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U.S. sends dozens of military vehicles to Guatemala despite alleged misuse

Firecrackers explode near a supporter of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’s decision to shut down a U.N.-sponsored anti-corruption commission. (Moises Castillo/AP)

MEXICO CITY — The Trump administration donated dozens of new military vehicles to the Guatemalan government, just weeks after authorities in the Central American nation were accused of using similar U.S.-supplied Jeeps to intimidate international anti-corruption investigators and U.S. diplomats.

Thirty-eight J8 Jeeps were turned over to the Guatemalan defense ministry on Oct. 11 for use in anti-narcotics operations, according to Pentagon spokesman Johnny I. Michael Jr. 

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and several other Democrats wrote Thursday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “we were disturbed to learn” about the shipment, according to the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

“It is difficult to understand how such a transfer would be made without a resolution of the threatening action by the Guatemalan government against U.S. personnel on Aug. 31,” said the letter. 

On that day, President Jimmy Morales announced he was ending the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala — a pioneering, U.N.-backed body launched in 2007. The commission, known by its Spanish initials CICIG, has helped Guatemalan prosecutors investigate two presidents as well as government ministers and congressional representatives, and it had been pursuing allegations of campaign finance violations involving Morales.

Morales made the announcement surrounded by soldiers and police, a powerful image in a country that endured four decades of brutal military governments before transitioning to democracy in 1997. Meanwhile, a column of Jeeps — some with roof-mounted machine guns — rolled through the city, pausing at the CICIG and passing the U.S. Embassy and homes of human rights activists, according to news reports and videos. 

The U.S. government has traditionally been a strong supporter of the CICIG and remains the commission’s top funder, providing over one-quarter of its budget. 

The agreement providing the Jeeps to Guatemala had specified that they were to be used for counternarcotics operations, said Michael, the Pentagon spokesman. 

“We are investigating the apparent misuse of the Jeep J8s on 31 Aug, and are working with the Guatemala Government,” he said in an emailed response to questions. “The U.S. Government takes allegations of misuse of U.S.-donated vehicles seriously and will respond appropriately” once the review is complete.

The Pentagon has insisted on new monitoring measures for the recently supplied Jeeps “to ensure the vehicles are not misused,” Michael said. 

The Morales government has denied that it was threatening either the anti-corruption commission or the embassy. It has offered various explanations for the use of the Jeeps, with the interior minister saying they were on a routine anti-crime patrol and the president stating that they were to prevent “violent ­marches.” The Guatemalan presidential spokesman did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, has criticized the deployment of the Jeeps. “They were donated by the United States to combat drug trafficking on the borders, and they were used to intimidate CICIG, violating everything the [bilateral] agreement says,” he told the news organization the Intercept. 

Engel, the congressman, had asked Pompeo in October to freeze any further transfers of military equipment to Guatemala pending the outcome of the investigation. The State Department, which helps administer the program, did not respond Thursday to an email seeking reaction to Engel’s latest letter. 

Guatemala is a major transshipment point for South American cocaine bound for the United States. Since 2013, 148 Jeeps were supplied to the country under the American program, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issued before the latest shipment.

The U.S. government has been a staunch defender of the CICIG in the past, but the Trump administration’s reaction to Morales’s attack on the commission has been muted. “We greatly appreciate Guatemala’s efforts in counter­narcotics and security,” Pompeo tweeted the day after Morales’s announcement, without mentioning the shutdown of the commission. A few days later, the secretary of state spoke by phone to Morales and expressed support “for a reformed CICIG,” according to a State Department news release.  

U.S. officials and congressional staffers say the apparent change in tone reflects both American concerns about overreach by the CICIG and the Guatemalan government’s efforts to ingratiate itself with the Trump administration. In May, Guatemala moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, two days after a similar move by the U.S. government. 

Morales has accused the CICIG of pursuing “selective prosecution with an ideological bias.” He says he is innocent of wrongdoing. His predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, resigned in 2015 after the CICIG helped uncover allegations of corruption, leading to massive public demonstrations against the president. He is in jail awaiting trial.   

Adriana Beltrán, a Central America expert who works with the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group, said the deployment of the Jeeps sent a clear signal.

“The vehicles around the embassy were seen as intimidation, trying to send a message to the population that ‘we are the ones in charge here, and neither the [anti-corruption] commission nor the U.S. government is going to dictate what we do,’ ” Beltrán said. 

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