Task Force Montagua Essay, Research Paper
James E Hogan
Task Force Montagua: New Horizons II
“And that’s when my consciousness was born”
In the early part of 1999 Guatemala was hit with both a hurricane and an earthquake. The United States government agreed to activate troops to be sent to Guatemala and several of its neighbors. My unit, being Military Police, was sent to provide force protection for all American service members working in and around Guatemala. I will provide some information on Guatemala and then provide a detailed account of my mission, Task Force Montagua: New Horizons II.
The country of Guatemala is mostly mountains with narrow coastal plains and rolling limestone plateau’s (AOL. online). The climate is tropical; hot, humid in lowlands; cooler in the highlands (AOL. online). During my trip the temperatures ranged from ninety to one hundred fourteen degrees in Puerto Barrios. Guatemala’s land is mostly forests and woodland, 54% (AOL. online). The rest of the country’s land is used for the production of coffee, sugar, and bananas which are Guatemala’s key exports.
The people of Guatemala are a very diverse group. There are three different religions practiced in Guatemala, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and traditional Mayan. Burgos-Debray states that there are twenty-two indigenous ethnic groups in Guatemala, twenty-three including the Mestizos, or Ladinos (pg1). The indigenous people of Guatemala are the of the Mayan Indian descent. The Ladinos are Spanish speaking and of Spanish descent from the days when this area was controlled by Spain. Ladinos make up approximately 56% of the population and the Indian peoples make up approximately 44% of the population(AOL. online). Also there are many different languages spoke in Guatemala. Most of the population (60%) speaks Spanish but the rest of the population speaks one of twenty-three different Mayan dialects.
Guatemala is a very young democracy. In 1996, the voters of Guatemala elected Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen president (World Book. 1998). Before this election Guatemala had been involved in thirty-six years of bloody and ultra-violent civil war. To put the war in simple terms the indigeous Mayan people of Guatemala were fighting for the right to control their land in order to have enough food to feed their children. Before the civil war started close to one out of three Indian children died of starvation. The current death rate is at approximately 6.96 deaths/1,000 population every year (AOL. online). The civil war saw many Indian peoples tortured, raped and murdered. The leader of the Indian freedom fighters was Rigoberta Menchu’, who in 1992 won the Nobel peace prize (World Book. 1998).
My trip started at Fort Dix, New Jersey. At Dix we did what is referred to as the palming process. This is where we make sure all our paper work, will, power of attorney, and life insurance, is in order. Part two of the process is where we get roughly eight to ten injections to prevent illness over seas. The whole process is concluded with a few briefings. Our briefings consisted of tactical lay out of our destination, enemy threat, and rules of engagement. Rules of engagement means when, where and under what circumstances we can use force, basically the rules of war. Next we took the five minute ride to Maguire Air Force base which was where we caught a flight to Guatemala city. Upon reaching Guatemala city we received our in country brief which was basically all the things not to do while you were in country. From there we immediately reboarded our flight and flew to our area of operations, Puerto Barrios.
My unit, the 814th mp co, had its central area of operations in the port city of Puerto Barrios (included is a map of the area where we ran our operations courtesy of Yahoo.com). Puerto Barrios is the central and busiest port in Guatemala, and it is also where all US equipment hit the ground at. At the port is where our first missions began to take place.
As previously stated our primary mission was force protection, which includes providing security for American troops as well as equipment. At the port when our vehicles and equipment started to arrive our missions began. The poverty level in Guatemala was like nothing I had ever experienced. Anything that wasn’t guarded by armed troops was more than likely going to be pillaged. People would actually steal our garbage in hopes of finding something of value. Our vehicles became prime targets of thieves and from day one on we had around the clock armed guards baby-sitting our Hummers. Other than having a few cases of bottled water stolen out of a couple vehicles there were no major incidents to speak of.
With all of our vehicles and construction equipment now on the ground in Guatemala our primary missions began to take place. The 833rd Engineer company, out of Toledo Ohio, came in country to rebuild damaged bridges, roads and buildings. Our primary building site was near the Honduran border where a key bridge used for commerce was wiped out by raging flood waters from hurricane Mitch. This was by far the most dangerous part of our trip because we were working approximately two klicks north of Guatemala’s border with Honduras. Guatemala has had armed conflict with Honduras for years now over this disputed boarder. The River is where the Hondurans believe the boarder is but the map shows the boarder approximately two klicks south. We were right in the middle of a known hot spot. The funny thing about this was that we were told that we would be doing construction that would help the Guatemalan people. The construction was actually repairing damages which occurred on Chiquita banana plantations. In other words American soldiers were deployed to a hot spot to work for a large American corporation. I have no doubts that someone in congress got a large campaign contribution.
During our work at the bridge site no combat took place(the bridge is marked on the map) but a few rounds were discharged though. Guatemalan soldiers fired several times on suspected Honduran radicals. No American lives were lost at our work site but we did have a couple of scary moments. There is an unimproved road that leads off the main hardball to the work site. One afternoon myself and another two man MP team were blocking off the unimproved road leading to the work site. Standing orders were that no civilian traffic was allowed to pass without authorization of the MP Lieutenant, who was supervising security on the other side of the river. We had a white four door Toyota pickup truck pull up to the road block and begin to beep his horn. My best friend who was watching the gate went up to the truck to question the driver. The driver then parked his truck and exited his vehicle yelling. Once the driver was in clear view away from the truck he pulled a loaded and charged .45 caliber pistol and pointed it at my friend. I immediately drew down on the subject and told him I was going to shoot him if he did not lower his weapon. The man continued to yell, he was doing it so fast that I could not understand what he was saying. This incident seemed to last for hours when it only actually lasted for a few minutes. As quickly as the incident began it was over. The male subject lower his weapon and laid face down on the ground as instructed. We then removed the weapon and took the man into custody. The scariest few moments of my life had ended and everyone was all right. My buddy Larry was visibly shaken and was pretty quiet for the next couple of days.
There was one more major incident on this trip. The details of the incident have been labeled as classified but this incident saw four American soldiers dead. The details are a little sketchy but it breaks down like this. Four engineers were approximately two klicks west of us down river scouting a possible construction site for a hospital. Honduran rebels grabbed them and held them for ransom. When the army notified these individuals that the American government does not negotiate with terrorists, the soldiers were tortured and executed. The bodies of the soldiers were never recovered. The most disturbing part of this is that the truth was never disclosed to the families and American press was never notified. This happened about three weeks ago.
The rest of my trip consisted of law and order. We patrolled the streets of Puerto Barrios ensuring that soldiers at the local bars and entertainment spots weren’t getting into any trouble. We had a few problems at some of the prostitution houses. Officers would get drunk and try to take women from enlisted soldiers, clearly abusing their authority. These officers were put on report and their chain of command was notified. Needless to say their superiors were not to happy about them using alcohol and being mixed up with enlisted soldiers and prostitutes. After that other than a few picked pockets everything was fine.
My trip to Guatemala was a very touching experience. Seeing poverty that was worse than I had ever seen before was upsetting. The Guatemalan people treated us with great respect. The people of Guatemala are a very noble group. American’s worry about material things all the time and all these people want is to be able to eat and celebrate their culture. Our mission of force protection was a success as far as the leadership is concerned. I think it is a failure though, we left four American GI’s behind because some corporation paid some congressman so they could get outstanding virtually free labor. I would love to see congress explain this to the family’s of the lost soldiers.