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Jan 2, 2013 | Commentary

President Pérez Molina’s first year in office has produced mixed results. The President’s administration has enjoyed some modest successes on the economic and social front but has suffered a series of disappointments and setbacks to Guatemala’s most important challenge ­– improving governance and security.

Pérez Molina made important progress on the economic front with the passing fiscal reform in Congress, a major step in restructuring Guatemala’s tax and financial regime. The creation of the new Ministry of Social Development has provided an institutional framework for enhanced social programming for the first time in Guatemala. The “Zero Hunger” program is an important initiative aimed at reducing poverty and the First Lady, Rosa Leal de Pérez, has led an energetic interagency effort to get the program underway in rural Guatemala.

There are fewer successes to report on the governance and security side. President Pérez Molina’s early proposal to legalize narcotics got him off on the wrong foot with Washington and led many to question his motives, creating an early “credibility gap” with his administration. This initiative reflected an unrealistic view of the narcotrafficking problem in the region, including a misunderstanding of the importance of this issue for the United States. A more informed policy would have sought an agreement with the US that narcotrafficking – and organized crime in general – are common problems that require cooperation and joint action between Guatemala and the US.

Moreover, the October 4, 2012 shooting of protestors in Totonicapan revived the still traumatic memories of the long Guatemalan armed internal conflict. This incident demonstrated that Guatemala has a long way to go when it comes to managing internal security. While Pérez Molina’s use of specialized army units, like the Kaibiles, to combat the narcotraffickers and other organized crime is understandable on one level, the administration’s failure to launch real security sector reform is a major shortcoming to date. What Guatemala desperately needs is a thorough reform and restructuring of the police and the justice sector to provide for true citizen security in the country. Although some advances have been made on police-prosecutor cooperation, especially in combating gangs, the government has adopted a piecemeal approach to improving this critical relationship and to enhancing security in Guatemala in general.

The US has been complicit in this “band aid” approach to Guatemalan security through its funding of bits and pieces of the problem instead of overall reform. What Guatemala needs is a top-to-bottom police reform that produces a modern civilian national police force, steeped in modern policing concepts such as community policing and respect for human rights. An effective national civilian police force will obviate the need for the army’s involvement in internal security. Without this institutional basis for restoring security in Guatemala, the country will continue to struggle with lawlessness, corruption and societal divisiveness. While genuine police reform will take time, Guatemala must make this long overdue investment now.


Ambassador Donald Planty is a Senior Associate at the Security Governance Group and was the US Ambassador to Guatemala from 1996 – 1999.