The Kaibiles (singular: Kaibil) are a special operations force of the Military of Guatemala. They specialize in jungle warfare tactics and counter-insurgency operations.
The corps’ soldiers are distinguished from regular troops by maroon berets with patches bearing a blazing sword. Its motto is: “If I Advance, follow me. If I stop,Grab me, If I Retreat, kill me.”
On 5 December 1974, Guatemala’s military government created its Commando School (Escuela de Comandos). Three months later, on 5 March 1975, it renamed it the Kaibil Special Operations Training Centre (Centro de Adiestramiento y Operaciones Especiales Kaibil). The name “Kaibil” is derived from Kayb’il B’alam (Kaibil Balam), a Mam indigenous leader who evaded capture by the Spanish conquistadors under Pedro de Alvarado.
Initially, the Kaibil Centre was located on two estates, El Infierno (“Hell”) and La Pólvora (“Gunpowder”) in the municipality of Melchor de Mencos, Petén department. On 12 January 1989, it was moved to the former headquarters of Military Zone 23, in Poptún, Petén.
According to the Ministry of Defence, the Kaibil Centre’s mission is to train and develop elite commando forces: “To select, by means of arduous, difficult training under physical and mental pressure, members of the army capable of engaging in commando operations.”
The Kaibiles are infamous for their practice of forcing recruits to bite the heads off live chickens.
Human Rights Issues
In February 1999, the Commission for Historical Clarification (Comisión para el Esclaracimiento Histórico, CEH), the truth and reconciliation body established under United Nations auspices by the 1996 Peace Accords that brought an end to the country’s 35-year-long Civil War, called attention to the brutalising nature of the training conducted by the Kaibil Centre in its final report, Guatemala: Memoria del silencio (“Guatemala: Memory of Silence”):
The substantiation of the degrading contents of the training of the Army’s special counter insurgency force, known as Kaibiles, has drawn the particular attention of the CEH. This training included killing animals and then eating them raw and drinking their blood in order to demonstrate courage. The extreme cruelty of these training methods, according to testimony available to the CEH, was then put into practice in a range of operations carried out by these troops, confirming one point of their decalogue: “The Kaibil is a killing machine.” (CEH, §42)
The Commission’s report documented examples of massacres of civilians by the Kaibiles, most notably the December 1982 Dos Erres massacre.
In December 1996, shortly before the signing of the Peace Accords, President Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen spoke of his intention to preserve the Kaibiles in peacetime but to rededicate them to another war: the war on narcotics and crime. Addressing a Kaibil graduation ceremony in Poptún, he said: “Now this new army of peace will face an enemy that perhaps is much more powerful than the one we faced for many years. We are talking of drug traffickers and criminals who want to corrode the country; they are better armed, equipped, and trained than the enemies we had to face in the past.” However, under the terms of the Peace Accords, the army was to have been restricted to defence from external attack, which would preclude involvement in the sort of domestic police actions proposed by President Arzú.
The Kaibiles’ record and reputation led the Roman Catholic Church’s Interdiocese Project for the Recovery of Historical Memory (Proyecto Interdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, REMHI) to recommend that the group be disbanded in its April 1998 report, “Guatemala: Never Again” (Guatemala: Nunca Más).
According to Jane’s Intelligence Review “The army has refused to disband the Special Forces Training and Operations Centre, housed at El Infierno, in the vicinity of Poptún, Petén.” In December 1998, Jane’s reported that there were three groups of Kaibiles, one consisting of instructors, and two consisting of 162 commandos apiece. Each group was divided into four 38-men platoons, further subdivided into squads of nine soldiers.
UN Peacekeeping Missions
Currently there are Kaibiles stationed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of the United Nations MONUC peace-keeping force. On 23 January 2006, eight Kaibiles were killed and five others were wounded during an ambush by guerrillas in Congo’s Garamba National Park. They were on a botched secret mission to try to capture or kill Vincent Otti, the deputy commander of Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).