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Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities
Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Guatemala Stumbles in Central America’s Anti-corruption Fight
Guatemala Stumbles in Central America’s Anti-corruption Fight

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

Guatemalans march demanding the resignation of President Jimmy Morales and in support of the head of the CICIG, Colombian Ivan Velasquez, who is investigating corruption in the country, in front of the Culture Palace in Guatemala City, on 26 August 2017 Johan Ordonez/AFP

Guatemala Stumbles in Central America’s Anti-corruption Fight

Guatemala’s fight against corruption is in danger after President Morales attempted to expel the head of a uniquely effective UN-backed anti-corruption organisation. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Analyst for Guatemala Arturo Matute says a corrupt elite is waging a battle to maintain its privileged position.

What is happening in Guatemala?

A remarkable and hopeful two-year interlude in one of Central America’s most corrupt countries may now be ending.

The key reversal came on Friday 25 August 2017, at a meeting requested by Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales with UN Secretary-General António Guterres in New York. Morales signalled his intent to eject the head of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Iván Velásquez. Morales protested that Velásquez had interfered in Guatemalan politics by calling for constitutional reforms and by exploiting media coverage in legal proceedings. After returning to Guatemala he declared Velásquez persona non grata and ordered his expulsion from the country.

This represents a setback to the progress made toward rooting corruption out of Guatemala’s political system between 2015 and 2017, thanks to a combination of popular protests, a new president, a brave external judge and a groundswell of support for change in the growing educated middle class.

Guatemalans are still not ready to go back to the old ways. Two days later, on 27 August, the Constitutional Court – Guatemala’s highest court on constitutional issues – temporarily suspended President Morales’ order. Some members of the government resigned to protest Morales’ move, notably the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of health and most of their vice ministers. Demonstrators in support of Velásquez poured into squares in Guatemala City, while other sets of demonstrators voiced their support for Morales’ move against CICIG’s Commissioner. On 29 August, the Constitutional Court overturned the expulsion order.

Exactly what will happen next is unclear. In a social media posting on Monday 28 August, Guatemala’s president said that he will respect resolutions from judicial bodies. While the fact that he has adopted this position is welcome, it does not mean he will halt his efforts to ensure Velásquez departs the country and to curb CICIG’s influence.

Why has President Morales moved against CICIG?

CICIG – proposed by Guatemalan civil society, in operation since 2007, and acting through the attorney general’s office – has been steadfast in its fight against corruption in Guatemala. Central to CICIG’s recent success has been Velásquez, a courageous former judge with considerable experience dealing with political corruption in his native Colombia. Velásquez has moved CICIG away from a more general mission of fighting impunity toward a tightly-focused mandate of combating illegal money-producing schemes. It has spearheaded probes into political funding and corruption, resulting in almost two hundred defendants facing investigation and trial this year alone. Most are currently jailed on remand, including former President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti.

Corrupt traditional actors who have profited in the past from Guatemala’s rigged political system have campaigned relentlessly against CICIG. Morales was swept into office after the country experienced a wave of disgust at revelations of the depth and breadth of a high-level corruption scandal in 2015 that forced the previous incumbent, Pérez Molina, to resign. Since then he has come under considerable pressure from elements of Guatemala’s political and business elite to revise his initially supportive attitude toward CICIG’s agenda of reform and to oppose the anti-corruption campaign.

Morales had some success in treading a balanced line, but events last week altered his political calculus. On 25 August, the same day that Morales flew to New York, CICIG and the attorney general’s office formally presented a request to the Supreme Court to lift Morales’ presidential immunity, a necessary step before a final decision is made by Congress. They claimed there are sufficient grounds to investigate Morales for illicit financing of his 2015 presidential campaign, specifically $900,000 USD in unreported contributions. It was the first time in Morales’ presidency that CICIG had targeted the president himself, making clear to Morales that his political survival could be at risk. Rather than abiding by his previously balanced line, the president heeded the counsel from elements of the business and political elites and set out to defend his own endangered mandate by seeking Velásquez’s expulsion.

Why does the attempted expulsion of the head of CICIG matter?

The future of Guatemala’s corruption-fighting commission is closely tied to the country’s development as a democratic state. Since the 2015 corruption scandal, CICIG has capitalised on the political fallout from the previous government’s collapse. It has sought to bring about lasting change by backing proposals to reform the constitution and bolster the justice system’s independence.

But Guatemala has been ensnared in an ongoing political crisis between two camps. On one hand, there are social, political and business actors supporting CICIG’s efforts to strengthen Guatemala’s justice institutions. On the other hand, there is a traditional, conservative group of actors who seek to maintain their privileged position. They control ports and customs offices, have links to organised crime and are involved in illicit activities such as people smuggling and drug trafficking. They have wielded significant power and influence over various government institutions for many years.

CICIG’s work also has kindled discord in Guatemala’s foremost business elite group, the Coordinating Commission of Agricultural Commercial Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF). Within the organisation, which traditionally has presented a united public face and has been a powerful actor in Guatemala, younger industrialists and tradesmen who support CICIG’s anti-corruption agenda are pitted against others who seek to reduce the risk of their own prosecution. President Morales’ recent move to weaken the anti-corruption agenda will make it more difficult for the business organisation to maintain its unified position.

CICIG’s support to the justice system through technical advice and direct collaboration designed to reveal large corruption schemes has catalysed previously unthinkable modifications to Guatemala’s legal order.

CICIG’s support to the justice system through technical advice and direct collaboration designed to reveal large corruption schemes has catalysed previously unthinkable modifications to Guatemala’s legal order. The expulsion of its head would have represented a significant setback to the anti-corruption fight, validating claims that CICIG has exceeded its mandate when in reality it is robustly enforcing it. It might even have served as a stepping stone toward a “conservative restoration” – a return to the more corrupt mores of the past – in the country’s political system and damage the country’s favourable image in Latin America as a relative success story. Such an outcome would have reassured other regional leaders that they could continue to act with impunity and could fight back any effort to establish a CICIG-like entity in their country. Finally, it would have meant that even the most innovative tool of international cooperation to strengthen the rule of law in the form of CICIG is not strong enough to break a well-established corrupt system.

What are the next steps and potential risks?

The Constitutional Court’s provisional decision to block Velásquez’s expulsion is now definitive. The court’s final ruling found that the order violated the constitution because it was only signed by the president and not by all of his ministers. While some observers speculate that this merely was a temporary, face-saving measure approved by the UN and Morales to avoid a direct conflict, and that Velásquez will still eventually be removed, for now the president has had to back down.

This is good news. Although there is a risk that Morales might seek to assume more power in light of this crisis, this seems limited given the potential for judicial action against him and significant public opposition to his recent actions. Nor does Guatemala appear likely to experience a resumption of the state-sponsored violence that plagued it in the past. Both the minister of defence, General Williams Mancilla and government Spokesman Heinz Heimann have ruled out the imposition of a state of siege or punitive measures against those who had protested President Morales’ decision to expel Velásquez. That the minister of the interior, Francisco Rivas, a trusted former attorney, has remained in place suggests that heavy-handed methods can be avoided. The army, too, has been weakened in recent years and no longer is a decisive political actor.

That said, protests could well grow. For now, widespread turnout remains significantly short of the unprecedented level of mobilisation that was witnessed during the 2015 corruption scandal. However, should there be a future attempt to remove Velásquez or curb CICIG, this could trigger wider anger. Most importantly perhaps, it remains to be seen what Morales will now do to resist CICIG’s requests to lift his immunity from prosecution for illicit campaign financing.

What can the international community do?

The U.S. has important interests in Guatemala, frequently referred to by high-level U.S. officials as a significant national security concern. The European Union (EU) also has an interest in Guatemala. It has provided as much financial support to CICIG as the U.S. Both the EU and U.S. have made clear their opposition to Morales’ action, the EU through communiqués opposing Morales’ decision, the U.S. through the voice of its ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, as well as through various members of Congress. They, along with others, should continue to support Velásquez’s position but without a heavy-handed approach that would smack of interference. Facing such pressure, Morales may already have realised that he has committed a political error, and will need to devise less provocative strategies to avoid the threat of prosecution and a premature end to his presidency. He also will want to avoid overly alienating the U.S., given the risk of counter-measures from Washington, in particular a halt to its financial aid to the Northern Triangle area.

For the international community, CICIG is a unique case study in international support for the justice sector in a weak democracy. It remains to be seen if CICIG will be strong enough to stand up to the power of a national corrupt system under threat. Whatever happens, measures to clean up Guatemala’s system should emanate from Guatemalan institutions, not from obvious direct impositions by outside powers, and the international community should demonstrate its confidence in them and in the country’s citizens. Over the past decade, the CICIG has shown the capacity to act effectively, even if it is now threatened by those who stand to lose money and influence or who seek to justify the defence of their interests by denouncing foreign intervention in a sovereign state. That is an indicator in itself of CICIG’s success, which can and should be replicated in other Latin American countries.