Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities
Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Guatemala: Young Blood, Old Vices
Guatemala: Young Blood, Old Vices

Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities

To stem the violence that kills thousands of Guatemalans each year, the government must find the resources and will to carry out long-stalled reforms of the national police.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

The 25,000 members of the National Civil Police (PNC) are on the front lines of Guatemala’s battle against crime. But all too often citizens distrust and fear the police – widely dismissed as inefficient, corrupt and abusive – as much as the criminals. Underfunded, poorly trained and often outgunned, they are frequently incapable or unwilling to confront criminals and gain the public trust needed to build a state based on rule of law. Drug traffickers, including Mexican cartels, move at will across porous borders, while criminal gangs dominate many urban areas. The government of President Otto Pérez Molina must reboot and revitalise police reform, as part of an overall effort to strengthen justice and law enforcement, with financial support from the U.S. and other countries interested in preventing Guatemala from becoming a haven for organised crime. Progress has been made, but achievements are fragile and easily reversed.

Since the 1996 peace accords that ended 36 years of armed conflict, donors have poured tens of millions of dollars into police and justice sector reform. But despite these efforts, Guatemala, with its neighbours in the Northern Triangle of Central America, remains one of the most violent countries in the world. Governments have repeatedly promised reform, including the Pérez administration that took office in January 2012. The new president, a retired general, campaigned on the promise that his government would combat crime with an “iron fist”. Since then, he has deployed troops to help patrol high-crime areas, reinforced the military in border regions to fight drug trafficking and declared a state of siege to quell a local protest. He has also promised to strengthen the police by adding thousands of recruits, while restarting stalled efforts to overhaul the institution. The question is whether his government will be able to muster the resources and will to bolster institutional reform or will rely primarily on militarised crime-fighting operations that provide short-term gains without solving long-term problems.

Some projects may provide templates for broader institutional change. Certain investigative units have demonstrated that the police can – given the proper resources, training and supervision – solve complex crimes. The UN-spon­sored Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is providing training to both police and prosecutors. There are also encouraging developments within the area of preventive or community-oriented policing. In two municipalities outside Guatemala City, Villa Nueva and Mixco, activist mayors are trying to combat gangs and create stronger ties between the local communities and law enforcement. Those cities are also the location of two “model precincts”, supported by the U.S. government, which finances the vetting and training of police and supports programs designed to strengthen police-community collaboration.

But these efforts are dependent on the financial aid and political backing of donors. The initiatives in Villa Nueva and Mixco rely on local politicians whose successors may not share their commitment. It is unclear whether reform efforts have enough support within the PNC hierarchy to survive over the long term. Without strong and consistent backing from the national government, business, civil society and the international community, the lessons learned from these pilot projects may be lost before they can be perfected and replicated.

Compounding the difficulties reformers face is that change must take place following a decade of rising violence, much of it fuelled by organised crime, including Mexican drug cartels. High crime rates tend to overwhelm incremental progress, making it harder to resist calls for tough solutions that rely on the superior strength and discipline of the army. Using the army to fight crime, however, further demoralises and weakens the police, especially when the military’s role is poorly defined. This makes it harder in the long run to build the competent civilian forces needed to enforce the law under stable, democratic regimes.

There is no single, fail-safe formula for reshaping an institution as complex as the police. Nor do police exist in a vacuum; permanent change can only take place within broader efforts to battle corruption and favouritism within the justice system as a whole. Nonetheless, there are steps that the government, with international backing, should undertake to ensure that the PNC becomes a professional force capable of investigating and preventing the crime that threatens Guatemalan democracy.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 20 July 2012

Protesters shouts slogans and hold a sign which reads as "No more corrupt", during a demonstration against a political corruption scandal in downtown Guatemala City, on 25 April 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Guatemala: Young Blood, Old Vices

A year after the election of would-be reformer Jimmy Morales as president, corruption investigations are casting a shadow over his inner circle. Recent appointments bring youth and oxygen to his faltering administration, but much still stands in the way of political renewal.

Guatemala’s would-be reformist President Jimmy Morales won office by a landslide last year by using a simple but effective slogan: “not corrupt, nor a thief”. In one of Latin America’s most violent, unequal and impoverished countries, his election was part of an anti-corruption “tsunami” that began in April 2015, led by the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office (AG). The racket that emerged in April 2015 in the customs authorities claimed the scalps of high-ranking officials, sparked massive protests throughout the country, and eventually brought down the corruption-plagued administration of former President Otto Pérez Molina, who was jailed promptly after his resignation.

Pérez Molina’s former vice president, most of his cabinet, scores of politicians and many prominent businesspeople now face trial in connections to the customs fraud and a barrage of ensuing cases. As a result, Guatemala stands at a crossroads. Either it continues the unprecedented anti-corruption actions, or falls back into the vice-ridden past where illicit networks sought to embezzle, defraud, bribe and extort public money for private gain, with no adverse consequences.

The past year proved how emboldened institutions are now willing to use legal prosecution to disentangle the state and political parties from criminal groups. Guatemala’s capacity to bring to justice officials who had previously enjoyed complete impunity represented a unexpected revolution in national life. The country is still reeling from the shock of this change, and the outcome of this process is far from certain. “Justice doesn’t change states on its own, it just contributes to identify what ails them” warns CICIG commissioner, and centrepiece of the judicial campaign, Colombian investigative judge Iván Velásquez.

President Jimmy Morales, an outsider who gained fame as a TV comedian, broke with a relatively long tradition of Guatemalan politics in winning by 67.4 percent of the vote in the second round of the 2015 elections even though he was not the runner-up in the previous presidential contest, nor the greatest spender in the campaign. Manuel Baldizón, the candidate in question on both counts, fled the country after a poor showing in the first round, allegedly to escape the wrath of his many financial backers.

However, Morales is now struggling to differentiate his government from that of his predecessors. A new joint CICIG and AG investigation into corruption in the National Registry of Property (NRP) has enveloped Samuel “Sammy” Morales, the president’s older brother and a close adviser, and José Manuel Morales, his son. The two men allegedly presented an invoice in 2013 to the NRP for US$12,000 for an event that never took place. They are barred from leaving the country during the investigation.

The case illustrates the slow pace of change in Guatemala. While the modes and networks of corruption have been disturbed, structural conditions of poverty and inequality, as well as rates of violent crime, remain far above the global or Latin American average. Recent death threats against Attorney General Thelma Aldana and the judge handling the main corruption cases are the most sinister side of this anti-reform backlash: Aldana had to leave the country for a month, but the threats have reportedly continued since her return.

The Guatemalan Congress modified the electoral law in April 2016 and introduced stronger controls over financing of political parties. It also passed laws to strengthen the autonomy of the attorney general and create a much-delayed institute for victims of crime. But critics point out that the initiatives have been hastily patched together to assuage popular demands for reform, and are riddled with inconsistencies. They argue that more stringent rules are needed to ensure internal democracy within parties to prevent them from being controlled by strongmen, or to allow for start-up parties such as “Seed Group” (Grupo Semilla), “Justice Now” (Justicia Ya) and “We Are” (Somos) to get a foothold in the party system.

Even though many of these recent achievements are impressive, frustration has festered among many of the civil society groups that drove the anti-corruption mobilisation last year. Most of the lawmakers elected in 2015 conform to the traditional way of doing politics in Guatemala, described in a report published by CICIG as a system where “the money that comes from corruption [to finance political parties] is increased by resources contributed by criminal organisations, which achieve dangerous influence and, in certain localities, control over authorities”. Recent efforts by the president to secure control of Congress’ governing board have been sharply criticised for relying on deputies with shady pasts.

Evidently, President Morales has not become the anti-corruption crusader that many voters wished for. His anti-establishment stance still lacks a clear plan to clean up political life and to broaden the state’s measly provision of basic services. His effort to improve state finances by raising what are Latin America’s lowest tax rates was badly planned and rejected by most sectors of society. The shadow of the so-called military “juntita” – a clique of former army officers who came into power with him – hangs over his administration and undermines his credibility as a political outsider. His call on foreign states not to intervene in Guatemalan judicial matters, presumably under the advice of juntita members bitter at international support for cases against human rights violations during the armed conflict, has also been questioned by international bodies. Falling asleep during the presentation of the 2017 budget has not helped his public image.

However, a counter-reformist backlash is unlikely. The traditional powerful actors who dominated Guatemala’s post-conflict democracy and might seek a return to the old order have lost the initiative and lack an agenda. The army is no longer a preeminent political force, and would be very reluctant to join an anti-reform effort that would face fervent opposition from citizens and international opprobrium. Opposition from the private sector has also weakened. The head of the main business association and a former fortress of political power, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), recently pledged the private sector would continue to support the anti-corruption campaign, even if it harms its members. Another new constituency vocally supporting reform is an engaged and critical middle class making use of new outlets in cable television, online newspapers and radio.

Guatemala needs more than new faces in politics to right the wrongs of the old establishment.

At the same time, some of Morales’ high-level appointments have pumped oxygen into his faltering administration. One of them is Francisco Rivas, a lawyer who ascended through the ranks of the prosecution service leading investigations that produced the arrests of major drug traffickers – earning him the trust of the attorney general, the CICIG and U.S. security agencies. Rivas is now providing the operational back-up to their investigations, which was not always forthcoming in previous administrations.

Another fresh face is the current Health Minister Lucrecia Hernández, daughter of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist murdered by a military death squad in 1990 due to her work with communities displaced by the conflict. Hernández and her aunt, Helen Mack, have carried out a decades-long struggle for justice in the case and created the Myrna Mack Foundation, one of Guatemala’s leading human rights organisations. Waging a complicated battle against entrenched corruption in the health ministry, Hernández confronts an acute crisis of medical supplies in hospitals.

Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa, for his part, was allegedly blackballed by the military juntita and prevented from joining Rivas in the interior ministry, but has since become another member of Morales’young bloods after his appointment as chief of the Guatemalan Tax Bureau (SAT). He worked for thirteen years in the Attorney General’s Office, where he carried out investigations against street gangs and undertook the wiretap recordings that helped bring down the Pérez government. “Foppa” developed a reputation of fearlessness, and in his new role has taken on large firms formerly considered untouchable, such as the steel works “Aceros de Guatemala”, the soft drinks firm “Big Cola” and the drugstore chain “Farmacias Galeno”, which during his first three months in his job returned over US$110 million in unpaid taxes.

But Guatemala needs more than new faces in politics to right the wrongs of the old establishment. International backing is fundamental in this effort, and unless the Republican president-elect’s campaign against undocumented migration affects other areas of policy in Central America when he takes power in 2017, U.S. support seems reliably strong.

U.S. Priorities in the NTCA

In this video, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the Department of State Thomas A. Shannon discusses the U.S. priorities in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). YouTube/Casa de América

The U.S. remains the region’s geopolitical hegemon, and regards the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) as one of its national security priorities, largely due to the stream of migrants and refugees fleeing the region’s poverty and violence. Guatemala is exemplary in enjoying bipartisan U.S. support in its anti-corruption crusade and is a beneficiary of the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle of Central America, which will significantly increase cooperation funding.

Extraordinarily, the actions of the U.S. in Guatemala are regarded as welcome even by individuals personally harmed by its earlier Cold War interventions. The “holy trinity” of the U.S. embassy, the attorney general, and the CICIG, as certain wits brand it, has been fundamental to the high-level corruption cases and reform plans in the fields of justice, politics and the constitution as a whole. Allies of the U.S. government in Guatemala are also changing, as reflected by the absence of some of its usual political associates during independence day celebrations in July 2016: most of those present were less prominent civil society activists and academics.

The strengthening justice system, new initiatives for political reform processes and support from an activist citizenry and the international community provide President Morales with exceptional opportunities to turn his campaign slogan into the new identity of the Guatemalan state. If properly implemented, reforms to the electoral law and the subsequent constitutional amendments may go a long way to cleaning up politics, but the construction of a new political party system is a challenge that must be dealt with head on. Rules must be simplified so that new groups, composed primarily of young people, are able to participate. These new political actors should hopefully be able to overcome the divisions of the past and the injustices in Guatemala society. There is a long road to travel, but the journey has at least begun.