Guatemala’s Kaibiles: A Notorious Commando Unit Wrapped Up in Central America’s Drug War

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In Guatemala’s northern Petén department, May 14, 2011, felt a lot like December 6, 1982. In May, on the Los Cocos ranch near La Libertad, 27 campesinos were slaughtered and decapitated by henchmen of a bloodthirsty Mexican drug cartel, the Zetas – whose ranks include former Guatemalan army commandos known as Los Kaibiles. That’s why, for Guatemalans, the Los Cocos massacre was all too reminiscent of another 29 years ago, when witnesses say Kaibil special forces murdered 251 people in Dos Erres, also near La Libertad. They wiped out virtually the entire village, including small children, whose heads were smashed, in what ranks among the worst butchery of Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war.

So it was welcome news this week when the U.S. extradited back to Guatemala a leading member of the Kaibil squad accused of the 1982 massacre, Pedro Pimentel, 54. Pimentel, one of four former Kaibiles arrested in the U.S. and Canada last year, had spent most of the past two decades living a secret life in California as a factory worker. Now Guatemalan human rights leaders hope he and other Kaibiles will finally be brought to justice. “This is a chance for Guatemala’s fragile judicial system to show that it’s standing up to these kinds of atrocities for once,” attorney Edgar Pérez, who represents Dos Erres survivors and victims’ families, tells me. “It’s the only way to make sure massacres like these aren’t repeated.”

But Guatemalans like Pérez are all too aware that their Kaibil terror is still alive. The army unit itself, surprisingly, is still intact. Its commandos, named for a 16th-century Maya warrior who stood up to the Spanish conquistadors, are trained to be especially efficient killing machines who fight under extreme conditions like jungle warfare. In fact, the Kaibiles (pronounced kie-BEE-les) have trained Mexican commandos like the GAFE, or Airborne Special Forces Group – and that link has come back to haunt both Mexico and Guatemala.

That’s because in the late 1990s an especially vicious band of GAFE commandos, the Zetas, went over to the dark side and became hired enforcers for one of Mexico’s largest drug mafias, the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas eventually became their own cartel and, in turn, recruited some of their former Kaibil instructors. Ex-Kaibiles, say Guatemalan authorities, headed up the May 14 Los Cocos massacre, which began that evening and lasted until almost dawn the next day.

The Kaibiles are largely responsible for introducing the ghastly drug-war practices of severing rivals’ heads, including the 10 found outside Mexico City just last weekend, dismembering their bodies or slowly suffocating them to death. That’s little surprise, given how brutal Kaibil training has been since the unit was founded in the 1970s: members are forced to kill animals, even bite the heads off chickens to prove their ferocity, and perform field surgery on themselves, such as bullet extraction. They were the principal instruments of the Guatemalan military government’s “scorched earth” campaign of the 1980s against leftist guerrillas and communities suspected of backing them.

That makes it all the more troubling, as Mexico’s drug cartels push into Central America, that not just former but current Kaibiles are defecting to more lucrative service under the Zetas. It’s bad enough that so many heavy weapons are being smuggled from the U.S. into Mexican mafias’ hands; but as Kaibiles become more involved in the narco-mayhem, authorities believe Guatemalan military hardware is arriving across Mexico’s southern border as well. Mexican police have arrested Kaibiles smuggling guns, and Guatemalan cops have seized Zeta bullets and grenades that were traced back to the Guatemalan army. They’ve also found heavily armed Zeta training camps inside Guatemala for Kaibil deserters.

For Guatemalans, that’s simply a reminder that the dictator horror they suffered a generation ago has simply been replaced by drug-cartel horror. It has gotten so bad, in fact, that U.S. military officials now call the northern Central America triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, a pocket with one of the world’s highest murder rates, the most dangerous zone in the world outside Afghanistan and Iraq. “That’s why the Guatemalan military shouldn’t even have special forces anymore,” Pérez argues. “The state is too weak, and the commandos too uncontrollable, to keep risking this kind of organized crime infiltration.”

(See “‘The Deadliest Zone’: Hillary Clinton Visits Central America’s Narco-Nighmare”)

Still, bringing to justice alleged murderers like Pimentel, who was a Kaibil officer and instructor in the 1980s – and who despite the Dos Erres massacre was invited to be an instructor at the U.S. military-run School of the Americas, then in Panama – could help to make Guatemala a less sinister place. Witnesses also accuse Pimentel of raping girls and women during the three days of Dos Erres atrocities, in which many villagers were rounded up, shot and dumped in a well. Some 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala’s civil war, which didn’t end until 1996. The challenge now is to keep thugs like the Kaibiles-turned-narcos from killing thousands more.