The U.S. gave armed jeeps to Guatemala through a military equipment program. Guatemala then used the jeeps to intimidate the American embassy and to scare protesters, according to congressional investigators.
In the first incident, seven “weapons-mounted Jeeps” were used to circle the embassy in 2018. The U.S. Defense Department concluded that they “were deployed to intimidate U.S. embassy officials.”
The vehicles then parked on the street in front of a U.N. commission’s headquarters, the Government Accountability Office reported Wednesday.
Federal officials also flagged four instances where Guatemala may have misused the jeeps against its residents, including to patrol protests at a university campus in 2018 and to harass protesters at a mining company in 2021.
There may be more incidents the government doesn’t know about. Investigators said the Defense Department, which runs the tech-transfer program, doesn’t have a good process in place to track how the equipment is used.
“Because it has not designed its program to identify potential misuse, DOD may lack reasonable assurance that recipients are using equipment for authorized purposes only,” the investigation concluded.
The equipment is provided under a program the U.S. runs to assist with security in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and was intended to help bolster their security forces.
Under the Arms Control Export Act, some of that equipment is supposed to be monitored to make sure it’s not being used for nefarious purposes.
But the embassy incident raised concerns and Congress, in its 2022 defense policy bill, ordered the GAO to report back on what was going on.
The jeeps were deployed in August 2018 at a time when former President Jimmy Morales was clashing with the U.N.’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. CICIG was investigating allegations involving Mr. Morales at the time, and he had ordered the organization out of his country.
Seven armed jeeps first circled the embassy, then parked in front of CICIG’s headquarters.
“The U.S. government viewed this as an act of intimidation, according to DOD officials,” the GAO concluded.
Both the State and Defense departments asked the Guatemalan government about the use of the jeeps. The government dismissed worries, saying the jeeps were deployed “to protect different justice and security entities.”
Press and social media posts also indicated American-donated jeeps were used to police protests against a mining company, and at the University of San Carlos.
And the U.S. State Department also flagged instances where the vehicles were seen patrolling Guatemala City.
GAO investigators also cited an incident covered by The Miami Herald in which the newspaper reported U.S.-made rifles were used by Honduran military police on protesters.
The State Department said it never determined if the rifles were part of a U.S. transfer program. The Defense Department, which does provide M4 rifles to Honduras but didn’t answer GAO’s questions about whether it reviewed The Herald’s claims.
The Defense Department said there’s only so much it can do about the equipment.
“Routine and Enhanced [End-Use Monitoring] visits conducted by security cooperation personnel do not include observation of the recipient’s operational use of provided equipment, and, consequently, U.S. Government personnel are unlikely to observe any misuse of transferred equipment,” wrote Daniel P. Erickson, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, in an official reply to GAO.
After the embassy allegations arose, the Defense Department did halt transfer of 38 more jeeps, worth nearly $3 million, to Guatemala. Last year the department said it was ready to transfer the jeeps, but a member of Congress objected and the jeeps remain in storage four years after the initial transfer was approved.
“DOD has not made a decision as to the final disposition of these vehicles, according to agency officials,” GAO said.
The U.S. government doesn’t have the authority to reclaim the jeeps that were misused but did ask they be transferred from the Guatemalan Ministry of Government over to the Guatemalan military.
Guatemala agreed, but as of mid-July had yet to make the transfer.
The Guatemalan task force unit believed to have misused the jeeps also has U.S.-provided cargo trucks, radios, helmets, night vision devices and GPS units, GAO reported.
GAO said the Defense Department struggles to identify which equipment requires continued monitoring to ensure it isn’t being misused.
For example, the department provided a list of 303 items subject to monitoring in El Salvador, but had only been monitoring 35 of them because it originally misclassified the others.