Members of Guatemala's PNC

A new report from a US researcher examines the performance of Guatemala's national police force, finding that despite a years-long boost in budgetary resources, the body is underperforming amid an enduring wave of violence.

The report, titled "How are police doing in combating crime? An exploratory study of efficiency analysis of the Policia Nacional Civil in Guatemala," was written by Erik Alda, a PhD candidate in the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University.

The issue of how Guatemala's National Police (PNC) are performing is of vital importance, for interrelated reasons including: the lingering legacy of widespread state-sanctioned violence during the country's civil war, years of increasing bloodshed stemming from organized crime, and the incursion of Mexican gangs such as the Zetas. Against such a catalog of challenges, Guatemala will be unable to move forward without improving its police capacity.

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Alda reports at the beginning of his study that if spending is any measure, this capacity should have vastly improved since the force was created in 1997. He states: "the Guatemalan government has invested more than 20 billion Quetzales [$2.5 billion] since 2000 to maintain and strengthen the PNC, an average increase of 15 percent annually."

However, for most of this period, homicide rates increased essentially in tandem with budget allocations for the PNC. Despite two years of decline, the murder rate in 2011 (the most current year measured in Alda's study) was 57 percent higher than in 2000 (see graph from the study below). The reasons for this discrepancy are the focus of the report.

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InSight Crime Analysis

One problem the report flags is that despite the increased spending, the PNC is still too small relative to the size of the population. The UN recommends that a country employ at least 222 police officers for every 100,000 residents. Accoring to the report, he PNC currently boasts manpower of 14,000 officers, which gives it 162 police per 100,000 residents, one of the region's lowest police to civilian ratios. (Other sources indicate that the PNC actually has 30,000 officers in service, which would give it 194 police per 100,000 residents.)

Regardless of these numerical deficiencies, though, the police in service are not performing up to par. Alda employs a series of data envelopment analysis tests to measure the PNC's results in Guatemala's 22 departments. Such tests attach a numerical score to a series of inputs and outputs that serve as proxies for police performance, from the homicide clearance rate to the number of police cars. Alda found a sufficient performance from the PNC in only four of Guatemala's 22 provinces. In the remaining 18, Alda deemed the PNC's results insufficient.

The report flags a number of reasons for these poor scores. One is that increased investment in the PNC was not done in a well-planned, targeted manner, nor was it coupled with cost reductions in other areas. As a result, much of the increased spending did little to improve results in the PNC or contribute to a safer Guatemala.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

The report settles on three major factors limiting the PNC: the lack of operational capacity, especially with regard to carrying investigations to their conclusion; the quantity of PNC resources not allocated to activities directly aimed at lowering crime rates; and the variety of external factors complicating the environment in which the PNC operates, such as the broader population's level of education, unemployment, inequality, and other socioeconomic barriers. Alda also notes the lack of continuity in the PNC leadership and the agency that houses it, the Interior Ministry, as a further factor limiting police development.

Like other recent studies of government anti-crime programs in other countries, this report shows that massive spending increases may be necessary, but they alone are not sufficient to increase institutional capacity, much less improve conditions in violence-riddled regions and cities.

Latin America-watchers in the US typically call for more attention to insecurity from the US government, which often translates into more security aid. This was essentially the pattern with the Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia. However, while a couple years of US aid could perhaps deliver some marginal improvement in the PNC's investigative capacity, the barriers to a more effective national police force are largely unresponsive to cash -- especially cash delivered from a foreign power operating according to its own interests and perceptions.

Furthermore, US aid often tends to be concentrated in areas where it can deliver a significant result in a short time with minimum manpower committed. This was the dynamic behind the focus on helicopters in the original incarnation of the Merida Initiative, despite the fact that helicopters did little to address the causes of violence in Mexico.

As in much of Latin America, the factors driving insecurity in Guatemala are firmly entrenched. There is no shortcut to political stability and continuity among top policymakers. The socioeconomic factors complicating police operations are not going away anytime soon. Recent improvements in the Guatemalan crime rate are encouraging, but the task remains daunting.