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Jul 15, 2010 | Commentary

Although its civil war ended in 1996, Guatemala has remained one of Latin America’s most dangerous countries, with levels of violent crime even higher than during the war itself.  Drug Traffickers, gangs, and corrupt security forces have benefitted from a pervasive culture of impunity that has resulted from governance failures and widespread fear among the population.  A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report, Guatemala: Squeezed between Crime and Impunity examines how Guatemala’s SSR efforts have failed, and what should be done to get the process back on track.

Guatemala’s civil war, which saw the government battling a coalition of leftist rebels, was in many ways similar to the others which occurred in Latin America throughout the 20thcentury.  The security apparatus had a stranglehold on the state, economic development was poor or non-existent, and assassinations, disappearances, and massacres were common.  The violence left a legacy of fear and distrust, as well as a weak civil society whose leaders either fled or were assassinated during the civil war.  A post-conflict truth commission was established, and while it condemned the government’s actions, it had no ability to name perpetuators or prosecute them.  A series of politically weak post-conflict presidents have stymied attempts at police and military reform, and the security forces have not been held accountable for their actions.

The ICG report identifies three main problems plaguing efforts at SSR reform, the security apparatus (police and military), local gangs, and international drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).  Despite the end of the civil war, the security sector has remained politically powerful and has blocked major reform.  Despite making police reform a crucial aspect of the peace accords, the “new” police force has mostly consisted of old officers, due to sped up training and vetting.  Members of the police forces have been identified as selling their services on an ad-hoc basic, and have been involved with drug trafficking, robbery, extortion, and assassinations.  Despite this there is little internal investigation, and most officers accused of crimes are simply transferred rather than investigated.  Much of the public claimed to no longer report police crimes, seeing it as ineffectual and inviting reprisal.

Gangs and DTOs are also a serious problem and, due to the criminality of the police, form a complex and interrelated criminal sector.  Attempts to imprison gang members in response to a rising homicide rate were ineffectual, and had the perverse consequence of allowing gangs to take control of much of the country’s prisons.  Gangs continue to run their operations from inside prisons, and now control much of the local drug trade and run extortion rings.  The local gangs are inexorably linked with the international DTOs increasingly using Guatemala as a transit hub.  Worryingly, cartel conflicts in Mexico have frequently spilled over into Guatemala, and wars over transit routes are becoming more common.  The DTOs have also achieved an impressive penetration into the security apparatus and judiciary.  After the civil war, and subsequent paring down of the military, many former officers joined the cartels but maintained their old government connections, and corruption of court officials is reported to sometimes date back to before they became lawyers, with the cartels paying for law school in order to establish indebtedness.

Efforts to reverse the slide of Guatemala’s SSR reform have been mixed at best.  While there are fewer attacks on human rights workers or opposition figures, levels of violent crime are still staggeringly high.  As well, while there have been several successful prosecutions of high-level police and political figures, mid-level corruption remains endemic. And although American assistance has increased the technical sophistication of the security services, the US has been criticized for focusing on policing while ignoring prevention.

The lead international organization in Guatemala has been the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose mandate expires in September 2011, leaving the future uncertain.  The CICIG has experienced a number of high-level successes (including the unravelling of a complex and bizarre assassination plot), yet it has stretched itself thin trying to track and document the broad spectrum of organized criminal activity.  The presence of the CICIG has also rendered Guatemala in many ways dependent on international investigators.  Local police lack the legal and physical protection afforded by CICIG employees and lack their training and sophistication in intelligence gathering.  It is uncertain that local security forces are prepared to take over the CICIG’s role after September 2011 risking the potential of backsliding even further.  As long as corruption remains endemic and the culture of impunity persists, the potential exists for Guatemala to descend into a narco-state with disastrous consequences for both the local population and regional stability.  The ICG makes several recommendations to reverse Guatemala’s slide:

  • Prioritize Police and Military reform
  • Ensure proper vetting and financial disclosure of high-level government officials
  • Advance regional co-operation with the Central American and Andean states to pursue co-ordinated anti-DTO strategies
  • Expand the CICIG’s mandate past September 2011, widen its role to specifically address crime and corruption, and increase political and financial support
  • Increase support for the institution-building process to facilitate eventual handover of CICIG functions to the Guatemalan state