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Feb 11, 2013 | Commentary

Wracked by violence and poverty, the political and economic reforms that have brought relative prosperity and liberal governance across Latin America seem, until recently, to have bypassed Guatemala. This was not due to lack of international attention. In fact, despite the tens of millions of dollars that donors have invested in the justice and security sectors, real positive change across most of the public sector and the economy appeared elusive. However, as recent events indicate, it appears that change consistent with good governance and support for human rights could be taking hold in Guatemala.

Recently highlighted in the The Economist, Guatemala has faced its myriad of concerns with demonstrable success, most notably in the justice and security sectors. Although capital crimes still place Guatemala among the most violent states in the world, there has been a marked decrease in murders.  This is due to domestic and international efforts to combat violence.  Most notably among institutional changes is the development of a forensics capacity and an anti-corruption unit — an increase in prosecutorial capacity and a commitment to investigate allegations of human rights abuses.  As Kirsten Weld noted in her recent New York Times op-ed, “A Chance at Justice in Guatemala,” a Guatemalan judge made history after approving the trial of Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide, making Guatemala the first Latin American country to prosecute a former head of state through indigenous courts for such capital offenses.

Furthermore, even from the July 2012 International Crisis Group’s report “Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities” there appears to be demonstrable progress.  Having said this, there is still much that needs to be accomplished.  For example, the overall picture still clearly points to the extant need for further reforms to key institutions, such as the police, where fear and mistrust are prominent and often fueled by the pernicious influences of the illicit drug trade dominated by the Mexican cartels.  While concerns such as these are unlikely to be tackled overnight, Guatemala does nonetheless bolster some key observations for the wider security and justice reform efforts going forward:

  •  The importance of institutions. Well-constructed institutions in Guatemala, with adequate staffing, training  and budgets can go a long way to shaping internal behavioral expectations, as well as providing a tangible output including increases in professionalization and service delivery.
  • Elite commitment. President Otto Perez Molina’s (a former general himself) commitment to continued reform, as he professes, demonstrates the need for top-level support.
  • Proximity. No country operates in a vacuum, and its “neighborhood” matters. From the negative influences of the criminal networks to the positive effects from spread of political liberalism, the success of continued reforms clearly lies in part on regional influences.
  • The role of the international community. From United Nations programs to combat corruption and the European Union’s efforts to professionalize the police, to the United State’s role in promoting judicial systems, it is evident that external assistance does have an impact.

Guatemala is clearly at a juncture, where today’s actions will make the critical difference in the direction the country takes.  However, if recent events within the justice and security sectors are emblematic of a wider commitment to reform, Guatemala may finally be heading down the right path.


Joseph Derdzinski is a member of the Security Governance Group Expert Roster. He is a senior international development consultant, a visiting professor of political science, and an active member of organizations that promote the care of persons with developmental disabilities. Joseph was a US Air Force officer, retiring after 22 years, with half of his career as a special agent in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations and the latter half as an associate professor of political science and a senior faculty member at the United States Air Force Academy.