Guatemalan UN Peacekeepers Help Maintain Law and Order in Haiti
By Dialogo December 13, 2011
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Guatemalan soldier José Donis Muñoz didn’t know much about Haiti before he and his comrades in arms arrived on the Caribbean island as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission. But he welcomes the opportunity to help a country in need.
“This is a chance to participate in a peacekeeping mission, and at the same time, help Haiti to return to law and order,” he said. “When I came here, I knew nothing about Haiti, only what I could find on the Internet. It’s a new experience, totally different from what we’re used to.”
Muñoz and his fellow Guatemalan soldiers are scheduled to be in Haiti for the next nine months. They’re part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission that comprises 12,500 soldiers, police officers and other uniformed personnel from 18 countries around the world.
Muñoz is one of 133 peacekeepers — all military police — comprising the Guatemalan contingent of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH). The contingent’s official name is Guampco, for Guatemalan Military Police Company, but everyone here calls it Espiritu Maya.
Diálogo recently visited Guampco headquarters at Log Base, a sprawling military compound adjacent to Port-au-Prince International Airport on the outskirts of Haiti’s capital and largest city. A barbed-wire fence and guard tower overlooks the main airport road. Several dozen trailers surround a huge courtyard, which contains, among other things, a basketball court, a huge concrete replica of the famous pyramid at Tikal and a monument commemorating Guatemala’s elite special forces known as Los Kaibiles.
An indispensable mission
Over a traditional Guatemalan lunch of beef soup, chilis, vegetables, tortillas and fresh grapes, Col. José Sosa, the mission’s commander, explained what his troops are doing in Haiti.
“When the MINUSTAH mission began in October 2004, the United Nations asked several different countries, including Guatemala, for support, so we said yes. This unit is a very important component in the whole mission. If there’s some incident, a fight, an injury, a death, we have to investigate,” he said.
“We are responsible for maintaining discipline, law and order among the peacekeepers. We also lend VIP security to any special flight. If, for instance, a government minister needs to travel by helicopter to Cap-Haïtien, we lend our services. In addition, we control traffic in places where there is a military presence.”
The Guatemalan contingent of MINUSTAH is quite small compared to those of countries such as Brazil and India, but its mission is indispensible: To monitor the peacekeepers themselves rather than the Haitian people, with which it has only limited contact.
Earlier this year, Guampco was assigned to supervise the investigation of four Uruguayan men who allegedly sexually assaulted a young man in the southern town of Port-Salut. But Sosa said the incident was so “delicate” that a special commission was soon formed to probe the allegations.
“There’s always an emergency team ready to respond to a call, no matter what the occasion,” Sosa said. “Our contingent has no relations with the Haitian population. Even so, we help provide potable water. We also help with a local orphanage, bringing them food and water every week.”
Although none of the Guatemalan MPs in Haiti speak the local Creole, all are required to have basic knowledge of English. In addition, they must submit to and pass medical, academic and psychological exams prior to becoming UN peacekeepers.
“Before we come to Haiti, soldiers have to take a class on cultural awareness. We learn about different cultures,” said the 46-year-old Sosa, who has three sons and is from Zacapa. The slogan on the wall of his makeshift office reads: “Vocación de servicio y profundo sentido del deber con la responsabilidad de defender la patria.”
Physically challenging routine
Typically, Sosa’s troops wake up at 5 a.m. and do exercises at the mission’s outdoor gym. They’re generally required to run two miles in 16 minutes and do a set number of push-ups and bench presses based on age.
After a 7 a.m. breakfast, the men go out on patrols, armed with Israeli-made Galil 5.56mm assault rifles. In the late afternoon and evenings, Sosa’s men play soccer, volleyball and other sports. Now that it’s relatively cool in the tropics, conditions aren’t so bad. But in the Caribbean summer heat, spending the day outdoors in full combat gear can be challenging, to say the least.
In the course of their patrols and daily activities, Minustah troops are advised to not get too close to Haitian people, particularly women. The approach is an effort to maintain professionalism and avoid sparking unnecessary incidents.
“All the training we’ve previously received has helped prepare us, and not only because of Haiti,” said Erwin Gómez Barrera, the mission’s second-in-command and a native of Mazatenango. “Even though we’re all latinos, we come from different cultures, and normally, our cultures don’t mix.”
Every month, the Guatemalan peacekeepers get five days of R&R, which they generally enjoy back home in Guatemala, Miami — less than a two-hour flight away — or in the neighboring Dominican Republic. “They are not allowed to stay here in Haiti,” said Sosa. “This minimizes the risk of mixing with locals.”
Asked how folks back home feel about the Minustah mission, Sosa thought for a second.
“In Guatemala, there are people in favor and people against,” he said. “We don’t deal with the politics here. The important thing is, we’re lending a hand to a brother country in trouble.”
Very interesting article, thanks for the information that you share with the people around the world, becouse Guatemala is a small country that help a brother country who needs a friendly hand from every body around the world after the hearthquake in 2010 and the outbreak of cholera.
The Guatemalan soldiers are supporting UN missions in 12 countries, and they showed his professionalism and good work in an international enviroment. good job, God bless you. This is a very important mission, for everyone, because I am part of it. Well, I want to be part of this force....