Los Kaibiles: Guatemala’s Special Operations Forces


    1.0 Introduction

    The Kaibiles (singular kaibil) are the special operations wing of the Guatemalan Army. Created in 1974, they earned a reputation as one of the toughest and most effective special forces in Latin America.

    They receive highly specialized training in combat techniques, survival, and special operations in difficult terrains such as the jungle and mountains. Various countries, including the United States, have trained the Kaibiles, and they have participated in several national and international missions.

    The Kaibiles motto is “Si avanzo, sígueme. Si me detengo, aprémiame. Si retrocedo, mátame”. This translates to “If I advance, follow me. If I stop, urge me on. If I retreat, kill me”. The Kaibiles’ motto was inspired by French insurrectionist Henri de la Rochejaquelein (source).

    The emblem consists of a blazing sword whose grip has five notches, signifying the five alert senses of the soldier. The rope dividing the shield symbolises ground operations. The black colour symbolises the silence in which the kaibil performs combat and also night operations. The blue colour at the top symbolises air, sea and daytime operations (source).

    Kaibiles Insignia

    Kaibiles Insignia.

    2.0 History of the Kaibiles

    2.1 The Origin of the Kaibiles

    Its origins go back to the creation of the Escuela de Comandos (Commando School). It was later transformed into the Escuela de Adiestramiento y Operaciones Especiales de Guatemala (Guatemalan School of Training and Special Operations). On the 5th of December 1974, the then Infantry Major Pablo Nuila Hub proposed to the Ministry of National Defence to create commando-style training. This was to confront the deactivated Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and founded it. Initially, they housed the Kaibil Centre on two estates in the municipality of Melchor de Mencos, Petén department. They called them El Infierno (“Hell”) and La Pólvora (“Gunpowder”) (source).

    On January 12, 1989, they were relocated to the former Military Zone 23 headquarters in Poptún, Petén (source). In 1990, on orders from the Guatemalan Ministry of Defence, the commando school changed its name to the Centro de Adiestramiento y Operaciones Especiales Kaibil (Kaibil Special Operations Training Centre), or “Kaibil” School. The purpose of this was to reorganise the two rifle companies as a “Special Forces Grouping”. Their mission was to conduct strategic and tactical special operations for short periods. And to also support the operations of regular forces. The name Kaibil honours Kayb’il B’alam (Kaibil Balam). He was a Mam indigenous leader in the Mayan empire who fought against the Spanish troops (source).

    US Marines train with Guatemala Kaibil Special Forces in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala.

    2.2 Kaibiles: A New Purpose

    In December 1996, shortly before the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the Guatemalan Civil War, President Álvaro Arzú spoke of his intention to preserve the Kaibiles in peacetime. The objective was to rededicate them to the war on narcotics and crime.

    On 19 May 2003, they renamed the “Kaibil” Special Operations and Training Centre to Comando de Fuerzas Especiales Kaibil (Kaibil Special Forces Command). They renamed it again in July 2004 to Brigada de Fuerzas Especiales (Special Forces Brigade). In 2008, they transferred the brigade to the municipality of Puerto Barrios, department of Izabal, occupying the former Military Zone 6. This was part of the strategy to confront the threats posed by transnational organised crime.

    In 2013, the Special Forces Brigade returned to its facilities in the municipality of Poptún, department of Petén. They renamed the brigade the Special Forces Brigade “Brigadier General Pablo Niula Hub”, to honour the founder of the Kaibil course (source).

    From 2007 to 2010, officers from US special troops, Green Berets, trained Guatemalan Kaibiles as part of an agreement between the two countries. The training began with counter-terrorism, followed by small unit combat and finally counter-narcotics. The exercises included aerial assault operations, sniper training and the use of explosives for surprise attacks.

    The soldiers of the Kaibiles unit wear maroon berets, which distinguishes them from the berets worn by regular troops.

    Guatemalan Army Special Forces soldiers or “Kaibiles” hold their national colours along with U.S. Marines at Poptun Training Camp in Poptun, Guatemala.

    2.3 Guatemalan Civil War

    The Kaibiles are notorious for committing human rights atrocities during Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war. The Kaibiles committed numerous massacres, widespread rape, and acts of genocide against Guatemala’s indigenous population during this time (source).

    On December 5, 1982, during the de facto administration of Ríos Montt, a unit of Kaibiles massacred the inhabitants of Dos Erres, Libertad, Petén (source).

    2.4 Kaibiles and Criminal Activity

    According to reports, criminal groups in Central America, including drug trafficking organisations, recruited former Kaibiles. Due to their expertise, these former Kaibiles are considered to be valuable assets to such criminal groups (source).

    Reports indicate that some ex-Kaibiles have established connections with the mercenary group Los Zetas (source).

    In 1999, Los Zetas originated as a faction of Mexican paratroopers and intelligence agents who defected from the Special Air Mobile Force Group (GAFE). The Gulf Cartel then employed them as enforcers for their drug trafficking operations (source). 

    In September 2005, they captured four former Kaibiles who were in the service of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, led by Joaquín Guzmán Loera “El Chapo”. The Guatemalan ex-military men confessed to being in the service of Mexican drug cartels (source).

    In August 2006, authorities apprehended former members of the Kaibiles for collaborating with drug traffickers in Chiapas, Mexico.

    In May 2011, authorities accused an ex-Kaibil of leading and participating in the slaughter of 27 agricultural labourers in Northern Guatemala. Then in January 2012, an army spokesperson revealed the arrest of 14 to 16 former Kaibiles who were connected to “Los Zetas” (sources).

    3.0 The Mission of the Kaibiles

    The original mission of the Kaibiles was to serve as an anti-guerrilla and counter-insurgency unit. Nowadays this elite special operations force is mainly responsible for conducting high-risk missions. For example anti-terrorism and anti-narcotics operations, and hostage rescue operations.

    They receive training to operate in extreme conditions and difficult terrain. They use unconventional tactics and specialized skills to accomplish their objectives. Additionally, the Kaibiles are renowned for their expertise in jungle warfare and survival. This makes them a valuable asset in situations where traditional military operations may not be feasible.

    Kaibil special forces on a training mission in Poptún.

    In addition to special operations, the Kailibes mission involves participating in peace operations within the framework of the UN, conducting operations in support of civilian security forces in the field of public security throughout the country, training special military units and contributing to the training of regular units (source).

    4.0 The Organisation of the Kaibiles

    The official name of the Kaibiles is Brigada de Fuerzas Especiales “General de Brigada Pablo Nuila Hub” (Special Forces Brigade “Brigadier General Pablo Nuila Hub”). This brigade includes the Special Forces Battalion, the Special Interdiction and Rescue Battalion (GEIR), the Kaibil School, the Professional Parachutist School and the Sniper School. 

    Logotipo, Icono

Descripción generada automáticamente
    Coat of arms of the Brigada de Fuerzas Especiales “General de Brigada Pablo Nuila Hub”

    This brigade is independent of the seven existing infantry brigades in the Guatemalan army. It is under the operational control of the National Defence Staff, which in turn reports to the Ministry of National Defence (source).

    5.0 Training of the Kaibiles

    Video showing the training of the Kaibiles. Credits: Diario de Centro América.

    Candidates choose to enrol in the Kaibil program. They first must undergo a series of physical and psychological evaluations before admission. The training program occurs twice a year and lasts for 60 days. It has a maximum of 64 trainees per cycle who cannot be older than 28 years of age. Typically, no more than ten individuals graduate from a single training period. Occasionally, the program may choose foreign military personnel to participate. Barely 10% of those who participate graduate (source).

    The Kaibiles receive their training at a military academy situated in northern Guatemala’s Poptún region. This facility is known as the Kaibil Training and Special Operations Centre. It is located 415 kilometres away from the country’s capital and is invitation-only for army personnel. The unit subjects its members to eight weeks of survival instruction under challenging circumstances (source).

    5.1 The Kaibil Course

    The course to become a kaibil comprises three stages: the first stage lasts 21 days of theoretical instruction and practical training in which they measure the degree of military spirit and the moral level of the aspirant. 

    Kaibiles, and Special Forces teams from 18 nations march in formation during the opening ceremony “Fuerzas Comando 2010”.

    The second stage takes place in the jungle for 28 days and at the end of the severe training, the kaibil must know how to act skilfully in irregular warfare. Some activities include:

    • Jungle warfare.
    • Demolition, detection and deactivation of landmines.
    • Scuba diving.
    • Waterborne operations.
    • Construction of improvised training.
    • Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training.
    • Basic airmobile techniques.
    • Small-unit patrols.
    • React to contact.
    • Ambush training. 

    During the last stage of training, the aspiring Kaibil learns to eat “anything that moves,” including snakes, ants, and roots, as well as how to catch water from dew on leaves. They must carry out annihilation attacks, intelligence manoeuvres, penetrations into enemy territory and resupply. 

    Throughout their training, a “cuaz” (meaning “brother” in Q’eqchi’) is assigned to each soldier, with whom they share all aspects of their training. They eat, sleep, and work together, and both soldiers are equally punished for any mistakes made by one (source).

    5.2 Capabilities of the Kaibiles

    Overall, the commandos receive comprehensive instruction in a variety of areas, including the following:

    • Guerrilla warfare.
    • Counter-guerrilla tactics.
    • Military conduct.
    • Map interpretation.
    • Psychological conditioning.
    • Military intelligence, and counter-intelligence. 
    • A unique hand-to-hand combat technique called Temv-K’a (meaning “Hands of Storm”).
    • Communication methods.
    • Survival skills.
    • Obstacle courses.
    • Military hiking.
    • Specialised weaponry.
    • Emergency medical procedures. 

    (Source), (source)

    5.3 Cooperation with Other Countries

    US Marines and Kaibiles during joint exercises.

    The US provided training to the Kaibiles in counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare before, during, and after Guatemala’s 36-year genocide. The first instructors of Kaibil training were US Rangers. Over time the course took on the nuances of Guatemalan military training. 

    From 1999 to 2010, the US provided training to 3,555 Guatemalan soldiers, including many Kaibiles, through WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and other programs (source). The Kaibiles also train with Mexican commandos like the GAFE, and the Airborne Special Forces Group (source). Since 1975, more than 1250 Kaibiles have graduated from the 8-week international Kaibil course. Most of the graduates are Guatemalan soldiers (85%) but also foreign soldiers from various countries such as the USA, Chile, China, Spain, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Honduras (source).

    6.0 Notable Operations

    The Kaibiles were very active during the Guatemalan civil war. During this period they were accused of human rights violations. In recent years they have focused on hostage rescue and anti-narcotics operations. These operations remain secret given their sensitive nature. They have also participated in peace missions.

    6.1 United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 

    Currently, the Kaibiles are deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) (source). There are currently 150 Kaibiles deployed in the mission (source).

    Kaibiles serving as UN peacekeepers as part of MONUSCO in the Congo.

    An interesting episode occurred on 23 January 2006, during a mission carried out by the Kaibiles in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    In an ambush, members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) killed 8 kaibiles, while another 5 were wounded. It is estimated that the kaibiles neutralized 50 members of the LRA during the confrontation (source).

    6.2 United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti

    Military police participated in the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) mission, which included the deployment of the Kaibiles. However, it is unclear whether the Kaibiles were specifically sent to Haiti or if they were part of a larger Guatemalan military contingent (source). 

    6.3 Masacre de las Dos Erres

    In 1982, the Kaibiles participated in a mass killing known as the Dos Erres massacre during the Guatemalan Civil War. On December 6 of that year, a unit of the Kaibil Special Forces Command entered the village of Dos Erres in search of guerrilla fighters. The soldiers separated the men from the rest of the group and proceeded to torture and kill them. The women and children were raped and murdered over the next two days (source).

    Over 200 people died in the massacre, and the perpetrators either threw their bodies into a well or buried them in mass graves. The incident remained unknown for several years until someone uncovered it (source).

    In 2011, a court convicted four former Kaibiles for their involvement in the massacre. They received a total of over 6,000 years in prison as their sentence (source). In March 2012, the court sentenced another former Kaibil, Pedro Pimentel Ríos, to 6,060 years in prison (source).

    7.0 Conclusion

    The history of the Kaibiles demonstrates that they are a highly trained, efficient, and lethal elite unit. The tough training and conditions its members go through make this unit ideal for irregular and jungle combat. It is no wonder that senior military commanders, even in the United States, consider them best suited for the most difficult tasks. However, many consider the Kaibil unit to be controversial and problematic due to its human rights record and historical use.

    Nevertheless, given the danger posed by drug trafficking in the area, as well as the difficult geography of the country, such a unit is useful to the army. Given the importance placed on them by the Guatemalan and US  governments, the Kaibiles will continue to be an integral part of the fight against drug trafficking in Guatemala for the foreseeable future.

    Javier Sutil Toledano
    Javier Sutil Toledano
    Javier is an Intelligence Analyst specialising in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. He graduated in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, with a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. He recently graduated from an International Master's Degree in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies.

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