San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemalan soldiers keeping the peace in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The filthy slums of Cité Soleil are a long way from Guatemala’s ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal or Quetzaltenango’s imposing volcanoes. But José Donis Muñoz didn’t come here to be a tourist.

Rather, Muñoz and his Guatemalan buddies are in Haiti for the next nine months as part of a grueling United Nations peacekeeping mission that comprises 12,500 soldiers, police officers and other uniformed personnel from 18 countries.

“It’s a new experience, totally different from what we’re used to,” said the MP from Santa Rosa. “When I came here, I knew nothing about Haiti, only what I could find on the Internet. This is a chance to participate in a peacekeeping mission, and at the same time, help Haiti return to law and order.”

Muñoz is one of 133 peacekeepers – all military police – comprising the Guatemalan contingent of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH. The contingent’s official name is Guampco, for Guatemalan Military Police Company, but everyone here calls it Espíritu Maya.

Guatemala is the only Central American country with a military contingent in MINUSTAH (El Salvador has a police presence here). Guampco is quite small compared to the missions of Argentina, Brazil and India, but its mission is indispensible: to monitor the peacekeepers themselves rather than the Haitian people, with which it has only limited contact. 

Late last month, The Tico Times visited Guampco headquarters at Log Base, a sprawling military compound adjacent to Port-au-Prince International Airport on the outskirts of Haiti’s capital and largest city.

Once past the barbed-wire fence and guard tower overlooking the main airport road, it was evident that the Mayan spirit runs high here. Several dozen trailers surround a huge courtyard, which contains, among other things, a basketball court, a huge concrete replica of the famous pyramid at Tikal and a monument commemorating Guatemala’s elite special forces, known as Los Kaibiles.

Over a traditional Guatemalan lunch of beef soup, chilis, vegetables, tortillas and fresh grapes, Col. José Sosa, the mission’s commander, explained what his troops are doing in Haiti.

“When the MINUSTAH mission began in October 2004, the United Nations asked several different countries including Guatemala for support, so we said yes. This unit is a very important component in the whole mission. If there’s some incident, a fight, an injury, a death, we have to investigate,” he said.

“We are responsible for maintaining discipline, law and order among the peacekeepers. We also lend VIP security to any special flight. If, for instance, a government minister needs to travel by helicopter to [northern coastal city] Cap-Haïtien, we lend our services. In addition, we control traffic in places where there is a military presence.”

Following the January 2010 earthquake, which killed anywhere from 220,000 to 300,000 people, the U.N. authorized MINUSTAH to boost its strength with a surge of military, civilian and police personnel. Its fiscal 2011 budget is about $793 million, and the mission currently has about 8,900 peacekeeping troops, 4,000 police officers and 500 administrative staffers deployed throughout the Caribbean nation.

MINUSTAH’s current chief is Mariano Fernández, a former Chilean foreign minister who served as Chile’s ambassador to the United States from 2006 to 2009. His predecessor was Edmond Mulet, a Guatemalan lawyer who now directs U.N. peacekeeping missions worldwide. Like Mulet, who was an exile during the Guatemalan military dictatorship, Fernández fled Chile during the Pinochet regime.

“We don’t want to stay in the country against anybody’s will,” he said in an interview. “Once we leave Haiti, we hope never to come back. This is the main goal of any peacekeeping mission: to contribute in such a way that you don’t have to come back.”

Though critical of maintaining security – Haitian President Michel Martelly recently said the force needed to be preserved despite moves by the U.N. to reduce its numbers to pre-quake levels – MINUSTAH has not been received warmly by many Haitians. Its continued presence in the country remains a matter of enormous controversy.

A cholera outbreak that killed some 6,600 people and sickened an estimated 475,000 in a country that hadn’t seen cholera in half a century is widely believed to have been brought to Haiti by Nepalese troops serving under the MINUSTAH banner.

In early November, a coalition of U.S. and Haitian grassroots organizations sued the U.N., charging that it didn’t properly screen peacekeepers for cholera, allowed untreated waste from a U.N. base to be dumped into Haiti’s main river system, and failed to adequately respond to the epidemic.

Haiti 1

Guatemalan MPs enjoy lunch in their mess hall at the MINUSTAH barracks near Port-au-Prince International Airport, Haiti. Guatemala is the only Central American country with a military contingent in Haiti.

Larry Luxner

Earlier this year, Guampco was initially assigned to investigate the case of four Uruguayan peacekeepers who allegedly sodomized an 18-year-old Haitian man in the southern town of Port-Salut, enraging Haitians and sparking angry demonstrations.

“We have zero tolerance in the case of the Uruguayans. We punished them immediately, and they were repatriated to Uruguay,” said Fernández, freely acknowledging that “many people don’t feel comfortable with MINUSTAH, people who think we should not be in Haiti.”

In fact, Sosa said the alleged rape – caught on video and widely distributed on the Internet – was so “delicate” that a special commission was soon formed to investigate the charges. But he declined to go into further detail on that case, preferring instead to speak about the positive aspects of Guampco’s mission.

 “There’s always an emergency team ready to respond to a call, no matter what the occasion,” Sosa said. “Our contingent has no relations with the Haitian population. Even so, we help provide potable water. We also help with a local orphanage, bringing them food and water every week.”

Sosa, whose troops come here on nine-month rotations, said Haiti needs all the help it can get. “After the earthquake, the country was very badly damaged. There are so many priorities: health, education, housing. MINUSTAH does some projects, but they’re small. We really don’t have the capacity.”

Although none of the Guatemalan MPs in Haiti speak the local Creole, all are required to have basic knowledge of English. In addition, they must submit to and pass medical, academic and psychological exams prior to becoming U.N. peacekeepers.

“Before we come to Haiti, soldiers have to take a class on cultural awareness. We learn about different cultures,” said the 46-year-old Sosa, who has three sons and is originally from Zacapa. The slogan on the wall of his makeshift office reads: “Vocación de servicio y profundo sentido del deber con la responsa–bilidad de defender la patria” (“Devotion of service and a deep sense of responsibility to defend the homeland”).

Normally, Sosa’s troops wake up at 5 a.m. every day and do exercises at the mission’s outdoor gym. They’re generally required to be able to run two miles in 16 minutes and do a set number of push-ups and bench presses based on age.

After a 7 a.m. breakfast, the men then go out on patrols, usually armed with Israeli-made Galil 5.56-mm assault rifles. In the late afternoons and evenings, Sosa’s men play soccer, volleyball and other sports. Now that it’s relatively cool in the tropics, conditions aren’t so bad. But in the Caribbean summer heat, spending the day outdoors in full combat gear can be challenging, to say the least.

In the course of their patrols and daily activities, MINUSTAH troops are warned not to get too close to Haitian people – particularly women – precisely in an effort to maintain professionalism and avoid sparking unnecessary incidents.

“All the training we’ve previously received has helped prepare us, and not only because of Haiti,” said Erwin Gómez, the mission’s second-in-command and a native of Mazatenango. “Even though we’re all Latinos, we come from different cultures, and normally, our cultures don’t mix.”

Every month, the Guatemalan peacekeepers get five days of R & R, which they generally enjoy back home in Guatemala, Miami (less than a two-hour flight away) or in neighboring Dominican Republic. “They are not allowed to stay here in Haiti,” said Sosa. “This minimizes the risk of mixing with locals.”

Asked how folks back home feel about the MINUSTAH mission, Sosa thought for a second.

“In Guatemala, there are people in favor and people against,” he said. “We don’t deal with the politics here. The important thing is, we’re lending a hand to a brother country in trouble.”

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