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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 331-333

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The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy. By Jennifer Schirmer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Pp. 344. Illustrations. Notes. Index. $22.50 paper.

This is an excellent study of the modern Guatemalan military and of the severe difficulties that face democracy in Central America. Its focus is the changing relationship of the armed forces to politics and society from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. Along with Suzanne Jonas' somewhat broader The Battle for Guatemala [1991], this is one of the best books on Guatemala during the 1980s and, for this reader, one of the most enlightening studies I have read on the Latin American military.

Schirmer's approach to the modern Guatemalan military is unusual if not unique. She very fruitfully employs the methodology of ethnography to provide much of her data. She interviews the principle architects of Guatemalan military strategy in the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as other military and political actors and scholarly analysts, to plumb the military mind (or minds, since as she shows clearly, the military is by no means monolithic). Most prominent among her interviewees is General H├ęctor Gramajo Morales, whose intelligent, perceptive and surprisingly frank (if not always accurate) comments are essential to Schirmer's analysis. Though one might fault her for an over-dependence on this source, she treats Gramajo's claims [End Page 331] critically, confirming or challenging them with documents, written accounts by other analysts and numerous interviews with other military and political figures. Gramajo was clearly a major player with access to many sources of information. He supervised the army's brutal campaigns in the western highlands in 1982-1983, was prominent in the powerful army intelligence service, and served as a liaison to the CIA and as the Minister of Defense under the first civilian president since the 1960s, Vinicio Cerezo (1986-1990). President Cerezo (another interviewee) worked closely with Gramajo on the army command's plan for a gradual transition to civilian democratic rule. Gramajo was also one of the key leaders of the army's "moderate" faction (moderate only in comparison to the ultra right, hardline "Officers of the Mountain").

The efforts of Gramajo and the moderates to change the Guatemalan military and its long-term strategy in the 1980s, as well as the country itself, is the central theme of this book. Their desire for change resulted from the army's failure until 1982 to suppress the growing guerrilla insurgency and the fear that the Guatemalan army might be destroyed. The goals of the new strategy, revealed in a series of pronouncements between 1982 and 1989, was first to defeat the guerrillas and to resettle the refugees under army control, thus eliminating the armed threat and international pressure, especially in regard to human rights. This involved various measures to improve the army's effectiveness and the abandonment of the almost random extermination of people for a more reasoned plan of attack on the guerrillas and a "Beans and Bullets" approach to unarmed civilians, killing as much as 30 percent of that population and bringing the remainder under strict army control by means of fortified villages and civil patrols. A second, related goal was to reeducate this captive audience politically and help provide aid and development for them, thus to eliminate the conditions which had encouraged people, especially the Maya, to support the guerrillas. The third goal was to return the government to a more or less democratically elected civilian president, but under a constitution that would guarantee the army's strength, political influence and ability to act with legal impunity in the coming decades. Much of this plan was accomplished by 1986, though development lagged. Further elaboration of these ideas, as in the Thesis of National Stability (published by Gramajo in 1989), sought to refine the ways in which the military would guarantee sovereignty and stability, remove "Opponents" and exert control in the absence of other effective institutions and actors. In this, military leaders saw their institution as supra-political, above party...


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