Coup du Jour: The Militarization of Daily Life

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“Is today a patriotic holiday of some kind?” My inquiry had been provoked by the abundance of armed soldiers being ferried through the streets of Guatemala City. My friend, a native Guatemalteco, shook his head, a puzzled frown creasing his features. “Then why are there so many troops on the streets?” I persisted, directing his attention to the grim-faced, uniformed figures visible beyond the windows of our “Chicken Bus.” It was Monday morning, August 8, 1983, and the two of us were taking a break from our missionary labors to shop for necessities downtown. The concentration of military personnel – and the visible agitation of my native-born friend — increased as we approached the City Center.About an hour later, we were intercepted by another missionary while returning to the bus stop.

“The government was overthrown in a coup this morning,” he informed us in a voice drawn taut with urgency. “We’re supposed to go back to our apartments, lock the doors, and wait until we’re told it’s safe to come out.” Shocked but not entirely surprised, I turned to a third missionary who had joined us in our shopping excursion, a young man from Blackfoot, Idaho, whose reaction to the news was more surprising that the coup itself.

Cool!” he yelped, pumping a fist in the air. 

Like any other 20-year-old male, I was a shameless adrenaline junkie, but my response was rather more subdued. After returning to our apartment in the suburbs, we turned on the radio and television, both of which were playing a continuous program of music interrupted each hour by a brief speech from Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, the figurehead of the officers’ putsch that ousted President Efrain Rios-Montt, an erratic general who had been in power for about a year and a half following a previous coup.

Several weeks earlier, Rios-Montt had declared a state of emergency, accusing the military and the media of plotting against him.

“They are using methods of manipulation to provoke the public against me,” he raved in a televised speech that was broadcast repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the coup, “but I’m still here.”

Rios-Montt had a mock-Evangelical speaking style that was long on dramatic poses and pauses, longer still on frantic verbal effusions, and all but devoid of substance. Some Guatemalans took to calling him “El Pajaro Loco” — “Crazy Bird,” the local name for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. In retrospect he more closely resembled a well-groomed version of El Guapo, the Bandit Chieftain from Three Amigos.

Rios-Montt’s abhorrence for Communism was genuine, and nearly as passionate as his contempt for individual liberty. His message to Guatemala’s rural peasantry was simple: “If you are with us, we’ll feed you; if you’re not, we’ll kill you.”

By all accounts, Rios-Montt displayed Caligulan capriciousness in defining who was “with” or “against” him, and his zeal to kill those perceived as enemies of the state was limitless. He presided over the most sanguinary years of Guatemala’s decades-long civil war, a period in which the army routinely slaughtered entire villages of Maya Indians.

The CIA giveth, and the CIA taketh away, so when Rios-Montt became a liability to his patron he was quietly removed from office. The military faction that collaborated in the coup did so because they were fixated on efficiency, not freedom. The military seized control over the country out of concern that Rios-Montt had mishandled the counter-insurgency campaign.

For two days following the August 1983 coup, we were confined to our apartments with little more to do than read and listen to military helicopters churning overhead. Eventually we were given the all-clear, but like everybody else in the country we went about our business with a greatly enhanced sense of wariness.

Once the generals were in undisguised control the violence abated somewhat – although Guatemaltecos found it disconcerting to see dead bodies occasionally materialize on the streets without warning.

A few weeks after the coup, I was transferred to a small town called La Democracia, which was soon selected to host a counter-insurgency command post. Without notice or explanation the army descended on the town, setting up checkpoints and appropriating a large building as its operations center. Within a few weeks the army had extended its operations into the nearby town of Siquinala, where I would eventually have the stimulating experience of being threatened by a soldier who pointed a U.S.-purchased M16 at my chest.

Memories of my time living under undisguised martial law were summoned by the recent spectacle in Livingston, Illinois, where a military raid was conducted to arrest a solitary man suspected of possessing child pornography. Agents from the Department of Homeland Security, backed by SWAT teams, a Blackhawk helicopter, and officers from several local jurisdictions converged on the home of 34-year-old Robert Godsey, who offered no resistance as he was arrested and his computers were seized.

Without permission or explanation, the raiders set up a “staging area” on the grounds of the A.R. Graiff Elementary School, displaying the same arrogant indifference to the locals that had radiated from the Guatemalan Army as it seized control of streets and buildings in La Democracia and Siquinala.

“It’s better to be over-prepared,” smirked Jim Porter of the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Illinois in response to questions about wildly disproportionate use of force. Dutifully regurgitating pre-digested soundbites Porter insisted that the most important consideration for the raiders is to be prepared for what they “reasonably expect might happen.” And since their indoctrination describes the public as an undifferentiated mass of menace, and their role as subduing any potential resistance, rather than protecting property rights, their default setting is “overkill.”

This obsession with “force protection” – or, as it is commonly called, “officer safety” – is the primary driver behind the 124 SWAT raids that occur, on average, every day in the United States. These are not “paramilitary” raids; they are fully realized military operations carried out with financial support from Washington and material assistance from the Pentagon. The only significant difference between counter-insurgency operations overseas and the ones conducted domestically is the fact that military personnel operate under more restrictive rules of engagement than police officers.

The SWAT concept itself could be considered a domestic variant of the “Counter-terror teams” assembled by the CIA as part of the murderous “Phoenix Program” in Vietnam. Amid mounting – and overdue, but welcome — public antipathy toward police militarization, the Homeland Security apparatus has ramped up its longstanding campaign to collect information on activists and commentators who promote “anti-police” attitudes – another homefront adaptation of counter-insurgency methods.

In 2008, total government spending on “police protection” was $76 billion – nearly half of all “criminal justice”-related expenditures. In the following year the Obama administration poured additional billions of dollars into the Justice Department’s Byrne Memorial Grant program. That program is one of the chief federal funding arteries for “local” police departments – and perhaps the most significant tool the Feds have employed to mobilize police departments and sheriff’s offices in the “war on drugs.”

The foregoing happened before the most recent push to provide every police agency with surplus war-fighting vehicles – even if their officers patrol tiny rural villages in which crime is all but nonexistent. Of course, the same was true of La Democracia and Siquinala before the Guatemala army showed up to “pacify” them.

Unlike Guatemala, the United States has not witnessed an overt military coup, yet our society is more pervasively militarized than that country was when I lived there decades ago, at the nadir of a long and brutal civil war. The welcome news is that our rulers haven’t rolled up a comparable body count. The ominous news is that they’re just getting started.

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