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Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities
Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala
Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity 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

People hold national flags as they take part in a demonstration in demand of Guatemalan President Otto Perez's resignation, in Guatemala City, on 22 August 2015. AFP/Johan Ordonez
Report 56 / Latin America & Caribbean

Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala

Dramatic changes upended Guatemalan politics in 2015. Forcing the pace were international prosecutors, bolstered in their fight against corruption and impunity by a great wave of support from ordinary citizens. If Guatemala’s national reforms continue when outside help leaves, it can become a true role model for the region.

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Executive Summary

Guatemala – one of Latin America’s most violent, unequal and impoverished countries – is enjoying a rare moment of opportunity. A new president, Jimmy Morales, bolstered by a landslide victory, has taken office promising to end corruption. The old political elite is in disarray. Emboldened citizens are pressing for reforms to make justice more effective and government more transparent. Behind these changes is a unique multilateral experiment, the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose investigators work with national prosecutors to dismantle criminal networks within the state. CICIG is not a permanent fix, however. Guatemala will lose its opportunity unless national leaders assume the fight against impunity as their own, approve stalled justice and security sector reforms and muster the financial resources to strengthen domestic institutions.

CICIG began operations in 2007 to investigate clandestine security groups that continued to operate within the state following the 1996 accords that ended 36 years of intermittent armed conflict. Such groups still undermine the state, though their main goal now is economic power, not elimination of political opponents. International support and financing guarantee the commission’s independence, though it operates under Guatemalan laws. Unlike traditional capacity-building efforts, it not only trains, but also works side by side with national prosecutors and police, providing them with the necessary technical expertise and political autonomy to hold powerful suspects accountable before the law.

CICIG has promoted and helped implement legislation to create a witness protection program, tighten gun controls, establish rules for court-ordered wiretaps and asset forfeiture and institute high-risk courts for the trial of particularly dangerous defendants. At the same time, it has carried out complex, high-profile probes that resulted in charges against a former president for embezzlement, an ex-minister and other top security officials for extrajudicial executions and dozens of additional officials and suspected drug traffickers for fraud, illicit association and homicide.

The commission has faced significant setbacks and limitations, however. Some high-profile cases have ended in acquittal. Key reforms, such as a judicial career law, have stalled in Congress. While it has helped strengthen certain specialised prosecutorial units, the public prosecutor’s office remains overstretched, even absent, in much of the country. Other institutions essential for combatting impunity – notably the civilian police and judiciary – are still weak, vulnerable to corruption and largely unaccountable.

The most dramatic blows it has delivered against impunity came in 2015 with the arrest of almost 200 officials for corruption, including a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud customs. Working with national prosecutors, CICIG collected and analysed massive amounts of evidence. The evidentiary trail, according to prosecutors, led to President Otto Pérez Molina, who resigned (though denying any criminal activity) and now awaits trial in a military prison.

Much of CICIG’s recent success is due to the determination and persistence of its current commissioner, Iván Velásquez, a jurist known for uncovering the links between politicians and paramilitary structures in his native Colombia. CICIG cannot function, however, without the close collaboration and support of Guatemalan prosecutors. Very different attorneys general – Claudia Paz y Paz, a former human rights activist, and Thelma Aldana, a veteran jurist – have shown the independence and courage to pursue complex, controversial cases against powerful suspects.

A crucial ingredient is popular support. Both the commission and public prosecutors enjoy wide approval among citizens exhausted by violent crime and corruption. The investigations spawned a broad civic movement for justice reform and government transparency. In a country long polarised by ideological, economic and ethnic differences, the anti-corruption crusade has at least temporarily united groups ranging from business associations to labour unions, urban professionals to indigenous leaders.

Anger over government fraud holds this movement together, rather than any clear agenda for change. Elected leaders should channel discontent into positive action by initiating a national debate on the reforms needed to strengthen justice and encourage accountability. Morales, a former television comedian, campaigned as the anti-politician. He has yet to put forward a clear reform program, including new legislation to guarantee the independence of judges and prosecutors, toughen campaign-financing laws and create honest, professional civilian police. Moreover, a weak, underfunded state needs to enact fiscal and tax reforms so that its justice institutions have the resources needed to pay good salaries, provide decent working conditions and extend their coverage across the country.

CICIG’s mandate ends in September 2017, though the president wisely has proposed extending it. International assistance cannot last indefinitely, however. The commission is Guatemala’s best opportunity for genuine justice reform, and it should not be wasted, but the government must start planning for its departure by fortifying its own capacity to fight crime and corruption.

Recommendations

To translate anticorruption promises into clear action plans and prepare for the time when CICIG is no longer needed

To the Guatemalan government:

  1. Promote, adopt and implement legislation and policies to further professionalise prosecutors and judges, including reform of the selection and recruitment process, longer terms to guarantee independence and new mechanisms to evaluate performance and curb corruption.
     
  2. Revive efforts to transform the civilian police into professional forces focused on preventing violence and to revamp its investigative body to work with prosecutors on resolving crimes, including the transfer of capacities and knowledge from CICIG.
     
  3. Give police, prosecutors and judges more resources to fight crime and impunity by carrying through tax and fiscal reform, including by challenging private sector leaders, economic experts and civil society to devise proposals for making taxing and spending more efficient, equitable and transparent.

To the Guatemalan Congress:

  1. Work across party lines and with the president and civil society to devise a strategy, including tax and fiscal reform, for combating corruption and strengthening justice and security institutions.
     
  2. Schedule promptly a final vote on the bill to reform political parties and tighten campaign-financing rules.
     
  3. Reconvene the working group on justice reform, bringing lawmakers together with CICIG, judges and civil society to propose and debate initiatives to strengthen judicial independence and competence, as well as whether or how to limit the prosecutorial immunity of members of Congress and other public officials.

To the Guatemalan judiciary:

  1. Provide additional training for judges at all levels on use of criminal analysis, scientific evidence and new prosecutorial tools, such as plea-bargaining with defendant/informants.
     
  2. Work with the president, Congress and civil society on the career law and other initiatives to make the judiciary more independent and professional.

To the Guatemalan Public Ministry (MP) and CICIG:

  1. Expand cooperation to transfer capacities to specialised prosecutors working on complex cases, such as those investigating organised crime, money laundering and human trafficking.
     
  2. Strengthen the MP’s internal affairs office to identify, sanction or remove officials guilty of misconduct.
     
  3. Work jointly on a strategy to build a professional corps of investigative police.
     
  4. Promote accountability within the MP and CICIG by devising measurable goals and benchmarks.

To the U.S., European Union and its member states and other donor states and institutions:

  1. Continue to provide CICIG with the resources needed to conclude its work, including additional funds for capacity building.
     
  2. Encourage other countries struggling with corruption and violence to consider an appropriate version of the CICIG international/national partnership model.

 Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 29 January 2016

Use our interactive timeline to explore the developments leading to CICIG’s creation, its impact and the dramatic events of 2015.