Halfway through Donald Trump’s presidency, Israel’s decades-long role in Central America is scaling new heights of military and political influence.
Israel has wasted no time securing valuable arms deals in this part of the world, deals that now account for nearly 20 percent of its arms exports. This scale of activity hasn’t occurred since the Ronald Reagan administration in the 1980s, when far-right rulers in Central America circled the wagons.
Tacit US approval for the purchase of such weapons has ensured Honduran and Guatemalan support at the United Nations for Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The changeover from Barack Obama’s two terms as president to Trump has heralded a resurgence of policy trends among the US, Israel and US-dominated Central American countries reminiscent of the transitional Carter-Reagan years.
The migrant caravans in fall and winter, meanwhile, have focused attention on the plight of Central Americans fleeing three countries ravaged by decades of US intervention: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Sparse attention has been placed on how the caravans travel across a more than 2,000 mile Israeli-exported military and homeland security terrain that has expanded across Central America since the 1980s, escalating after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US.
The monitored terrain now covers all of Mexico as well as up through, and beyond, the US-Mexico border. Israeli boundary enforcement and surveillance products are deployed along the migrant and refugee trail, the subject of this author’s next book that traces Israeli involvement throughout the international regions between Central America and the US-Mexico border.
As the regional conditions that prompted the caravans’ repeated departures demonstrate no signs of quieting, the Israeli arms industry interests in the region will likely grow.
But while the military-security dimension is both Israeli and American, the US asserts ownership over the geography. In 2012, Alan Bersin, Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection under Barack Obama, declared that “Guatemala’s border with Chiapas [Mexico] is now our southern border.”
With millions of dollars in US military aid poured into Mexican immigration enforcement practices, “Mexico is doing the dirty work, the very dirty work, for the United States,” observed Franciscan Friar Tomás González Castillo.
Castillo runs the “72” migrant shelter to aid Central Americans desperate to cross Mexico, which acts, spatially speaking, so much like a vertical border of death (rather than a horizontal one) that Mexican human rights advocates call the entire country “a graveyard for migrants.”
In effect, with its security aid utilized at all junctions, Israel has contributed to the US Border Patrol’s strategic “layered approach” of ratcheting up Mexico’s proxy enforcement measures.
This is the border-bolstered world that Trump has inherited and is now pushing to enlarge.
Trump’s Israeli “deputy”
By the end of Obama’s tenure, Israel’s burgeoning presence in Central America was in the cards. Just ahead of Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, historian Greg Grandin, writing in The Nation, advised those watching events to the south: “If you want to know how Donald Trump’s Latin American policy will play – and how he might deputize Israel to conduct a good bit of it – keep an eye on Honduras.”
The 2016 $200 million Israel-Honduras security cooperation agreement that Grandin flags in his report, has continued to evolve and expand since it was signed. At that time, it was lauded as the Honduran military’s “great leap” forward by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.
Obama’s outgoing administration had scaled back some forms of military collaboration in its last years in office after Honduras overplayed its hand by using US-supplied weapons to down civilian airplanes suspected of carrying illegal drugs.
The US rebuke, minor though it was, prompted Honduras to look elsewhere for military assistance. Israel stepped in to play its historical role as a faithful, bipartisan US proxy, just as it did during the Carter and Reagan years.
With Trump in office, it didn’t take long for Grandin’s prediction to bear out.
In March 2017, the military business press reported more information on the “great leap” deal, according to Israeli human rights and legal sources familiar with the agreement. This included a 10-year timeline boosting Honduran cyber security, naval and air power. This time the reported figure jumped to $300 million. And with continual new components being reported, such as six Skylark drones from Elbit Systems, the deal appears to be a work in progress.
By implicitly authorizing the Honduras security deals, the US “deputized” Israel to gallop into the region and whip up a posse of right-wing proxy reinforcements in Central America that the US could count on when needed.
By December 2017, massive social upheaval rocked Honduras amidst a transparently fraudulent election in which the electoral commission, controlled by the incumbent president, allowed too many “irregularities”, according to the conservative and usually passive Organization of American States in its ignored call for a new election. Facing international scandal over the election results, both the US and Israel quickly congratulated the Hernández administration on its new lease over the country.
The saga continued just days later as an opportunity presented itself for Honduras to return the favor to its US and Israeli patrons. President Trump’s pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem elicited international condemnation, but not from Honduras.
Now that Israel had stepped into the arms breach left by the Obama administration, Washington and Tel Aviv could both count on Honduras – and neighboring Guatemala, as their other faithful right-wing ally in the region – to join the isolated US-Israeli caucus at the UN. A toothless UN General Assembly vote decreed the embassy move illegitimate, in line with decades of past resolutions.
By balking at the UN resolution, Guatemala and Honduras departed from a long-held international consensus over the status of Jerusalem. Investigative journalist Allan Nairn has noted how Honduras jettisoned its own past voting pattern, paving the way to a modern “arms diplomacy” – a phrase coined by political scientist Aaron S. Klieman in his 1985 book, Israel’s Global Reach: Arms Sales as Diplomacy.
A history of right-wing arms dealing
Israel’s deepening global pariah status between 1967 and 1982 – pockmarked by habitual regional aggressions which preceded multiple illegal occupations from Gaza to Lebanon and unlawful annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – necessitated seeking out other pariahs with which to do business. As Michael Shur, director of the state-owned Israeli Military Industry (Ta’as) weapons manufacturer, remarked in 1983, the “welfare of our people and the state supersedes all other considerations,” adding, “If the state has decided in favor of export, my conscience is clear.”
The logic of Israeli arms transfers to other world outcasts was obvious. Tom Buckley of The New York Times asked Shmuel Mirom, an Israeli embassy official, why Israel was willing to sell arms to Guatemala during the purported US arms embargo then in place in spite of what Amnesty International called President Fernando Romeo Lucas García’s “government program of political murder.” Mirom replied: “We would rather sell them toys, I assure you, but it is weapons that they want to buy, and we have to keep making weapons to remain an efficient source of supply for our own army.”
Yohanah Ramati’s estimation, put bluntly in 1985 when she spoke as a former member of the Israeli parliament’s foreign relations committee, further clarified Israel’s position: “Israel is a pariah state. When people ask us for something, we cannot afford to ask questions about ideology. The only type of regime that Israel would not aid would be one that is anti-American. Also, if we can aid a country that it may be inconvenient for the US to help, we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face not to.”
The feeling was mutual, as a Guatemala City political and business leader observed: “We are isolated internationally. The only friend we have left in the world is Israel.”
This “friendship” with Guatemala was the single biggest reason why the Israeli arms trade in Central America enjoyed a golden age after receiving a green light from the US. The Israel-Guatemala relationship thrived so much that Israel eventually planned to set up Guatemala’s very own munitions factory to mass produce Israeli guns and armaments, even Guatemalan-model combat tanks.
Guatemala wasn’t Israel’s only beneficiary, or ally, in the region. Although mainstream US media have studiously avoided pulling from their vast (yet, at the time, underreported) historical archives of Israeli involvement in Central America, the countries themselves can’t hide the record.
Honduras, for its part, received a transfer of Israeli fighter jets on top of its receipt of Israeli small arms, artillery, ammunition, transport aircraft and reconnaissance aircraft. All this came in while Honduras was both collaborating with Salvadoran state counterinsurgency efforts and providing the largest base of operations for the US war of aggression against Sandinista-led Nicaragua.
At that time, Israel provided El Salvador with approximately 83 percent of the arms (including napalm) the state used against the Salvadoran population during its counterinsurgency wars between 1980-1992 that killed more than 75,000 civilians.
Costa Rica, too, has its own past of Israeli state security aid (arms and training of police forces despite having no military), including a tristate US-Israel-Costa Rica settler-colonist-modeled “land development” project in which it militarized its border with Nicaragua during US-sponsored state terror and aggression there.
Although Israeli military export sales are underreported for this period, political economist Shir Hever and other experts estimate that Israel’s global arms sales were then a “significant” part of Israel’s industrial sector. By the mid-1980s, Latin America amounted to half of all Israel’s known global arms sales.
In recent years, Israel’s Latin American arms market consistently accounts for a sizable 18 percent of Israeli arms sales worldwide, in terms of major conventional weaponry. Israel today remains a major player in Guatemala’s private security and resource extraction industries.
The jockeying for diplomatic favors in exchange for arms deals also goes back decades, as scholars Milton Jamail and Margo Gutiérrez document in their 1986 book, It’s No Secret: Israel’s Military Involvement in Central America. Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica, at times, had their diplomatic missions based in Jerusalem.
Guatemala, the first country to place its embassy in Jerusalem, retreated to Tel Aviv in 1980, obeying a UN dictate to withdraw diplomatic missions after Israel enacted a “basic law” codifying its 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem. Guatemala’s reversal also came after Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia threatened to boycott Guatemalan cardamom, which then generated a revenue of some $70 million, mostly from Arab states.
From the 1980s through today, Israel’s “arms sales as diplomacy” has, at best, achieved mixed results. In October, for example, the UN General Assembly elected Palestine to chair the G-77 convention of developing nations, a title usually reserved for states. The resolution passed despite US and Israeli opposition. Honduras abstained and Guatemala did not bother casting a vote.
Pariahs against the world
As the US has sparked a revival of 1980s-era Israeli involvement in Central America, the region’s two leading client states, Honduras and Guatemala, have been cultivating right-wing domestic rule.
Both Guatemala and Honduras remain politically isolated in the region and dependent on US aid. The countries’ behavior at the UN over Jerusalem came as leaders in both countries were seeking favor with Tel Aviv that would, in turn, earn them goodwill in Washington. While the US increasingly follows its own tune in world affairs, antagonizing allies and foes alike, the US, Israel, Guatemala and Honduras, global pariahs, big and small, continue to stick together.
The latest president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, whose support base includes the rightist Guatemalan military, has been embroiled in a corruption investigation but is eager to assure Washington that he can tough it out while at the same time looking to be rewarded for moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Morales will surely want to avoid the fate of his predecessor, former President Otto Pérez Molina, who was forced out of office on corruption charges (along with every single one of his ministers) and remains incarcerated.
Israel’s role in the region has received scant media scrutiny over the last 30 years, making the limited coverage in the late 1970s and 1980s seem copious by comparison. At that time, Israeli involvement in Central America was underreported by generally uncritical US media and mostly met with silence by leftist and progressive forces – a recurring concern slowly being broken.
Meanwhile, observers lamented their place in the crossfire between armed guerrillas and state security forces. In 1983, Guatemalan journalist Victor Perera asked a grave digger in Chichicastenango, who was burying a local townsperson slain by the Guatemalan military, if anyone had taken up arms against the state since the killing.
“Even if we wanted to join the guerrillas, where would we obtain arms?” the gravedigger asked in reply. “In church they tell us that divine justice is on the side of the poor, but the fact of the matter is, it is the military who get the Israeli guns.”
Today’s Trump era presents an opportunity to raise oppositional voices as a revival of 1980s-era Israeli security and arms diplomacy deepens its shadow over Central America and beyond to potentially greater levels than ever before.
If today’s grave-digging truth tellers in the region aren’t abandoned but supported at the source by more solidarity efforts that started in the 1980s and continue today, Israel may find it harder to keep its footing in the region.
Gabriel M. Schivone is a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona and author of the forthcoming book Making the New “Illegal”: How Decades of US Involvement in Central America Triggered the Modern Wave of Immigration (Prometheus Books).