“We’re a 21st-century Army,” said Major General Hellmuth René Casados Ramírez, head of the Guatemalan National Defense General Staff, in an interview granted to Diálogo during the Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC 2012) in San Salvador. During a break between sessions at the event, sponsored by the U.S. Southern Command, the head of Guatemala’s Defense General Staff explained that his country’s Army is adapting to modern challenges; it is evolving with the rest of society, and perhaps precisely for that reason, enjoys a high level of popularity among Guatemalan citizens. The battle waged against Los Zetas, who are infiltrating across the border with Mexico, and the arrests of leading drug traffickers thanks to cooperation with El Salvador, Honduras, and the United States were other topics of conversation.
Diálogo: During CENTSEC 2012, you spoke about the countless tasks that the Guatemalan Army is carrying out in order to respond to the needs of the Guatemalan people. Could you tell us what are the most significant challenges that you face at this time?
Major General Hellmuth René Casados Ramírez: We have the mission of continuing to contribute, with the public-safety forces, to stabilize citizen security, which is what affects Guatemalan citizens, who are the victims of assault, murder-for-hire, extortion, kidnapping, etc. We’re very clear that this is something temporary, but that’s the primary mission. In the order of challenges, it’s stabilizing the country, respect for peace, also contributing to the law-enforcement sector, continuing to cooperate with the United Nations, as well as contributing and collaborating to mitigate the effects of natural disasters, since Guatemala is the country with the seventh-highest risk of suffering natural disasters.
Diálogo: During your presentation at CENTSEC 2012, you referred to the creation of new units within the Army. Could you discuss that further?
Maj. Gen. Casados: This isn’t only an institutional objective, but a government one. Last year, after a long time without a budgetary increase , 100 million quetzales [approximately 13 million dollars] were obtained for the budget of the National Defense Ministry, with the approval of Congress. After a reduction of almost 50 percent in 2004, which generated many security problems, the topic of creating these two brigades is now being taken up again. One is in Petén, where all the transnational crime is concentrated as a result of the situation with the porous nature of the southern border with Mexico, and where the Jungle Infantry Special Operations Brigade is located. Petén is the largest department in the country, with almost 8,000 square kilometers. Then we have the Military Police Brigade in San Juan Sacatepéquez, the objective of which is precisely to support domestic security and citizen security with the National Civil Police and the Interior Ministry. These brigades will be officially introduced on June 30.
Diálogo: I understand that an inter-agency unit is also being created with the U.S. Southern Command and Guatemalan institutions …
Maj. Gen. Casados: Yes, that’s the Tecún Umán Task Force project, in San Marcos, on the southern border with Mexico. That’s support that had not been provided to Guatemala for a long time, by making military personnel transport vehicles available, jointly with the Interior Ministry, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the judiciary, the tax administration superintendent’s office, customs, immigration… That southern border is one with the most traffic, where there’s the most smuggling, and precisely due to the pressure that the Mexican Armed Forces and security forces are exerting, we need to harden our border. In this case, we have coordination with the Mexican Navy through the High-Level Border Security Group, which has functioned very well for us, because they’re tactical operational commanders who communicate across the Guatemalan and Mexican border. That information is going to be useful to us for operations along the southern border. We have the material support through the U.S. Southern Command.
Diálogo: The border demands quite a bit of effort from the Military, and part of that has to do with the presence of some prominent individuals belonging to Mexican drug cartels. Could you say more about this?
Maj. Gen. Casados: The facts indicate that we continue to have a considerable influx of the [Los] Zetas organization in Guatemala. Even if the influx has not increased, those groups generate violent acts, chiefly in Petén and in Alta Verapaz. Late last year, 26 Guatemalan farm workers who were working on a rural property in Petén were beheaded by that group. As a consequence, we had to impose a state of emergency that enabled us to make more than 25 arrests. We recently arrested one of Los Zetas’ main contacts in Guatemala, Horst Walter Overdick Mejía, who had an international arrest warrant pending against him.
Diálogo: How are you collaborating with other Central American countries?
Maj. Gen. Casados: Cooperation is ongoing. With Mexico, it’s a relationship on the north and on the west. The border with the United Mexican States -along which there’s a relationship, is almost 580 kilometers. With Belize, we have confidence-building measures, which are border patrols in the adjacent region. Now, with El Salvador and Honduras, we maintain magnificent relations, and the commanders from each country meet each month with their counterparts and conduct monitoring operations.
Diálogo: Do you have a concrete example of the results of these collaborative efforts?
Maj. Gen. Casados: There was recently an international arrest warrant targeting a gang involved in organized crime, and Nicaragua asked us for information about Ms. Soliz [Tania Zaleska Solís Castillo], of Nicaraguan origin, who is involved in an international gang. The information was provided, and the arrest was made in Guatemala as a result of that information. We’ve also had arrests of drug traffickers with El Salvador and Honduras, as a result of operations and information.
Diálogo: I understand that the Guatemalan Army has also worked tenaciously to destroy airstrips used by drug traffickers …
Maj. Gen. Casados: Yes, there’s been collaboration on that even from the mayors of the localities themselves, who have requested the destruction of some airstrips because they considered them suspicious. I want to mention that in 2009 and 2010, we had a high concentration of landings by drug planes. Using different methods of airstrip destruction, we were very effective and successful in neutralizing the majority of these flights, also as a result of operations with shared information. As a consequence of that work, flights began to shift to the Atlantic coast of Honduras already in 2011, but now that’s precisely where Operation Martillo is, along the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and Honduras.
Diálogo: Incidentally, what is Guatemala’s participation in Operation Martillo?
Maj. Gen. Casados: The proposal was made to us, and we were visited by Rear Admiral Charles Michel, who is commanding the Inter-Agency Force at the forefront of Operation Martillo. So we’re providing special units, chiefly Navy Special Forces, with equipment and jointly trained personnel, in order to react to requests for interceptions on the high seas. We’re talking about operations in the range of 120 nautical miles that have been carried out. That’s quite a bit.
Diálogo: The Guatemalan Army enjoys a great deal of credibility among the population. How have you achieved that?
Maj. Gen. Casados: It’s because we’ve always focused on benefiting our society. Military personnel in Guatemala should be a bit anthropological; they should be familiar with our 23 ethnic groups and have at least some idea of the 23 distinct dialects that are spoken here. So when we get involved in an area like that, we should immerse ourselves in their customs, their customary law, respect them, and integrate ourselves among them. We’re just now conducting an exercise with 40 Canadian Soldiers and 250 U.S. Reserve Soldiers, who are going to work on six projects to build schools, supply drinking water, provide dental care, medical care, jointly with us. This proximity, through information operations and civil-military relations, demonstrates that we follow through on the needs of our population and are in contact with them. We know that we live in the hearts of our citizens, and we want to stay there.