US military donation misuse in Guatemala going unchecked: Report

Guatemala City – The United States lacks concrete policies to properly document and address alleged misuse of its military equipment donations in Central America, a new government report has found, fuelling concerns that potential abuses will continue to go unchecked.

Between the US Departments of Defense and State, the US provided more than $66m in security assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras from 2017 through 2021.

There were multiple allegations of equipment misuse in Guatemala but gaps in policies to record, track and investigate them, according to a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on Wednesday.

“It’s incredibly important that agencies maintain a record of the allegations they’ve reviewed,” said Chelsa Kenney, director of international affairs at GAO, a non-partisan watchdog agency that works for Congress.

The Departments of State and Defense both initially told GAO they had only reviewed one allegation of misuse in Guatemala in 2018, recorded in their tracking spreadsheets.

However, in GAO’s review of documents, it found the departments had looked into at least five allegations and that the Department of Defense did take action based on a pattern of repeated misuse, said Kenney.

“Without recording those allegations, [the Departments of Defense] and State had an inaccurate picture of what happened in the past and that might affect how the agencies would respond if concerns were to arise again in the future,” she told Al Jazeera.

The findings came just three weeks after the US Department of Defense donated 95 vehicles to the Guatemalan army for use in border security efforts despite past misuse of US armoured jeeps donated to the Guatemalan Ministry of the Interior for inter-agency use in border regions.

“This donation, which comes up in the context of this new report, is highly worrisome,” said Iduvina Hernandez, director of the Association for the Study of Security in Democracy, a Guatemalan non-governmental group.

“It seems that fundamental issues related to human rights in Guatemala are not of interest to the US Department of Defense.”

Allegations of misuse

The GAO report examined the US response to five reported incidents of misuse between 2018 and 2021 involving some of the 220 jeeps that the US Department of Defense provided to Guatemala between 2013 and 2018.

The most prominent case was on August 31, 2018, when then-President Jimmy Morales announced that Guatemala would not renew the mandate of CICIG, a UN-backed anti-impunity commission.

That same day, US-provided jeeps were used in the capital outside the CICIG offices and the US Embassy. “The US government viewed this as an act of intimidation, according to [Department of Defense] officials,” the GAO noted in its report.

In 2019, the US Department of Defense decided not to provide any additional equipment or training to the Guatemalan inter-agency task forces involved in that incident. That policy is still in effect.

Due to concerns related to human rights and the rule of law in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the US Congress has prohibited aid to the three countries under the Foreign Military Financing programme, the primary military aid programme, for the past two years. The Department of State still provides security assistance.

The vehicles donated to the Guatemalan army last month and the jeeps provided in the past, however, were provided through a section of the National Defense Authorization Act rather than the Foreign Military Financing programme.

Adam Isacson, director for defence oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a US-based non-profit focused on human rights in the Americas, said that “parallel programme” allows the Department of Defense to circumvent human rights and monitoring conditions.

“That is my main concern,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Assisting a military like Guatemala’s, which has such a huge history of human rights violations and such a huge history of really endemic corruption, and not having come up with a way to get around this bureaucratic doughnut hole that keeps them from actually keeping track of how it’s misused – it’s pretty shocking.”

Recommendations

The US Department of State agreed with GAO’s recommendation that it ensure end-use violation tracking guidelines, which are currently under development, outline how to record and track alleged incidents of US-provided equipment misuse.

“The Department of State takes its responsibility very seriously when it comes to monitoring the use of US-provided equipment, to ensure it is being used for legal and appropriate purposes,” a Department of State spokesperson told Al Jazeera, noting the department will standardise and bolster its procedures for tracking reports of such violations.

The GAO report also included four concrete recommendations for the Department of Defense, which agreed with two of the four in its official response, included in the report.

“Our report highlights some important concerns about [the Department of Defense’s] overall programme for monitoring and responding to misuse,” said Kenney.

“By law, the programme is supposed to provide a reasonable assurance that equipment is only used for intended purposes, but we didn’t see that they have structures in place to really do this thoroughly,” she said.

The Department of Defense “agrees with the GAO recommendation to evaluate our end-use monitoring program to ensure it provides reasonable assurance, to the extent practicable, that US equipment is only used for its intended purposes by recipient countries”, Department of Defense spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Devin T Robinson, told Al Jazeera.

In the meantime, human rights activists and analysts have concerns that the new vehicles donated last month will not just be used to combat contraband and trafficking.

The Guatemalan military has been periodically involved alongside police and immigration agencies along Guatemala’s southern border with Honduras in operations to halt the transit of migrants and asylum seekers who do not meet entry requirements.

“We are seeing that there is an irresponsible approach from the United States in making these donations without greater supervision,” said Hernandez. “The report that was just released highlights that approach and the limited possibilities of supervision and evaluation.”

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