Guatemala Declares War on History

Looking for help on immigration, the Trump administration is silent in the face of Guatemala’s effort to seal its dirty war archive.

With the quiet acquiescence of the Trump administration, the Guatemalan government is threatening to bar access to a collection of national archives that have been at the core of various attempts to prosecute Guatemalan politicians and officers responsible for some of Latin America’s most heinous atrocities.

The move to suppress the archives is part of a larger campaign by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who faces allegations of receiving illicit campaign funds, to undercut the rule of law through the purge of judges, police officials, and archivists who have been at the forefront of Guatemala’s effort to investigate corruption, narcotrafficking, and war crimes, according to foreign diplomats and independent experts.

But senior U.S. officials in Washington and Guatemala City have rebuffed appeals from working-level staffers and foreign diplomats to publicly challenge Guatemala’s action. And U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which is seeking Guatemala’s help in stemming the flow of asylum-seekers and refugees into the United States, has remained largely silent over these developments.

One U.S. official said that America’s reluctance to confront Guatemala is part of a crude unwritten bargain between Morales’s government and the Trump administration: “They promise not to let brown people into the country, and we let them get away with everything else,” the official said.

The “assault on the police archive [is part of a] broader attack against human rights, justice, and anti-corruption efforts,” said Kate Doyle, a researcher at the National Security Archive and an expert on the Guatemalan archives. “The U.S. is saying nothing. The U.S. Embassy has been incredibly absent on these issues. They are not doing anything.”

In the latest sign of U.S. reluctance to challenge Guatemala on human rights, Kimberly Breier, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, blocked the release of a public statement in early June that would have urged Guatemala to back down on its effort to restrict access to the archives.

“These archives are an essential source of information to clarify and understand critical historical truths from Guatemala’s history,” reads the statement obtained by Foreign Policy, which was suppressed in June. “Access to the archives by historians, victims of abuse recorded in these archives and their families, the public, and the international community, has furthered Guatemala’s progress towards accountability, justice, truth and reconciliation.”

Foreign Policy sought a response from the Trump administration last Wednesday. The State Department did not respond until nearly an hour and half after this article was published Tuesday.

“The United States strongly supports continued public access to the Historical Archive of the National Police,” according to a statement from a spokesperson from the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs.  The Tuesday statement included the two sentence cited by Foreign Policy in the suppressed statement.

The initial decision to block the statement—which had been approved by the State Department press office, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and several other key bureaus—came as the United States was engaged in sensitive negotiations on a so-called safe third country agreement, which would commit Guatemala to process political asylum claims from foreigners, particularly from El Salvador and Honduras, who cross its border in transit to the United States. “My understanding is Kim Breier killed this because she didn’t want to do anything that would piss off the Guatemalans,” said one congressional aide.

During the past two decades, the United States has invested in efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala,

  • funding a United Nations commission that investigates corruption and illicit activities by armed groups,
  • strengthening the judiciary, and
  • training and equipping police units with expertise in counternarcotics and corruption.
  • The United States has spent millions of dollars over the years to preserve the police archives, including through the provision of document scanners and the funding of a digitized archive maintained by scholars at the University of Texas at Austin.

Guatemala’s bloody 36-year-long civil war resulted in the deaths of about 200,000 people, mostly at the hands of the Guatemalan security forces. A 1996 U.N.-brokered peace agreement paved the way for the return of exiled rebels, established a new national police force, and pried open the door to the prospect of public reckoning for crimes committed during the war. The Guatemalan military and police resisted, denying that they had preserved detailed records of their activities during the conflict. But in 2005, more than 80 million documents and records, dating from 1882 to 1997, were discovered in seven rat-infested rooms at an unused hospital building in Guatemala City owned by Guatemala’s now-defunct National Police.

Since then, the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive has helped convict more than 30 military officers, soldiers  and paramilitaries, including a former presidential chief of staff, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, convicted of crimes against humanity, and Guatemala’s late dictator, Gen. Rios Montt—who was found guilty in 2013 of genocide for overseeing mass atrocities in the early 1980s — though his conviction was later overturned by Guatemala’s constitutional court.

The archive has proved a valuable resource for U.S. law enforcement. The Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have used the archive to identify Guatemalan rights abusers living in the United States.

But the management of the archives has long infuriated some of those in Guatemala’s most powerful business and security sectors, who believed that it has been used as a tool of the left to gain revenge against their former enemies. They have cited the role of the archive’s former director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, a former guerrilla leader who has recruited staff from the country’s left wing to run the archives. In August 2018, the U.N. Development Program, which has helped administer the archive program since 2008, abruptly dismissed Meoño Brenner. He has since fled the country, following death threats.

The move to restrict archive access is only one element of a wider effort to defang justice institutions in Guatemala. In September, a landmark U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG—whose corruption investigations landed a Guatemalan president and vice president in jail will shutter its office.

The demise of the commission, which had also exposed alleged illegal campaign contributions in Morales’s 2015 presidential campaign, came after a two-year-long effort by the president and his allies, including sympathetic Republican lawmakers and Trump administration officials in Washington, to undermine it. Pro-military lawmakers in the Guatemalan Congress, meanwhile, have been pressing to pass an amnesty law that would result in the release of dozens of military officers and death squad leaders from jail. That effort has been stalled by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.

The effort to suppress the archives is being spearheaded by Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, a popular figure in Washington, who has represented Guatemala in the safe third country negotiations.

In a May 27 press conference, Degenhart announced that his office and Guatemala’s National Civil Police would seek greater control of the archive. He also threatened to limit access to the archives by foreign institutions, an apparent reference to the University of Texas at Austin, which has assembled a massive digitized version of a large portion of the police archive. “You can’t allow foreign institutions to have the complete archives,” Degenhart told reporters.

In response, the U.N. and other foreign envoys invited the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Arreaga, to join ambassadors from several other countries, including Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, on a visit to the archive to voice opposition to granting police greater control over the archives. Arreaga declined. The spokesperson from the State Department Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs declined to comment on whether Arreaga declined the invitation.

In Washington, State Department officials sought support within the administration for a public statement that would place the United States squarely on the side of those seeking to preserve broad public access to the archives.

“The message [Guatemalan authorities] are getting is we don’t care what you do as long as you do everything in your power to prevent” foreigners from reaching the U.S. border, said Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat who was born in Guatemala. If that requires “supporting a corrupt government, that is what [the Trump administration] is going to do.”

Public messaging and statements from U.S. envoys and the State Department can have an outsized political impact in Central America, former diplomats say. “It’s astonishing how important the U.S. voice is in terms of journalists, human rights defenders, civil society … in this region,” said Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “There are clearly things that governments would do, actions it would take, but for the U.S. watching and speaking out,” she said.

The lack of response, according to diplomats, emboldened Guatemala to ratchet up its campaign against the archives.

Workers organize thousands of documents found at the former National Police Bomb Disposal Unit headquarters in Guatemala City on Jan. 28, 2008.EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In early July, the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports informed the U.N. Development Program, which administers the archive budget on behalf of foreign donors, that it would take over full management of the archives, raising questions about its financial viability. The U.N., which pays staff salaries, was forced to lay off the archives researchers and archivists.

On July 10, Guatemala fired its chief national archivist, Anna Carla Ericastilla, on the grounds that she provided access to foreign institutions, including the University of Texas, and improperly raised funds from donors to pay salaries to archivists.

Degenhart, meanwhile, has overseen a massive purge of Guatemala’s reformed police force after being named interior minister in January 2018. The following month, he fired the director of the National Civil Police, Nery Ramos, along with three other top cops. All told, Degenhart fired some 25 ranking officers and more than 100 agents, including 20 of the 45 police agents assigned to work with the U.N. anti-corruption office.

Guatemalans “have observed a systematic process of dismantling the National Civil Police, ordered by the interior minister himself, who seems determined to destroy 20 years of progress,” according to an August 2018 study by the Forum of Civil Society Organizations Specializing in Security, or FOSS.

The fate of the archive has become inextricably linked to the White House immigration policy.

The threat to curtail access to the archives came on the same day that Degenhart had signed an agreement with Kevin McAleenan, the acting U.S. secretary of homeland security, for the deployment of 89 agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection in Guatemala to help stem the flow of refugees through the country. It also coincided with the Trump administration’s negotiation of a safe third party agreement with Degenhart.

Trump in March ordered all U.S. aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to be cut until they drastically reduced the number of migrants traveling north through Mexico to attempt to enter the United States. Critics, including both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, said the move would only exacerbate the migration crisis, as U.S. assistance helped address root causes of instability that caused people to flee north.

In June, the State Department announced it would release $432 million of the $615 million in aid to Central America, but it warned that new funding would not be released until the Northern Triangle governments took more steps to address migration.

Last week, the Trump administration announced that it had reached agreement on the safe third country pact, which would commit Guatemala to processing political asylum claims from migrants who cross its border in transit to the United States. The U.S. has yet to publish a copy of the pact, leading to speculation about what the deal actually entails.

Still, the move has raised concern about the constitutionality of the agreement. Guatemala’s constitutional court has already asserted that such an agreement would require approval by the Guatemalan Congress. Democratic lawmakers and other activists have criticized the move and vowed to fight it in courts. Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it is “cruel and immoral. It is also illegal.”

“Simply put, Guatemala is not a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers, as the law requires,” Engel said in a statement released on July 26, after the Trump administration and Guatemalan government signed the agreement.

Faced with an officer’s gun, a black man chose his best option: Show his hands and hit record

With his weapon cocked to the side, the Arkansas police officer repeatedly gives Ed Truitt a simple command: “shut your car off.”

An apprehensive Truitt, using his left hand to live-stream the early Sunday encounter on Facebook, begins to move his right arm.

“He’s got a gun!” the officer yells before repeating the last word. “Gun!”

“Where? My hand’s in the air!” Truitt replies, panning the camera to his empty hand. “Come shut the car off, I ain’t moving my hands. He’s trying to shoot me.”

Video of the incident, which took place outside a convenience store in the eastern Arkansas city of Helena-West Helena, has garnered thousands of views online and raised questions about the officer’s intentions. For some, Truitt’s experience illustrated the painstaking steps people of color feel they must take to survive run-ins with law enforcement.

“Given the history of these types of videos, I heard ‘gun’ and I flinched,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, whose advocacy group, Center for Policing Equity, promotes police transparency and accountability. “I thought I knew what was going to happen next.”

Truitt argues he survived by ignoring the officer’s instructions, telling WREG that he “played it safe” by keeping his hands visible and refusing to move.

“[The officer] was like, ‘That’s a failure to comply,’” Truitt told the Memphis-based CBS affiliate. “But if I would have complied, I would have got killed.”

Reached Wednesday, he referred questions to his attorney, who did not return multiple requests for comment.

Helena-West Helena police told WREG the convenience store’s parking lot was a hotbed of criminal activity. Police are seen in the background of the video talking with others at the scene.

According to Truitt, several police officers arrived Sunday morning and ordered everyone to clear out, causing another car to block him in. In the video, the officer claims Truitt didn’t leave the premises when asked. In an apparent change of course, he then alleges Truitt had “come back.”

“I’m not going to shoot you, but you’re not going to move those hands,” the officer says.

“My hands in the air,” Truitt replies. “You’re telling me to shut my car off so you can shoot me. C’mon now.”

As the video circulated on Twitter and Instagram, where it was reposted by comedian D.L. Hughley and others with large followings, commenters accused the officer of looking for reasons to shoot Truitt. Others questioned why the officer involved, who has not been named by the department, would yell out “gun” when Truitt’s hands were shown to be empty.

Helena-West Helena Police Chief James Smith, who did not return multiple requests for comment from The Washington Post, told WREG that officers found a rifle inside the vehicle. Truitt appears to say in the video the weapon is registered in his name. Under Arkansas law, rifles do not require registration.

Body camera footage published by the network Wednesday shows police holding a rifle after placing Truitt in handcuffs. Truitt has indicated the gun was not easily accessible from where he sat in the vehicle.

Smith said the department was working to determine if the officer responded properly. The chief sought the facts, he said, including whether the officer felt “imminent danger” before pulling out his weapon.

“We don’t want this to be a racial thing,” he added. “We want to make sure this officer did the right thing and that he is accountable for his actions.”

Goff said it’s important to note the officer’s finger was not placed on the trigger during the encounter, and that he remained calm after initially reacting to the rifle. He attempted to explain the reactions of those who may think the officer responded with appropriate urgency after spotting the weapon, and others who see an armed policeman needlessly escalating the situation.

“Hero cop or hero bystander? Ridiculous citizens or unnecessarily goonish officer?” Goff said. “Very quickly, these become characters that are written in historical stereotypes. That’s part of the toxins in how we handle race and law enforcement today.”

Since 2015, The Post has kept a database of fatal officer-involved shootings in the United States, which has shown that black men are shot at disproportionately high rates.

In 2017, the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile as he sat in his vehicle was acquitted on all charges. A year prior, the officer had opened fire on Castile within seven seconds of learning the man had a weapon in the car. That incident — the aftermath of which was posted to Facebook Live by Castile’s girlfriend — sparked protests across the country.

The woman said Castile was simply reaching for his gun permit and driver’s license.

For many discussing Truitt on social media, he was the clear hero. They commended his demeanor as he stared down the barrel of a police officer’s gun.

“Way to keep your cool, brother. You didn’t get emotional,” one woman commented on his Facebook video. “That takes you off your game. You stayed rational.”

According to WREG, Truitt was arrested for loitering and disregarding an official order. Police also told the network Truitt was charged with having a gun in his vehicle. The Post was unable to confirm any charges late Wednesday.

In the video’s waning moments the officer is seen forcibly removing Truitt from the car, sending the phone he recorded with tumbling to the ground. Grateful to be alive, Truitt said he has no regrets about how he handled the interaction.

“What I did saved my life,” he told WREG. “That’s why I’m here talking to y’all. If not, y’all would be covering a story about how I got shot.”

Sandra Bland, It Turns Out, Filmed Traffic Stop Confrontation Herself

Cannon Lambert, a lawyer who represents the Bland family, said the video, by showing Ms. Bland with a cellphone in her hand, seriously undercut the trooper’s claim that he feared for his safety as he approached the woman’s vehicle.

“What the video shows is that Encinia had no reason to be in fear of his safety,” Mr. Lambert, who represented the family in a $1.9 million legal settlement, said in a telephone interview. “The video shows that he wasn’t in fear of his safety. You could see that it was a cellphone, He was looking right at it.”

Mr. Encinia said during internal interviews with Department of Public Safety officials that he had been worried about his safety. “My safety was in jeopardy at more than one time,” he told department interviewers.

The prosecuting team concluded that Mr. Encinia’s permanent ban from law enforcement was the best option because there was no certainty of obtaining a conviction on the perjury charge, one of the prosecutors said at the time.
.. Ms. Bland’s death in a largely rural part of southeast Texas unified African-American leaders throughout the state, leading to the enactment of the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, which requires training in de-escalation techniques for all police officers, sets up protections in custody for people with mental health and substance abuse issues and requires that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.
.. “Get out of the car,” the officer shouts as he thrusts a Taser toward her. “I will light you up. Get out. Now.”
.. Ms. Bland was pulled over near the campus of Prairie View A & M University in Waller County, where she had been planning to begin a new job, after the trooper said she failed to signal a turn. But the traffic stop became heated, and Mr. Encinia ordered Ms. Bland out of the car.

After the trooper told her to “get off the phone,” Ms. Bland responded: “I’m not on the phone. I have a right to record. This is my property.”

.. The video was released by WFAA in partnership with the nonprofit Investigative Network. Its chief reporter, Brian Collister, said the video had been in the hands of law investigators until it was obtained by his news organization. Members of Ms. Bland’s family called on Texas officials to re-examine the case after Mr. Collister showed them the video, according to the WFAA report.

.. Mr. Lambert, the family’s lawyer, told The Times that the release of the video raised questions about prosecutors’ decision not to press ahead with the perjury case, saying the recording undercut Mr. Encinia’s claim that he feared for his safety.

“So if the video showed that he had no basis of being in fear of his safety, and he lied about that, then you would think they would be using that video,” he said, calling prosecutors’ decision not pursue the case “extremely troubling.”

A team of five special prosecutors was assigned to the grand jury investigation. One of the team members Shawn McDonald, a Houston lawyer, said on Monday that he was not involved in the decision to drop the charges and pushed back at Mr. Lambert’s criticism of the team’s performance.

“For him to come back three years later is frankly quite ridiculous,” said Mr. McDonald, who added that he was “proud” of the investigation into the case.

Mr. McDonald said he first saw Ms. Bland’s video more than three years ago. “It was her cellphone so it was taken as evidence when we investigated the case,” he said.

Evidence typically was not released, he said, though a decision was made to release the trooper’s video shortly after the case began unfolding in an effort “to be transparent because of the concern everyone had with her arrest and subsequent suicide.”

Chip Lewis, a Houston lawyer who represented Mr. Encinia in the investigation, said his client was in a new career “wholly unrelated” to law enforcement, but he offered few details. “He’s working in the private sector, supporting his wife and family and living a quiet life,” Mr. Lewis said.

 

Gang Leader for a Day: Don’t Call the Police

From television shows and movies, we know housing projects are rife with crime: women raped, children shot, men beaten.

But no matter how bad it gets, if you live in the projects, you don’t call the cops. Why?

For one, a 911 call from the projects is seldom answered. Emergency calls from housing estates known for trouble are not handled like calls from other neighborhoods; that is, they’re ignored.

This means that if you live in the projects, you learn to handle emergencies yourself, and dial 911 only in the most extreme emergencies.

In one example that the author witnessed, a man was physically assaulting a woman. Residents got together and beat up the man, instead of calling the police. And because a call for an ambulance probably wouldn’t be answered either, residents drove the woman to the hospital themselves.

That said, even if the police did show up, they probably wouldn’t be welcomed in the projects.

Residents often throw bottles at cops when they respond to a call; worse, they can be shot at, too.

The police aren’t entirely innocent, either. Some officers of the law have been seen abusing residents, as part of a blackmail scheme.

“Officer Jerry,” for example, runs a protection racket. The author once witnessed him and three other police officers enter an apartment, handcuff a teenager and then brutally beat the teen’s father while demanding money.

Once the father revealed the location of his cash, the officers stopped, uncuffed the teen, grabbed a paper bag the father pointed out and left.

The author was even warned against writing about corrupt cops by other honest police officers, who were concerned about his safety. They even told him that some of the corrupt officers broke into the author’s car, intending to steal his notebook.