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Guatemala used US-sourced jeeps to ‘intimidate’ US Embassy: GAO report

Guatemalan officials in 2018 circled the U.S. Embassy in U.S.-sourced military jeeps in an operation interpreted by American diplomats as an “act of intimidation,” according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

The offending patrols happened in late August 2018 after former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced his intention to expel members of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations anti-corruption panel that had set its sights on Morales.

“According to [Defense Department (DOD)] and State documentation, on the day the decision was announced, seven DOD-provided weapons mounted Jeeps circled the U.S. Embassy and were later observed parked on a street directly in front of the CICIG headquarters in Guatemala City. The U.S. government viewed this as an act of intimidation, according to DOD officials,” reads the GAO report.

The jeeps were provided to Guatemala as security assistance to aid the country in counter-narcotics activity, but were not subject to a program where Pentagon officials monitor the end-use of sensitive military equipment abroad.

According to the report, U.S. officials raised the issue of misuse with their Guatemalan counterparts, who said the jeeps were not used for intimidation purposes, but to “protect different justice and security entities.”

The Hill has reached out to the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington for comment.

“I am appalled by today’s GAO report, which provides unequivocal evidence that the Guatemalan government grossly misused military Jeeps provided by the United States on multiple occasions, including using them to intimidate American embassy officials,” said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), a Guatemala-born legislator who was a fierce advocate for CICIG’s mission.

Still, Defense officials investigated other incidents where the jeeps were allegedly used for purposes not included in the agreement to transfer them from the United States to Guatemala.

In October 2018, the jeeps were allegedly spotted patrolling the University of San Carlos campus in Guatemala City, where students were protesting against Morales.

And State Department officials sent a diplomatic note to Guatemala requesting information on patrols allegedly misusing the jeeps in Guatemala City in 2019.

Another incident of alleged misuse happened under current President Alejandro Giammattei’s administration, when the jeeps were allegedly used to suppress protests against a mining company in El Estor, Guatemala.

The alleged political use of the armed vehicles raises questions about the effectiveness of the inter-agency task forces (IATFs) that are supposed to operate the jeeps under civilian control.

According to the report, the IATFs are tasked “with the goal of preventing, combating, dismantling, and eradicating criminal activities,” and are controlled by the Ministry of Government, rather than the Guatemalan military.

But GAO investigators also raised concerns about the ability of the Pentagon to supervise the use of potentially lethal military equipment transferred abroad.

“After the initial allegations of misuse, DOD conducted a policy review and found that the Guatemalan government had engaged in repeated misuse of DOD-provided Jeeps. In response, on February 12, 2019, DOD decided to stop providing any additional security cooperation equipment and training to the IATFs,” reads the report.

The decision left 38 more jeeps that had already been shipped to Guatemala in storage, but Defense officials said they lacked authority to retrieve the allegedly misused vehicles.

U.S. officials also asked Guatemala to transfer the remaining IATF jeeps to the military; according to the report that transfer was agreed to but remained pending as of July.

And while both Defense and State officials maintain spreadsheets to track alleged misuse of U.S.-sourced equipment, the GAO report found that the databases were incomplete and both agencies lack policies on how to track allegations of misuse.

“The lack of documented policies for recording allegations of misuse resulted in DOD and State having an inaccurate account of the allegations that they have responded to in the past. This may have prevented agencies from having adequate information to identify patterns, such as repeated allegations of misuse by the same unit, or involving the same types of equipment,” reads the report.

And while the jeeps were not subject to an enhanced end-use monitoring program known as Golden Sentry, Defense officials told GAO their response to the allegations of misuse would not have been any different under Golden Sentry because “they responded and engaged with officials from the government of Guatemala after the incidents and applied similar [end-use monitoring] expectations and standards.”

“It is even more outrageous that GAO determined the Departments of Defense and State had no and still have not put any policies in place to accurately record and respond to the misuse of military equipment provided by the U.S. As a Member of Congress, I have fought to place restrictions on the transfer of military equipment, and considering today’s news, it is clear work remains to ensure better oversight of transfers to nations with a long history of abuse and crimes against its own people like Guatemala,” said Torres.

According to the report, Defense officials said incidents of misuse of U.S.-sourced equipment are “more likely to be identified” by third-party reports, such as press coverage.

The GAO report only included the allegations of misuse attributed to Guatemalan officials, although it also reviewed materiel transfers to Honduras and El Salvador.

Neither State nor Defense investigated misuse reports in either of those countries between 2017 and 2021, including a 2018 press report that Honduran police used “U.S.-made rifles to injure and kill civilians” and a 2021 State Department report on Salvadoran human rights violations.

“​​When we asked the agencies whether they used these reports to identify potential concerns about misuse of DOD-provided equipment, State officials said they had not considered doing so and DOD officials did not respond to our questions,” wrote GAO investigators.

This story was updated at 1:55 p.m.

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