motion a transition to civilian government in the mid-1980s, most analysts expected the armed forces to maintain political control indefinitely behind a democratic facade. Gradually, however, Guatemala’s civilian political class and civil society gained unexpected strength in the new political space the army had opened and asserted their independence from military tutelage during the 1990s. In the post-Cold War context, the United States and other international actors also sought to encourage democratization in Guatemala and to reduce the military’s political influence. In 1993, the military high command that supported President Jorge Serrano Elias’s attempt to seize absolute power was forced to back down in the face of intense domestic and foreign opposition, as well as a mutiny by army moderates. A wide coalition of external and internal forces later promoted the Peace Accords that ended Guatemala’s internal war in December 1996 and required the military to agree to a reduction in its missions, size, and budget.

The first two presidents to hold office after the signing of the Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace, Alvaro Arzú (1996-2000) and Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004), demonstrated the political subordination of the armed forces to civil authority by making major changes in the military’s leadership and duties at will. These civilian leaders’ unprecedented power over the military presented a historic opportunity to reduce the role of the armed forces dramatically and to establish fully democratic civil-military relations. Unfortunately, neither of these tasks was accomplished. Although President Arzú decreased the size and resources of the armed forces significantly, he failed to implement most of the other military reforms mandated in the Peace Accords and left the armed forces’ institutional autonomy intact. Some of the progress achieved under Arzú, moreover, was undermined by his successor. President Portillo and his congressional ally, former military ruler Efraín Ríos Montt, once again increased the armed forces’ missions and budget.

This study briefly discusses the Guatemalan military’s traditional dominance and the reasons for its declining political power during the 1990s. It then analyzes the achievements and shortcomings of President Arzú’s efforts to diminish the role of the armed forces and redefine civilmilitary relations and compares the Portillo administration’s handling of the military. The level of democratic control over the Guatemalan armed forces achieved by 2004 is evaluated systematically by combining Alfred Stepan’s widely used military prerogatives indicators (1988) with a newer system of measurement and classification designed by Samuel Fitch (1998). The results show that the Guatemalan army did become politically subordinate to civilian authority during these years but that it retained substantial institutional autonomy and de facto legal immunity.1 Insufficient civilian commitment to reform, rather than military resistance, is determined to be the principal cause of the failure to achieve a greater reduction in the armed forces’ role or to complete the process of democratizing Guatemalan civil-military relations.


The armed forces dominated Guatemalan politics for nearly half a century. In the years after the CLA-orchestrated overthrow of leftist Colonel Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, the military, in alliance with the nation’s economic elites and the United States, maintained an authoritarian regime that effectively suppressed popular demands in one of Latin America’s poorest countries (see Jonas 1991; Rosada Granados 1999). The army ruled directly through military governments or indirectly via civilian presidents selected in elections in which only rightwing and centrist parties could participate. Electoral fraud was common, and all but one of the winning presidential candidates were former senior military officers.

With U.S. assistance, the army crushed the small Marxist guerrilla movements that rose up against this regime in the 1960s, but a more serious revolutionary challenge based in the country’s rural indigenous population emerged in the late 1970s. In response to this new threat, the armed forces launched a program of extreme repression and regimentation of the rural population that brought widespread international condemnation and ended direct U.S. military aid. This strategy enabled the military to defeat strategically the armed groups united in the Guatemalan Revolutionary National Unity (URNG) by the mid-1980s (Rosada Granaclos 1999, 162). The army, however, was never able to eliminate the guerrillas; so the counterinsurgency campaign continued into the 1990s. Over the course of more than three decades of internal conflict, an estimated two hundred thousand Guatemalans lost their lives Qonas 2000, 17).

During the early 1980s, leading factions in the armed forces determined that the establishment of a democratically elected civilian government would aid the war effort by increasing the regime’s legitimacy (Schirmer 1998a, 29-34). Military leaders also planned to free themselves in this way from the burden of governing a country beset by economic problems and regain lost international financial assistance (Férez Molina 2001, 381). The army fully intended to retain its rural counterinsurgency structures (for example, militarized villages, paramilitary civil patrols), its veto over government policy, and its institutional autonomy (Schirmer 1998a). Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo (1986-90), the first president elected to serve during this period, candidly admitted the army’s superior political power (Jonas 1991, 154-59) and depended on the support of his minister of national defense, General Héctor Gramajo, to survive coup attempts by extreme right-wing officers (Schirmer 1998a, 206-34).

Nevertheless, the opening of political space by the armed forces gradually enabled a wide variety of civilian political groups to emerge. Civil society gained strength, and the civilian political class grew more independent of the military (Arévalo de Leon 2001a, 2-3). Public discussion of the atrocities committed by the army during the counterinsurgency campaign, along with press revelations about continuing human rights crimes linked to the armed forces, increased antimilitary sentiment (Rosada Granados 1999, 240-44). News reports documenting military officers’ involvement in drug trafficking and other criminal activities further discredited the armed forces.

As domestic pressure to reduce the political role of the military intensified in the 1990s, the army found itself without political allies. Business groups represented by the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF) no longer needed armed forces protection against the revolutionary left and, instead, sought international approval and investment. Much of the CACIF joined with most of civil society to oppose the military high command when it backed conservative president Jorge Serrano Elías’s attempt to close Congress and suspend the constitution in 1993 (see McCleary 1999). The United States, the Organization of American States, and international financial institutions also condemned this illegal awfogolpe. The United States threatened to end Guatemala’s privileged trade status under the Generalized System of Trade Preferences (GSP) (McCleary 1999, 120). The army itself split into competing factions as moderate officers demanded that the high command withdraw its support for Serrano, who soon was forced into exile.

Divided, dishonored, and lacking reliable allies, the Guatemalan armed forces rapidly lost their ability to intimidate civilian politicians and civil society with threats of military takeover. After the collapse of the autogolpe, the army became increasingly demoralized and uncertain of its role (Pérez Molina 2001, 384). Former human rights ombudsman Kamiro de Leon Carpio, who was chosen as an interim president (1993-90) to replace Serrano, still behaved cautiously and closely followed the advice of moderate senior officers in his dealings with the military (Spence et al. 1998, 23). Conditions, nevertheless, were ripe for a more assertive civilian president to subordinate the politically weakened armed forces to executive authority.


Alvaro Arzú, of the center-right National Advancement Party (PAN), represented modernizing elements in Guatemala’s business elite. Even though the guerrillas no longer posed a serious threat to the government, the wealthy former Guatemala City mayor believed that it was necessary to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement with the URNG in order to end the country’s international isolation and reattract foreign investment. Opinion within the military, however, was divided on the peace negotiations that had been going on intermittently since 1990 and had already produced several interim agreements. Military officers more favorable to the peace process had come into top command positions after the ouster of Serrano (Spence et al. 1998, 23), but many others still opposed making concessions to the Marxist guerrilla groups the army had defeated in the field (Balconi 2001; Jonas 2000, 68; Arana 2001, 91).

President Arzú resolved to put the armed forces in the hands of their most propeace elements (Jonas 2000, 60). Immediately on taking office in January 1996, he used his power over military promotions under Article 246 of the 1985 Guatemalan Constitution (República de Guatemala 1999a, 106) to remove six generals from their leadership positions (Hernández Pico 2000, 32) and replace them with a team of committed reformers. Experienced peace negotiator General Julio BaIconi was given command of the armed forces as minister of national defense, while moderate General Otto Férez Molina became inspector general as well as the army’s chief representative at the peace talks/Later the same year, Arzú further asserted his constitutional authority as commanding general by ousting nine right-wing officers, including two generals (one of whom was vice minister of national defense) and three colonels, because of their suspected involvement in a contraband ring allegedly run by customs official and former army specialist Alfredo Moreno Molina (Central America Report 1996; Arana 2001, 97). No civilian Guatemalan president had ever taken such decisive action against high-level corruption in the armed forces (Spence et al. 1998, 25). The most prominent officer sanctioned was former head of military intelligence General Francisco Ortega Menaldo, who, as chief of the Presidential General Staff (EMP) under Serrano, had been regarded by many as “the most powerful man in Guatemala” (Schirmer 1998a, 179).

With the active collaboration of the military’s new leadership, Arzú successfully concluded peace negotiations with the URNG and brought the war to an end in December 1996. His efforts were facilitated by the United Nations Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA) and assisted by a wide variety of international and domestic actors (see Jonas 2000, 37-68). About six months later, however, Arzú abruptly dismissed General Balconi and shifted other reformist officers to less important posts. Twenty-nine officers who had been closely involved in the peace process were retired, dispatched abroad, or made disponible (Schirmer 1998b, 21-22).3

The president replaced the propeace faction, which had served its purpose, with a more conservative team of officers, most of whom had little connection either to the counterinsurgency ‘war or the peace negotiations. By means of these and later changes in the military hierarchy, Arzú demonstrated his personal command of the armed forces and made it difficult for officers who disagreed with any of his policies to mount a challenge. Arzú’s success in shaping the military’s leadership to his needs indicated the armed forces’ politically weakened condition and further diminished their political independence. The military high command was now no longer in a position to exercise its traditional veto over government policy, even on security issues (Arévalo de León 2001a, 11).4


The most important requirement of democratic civil-military relations is the political subordination of the armed forces to elected civilian authorities. The armed forces must comply with all legal orders issued by the democratically chosen chief executive and refrain from trying to interfere in civilian policymaking. Nevertheless, students of Latin American civil-military relations (Stepan 1988; Pion-Berlin 1997) make clear that more than this is required to achieve full democratic control. Samuel Fitch (1998, 37-38, 2001) asserts that the military must also accept an organizational framework of civilian policy control over its internal activities via a civilian-led defense ministry and appropriate congressional committees. In addition, Fitch argues that civilian courts must be able to hold military personnel accountable to the rule of law.

Although the military, like other state institutions, may be granted a degree of (institutional) autonomy in the normal exercise of its professional functions, the decisionmaking powers delegated to the military must he exercised within a democratically established legal framework and subject to oversight by the appropriate constitutional authorities. (Fitch 1998, 37-58)

President Arzu’s establishment of civilian supremacy over the armed forces was a major accomplishment, and he deserves credit for beginning to reduce the military’s role in Guatemalan society.5 He failed, however, to use his new power to complete the process of democratizing civil-military relations. His efforts to decrease the army’s role also lost momentum after some early successes. Many of the measures necessary to attain these two objectives were contained in the Accord for the Strengthening of Civilian Power and the Role of the Armed Forces in a Democratic Society (MINUGUA 1997, 311-29), which Arzú had required army representatives to sign in September 1996. This key segment of the peace agreements with the URNG proposed to transform the Guatemalan military from a large, overly independent counterinsurgency machine into a smaller external defense force operating completely under civilian control. Although President Arzu implemented several important provisions of this accord, most never took effect.

Military Reforms Achieved Under Arzú

The accord required the military to reduce its ranks by one-third during 1997 and to cut its budget as a percentage of GDP by the same proportion by 1999. Although the army kept virtually all its officers and specialists, it trimmed its overall size, as agreed, from an official 46,900 effectives in 1996 to 31,423 the following year (MINUGUA 2002, 16).6 Under Arzú, moreover, the military’s budget shrank nearly on schedule, from 0.99 percent of GDP in 1995 to 0.68 percent of GDP in 1999 (MINUGUA 2002, 34). The elected chief executive and Congress now controlled the overall level of defense spending and could balance the armed forces’ needs against other national priorities. The effects of declining military financial resources could be seen in low army salaries and in decreased funding for training, maintenance, and new equipment.

The military that had governed rural Guatemala for decades and often had terrorized its inhabitants also began to lessen its presence in the countryside, as the accord demanded. Although the army did not carry out the wholesale redeployment envisioned in the peace agreement, it did close 4 military zones and 35 garrisons; it also disbanded its 2,421-member rural Mobile Military Police (MINUGUA 2002, 9, 17; Central America Report 200Ia). In addition, the military demobilized the remaining 271,000 members of what once were more than 1 million-strong civil patrols, which had been implicated in countless human rights violations (MINUGUA 2002, 8). Some of these paramilitary units continued to exist under other names and maintained contacts with local army commanders (Iznardo 2002), but the once-tight network of military domination over rural Guatemala was loosened considerably (MINUGUA 2002, 8). The rural male population was no longer subject to forced induction by local military commissioners because all such recruitment had been suspended the year before Arzú became president.

Arzú also supported accord-sanctioned efforts to make active-duty military personnel subject to civilian courts. Although Article 219 of the Guatemalan Constitution (República de Guatemala 1999a: 93) appeared to give military courts jurisdiction over all cases involving members of the armed forces, the Xamán case in 1995 (involving an alleged massacre of war refugees by a military patrol) set a precedent for extending civilian jurisdiction to soldiers accused of crimes covered by the regular criminal code (Jonas 2000, 49). At the initiative of General Balconi and with President Arzú’s strong endorsement, the Guatemalan Congress in 1996 passed Legislative Decree 41-96, affirming this new legal interpretation (Isacson 1997, 39; MINUGUA 2002, 12). Arzú favored the prosecution of military officers accused of drug trafficking and other ordinary criminal activity, although he lacked the power to force Guatemala’s corrupt, inefficient judicial system to process such cases successfully. No high-ranking officer had ever been convicted of any serious crime in a civilian court before 1997 (Spence et al. 1998, 29).

Under Arzú, the armed forces took the first small steps toward revising their military doctrine and educational system, as the accord required. A new doctrinal manual, delivered to President Arzú in late 1999 by the military high command, underscored the armed forces’ constitutional subordination to democratically elected civilian authorities (República de Guatemala 1999b). The manual also explicitly ended the military’s reliance on the National security Doctrine of the counterinsurgency era and emphasized instead the army’s commitment to human rights and reconciliation. Admittedly, the short document was more of a skeletal outline than a fully elaborated military doctrine, and no civil society representatives or civilian politicians had been involved in its development (Espinosa 2001; Holiday 2000, 83). Nonetheless, the manual represented some institutional rethinking of basic military attitudes.

During the Arzú administration, a fifth-semester course on international human rights law was added to the military academy (Escuela Politécnicd) curriculum (Noack 2001); plans were developed for additional educational reforms, based partly on the advice of civilian university professionals. Spending on military education increased markedly. Unfortunately, incoming defense ministers did not consider themselves bound by the new educational initiatives begun by their predecessors, so no coherent plan for modernizing military education as a whole ever emerged (MINUGUA 2002, 19-22).

The Shortcomings of Military Reform Under Arzú

TWO of the most important provisions in the Accord for the Strengthening of Civilian Power and the Role of the Armed Forces in a Democratic Society required changes in the Guatemalan Constitution. One would have permitted a civilian to become minister of national defense for the first time, and the other would have ended the military’s legal responsibility for maintaining internal security except in special, temporary situations approved by Congress (Republica de Guatemala 1999c, 20-24). The adoption of these provisions would have begun the process of building a civilian defense ministry to supervise the military and would have shifted the Guatemalan army’s primary mission to external defense. Amendments to institute these two changes were included in a broad constitutional referendum, but it was unexpectedly defeated in May 1999. Less than 19 percent of those registered voted in the referendum Qonas 2000, 199), and its failure constituted a major setback for military reform.7

President Arzú was criticized for not campaigning harder for the constitutional reforms, but there was plenty of blame to go around. Contrary to the president’s wishes, the Congress delayed for nearly two years in preparing the referendum and added far too many complicated amendments unrelated to the Peace Accords (Holiday 2000, 81). Arzú lacked full control of the PAN majority in the legislature, and the two-thirds requirement for placing an amendment before the voters increased the leverage of opposition parties. Whereas supporters of the “yes” campaign, from Arzú to the radical left, were overconfident of success and did not expend enough effort to persuade a confused mass public to vote favorably, the well-financed “no” campaign, endorsed by CACIF and much of the right-wing press, effectively criticized many proposed amendments. The right-wing opposition Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), founded by Efraín Ríos Montt, who had led the counterinsurgency campaign during his 1982-83 presidency, formally supported the constitutional reforms, but many of its members, including ex-military officers, worked against their adoption (Jonas 2000, 204-5). Activeduty officers were divided over the referendum. The military as an institution took no part in the debate leading up to the vote and in no way tried to influence its outcome. Retired defense minister Balconi publicly backed the constitutional reforms, while the more conservative Association of Military Veterans celebrated their defeat (Jonas 2000, 196, 215).

The defeat of the referendum left the military to retain the constitutional responsibility to maintain peace and internal security despite its record of abusing this role. Still, it is likely that President Arzú would have continued to call on the armed forces to help fight rising crime even if the constitutional amendment narrowing their mission had passed. When Arzu came into office he found a poorly trained, corrupt national police with only six thousand members assigned to internal security and just three thousand on duty at any given time, in a country of more than 12 million people (Porras 1998, 16). In the midst of an urban crime explosion, he had little choice but to ask the army to help keep order while he rushed to build a new, larger national civil police (PNC). Arzú’s ostensibly temporary policy of having the army conduct joint patrols with police was approved by Congress and broadly supported by the Guatemalan population (Central America Report 200Ib).

There was less excuse for President Arzu’s failure to end the military’s control over intelligence gathering and analysis. The Directorate of Intelligence of the Military General Staff (D-2) had a long history of human rights abuses and interference in the criminal justice system (Schirmer 1998a, 151-85). Many analysts (see Mack 2001, 278-79) believed that authoritarian attitudes and a counterinsurgency mentality continued to characterize the institution. The Accord for the Strengthening of Civilian Power and the Role of the Armed Forces in a Democratir Society consequently provided for the creation of two new civilian intelligence agencies: a Department of Civilian Intelligence and Information Analysis (DICAI) in the Ministry of Interior, to collect information relevant to internal security; and a Strategic Analysis secretariat (SAE) to analyze intelligence received from both DICAI and D-2 in order to prepare recommendations for the president. Military intelligence was to concentrate on collecting information necessary to Guatemala’s external defense. In addition, a new congressional committee on intelligence was to monitor all three of these organizations. Although Arzú ultimately did create the SAE, he weakened the impact of this reform by initially appointing mostly military personnel to its staff (Spence et al. 1998, 27). He never established the DICAI, leaving the army’s D-2 to continue gathering information on internal security matters. Military intelligence agents also, in some cases, still “carried out parallel investigations without having any authority to do so, diverting official police investigations and obstructing judicial work” (MINUGUA 2002, 22). No new intelligence commission was established in Congress to investigate such abuses.

Arzú’s decision not to abolish the controversial Presidential General Staff (EMP) as the accord had promised was another disappointment. The EMP is the military component of the presidential staff that traditionally has provided security, political intelligence, and logistical support to the chief executive and the vice president. The EMP came under heavy public criticism during the 1980s because of its frequent involvement in human rights crimes and obstructions of justice (see MINUGUA 2002, 24; Schirmer 1998a, 174-79). Instead of closing the EMP, however, Arzú relied heavily on it and gave it a new mission, to combat kidnapping. The EMP, meanwhile, was also accused of complicity in a high-profile political assassination and cover-up carried out during Arzu’s presidency.

Although Arzú supported legislation making military officers and soldiers accountable to civilian courts, he was highly critical of demands by human rights groups to apply the rule oi law to retired and activeduty military personnel implicated in atrocities committed during the counterinsurgency campaign (Amnesty International 2002a, 14). He strongly maintained this position, moreover, even after the Catholic Church’s 1998 Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI) report and the state’s 1999 Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) study documented thousands of horrific abuses committed by the armed forces against the civilian population (Archdiocese of Guatemala 1999; Comision para el Esclarecimiento Historico 2000). The National Reconciliation Law of 1996 granted amnesty for most politically motivated crimes committed during the war, but it had specifically exempted cases of genocide, torture, or forced disappearance. The president nevertheless allowed the army to refuse to cooperate in investigations of such offenses and to discipline a colonel who admitted wartime institutional abuses to the foreign press (Central America Report 1998).8 By the end of Arzú’s term, only a handful of former civil patrollers and no regular military personnel had been convicted of human rights crimes committed during the height of the war. In 1999, 2$ soldiers, including one junior officer, were convicted of killing 11 unarmed war refugees in the Xamán case, but many of those sentenced were later freed by an appeals court (Amnesty International 2002a, 70). A new round of appeals were filed in 2004 after most of these convictions were confirmed in a second trial.

Arzú also did not press for prosecutions when two EMP personnel close to him were implicated, with a retired army colonel, in the shocking April 1998 assassination of REMHI director Bishop Juan Gerardi just two days after the appearance of the church’s report on wartime atrocities. EMP investigators also allegedly obstructed justice in this case by giving police false leads, misplacing key evidence, and altering the crime scene (Arana 2001, 91). Some sources suggest that Arzú’s former EMP chief and confidant, General Marco Tulio Espinosa, persuaded him that the crime was not the work of the military suspects (Frenja fibre 2002a). Despite Espinosa’s alleged involvement in the disappearance of a captured guerrilla in EMP custody in late 1990, Arzú later promoted Espinosa to minister of national defense (Spence et al. 1998, 25-26).

Although Arzú curtailed the army’s political independence, he permitted the military to continue to conduct its internal affairs with little outside interference. The failure of a constitutional amendment prevented the naming of a civilian minister of national defense, but neither Arzú nor the Congress made any other effort to curtail the military’s institutional autonomy by increasing civilian capabilities to supervise its professional activities (Arévalo de Leon 2001a, 11). Virtually no civilian officials worked in the Ministry of National Defense, and few members of Congress stayed long enough on the Defense Commission to develop expert knowledge of military affairs. In addition, by using the national security provisions of Article 30 of the Guatemalan Constitution (Republica de Guatemala 1999a, 23), the armed forces still guarded their budget as a state secret and offered no detailed accounting of its expenditure to Congress. This lack of fiscal accountability obviously invited abuses by top military officials, some of whom appeared to become inexplicably wealthy at the end of their careers. Corrupt financial practices in the form of large, unrepaid loans to high-ranking officers helped bankrupt the Bank of the Army and severely damaged its parent Military Pension Institute (Frensa Libre 2002b).

Explaining Arzú’s Mixed Performance

There are several possible explanations for President Arzú’s failure to complete the process of democratizing civil-military relations or to do more to reduce the role of the armed forces. Although he clearly had the will to assert his constitutional authority to command the military, he did not seem convinced of the need to build permanent civilian bureaucratic institutions to oversee the armed forces (Arévalo de Leon 200Ib). Indeed, once he had established his unquestioned personal power over the army’s leadership and gained acquiescence to the concessions required to produce peace, he appeared to lose interest in further military reforms. He dismissed the reformist army leadership that was ready to transform the institution and turned his attention to the nation’s pressing economic difficulties and growing crime problem. The training of civilian defense analysts, like the establishment of civilian intelligence agencies or a new civilian presidential security service, became very low priorities. When it came time to campaign for the key military reforms contained in the constitutional referendum, Arzú and his party did not fully commit themselves to the task (Jonas 2000, 204-$).

In addition, it is possible that Arzú felt less need to diminish the military’s role further because he had learned to appreciate the armed forces’ relative organizational efficiency (Porras 2001; Rosada Granados 2001). Guatemala lacks a permanent civil service, so civilian agencies are filled with patronage, appointees who often are unprepared for their official duties. Arzú soon found the army to be the nation’s best organized and most capable state institution, and he employed it to deal with rising crime and other national problems. Like other Guatemalan presidents before him, he also found the dependable EMP and its large discretionary budget especially useful. In contrast, the president’s relations with left-of-center groups that championed radical military reform and the prosecution of human rights offenders deteriorated as these organizations became increasingly critical of his center-right administration.

It is also clear that President Arzú was under little public pressure to pursue military reform after the army downsized by one-third and loosened its hold over rural Guatemala in the first year after the Peace Accords were signed (Arévalo de Leon 2001a, 17; Rosada Granados 2001). Guatemalan civil society demanded that he address critical economic and public safety issues, but public interest in further decreasing the military’s role or deepening democratic control waned. The vast majority of citizens abstained or voted against needed constitutional reforms of the armed forces and were only too happy to see soldiers patrolling their streets when the police proved incapable of stemming the new crime wave (Central America Report 200Ib). The URNG and other small groups on the left continued to demand that the military provisions of the Peace Accords be fully applied, but these organizations lacked political weight and proved unable to persuade most other Guatemalans. Although MINUGUA regularly issued reports criticizing the government’s lack of progress in this area, the United States and other international actors did not appear to put great pressure on Arzú to accelerate military reform. Economic policy was a much higher priority for both the U.S. government and international financial institutions.

Although most officers were not anxious to see the military lose its traditional privileges, active armed forces resistance was not a major reason that reform did not go farther under Arzú (Arévalo de Leon 2001a, 10-11). The military did balk at attempts to hold its personnel accountable for past human rights abuses and refused to cooperate with the CEH study, but otherwise, the armed forces as an institution did not strongly resist change. Some scholars, such as Jonas (2000, 14$), suspect that the army instead tried to maintain a low profile and to do the minimum necessary to comply with the accord in hopes that the momentum for change would fade. In contrast, Guatemalan scholar Bernardo Arévalo de León (2001a, 10-11) suggests that active resistance was not necessary because civilian leaders let the military keep its institutional autonomy and allowed it considerable freedom to define and execute reforms.

The armed forces appear to have recognized the need to make changes in order to adjust to the postwar situation. Indeed, many officers supported the constitutional amendments regarding the military that the Guatemalan public rejected in 1999- Most officers recognized that the army was untrained to combat either organized crime or common delinquency and viewed internal security work as a difficult and thankless task better left to the police (Balconi 2001; Espinosa 2001; Sieder et al. 2002, 41; Pacheco 2004). Some officers also favored having a civilian minister of national defense in hopes that future turnovers in that office would be less disruptive to the rest of the military hierarchy (Balconi 2001; Espinosa 2001; Pacheco 2004).

In addition, the idea for the abolition of the EMP actually had come from the armed forces’ representatives during the peace negotiations, rather than from the guerrillas (Porras 2001). Since Serrano’s presidency, the EMP had been at the service of the president rather than the military high command (Schirmer 1998a, 176-78), which had caused some institutional rivalry to develop. The EMP often helped civilian presidents influence the armed forces by providing insights into the military’s internal workings. Arzú, not the military, blocked the EMP’s abolition.

Alvaro Arzú’s major achievement in civil-military relations was his subordination of the military to an elected president, something Vinicio Cerezo could never have imagined in 1986. Arzú also began the process of decreasing the armed forces’ role in Guatemalan society by significantly reducing their size, budget, and control of rural areas, as mandated in the Peace Accords. He deserves credit, too, for helping to bring some active-duty military personnel accused of crimes before civilian courts and for encouraging the military to begin to rethink its doctrine and educational system. But these reforms did not go nearly far enough, and most of the other military provisions of the Peace Accords were never implemented. In some cases, Arzú did not make the necessary effort to bring about reform (for example, abolition of the EMP, creation of civilian intelligence agencies, fuller legal accountability for military personnel). In other cases, public attitudes or other civilian political actors made change difficult or impossible (public rejection of the constitutional referendum, crime rise necessitating military patrols, Congress’s handling of the constitutional reforms). Nevertheless, Arzú’s mixed record on military reform would prove to be far superior to that of his successor.


Alfonso Portillo, a former radical and later Christian Democratic congressman, stunned many of his old political associates when he allied himself with ex-military strongman Efraín Ríos Montt to become the presidential candidate of the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) in both the 1995 and 1999 elections.? Many former hardline military officers figure prominently in the FRG leadership (Holiday 2000, 81). The party’s electoral support is based in rural Guatemala, where Ríos Montt traditionally has had a large following. Financial backing for the organization comes not from the economic elite associated with CACIF but primarily from newly emerging economic actors, some of whom are reportedly linked to organized crime (Hernández Pico 2002a, 34); reputed crime boss Alfreclo Moreno Molina is thought to be an important FRG contributor (Ceyzfm/.dmen’cg J?epoyY 1996)10

Although the populist Portillo won the 1999 election by a large margin, his administration soon became very unpopular. By 2002, more than 93 percent of Guatemalans polled said they had little or no trust in the president, and most blamed him for the declining economy and high crime levels. In addition, more than 80 percent of respondents viewed the FRG government as corrupt (Prensa Libre 2002c).

Early in his term, President Portillo, as Arzú had, asserted his control over the military hierarchy and promised to implement the military provisions of the Peace Accords. However, ex-military officers unfriendly to reform, such as Ríos Montt, now president of Congress, and presidential adviser and retired general Francisco Ortega Menaldo, gained great influence in the new administration (Central America Report 2000). The FRG-dominated Congress also showed little interest in building on the changes to the armed forces that Arzú had made. The military reform process soon began to regress, as military missions multiplied and the armed forces’ budget decline was reversed.

Maintaining Control of the Military Hierarchy

Ortega Menaldo, ex-chief of both military intelligence (1987-90) and the EMP (1991-93), was suspected of involvement in several unsolved political assassinations and other past human rights crimes (Central America Report 1996; Archdiocese of Guatemala 1999, 109). Portillo’s two other key security advisers were also former military officers: Colonel Jacobo Esdras Salán Sánchez and Major Napoleón Rojas.11 President Arzú had purged all three of these officers from the armed forces for their alleged collaboration in the criminal activities of the Moreno gang (Central America Report 1996). In 2002, the U.S. government revoked their visas because of their suspected links to narcotics trafficking (Prensa Libre 2002d; Hernández Pico 2002b, 27).12 Nevertheless, in consultation with FRG boss Ríos Montt, this trio of disgraced officers was believed to make recommendations with respect to all important military staffing and defense policy decisions. Ministers of national defense appeared to act as their subordinates (Peacock and Beltrán 2003, 17), while military zone commanders reportedly could not even change their own intelligence or logistics officers without approval from Ortega Menalclo or Salán Sánchez (Prensa Libre 2002b).

President Portillo drew on the advice of these former military officers to maintain the political subordination of the armed forces. Immediately after his inauguration in January 2000, the new president strikingly demonstrated his control when he dismissed all general officers in the Guatemalan armed forces (18 army generals and a vice admiral) from their positions and replaced them with less experienced colonels (Central America Report 2000). During the next four years, Portillo altered the military leadership on several other occasions in order to promote officers loyal to the FRG government. His childhood friend Colonel Eduarclo Arévalo Lacs, for example, became chief of the general staff and later minister of national defense before leaving the army to serve as minister of interior. Ríos Montt’s son Colonel (later General) Enrique Ríos Sosa was promoted ahead of more senior officers to command the army’s most important operational unit, the Mariscal Zavala Brigade in the capital, then to be subchief of the general staff, and finally to be chief of the general staff, the number two position in the armed forces. In contrast, politically unreliable officers were removed from important field commands. In these ways, Portillo and the FRG leadership attempted to establish what Huntington (1957) terms “subjective control” over the armed forces; they also undermined military professionalism.13

Some military officers accepted this situation, either because of their desire for personal advancement or their ideological affinity with the FRG; but others objected to the extreme politicization of staffing decisions under Portillo (Prensa Libre 2002b).14 After the abrupt replacement of six military zone commanders in February 2002, Guatemalan military expert Hector Rosada Granados observed, “a climate of insecurity and uncertainty exists in the army due to the nominations [to military posts] made with political guidance outside of army ranks, regardless of internal procedures like length of service, degree, and employment” (Central America Report 2002a).

Military Reform Under Portillo

President Portillo made some moves that appeared to promote military reform. In his inaugural address, he embraced the recommendations of the REMHI and CEH reports, which Arzú had never done, and accepted state responsibility for several high-profile human rights crimes attributed to the military. He also appointed the coordinator of the REMHI project, Edgar Gutiérrez, to head the SAE. In addition, Portillo demanded that military personnel implicated in Bishop Gerardi’s assassination be prosecuted. In June 2001, after a trial marked by death threats against witnesses and judges, a retired colonel, an EMP captain who had been in charge of Arzú’s security, and a former EMP specialist were each sentenced to 30 years in prison (see Hernández Pico 2001).15 This judicial decision embarrassed former president Arzú and won international praise for the Portillo government.

In October 2002, after 12 years of intimidation and judicial delays, a former EMP colonel was convicted for the 1990 assassination of anthropologist and human rights activist Myrna Mack, although he went into hiding before he could be imprisoned. No further prosecutions of higher-ranking military officials named in the Gerardi case took place during Portillo’s presidency, however, and the two more senior officers accused of the Mack murder were acquitted. Those convicted in the Gerardi case also may yet win their freedom on appeal. Indeed, a highly publicized alternative theory of the Gerardi murder has implicated ex-military officers associated with the FRG (Rico and de la Grange 2003).l6

Although he quickly found the efficient EMP indispensable in spite of his campaign promise to abolish it, Portillo did eventually construct a civilian presidential secretariat of Administrative Affairs and security (SAAS), which replaced the EMP at the very end of his term. Many EMP employees were, however, permitted to transfer into the SAAS. In 2001, Portillo also produced a governmental accord on national defense policy that created a new civil-military structure for developing defense policy with input from civil society. In late 2003, the military issued a national defense policy book based on broad consultations with civilian groups (República de Guatemala 2003). The new book went beyond the 1999 doctrinal manual but still avoided most of the contentious issues in Guatemalan defense policy and civil-military relations.

President Portillo did little else to promote military reform. Indeed, his choice of controversial military advisers like hardliner Ortega Menaldo indicated that the president was never seriously interested in reducing the role of the armed forces or in completing the process of democratizing civil-military relations as the Peace Accords directed.

Portillo’s initial efforts to civilianize intelligence gathering were soon reversed. The Congress even considered dissolving the SAE in 2002 before slashing its budget so drastically that the agency was forced to dismiss half its employees. Portillo created a small DICAI within the Ministry of Interior without legislative approval, but he soon placed the parent ministry under the control of ex-military intelligence officer Byron Barrientos. After Barrientos was dismissed in 2001 for allegedly misappropriating ministry funds, the former national defense minister, Arévalo Lacs, assumed the post. The president later dissolved the DICAI in response to domestic and international criticism of its unconstitutional status. Consequently, military intelligence (D-2) continued to dominate intelligence gathering and analysis and shared little of what it learned with the shrinking SAE (MINUGUA 2002, 23).

Attempts to modernize military education stagnated under Portillo as funding for the army’s educational institutions fell precipitously (MINUGUA 2002, 22). In addition, the military failed to redeploy the rest of its forces away from the former counterinsurgency zones (Prgma Zz’^re 2003). Military commanders thus continued to be highly influential public figures in many rural towns and villages. Many of them maintained contacts with former civil patrollers who became increasingly active politically. Beginning in mid-2002, Portillo and Rios Montt championed demands for monetary compensation from tens of thousands of civil patrol veterans, who blockaded highways and denied tourists access to Mayan ruins in pursuit of their claims. The armed forces’ institutional autonomy also remained largely intact. Concerted efforts by opposition congresswoman Nineth Montenegro to pry more budgetary information from the military proved unsuccessful.

Instead of reducing the role of the military, President Portillo and the FRG-dominated Congress increased it. They maintained all existing military missions and added many new ones. With crime levels still high, the president easily won congressional approval to keep the army in the streets to aid the new PNC. The PNC itself was removed from the control of ex-military officers only when Portillo replaced Interior Minister Arévalo Lacs with a civilian in July 2002, in response to wide criticism of the ministry’s militarization. In addition, Decree no. 40-2000 explicitly enlisted the armed forces’ help to fight illegal trafficking in narcotics and arms and to protect Guatemala’s forests and historic sites. The Portillo administration also used the military instead of less reliable civilian agencies to guard prison perimeters, deliver fertilizer and library books, vaccinate children, and improve school nutrition (MINUGUA 2002, 26-27), even though many officers found these duties unappealing. Retired minister of national defense Julio Balconi stressed that the armed forces never asked for any of these additional duties (Pressa fibre 2002e). Indeed, Portillo’s ability to force unwanted civic action missions on the military was an indicator of how much the Guatemalan military had been subordinated to civilian political control.

The Portillo administration regularly transferred funds from civilian agencies to enable the armed forces to perform their expanded missions. This enlargement of the military budget caused it to exceed by far the agreed 0.66 percent of GDP limit on defense spending in 2000 (0.83 percent), 2001 (0.96 percent; MINUGUA 2002, 34), and thereafter.” While the PNC and government social agencies were starved for cash, official military spending ballooned to over US$198 million by 2001, a level not seen since the war/** The expansion of the military’s budget and missions sparked increased external criticism from international human rights groups and MINUGUA.

The Resurgence of Political Violence

International actors and domestic NGOs also condemned the resurgence of political violence directed against the human rights community, political opponents of the government, and the press after Portillo became president. “In the first half of 2002 alone, Guatemalan human rights organizations reported 12$ cases of threats, attacks, and intimidation against those engaged in the defense of human rights,” stated Amnesty International (2002b). Death threats against judges, prosecutors, and potential witnesses in human rights cases in which military personnel were charged became increasingly common. The family and political associates of reformist retired general Otto Perez Molina, a leader in the opposition to the FRG regime, also were targeted. Pérez Molina’s wife, son, and daughter all barely escaped with their lives after being attacked by armed assailants in separate incidents during late 2000 and 2001. In 2002, Jorge Alberto Rosal Zea, one of the senior figures in Pérez Molina’s new Patriots’ Party, was assassinated in front of party headquarters.

Although representatives of the Portillo administration generally attributed these incidents to common criminals, most observers believed that they were the work of clandestine groups led by ex-military officers who were likely to have allies in the current government, armed forces, and police (Hernández Pico 2002b; Peacock and Beltrán 2003, 6-7). Férez Molina, a longtime enemy of presidential adviser Ortega Menaldo, blamed “dark sections of the government” for the murder of his political associate and the assaults on his family (Central America Report 2002b). The Portillo administration did little to investigate the new wave of political violence.


Portillo completed his presidential term in January 2004. What, at that point, was the status of civil-military relations in Guatemala, more than seven years after the signing of the Accord for the Strengthening of Civilian Power and the Role of the Armed Forces in a Democratic Society? One widely used method for evaluating civil-military relations in a given country is Alfred Stepan’s military prerogatives indicators (1988, 91-102). Stepan developed his prerogatives approach in the late 1980s; it is based on his research on the role of the military in Brazil and the Southern Cone. His system uses 11 indicators to measure the extent to which “the military as an institution assumes it has an acquired right or privilege, formal or informal, to exercise effective control over its internal governance, . . . extra-military areas within the state apparatus, … or relationships between the state and political or civil society” (1988, 93). The lower the level of military prerogatives (rated in each case as high, moderate, or low), and the greater the military’s acceptance of the situation (low contestation), the higher the level of civilian control.

Stepan’s approach is a useful one, but as Samuel Fitch recently has pointed out, it implicitly weighs all military prerogatives equally (Fitch 1998, 42^43, 2001, 61-63). Fitch argues persuasively that prerogatives through which the military may exert political influence over civilian leaders (such as the constitutional arbiter role) are much more important than those with which the military insulates itself from government control of its internal activities (for example, military officers’ monopoly of Defense Ministry positions). He reasons that while military institutional autonomy from governmental supervision may weaken democratic regimes, military influence or control over elected governments calls into question the very nature of the regime. Fitch also asserts that democratic civil-military relations should not be defined simply as the absence of military prerogatives (1998, 43).

As an alternative to Stepan’s framework, Fitch offers three criteria for determining the level of democratic control over the armed forces: political subordination of the military to elected authorities, organizational control of the armed forces via a civilian defense ministry and congressional committees, and subjection of military personnel to the rule of law. On the basis of how much these criteria are satisfied, he classifies countries into one of four categories:

* Democratic Control. All three criteria satisfied. Uruguay and Argentina currently approximate this level, according to Fitch.

* Conditional Subordination. The military avoids overt intervention in political questions but reserves the right to intervene in a national crisis and exercises indirect influence on nonmilitary policies. The armed forces enjoy a quasi-monopoly on security policy and a high degree of institutional autonomy (Ecuador during the last two decades).

* Military Tutelage. The armed forces participate in the policymaking process and exercise oversight of civilian authorities, although the military’s veto power does not extend to all policy areas. Civilian leaders seek military allies but exercise low policy control over the armed forces (Brazil under José Sarney, 1985-90).

* Military Control. De facto political subordination of a nominally civilian government to effective military control (Panama under Manuel Noriega, 1983-89).19

Both Stepan and Fitch provide valuable approaches for analyzing civil-military relations. Stepan gives researchers explicit guidelines about what kind of data to collect. Fitch distinguishes between more and less significant prerogatives and offers a useful typology for classifying the level of military subordination achieved. Fortunately, it is possible to combine the two approaches by grouping Stepan’s indicators according to the Fitch criterion to which they apply.20 In this way, Stepan’s indicators can be used more effectively to measure the level of democratic control that existed in Guatemala in early 2004.

Political Subordination and Political Influence

Six of Stepan’s indicators primarily assess Fitch’s most important criterion of democratic control, the level of political subordination and political influence of the military.

1. Constitutionally sanctioned independent role for the military in the political system: moderate military prerogatives.21 Although the 1985 Constitution was developed during a military government, it did not designate the Guatemalan army as the ultimate guardian of the political system. The defeat of the constitutional reforms in 1999 did, however, leave the army with the explicit constitutional responsibility under Article 244 for maintaining internal security, although the army was to perform this role under the civilian president’s direction. Elected president Alfonso Portillo and the FRG-controllecl Congress, not the military, were responsible for the marked expansion of the armed forces’ missions and budget after 2000.

2. Military relationship to the chief executive: low military prerogatives. The president was the de jure commanding general of the armed forces. Presidents Arzú and Portillo demonstrated that they also had de facto control of the military. Both made ample use of the Guatemalan presidents’ constitutional power over promotions under Article 246 to shape the top military hierarchy to their needs. In addition, Arzú and Portillo were able to impose new policies on the armed forces; for example, concessions to the URNG under Arzú and increased nonmilitary duties under Portillo. Portillo relied heavily on the advice of rightwing former military officers to maintain control of the armed forces, but these officers did not exercise power as representatives of the activeduty officer corps. They had influence because of their personal and political ties to the democratically chosen chief executive and the duly elected president of Congress (Arévalo de León 2001b).

3. Active-duty military participation in the cabinet: moderate military prerogatives. The minister of national defense still had to be a military officer because of the defeat of the constitutional amendment in 1999 that would have allowed a civilian to hold this office. Although this officer had a seat in the cabinet, he held his position at the pleasure of the president. The minister of national defense often appeared to represent the interests of the president more than the views of the armed forces; for example, propeace General Balconi, 1996-97.

4. Role in intelligence: moderate military prerogatives. The D-2 and the EMP still enjoyed a near-de facto monopoly over intelligence gathering and analysis during the Arzu and Portillo administrations. D-2 served the president but did not fully share information with its new de jure superior, the civilian SAE. The SAE was still a weak agency that was forced to dismiss half its staff because of budget cuts imposed by Congress.

5. Role in the police: low military prerogatives. The newly established national civil police was totally separate from the armed forces. No active-duty military officers were allowed to command police units. Following presidential directives endorsed by Congress, the army did collaborate with the police in fighting crime. In addition, the PNC’s Criminal Investigation Service was still trained by military intelligence.

6. Role in state enterprises: moderate military prerogatives. The Military Pension Institute was an autonomous state institution controlled by the armed forces. Although the institute saw its failed Bank of the Army taken over by a civilian bank, it still owned a number of business enterprises. The military also operated its own arms industry. Active-duty military officers, however, no longer held positions in state enterprises that were not directly related to the armed forces.

This application of Stepan’s indicators makes clear that the once politically independent Guatemalan military lost influence and subordinated itself to democratically elected civilian authorities. The armed forces did not retain high prerogatives in any of the areas examined in early 2004. The military was under the de jure and de facto control of the elected chief executive and enjoyed no special constitutional rights to intervene in the political process. The armed forces no longer contested these civilian gains, moreover, although there was discontent over President Portillo’s highly politicized staffing decisions. The military still retained much too important a political role in intelligence gathering and internal security, but both functions were carried out under overall civilian presidential control. Civilian leaders could have reduced the military’s role in both areas, had they chosen to do so. Although one military officer still sat in the cabinet as defense minister, he no longer represented a politically independent institution. The military’s control of state enterprises was limited to those that contributed to its financially troubled pension fund or provided for basic military needs.

Institutional Autonomy

Four of Stepan’s indicators measure the military’s institutional autonomy from civilian supervision of its internal functioning.

7. Coordination of the defense sector: high military prerogatives. The minister of national defense, who was the top-ranking officer in the armed forces, was the principal coordinator of the defense sector. Military officers held virtually all planning and policymaking positions in the ministry. The Portillo government issued a Governmental Accord on National Defense Policy (Republica de Guatemala, 2003, 155-57) establishing a new civil-military structure for developing defense policy, to be led by a six-person Collegial Leadership Committee composed of two military officers (the minister of national defense and the chief of the general staff) and four civilians (the ministers of foreign affairs, interior, and public finance and the head of the SAE). This new formal arrangement, however, had not yet actually increased civilian coordination of the defense sector. The military continued to develop its own plans, doctrine, and educational curricula, although it had begun to consult regularly with interested civilian groups.

8. Role of the legislature: high military prerogatives. The Guatemalan Congress shared with the president some authority to determine the size of the armed forces’ budget, but Article 30 of the constitution allowed the military to keep the details of its finances secret as a matter of national security. The composition of the congressional Defense Commission changed every year, and few of its members were knowledgeable about defense issues. During 2001, Defense Commission chair Nineth Montenegro used her position to question military representatives closely about the defense expenditures, but she gained little new information. In a November 2002 appearance before Congress, for example, Minister of National Defense Robin Macloni Morán frequently cited Article 30 as grounds for his refusal to answer opposition party questions about the military budget.

9. Role of senior career civil servants or civilian political appointees: high military prerogatives. Active-duty military officers filled virtually all top defense sector staff roles. No professional cadre of career civil servants or civilian political appointees assisted the minister of national defense in designing or implementing defense and national security policy. In 2004, the minister of national defense had only one senior civilian adviser (Pacheco 2004).

10. Role in military promotions: moderate military prerogatives. The civilian president had de jure constitutional power over military promotions, and both Arzu and Portillo used this authority aggressively with respect to the top armed forces leadership positions. The Portillo administration extended its influence even to the selection of military zone commanders’ staffs. Most middle- and lower-level promotion and staffing decisions, however, still were determined within the military itself.22

These results indicate that in early 2004 the Guatemalan military retained far too much institutional autonomy to satisfy Fitch’s second criterion of democratic control. The military still enjoyed high prerogatives in three of the four areas evaluated, and its other prerogative in this sphere (internal promotions) was moderate rather than low. There was no real organizational framework of civilian policy control to supervise the internal professional activities of the armed forces. The Ministry of National Defense was still entirely a military preserve. The defense commission could not even conduct a proper analysis of military expenditures because the military contested the legislature’s right to full budgetary information. The military’s autonomy with respect to most middle- and lower-level promotions, on the other hand, is customary in most democratic countries. Indeed, deeper civilian involvement in military promotion decisions can cause unnecessary civil-military friction, as the Guatemalan case shows.

Subjection to the Rule of Law

Stepan’s last indicator measures the level of accountability of military personnel to the rule of law, Fitch’s third criterion of democratic control.

11. Role in the legal system: moderate military prerogatives. After Decree 41-96 affirmed the precedent established in the 1995 Xaman case, all military personnel accused of criminal misdemeanors and felonies came under the jurisdiction of civilian courts. The jurisdiction of military courts was !United to offenses against military discipline, such as unauthorized absence; and no civilian could be tried by a military tribunal. This arrangement could be challenged in the future, however, because Article 219 of the Guatemalan Constitution still formally grants military courts jurisdiction in all cases involving military personnel. Moreover, the Guatemalan civilian legal system proved unable to prosecute successfully more than a handful of military personnel for the vast number of human rights crimes documented in the REMHI and CEH reports and other human rights abuses that took place more recently. Corruption by senior officers also went unpunished.

Although the military had lost its de jure legal autonomy, Stepan’s last measure indicates that active duty and retired military personnel were still largely immune de facto from prosecution for human rights crimes. The armed forces still contested the right of civilian victims of the counterinsurgency war to bring military perpetrators to justice. The weakness of the Guatemalan judicial system and its inability to guarantee the safety of judges, prosecutors, or witnesses also made it very difficult to convict military or civilian members of powerful criminal organizations. This result constitutes another reason why Guatemala had not yet attained full democratic control over the armed forces by the time Portillo left office.


By 2004, Guatemala appeared to have fulfilled Samuel Fitch’s first criterion for democratic control of the armed forces: the military complied with orders from the democratically elected president and refrained from trying to interfere in civilian policymaking.^ Even ordinary Guatemalans seemed to recognize this new reality: only 2 percent of the public identified the military as the country’s most powerful political actor in a 2002 poll (La Prensa 2002).

Unfortunately, presidents Arzu and tOrtillo had not made the most of the historic opportunity that this new power gave them to deepen democratic control. As the relevant Stepan indicators have shown, civilian leaders in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Guatemalan government did much too little to meet Fitch’s second and third criteria of democratic control. They did not build the civilian institutions necessary to monitor the military’s activities or hold armed forces personnel fully accountable to the rule of law. Insufficient civilian commitment to reform, not military resistance, was the main reason for Guatemala’s failure to complete the process of democratizing civil-military relations.

Based on the evidence provided by Stepan’s indicators, it would appear that in early 2004 the Guatemalan case fell between the conditional subordination (Ecuador) and democratic control (Uruguay) categories in Fitch’s typology of civil-military relations. Full democratic control clearly had not been attained, but the military lacked the necessary political independence to be considered only conditionally subordinate, despite its considerable institutional autonomy. The armed forces did not exercise significant indirect political influence on nonmilitary policies; nor did they have a quasi-monopoly on security affairs.


The military misruled Guatemala for almost five decades and earned an international reputation for extreme repression and human rights abuse. After formal civilian rule was reestablished in the late 1980s, however, Guatemala’s civilian political class and civil society gradually strengthened with active external support while the army became increasingly isolated. By the mid-1990s, elected civilian president Alvaro Arzu was able to subordinate the military to his authority and require its acceptance of the Peace Accords that promised to reduce dramatically the role of the armed forces in Guatemalan society. Such an achievement would have been unthinkable a decade earlier; it created an unprecedented opportunity for change.

Unfortunately, although Arzu implemented several important military provisions of the Peace Accords (size and budget cuts, reduced rural presence, end of wide military court jurisdiction, revised military doctrine), many others never took effect (civilian defense minister, end of internal security role, civilian intelligence supremacy, EMP abolition, accountability for human rights crimes). In addition, the military’s ability to conduct its internal affairs without significant outside interference remained very much intact. Arzu’s apparent lack of interest in institutionalizing democratic control or in radically decreasing the role of the armed forces he came to find so useful help explain this outcome. The relative disinterest of most members of Congress and the Guatemalan public in military reform, once the army had downsized by one-third and loosened its hold on the countryside, was also an important factor. Indeed, as Arzu’s term neared its end in 1999, Guatemalan voters rejected needed constitutional changes in the armed forces that the president had endorsed. Later in the same year, Guatemalans unwisely gave executive and legislative power to the right-wing PRG, which had no interest in curbing the military’s role or in giving civilian courts and a civilian ministry of national defense the power to hold it to account.

President Alfonso Portillo and his congressional ally, former military ruler Efrain Rios Montt, maintained civilian control of the armed forces but, not surprisingly, did little to advance the cause of military reform. Instead, Portillo delegated power over the armed forces to disgraced ex-military officers associated with the worst years of state repression and once again expanded the army’s missions and resources. Except for deeper executive involvement in military staffing decisions and the limited Gerardi and Mack convictions, the armed forces continued to enjoy institutional autonomy and broad de facto immunity from prosecution under the FRG administration.

Insufficient commitment to military reform by civilian political elites and the mass public, not active army resistance, was the principal reason that Guatemala had not achieved greater progress in democratizing civil-military relations and reducing the role of the military in the more than seven years after the signing of the Peace Accords. Although the political subordination of the once all-powerful military to civilian authority represented a fundamental change in Guatemalan civil-military relations, the process of establishing full democratic control over the armed forces remained incomplete. The military still enjoyed too much institutional autonomy, and with a few high-profile exceptions, its officers still had relatively little to fear from Guatemala’s civilian courts.

Fortunately, the prospects for achieving full democratic control over the armed forces improved significantly as soon as Portillo left office in January 2004. Oscar Berger, who handily defeated General Rios Montt in the 2003 presidential elections, actively restarted the military reform process during his first months in office. He ordered more than 500 officers to take early retirement and radically reduced the size of the armed forces to only 15,500. His administration also promised to trim military spending to well under the budgetary limits agreed to in the Peace Accords and began a series of high-profile investigations into military corruption under Portillo.

In spite of some internal grumbling, the armed forces leadership complied with Berger’s directives. The army finally redeployed its units out of the former counterinsurgency areas as the president ordered and, in June 2004, presented him with a new military doctrine that reaffirmed its subordination to elected civilian authority. The military’s cooperation with Berger underlined the armed forces’ political weakness and demonstrated how much change a committed civilian chief executive could promote in a short time. It was too early to know if the new president would continue to deepen and broaden civilian control of the armed forces throughout his term, but he had clearly begun with some important steps in the right direction.


The author wishes to thank John Booth, Johanna Mendelson Forman, and the anonymous reviewers for LAPS for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

1. Pion-Hcrlin (1992, 84-85) draws an important distinction between two kinds of military autonomy: political and institutional. A politically subordinate military lacks political autonomy; it accepts civilian authority and does not attempt to influence policy outside of the defense area. Politically subordinate armed forces still may retain institutional autonomy, however, by maintaining control over their own internal functions and core professional activities.

2. General Ferez Molina had been a leader in the military faction opposed to the 1995 autogolpe.

3. Officers who have no assignment but continue to receive their pay and benefits.

4. Former President Arzú and one of his senior officials, Gustavo Porras, claimed in interviews that the military had been completely obedient to the chief executive during his entire term of office (Arzú 2001; Porras 2001). Retired ministers of national defense General Julio Halconi and General Marco Tulio Espinosa concurred with this assertion (Halconi 2001; Espinosa 2001).

5. Jonas (2000, 101) observes that the earlier civilian administrations “made no serious attempt to impose civilian authority over the military (with the brief exception of Serrano, at the very beginning of his government).” Serrano ordered the military to help implement the autogolpe, but a number of senior officers refused his illegal command.

6. Schirmer (1998b, 23) suggests that the military was not as large as it claimed to be in 1996, so that it actually shrank by less than one-third. By 2002, the Guatemalan armed forces reportedly had an estimated 30,000 effectives (active-duty personnel), including 2,000 officers, 8,000 specialists, and 20,000 soldiers (Prewia Z;6re 2002f). At the beginning of 2004, total military personnel numbered 27,000. Analysts have speculated that many former soldiers’ names are kept on the active duty list so that officers can pocket their paid-in-cash wages (Frewia Zi(we 2004c).

7. The constitutional referendum section pertaining to the executive branch and including the role of the army was defeated by a margin of 51.7 percent to 39 percent (Jonas 2000, 199).

8. A highly placed confidential source claimed in an interview with the author that military intelligence (D-2) never shared information it acquired on officers accused of human rights crimes with civilian prosecutors.

9. Ríos Montt supposedly was constitutionally barred from seeking the presidency because he came to power via a military coup in 1982. Nevertheless, the FRG-controlled Constitutional Court allowed him to run in 2003.

10. The 1996 Moreno contraband case never came to trial and, in late 2001, Moreno himself was set free on bail. Sieder at al. (2002,10) discuss allegations that President Portillo and former president Rios Montt were associates of the Moreno criminal organization, Grupo Salvavidas. see also Peacock and Beltrán 2003.

11. Salán Sánchez was in charge of Portillo’s personal security team from 1996 to 2001 and served as the de facto head of the EMP in 2000 until U.S. pressure forced his removal (Sieder et al. 2002, 8-9). Hc and Ortega Mcnaldo reportedly were members of the shadowy Cofradía military brotherhood, a secret association of retired and active-duty officers (Central America Report 1999).

12. In 2003, the United States formally “decertified” Guatemala for noncooperation in combating the flow of narcotics through the country.

13. One of the anonymous reviewers observed that Alberto Fujimori of Peru represents another case in which a democratically elected president used an ex-military official (Vladimiro Montcsinos) to help him gain personal control over the military without developing permanent bureaucratic or legislative institutions of civil authority.

14. This was also confirmed by confidential author interviews with an active-duty Guatemalan lieutenant colonel and lieutenant as well as two retired colonels.

15. Retired Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada was a former top military intelligence officer and the father of EMP Captain Byron Lima Oliva. Catholic priest Mario Orantes was also convicted in the case and sentenced to 20 years in prison for helping to cover up the crime. Former EMP specialist Obdulio ViIlanueva, the fourth person sentenced for the Gerardi murder, was killed in a prison riot in 2003.

16. Most analysts (see Aguilera Peralta 2001; Pacheco 2004) do not believe that the military high command played any role in the planning or execution of this assassination.

17. Under Portillo, the EMP budget also was regularly enlarged by transfers from other agencies. Investigators have alleged that many of these budgetary transfers to the EMP and army actually ended up in the bank accounts of high officials in the Portillo administration and armed forces (Prensa Libre 2004b).

18. The final defense budget was 1,546.6 million Quetzals in 2001. One dollar was worth 7.8 Quetzals. Isacson (1997, 61) shows that the highest Guatemalan defense expenditure during the 1990-97 period was in 1992 (US$188 million). The estimated military expenditure for 2003 was still about $190 million (frewia Libre 2004a).

19. Fitch (1998, 36-42) states that these patterns of civil-military relations can vary by degree of institutionalization. In countries with fully institutionalized democratic control, officers have internalized democratic norms and accept civilian control as legitimate.

20. The distribution of prerogatives by category was done in consultation with Samuel Fitch. see Ruhl 2003 for more discussion of this integrated approach and its application to the Nicaraguan case. Descriptions of the Stepan and Fitch frameworks are drawn from that article.

21. These ratings largely summarize information presented and documented earlier in the paper. They were influenced by discussions with experts on the Central American militaries (Orlando Pérez and Ricardo Córdova Macías) as well as Guatemalan scholars, military officers, and politicians. see also FLACSO-Guatemala 2002, 49-51. According to Stepan (1988, 93), the military should be classified as having a low prerogative when de jure and de facto control is exercised by civilian officials and institutions sanctioned by the democratic regime. In cases where the civilian government has de jure legal authority but the military still has de facto effective control because of active or passive resistance, the military prerogative in question should be classified as moderate.

22. Authority over promotion to general was formally shared with Congress.

23. Guatemalan scholars Bemardo Arevalo de Leon (2001a, 9) and Gabriel Aguilera Peralta (2001) concur in this view.


Aguilera Peralta, Gabriel. 2001. Guatemalan scholar. Author interview. Guatemala City, July.

Amnesty International. 2002a. Guatemala: ‘!”be Lethal Legacy of Impunity.

____. 2002b. Guatemala: Human Rights Defenders Still on the Line. Press release. July 19.

Arana, Ana. 2001. The New Battle for Central America. Foreign Affairs 80, 6: 88-101.

Archdiocese of Guatemala. 1999. Guatemala: Never Again. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Arévalo de Leon, Bernardo. 2001a. Transición democrática y reconversion militar en Guatemala: limitaciones y retos de un proceso inconduso. Unpublished paper.

____. 2001b. Guatemalan scholar. Author interview. Guatemala City, November.

Arzú, Alvaro. 2001. Former President of Guatemala. Author interview. Guatemala City, July.

Balconi, Julio, General (ret.). 2001. Former Minister of National Defense, Guatemala. Author interview. Guatemala City, July.

Central America Report (Guatemala City). 1996. Vice Minister of Defense and Eight Other Officers Suspended. September 19: 1-3.

____. 1998. Colonel’s Arrest Signals Hard-Line Retrenchment in Army. July 24: 1-3.

____. 1999. The Fraternity and Its Influence. July 9: 3.

____. 2000. The Fraternity Rises Again. January 28: 3-4.

____. 2001a. Army’s Slow Adjustment to Peace. August 17: 4-5.

____. 2001b. Army Returns to the Streets. March 2: 1-2.

____. 2002a. Corruption at its Peak. March 22: 1-2.

____. 2002b. Army Proposes its Own Transformation Process. July 19: 4-5.

Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico. 2000. Guatemala: causas y orígenes del enfrentamiento armado interno. Guatemala City: F&G Editores.

Espinosa, Marco Tulio, General (ret.). 2001. Former Minister of National Defense, Guatemala. Author interview. Guatemala City; July.

Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Sede Guatemala (FLACSO-Guatemala). 2000. Bases para Ia consideration de la cuestión militar en Guatemala: Documenta de trabajo. Guatemala City: FLACSO.

Fitch, J. Samuel. 1998. The Armed Forces and Democracy in Latin America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

____. 2001. Military Attitudes Toward Democracy: How Do We Know If Anything Has Changed? In Civil-Military Relations in Latin America.. New Analytical Perspectives, ed. David Pion-Berlin. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 59-87.

Hernández Pico, Juan. 2000. The New Portillo Government: Demagoguery or Revolution? Envio 19, 222-23 (January-February): 30-37.

____. 2001. Gcrardi case: Justice for a Just Man. Envio 20, 239: 36-44.

____. 2002a. Portillo Lives on Appearances While Covering Up Reality. Envio 21, 246-47: 29-36.

____. 2002b. The Armed Wing of the Hidden Powers in Action. Envio 21, 249: 20-28.

Holiday, David. 2000. Guatemala’s Precarious Peace. Current History 99, 634: 78-84.

Huntington, Samuel. 1957. ‘Jhe Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Isacson, Adam. 1997. Altered States: security and Demilitarization in Central America. Washington, DC: Center for International Policy.

Iznarclo, Francisco. 2002. Militarization in Ixcán: Thin Red Lines. Envío 21, 248: 31-35.

Jonas, Susanne. 1991. The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power. Boulder: Westview Press.

____. 2000. Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process. Boulder: Westview Press.

Mack, Helen. 2001. Untitled paper. In Funcion military control democratico, ed. Bernárdo Arévalo de Leon. Guatemala City: Amanuense Editorial, 277-86.

McCleary, Rachel M. 1999. Dictating Democracy: Guatemala and the End of Violent Revolution. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Misión de Naeiones Unidas para Guatemala (MINUGUA). 1997. La conslruccion de la paz en Guatemala. Guatemala City: Editorial Serviprensa.

____. 2002. Status of the Commitments of the Peace Agreements Relating to the Armed Forces,

Noack, Otto, Colonel (ret.). 2001. Former Military Intelligence Officer, Guatemala. Author interview. Guatemala City, November.

Pacheco, Guillermo. 2004. Guatemalan scholar. Author interview. Guatemala City, June.

Peacock, Susan C., and Aclriana Beltran. 2003. Hidden Powers in Post-Conflict Guatemala. Washington, DC: Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Pérez Molina, Otto, General (ret.). 2001. Untitled paper. In Funcion militar y control democrático, ed. Bernárdo Arévalo de Leon. Guatemala City: Amanuense Editorial, 381-88.

Pion-Berlin, David. 1992. Military Autonomy and Emerging Democracies in South America. Comparative Politics 25, 1: 83-102.

____. 1997. Through Corridors of Power: Institutions and Civil-Military Relations in Argentina. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Porras, Gustavo. 1998. Discussion. In Guatemala After the Peace Accords, eel. Rachel Sieder. London: Institute of Latin American Studies. 12-18.

____. 2001. Former Coordinator of the Presidential Peace Commission (COPAZ). Author interview. Guatemala City, July.

La Prensa (San Pedro SuIa, Honduras). 2002. Ex-dictador Rios Montt reelectó por tercer año presidente del Congreso. January 15.

Prensa Libre (Guatemala). 2002a. Gerardi: el crimen perfecto. January 14.

____. 2002b. ¿Por qué hay malestar en las filas del Ejército? March 11.

____. 2002c. Guatemaltecos reprueban gestion de Alfonso Portillo. July 14.

____. 2002d. Investigarán a militares sospechosos de ilicitos. October 24.

____. 2002e. Un Ejército desfasado. June 30.

____. 2002f. Civiles y militares en retiro. August 6.

____. 2003. Unión Europea exige reducción del Ejército. January 22.

____. 2004a. Reducirán Ejército a 14 mil militares. March 21.

____. 2004b. MP: Alfonso Portillo participó en robo tie Q190 milliones. July 26.

____. 2004c. Q18 milliones en plazas fantasma pagó Ejército. October 1.

República de Guatemala. 1999a. Constitución política de la República de Guatemala. Guatemala City: Editorial Piedra Santa.

____. 1999b. Doctrina del Ejército de Guatemala. Guatemala City: Ministerio de la Defensa Nacional.

____. 1999e. Reformas a la constitutionpolttica de la Republica de Guatemala. Guatemala City: Tribunal Supremo Electoral.

____. 2003. Libra de la defensa nacional de la Republica de Guatemala. Guatemala City: Centro Impresor PS.

Rico, Maite, and Bertrand de la Grange. 2003. ¿Quién mató al obispo? autopsia de un crimen político. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta.

Rosada Granados, Hector. 1999. Soldados en el poder: proyeclo mililar en Guatemala, 1944-1990. San José, Costa Rica: FUNPADEM.

____. 2001. Guatemalan scholar. Author interview. Guatemala City, November.

Ruhl, J. Mark. 2003. Civil-Military Relations in Post-Sandinista Nicaragua. Armed Forces and Society 50, 1: 117-39.

Schirmer, Jennifer. 1998a. The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

____. 1998b. Prospects for Compliance: The Guatemalan Military and the Peace Accords. In Guatemala After the Peace Accords, eel. Rachel Siecler. London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 21-32.

Sieder, Rachel, Megan Thomas, George Vickers, and Jack Spence. 2002. Who Governs? Guatemala Five Years After the Peace Accords. Cambridge, MA: Hemisphere Initiatives.

Spence, Jack, David R. Dye, Paula Worthy, Carmen Rosa de Leon-Escribano, George Vickers, and Mike Lanchin. 1998. Promise and Reality: Implementation of the Guatemalan Peace Accords. Cambridge, MA: Hemisphere Initiatives.

Stepan, Alfred. 1988. Rethinking Military Politics.. Brazil and the Southern Cone. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Copyright Latin American Politics and Society Spring 2005

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved