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Guatemala's Legacy Of Violence Follows New Leader To Power

As Guatemala's new president, Otto Perez Molina, takes office today, the former general carries the burden of a complicated history into a new struggle against violence.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that one of Perez' top priorities as president would be to regain U.S. military aid, which the U.S. banned because of alleged abuses during the country's 36-year civil war. Perez served as a "top military official" during the war, in which 200,000 civilians, mostly from the indigenous Mayan population, were killed, as the AP reported.

But the violence did not end with the war. Now, drug trafficking and organized crime plague Guatemala, according to an October 2011 report from the International Crisis Group. Experts say exactly how Perez will tackle the current wave of violence — or if his approach is effective — remains to be seen.

Perez has two histories, says Mark Schneider, senior vice president and special adviser on Latin America for the International Crisis Group. Schneider tells The Two-Way that Perez also served on the peace-negotiating team that formally ended the war in 1996. (The BBC has a timeline of Guatemala's history.)

During Molina's campaign, fighting insecurity was part of his platform, as The Christian Science Monitor reported when Perez won in November:

"Guatemalans had been wary of links to the military since dictatorship and extrajudicial killings by security mar the nation's history.

"But, in the context of a high murder rate and a country feeling that local street gangs and Mexican drug trafficking organizations are taking away their sense of peace, many were attracted to his security platform."

The latest news of Perez's hope to reinstate U.S. military aid worries Anita Isaacs, a Latin American studies professor at Haverford who specializes in Guatemala.

"This kind of confirmed — or gives reason to be concerned — that this marks a return to a kind of militarization strategy that characterized the wartime period," she tells The Two-Way. "This is a new war. And it's being perceived as a new war that necessitates a military response."

The legislation that banned U.S. military aid from going to Guatemala requires certain improvements in human rights before the aid can be re-established, the AP reports.

Getting the aid, Schneider says, would take "significant evidence of change."

Isaacs says those changes should be disassociated from military assistance. Building democracy in Guatemala, she says, "should be part of an agenda that doesn't have to do with military aid."

Both Isaacs and Schneider say the current attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, has made strides in strengthening the rule of law and that she should be kept on to finish out her full term (three more years).

"The immediate challenge," Schneider says, "will be to see what [Perez] does to support the attorney general, the U.N. Commission Against Impunity and the efforts to bring to justice those who were involved in mass atrocities in the past and atrocities in the present."

He said the new president "has made positive statements in that regard," but he later added: "We'll just have to wait and see if that in fact happens."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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