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Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities
Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A​ ​Civic​ ​Awakening​ ​in​ ​Guatemala
A​ ​Civic​ ​Awakening​ ​in​ ​Guatemala

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.

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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

A​ ​Civic​ ​Awakening​ ​in​ ​Guatemala

Originally published in Miami Herald

Few countries have done more, more quickly to combat corruption than impoverished, violence-wracked Guatemala. In less than a year prosecutors have linked nearly 100 officials and business people to schemes that may have robbed the state of more than $120 million in customs revenues, while earning fortunes in kickbacks.

A sitting president and vice president, accused of masterminding the conspiracy, both resigned after losing immunity and now await trial in prison.

Perhaps most remarkably, Guatemala accomplished this without illegally ousting a government and reigniting bloody cycles of repression and rebellion. Citizens from across the political spectrum took to the streets in massive, non-violent demonstrations to demand the ouster of corrupt politicos and then took part in one of the country’s most peaceful recent elections to choose a political outsider — Jimmy Morales, a TV comedian — as president.

Has Guatemala turned a corner toward more effective, transparent governance? In a world where such civic awakenings have too often disintegrated into sectarian strife or reverted to authoritarian rule, no one should take the country’s transformation for granted. Moreover, the country has had unprecedented international help in combating corruption — a unique, U.N.-sponsored commission against impunity, known by its Spanish acronym as CICIG. 

CICIG is an internationally-financed investigative entity that is embedded within — and yet independent of — the domestic justice system. Unlike international tribunals, it relies on national courts. Unlike most capacity-building efforts, CICIG not only trains national prosecutors and police, it also works side by side with them to hold dangerous or powerful suspects accountable before the law. Its success has inspired plans to install a similar entity in Honduras, sponsored by the Organization of American States.

But CICIG is also a crutch. Although leading politicians say they support its mission, including president-elect Morales, it is far from clear whether Guatemala can continue to combat political and institutional corruption or abuse without international help.

CICIG has accomplished more than might have been expected when it started operations in 2007 in an attempt to salvage human rights and security agreements included within the U.N.-brokered peace agreements that ended 36-years of intermittent civil war in 1996. At the time, Guatemalan prosecutors who had the will simply lacked the way to uncover and dismantle powerful criminal syndicates. There was no legal procedure allowing investigators to wire-tap suspects (though intelligence services eavesdropped without restraint). Nor could prosecutors bargain with low-level defendants, encouraging them to inform on upper echelons, or go after illegally-acquired wealth through asset forfeiture procedures.

CICIG-promoted laws now provide Guatemala’s justice with these and other essential investigative tools. Perhaps most importantly, CICIG has shielded prosecutors from the political pressures that once smothered controversial cases before they ever reached trial.

Under the leadership of Iván Velásquez, a Colombian jurist known for uncovering the links between politicians, traffickers and paramilitary forces, CICIG and the public prosecutors’ office enjoy high approval ratings among citizens exhausted by crime and corruption. In a traditionally polarized country, the fight against impunity has won applause from business associations to labor unions, from urban professionals to indigenous leaders.

But prosecuting allegedly crooked officials with international help is the easy part. To sustain progress, Congress needs to pass additional reforms, including crucial legislation to make judges and prosecutors more independent. Most importantly a government with one of the region’s lowest rates of tax collection, must demonstrate its commitment to rule of law by paying for it. It cannot continue to rely on international donors to foot the bill.

Guatemalan voters chose President-elect Morales based on what he is against: “Not corrupt, not a thief” was his campaign slogan. To demonstrate that he is not just anti-corruption but pro-justice, he will need to make hard political and financial choices, ideally in alliance with CICIG and the peaceful but determined citizens who want more honest and effective government.