Israeli-Guatemalan Relations: Expanding Gardens of Broken Shadows



In December 2017, Guatemala became the second country of the world after the United States to announce the transfer of their embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This polemic measure — and the beginning of the end of the age of international diplomacy — was deemed illegal by the United Nations and condemned by 128 countries across the world. This is because the establishment of foreign representation in Jerusalem to Israel (for which Israel had started lobbying in Central America in the mid 1980s), implies hammering the last the nail in the coffin of the peace process with Palestine by overstepping on one of their conditions for peace: Jerusalem as a multi-confessional capital of two states or of a possible bi-national state. Guatemala was also the second nation — always behind the US — to have recognized the existence of the Jewish State on what in 1948 was known as Palestine. Jorge García Granados, the Guatemalan Ambassador to the United Nations helped lobby votes on behalf of the Jewish state, becoming the first Guatemalan ambassador to Israel. This allegiance between a Central American country and “the only democracy” of the Middle East not only manifests itself in the international arena of diplomacy but is also palpable on the everyday life of Guatemalans.

During a year I spent there (2010-2011), I would often drive through the cluttered Hincapié Avenue and see a puzzling and gigantic billboard demanding to “Free Gilad Shalit” showing the image of the young Israeli soldier that was being kept by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, shackled, holding a newspaper looking gaunt and pale. Gilad was a soldier of the Israeli Defense Forces captured on June 2005 by Hamas militants in a cross-border raid via underground tunnels near the Israeli border. He was held hostage for over five years until his release in October 2011, as part of an exchange with 1,027 mainly Palestinian prisoners. The billboard in Guatemala was part of a massive media campaign for Shalit’s release launched by his parents and a public relations firm. The campaign included public protests held weekly, text messaging, a flood of posters and billboards, Israeli citizens’ letters to Gilad, a Facebook campaign, etc. Gilad’s family even chained themselves to the fence outside of Netanyahu’s home to assure that the Israeli government would secure his release. But aside from the questionable asymmetrical value bestowed to Israeli and Palestinian lives by the deal, and from Guatemala’s historical backup of Israel in the international arena, why was Guatemala City functioning as an extension of Israeli soil where the “Free Gilad Shalit” campaign had reached? I had been also puzzled by Mayan girls performing “Hebrew dances” in the main square of Antigua within the context of a “Festival of Cultural Tourism” sponsored by “AmIsrael,” an NGO devoted to “peace” in the region.

I also saw the Israeli presence in Guatemala illustrated in the ubiquity of the logo of Grupo Golán which now protects — as before did Catholic shrines with saints adorned with flowers — the entrances of middle and upper class homes as well as offices and corporate sieges, shopping centers, restaurants, etc. in affluent areas in Guatemala. Grupo Golán is an Israeli home surveillance and security company, established in Guatemala in 1987, and the main tool civilians have to shield themselves against crime and violence. The corporate siege of Grupo Golán is in Boca del Monte, a village swallowed long ago by the urban sprawl of Guatemala City, where the company established in 2012, as part of its social responsibility agenda, the “I Protect My Community” program, focused on preventing violence on the neighborhood. Grupo Golán not only sells surveillance technology but also has as a goal to strengthen democracy and social development in the area, by coordinating efforts between community and corporate leaders to prevent violence. They do so by facilitating the experience and concepts they have acquired in other parts of the world to “eliminate the problem from the root,” getting all the community leaders to participate promoting a “culture that favors education, as opposed to crime.” Why did an Israeli company feel such an ethical, historical and economic obligation to help Guatemala resolve its day-to-day challenges?

Since the 1960s, Israel has provided Guatemala with civil infrastructure, water purification solutions, and modern medical and agricultural technology. It is well known that Israeli doctors often come as volunteers to perform surgeries to children in poor neighborhoods in the city; the Amatitlán Geothermal Power Plant, at the base of the Pacaya volcano, is run by the Israeli company Ormat, and Jimmy Morales’ administration is proposing to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with Israel. We should also consider the well-spread Evangelical Zionist support in the favor of Israel: Guatemala is full of gas stations and convenience stores named “Adonai” and “Shalom” and, since 1967, Guatemala City is the siege of the “Instituto Guatemalteco Israelí”, an evangelical Zionist academy where children are trained to love Israel.

While Jorge García Granados’ early support of Israel was premised on what Guatemalans perceived as anti-colonial struggle against the British, and García Granados truly believed that the Jewish State symbolized the recognition and materialized the reparation that the world owed to a prosecuted people during 2000 years, Granados’ belief in the possibility of the Jewish state on Palestinian land was based on the Zionist premise that the “Promised Land” was “a land without a people for a people without a land,” a clichéd sentence (often attributed to Zionist discourses) that disassociates and renders Palestinians absent from their own territory. As a consequence, the Palestinians have been powerless as a nation due to the dissolution of territorial borders and to the physical expulsion accompanied by the discursive and visual programming of their absence. However, Granados’ vision is not surprising, since in Guatemala, the Indigenous Mayan population is invisible, as are the Palestinians, and appears only as the country’s ‘ethnic component’ that needs to be assimilated into the State or as a criminal threat (“communist guerrillas” in the 1960s-1980s, more recently as “drug cartels” and “criminals”). In this regard, Guatemala and Israel have in common the fact that the majoritarian sectors of their populations (Criollos and ladinos and Israeli Jews) feel that their way of life is permanently under threat due to the hostile peoples that surround them. Interestingly enough, Israel and Guatemala also have a similar demography: the approximate ratio of Israelis to Palestinians is 9-6 in the area that comprises Israel, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while 40% of the Guatemalan population is Indigenous and lives in rural areas.

Yet, do these facts explain the fact that Guatemala’s jungles are populated by hoards of Israeli post-army hikers after they finished their military service? In 1954 Jacobo Arabenz’s leftist regime was overthrown; backed by the CIA, a succession of right-wing governments has since taken power and, for many observers, this historical process cannot be divorced from Israel’s presence in the Central American country. After the coup against Arabenz, insurgent guerrilla groups emerged in the Guatemalan heights in the 1960s seeking to find a solution to the extreme maldistribution of land, exacerbated by the invasion of Indigenous land. The most prominent group was the FAR (Rebel Armed Forces in English), which was largely crushed by a counter-insurgency campaign carried out by the government with the help of the United States. In 1978, the CUC (or Committee for Peasant Unity) was launched and was conceived as a convergence of leftist insurgency with Indigenous peoples’ movements. At a moment in which Israeli presence was palpable in Guatemala, the Guatemalan State turned to Israeli advisers for help to formulate and implement a counterinsurgency strategy. In 1977, Jimmy Carter’s government had pulled away military aid to Guatemala as a consequence of human-rights abuses accusations, and Israel came to fill the vacuum: not only as proxy of the US to work against the Soviet Union’s advances in Latin America, but to create a market for Israeli military technology and training. With Israeli guidance, the Guatemalan army succeeded in “suppressing” the Indigenous “drive” for territorial and political liberation. Overall, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalan civilians were massacred, forcibly disappeared, tortured or executed during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996). They were mostly Mayan Indigenous peoples accused of collaborating with the communist insurgency. It has been labeled a “silent genocide” by the Guatemalan State against them.

In parallel, newly declassified documents reveal that already in 1967 Israel had in mind for the Palestinians a genocidal policy; that year, Israel came to occupy the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and began to consider Palestinians as an “alien population” and “demographic problem” to be dealt with. Strategies for “emptying out,” “suffocating,” and depriving these redundant populations of water and other vital resources began to be considered (now actualized in the Gaza Strip under siege since 2005). In the 1970s, guerrilla movements both in Palestine and Guatemala were given a blow, but in both regions new forms of resistance emerged (like the CUC in Guatemala). Thus, the Israeli government’s efforts to “pacify” the territories captured in 1967 were parallel to the implementation of strategies to “pacify” Guatemala’s rural areas through an agricultural resettlement scheme and Civilian Self-defense Patrols directly implemented by the army with the aid of Israeli advisers and ammunition.

That is to say that, as a strategy to counter the alleged Indigenous support to Guatemala’s communist movement, as well as to cover up the Guatemalan State’s genocidal policy, the State put in place an “Integral Plan of Rural Communities,” which implied transferring Indigenous communities displaced by the army to Model Villages. The Model Villages were directly inspired by the Israeli “Nahal” program, for which soldiers trained in agricultural techniques were set out to expand settlements in Galilee, the Negev and the West Bank (which are still thriving today).

Across Guatemala, the army had bombed and burned villages and an estimated 100,000 peasants had been displaced either across the border to Mexico or to the Guatemalan highlands. The Model Villages were meant to be part of a Pacification Program, which included relocation of the Indigenous communities to the Model Villages. In reality, however, it meant the establishment of a new social and economic order; combined with the “Fusiles y frijoles” (Ammunition and Beans) plan, the civil action program encompassed slaughter, torture and forced disappearance together with the provision of life’s necessities by international humanitarian aid. This means that those who cooperated with the military and agreed to grow non-traditional crops — with the implementation of Israeli agricultural techniques — meant to be exported, such as broccoli, Chinese cabbage or watermelons, were assured a home, humanitarian assistance and safety. This “development” program of Guatemalan rural areas was based on the complete subjugation of Mayan peoples for whom being forced to grow alien crops meant cultural destruction, and for whom confinement in a Model Village was sometimes preceded by a stay in a reeducation camp.

Furthermore, the “Plan Victoria” implemented in 1982, consisted in establishing Civilian Self-defense Patrols (or PAC in Spanish) whose ranks were filled in by coercion, threats, rape, torture, disappearance, and massacres; clandestine cemeteries prevailed across the country. By 1983 there were a million men incorporated into the PAC armed with Israeli assistance, forced to provide a quota of accused men for being communists. At the time, food was only obtainable from military stores, and the inhabitants of Model Villages were also forced to work without wages to repair roads, clear fields, build new villages, etc. This situation is comparable to the one experienced by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli State has wrecked their local economy and transformed the population into a captive market and cheap labor source. Similarly, the Guatemalan military invasion has made economic activity in the occupied highlands impossible, aside from the fact that the PAC destroyed traditional forms of indigenous government and was meant to control the Mayan communities.

The Guatemalan Model Villages, moreover, began to materialize in Israel in 2011 under the Begin-Prawer Plan. This policy has been designed to offer the Bedouin populations inhabiting the Naqab desert in Southern Israel a permanent home and jobs in factories. In reality, the plan is designed to relocate them and to modify their nomadic lives, to impoverish them culturally and materially, and to place them under the administration of the State that controls and oppresses them. The Begin-Prawer Plan is the largest displacement of Palestinian citizens of Israel since the 1950s, perceived as invaders to their own lands who will be confined to an urban environment removed from their traditional forms of life. The Plan has the purpose of expanding housing for Jews by establishing new communities of settlers — many of whom were evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

It has been said that traces of the PAC are still manifest today in Mayan communities across Guatemala, as are the Kaibiles — an elite army force trained in Guatemala by Israeli military — present as they have been employed by Drug Cartels in Latin America, although the Peace Accord between insurgent factions and the Guatemalan State was signed in 1996. This was only three years after the Camp David Accords were signed between Palestine and Israel. The mid-1990s, however, inaugurate an era of new tactics for cultural suppression, political repression and historical disconnection, now invisible to Human Rights Violations accusations, and under the aegis of the celebration of the multicultural and ethnic tissue of the globe, in a context of freedom of expression, movement and association. New forms of exploitation and dispossession are being furthered under the discourses and practices of democracy and development, as the “Palestinian Reform and Development Plan” (PRDP), an effort by the Palestinian Authority in collaboration with the World Bank and the British Department for International Development to implement a private sector-driven economic strategy to attract foreign investment and reduce public spending to a minimum.

In this context, it is difficult not to see the shadow of the PAC in Grupo Golán’s urban “I Protect My Community” program described above, which evidences how, just as tensions prevail in Israel-Palestine, the coexistence of the descendants of the original Spanish colonizers with the Mayans in Guatemala is soaked with normalized violence, as I was able to feel and attest in my daily walks around the Zona 14 in Guatemala City. I was usually the only white person on foot alongside Mayan men armed as private security employees — mostly their only opportunity for upward social and economic mobility — guarding upper middle class homes where Mayan women would come to sell warm handmade tortillas that they would carry in huge baskets above their heads. The analogies that can be drawn between patterns of privilege, dispossession, control and repression in Israel-Palestine and White-Indigenous Guatemala are enabled by common uses of counterinsurgency strategies grounded on histories colonial subjection. The only difference is the time frame: 500 years versus 70 years. Clearly an urgent political task is to enable Mayans and Palestinians to share and exchange strategies of autonomy, resistance and survival.