Can Guatemala’s Military President Reform the Police?

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Six months into Otto Perez’s first year as president of Guatemala, a report from International Crisis Group asks if he will be able to carry out the much-needed police reform that eluded his predecessors.

Perez, a retired army general who fought in the civil war, won office on a promise to bring security to Guatemala. Central to his pledge to crack down on crime with an “iron fist” is an overhaul of the country’s underfunded and often corrupt police force. As Crisis Group points out in a new report, Perez’s advantage over his predecessors is that he has a higher chance of pushing through the tax reforms necessary to give the force proper funding. However, his deep ties with the armed forces could mean that he relies on the military for security, undermining the police.

This “temptation” to use the military to fight organized crime is a major obstacle to reforming the police, according to Crisis Group. It takes away the impetus for police reform, demoralizes officers, and uses up resources that could go to building up the civilian security forces. Given his background, Perez could be particularly susceptible to this temptation. As Crisis Group points out, this has made some skeptical of his commitment to police reform.

Perez has certainly increased the role of the armed forces in fighting crime since he took power. The day after his January 14 inauguration, he declared that the army would be tasked with combating “illegal armed groups,” cooperating with the other security institutions. Within a week he had deployed more than 700 soldiers to man 32 roadblocks across the country.

Later that month, the president announced the creation of two military brigades to combat drug trafficking and crime, with a total of 1,000 troops. One recently began operating in Peten province which borders Mexico, and the other, made up of military police, in San Juan Sacatepequez, near Guatemala City. In June, the government announced the creation of another two: a marine brigade to guard the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and an army brigade to operate in San Marcos province, location of most of the country’s heroin poppy, which will be dedicated to eradicating the crop.

There has been opposition to these new units, with residents of San Juan Sacatapequez taking to the streets to demand the brigade be withdrawn, complaining that they had not been consulted and did not want a permanent military presence in their neighborhood.

The creation of these new units, and Perez’s use of the military so far, has fed fears that the president will institute a militarized security strategy rather than promoting reform of the civilian police force. Crisis Group points out that Perez has also put military men in key roles, including the interior minister and his vice minister for security, the head of the National Security Council, the president’s private secretary, and the secretary for administrative and security affairs. Concerns about the growing militarization of security policy were fueled further when he declared a state of emergency in May to suppress riots in Santa Cruz Barrillas, a town close to the Mexican border, putting the army in charge for 18 days.

The report notes that Perez’s establishment of special investigative task forces could get in the way of police reform. Several of these units, which combine military officers, police and prosecutors, have been set up to focus on certain serious crimes, including femicide, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. The fear is that, again, these could provide short term results while getting in the way of longer-term efforts to strengthen civilian law enforcement.

Another of Perez’s security initiatives that is causing controversy is the creation of the Department of Criminal Investigation (Digicri). This police unit will be specialized in investigating crimes and will be part of the Interior Ministry, though it will be under the direction of the Public Ministry (the equivalent of the Attorney General’s Office). It has come under strong criticism from opposition politicians (including Lider and UNE), who are concerned that it constitutes an interference with the Public Ministry’s powers on the part of the executive. Its opponents have accused the government of trying to revive the Judicial Police, who were responsible for human rights violations under military rule in the 1980s.

Despite the concerns about militarization and heavy-handed tactics, as the report sets out, Perez is currently pushing through constitutional reforms that would designate the police as the body responsible for public security, and would limit the president’s ability to deploy the military domestically. This suggests that, for Perez, using the army in an internal policing role is a stop-gap solution, not an end point. As Crisis Group points out, some analysts say that, in order to have an immediate impact, Perez had “little choice but to use the military to fight crime, given police inefficiency and corruption.”

The danger is that this type of short-term fix could develop into a permanent role for for the armed forces. A similar phenomenon can be seen in Mexico, where President Felipe Calderon deployed the armed forces to fight criminal groups soon after he took office in December 2006. Their role in crime-fighting has only grown since then, and the military have substituted for entire local police forces in some parts of the country. Incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto has not made any firm commitment to withdraw the military from the streets of Mexico, making it seem likely that they could be there until the end of his term in 2018, and beyond.

Not only are the army less effective than police in an investigative role, their presence is often linked to increased human rights abuses. The presence of military forces keeping order takes the urgency out of police reform efforts, as analyst Alejandro Hope has commented in the Mexican context.

Perez’s proposals signal that, despite his ties to the armed forces, the president is aware of these shortcomings and is both willing and able to limit the power of the military. As Crisis Group puts it, “no one doubts that the Perez government controls the armed forces, not vice versa.”

According to Crisis Group, Perez is making progress in dealing with another serious obstacle to police reform — the low level of tax revenue collected by the Guatemalan state. This stands at about 10 percent of GDP, according to the report — significantly lower than other countries in the same income group, and than its neighbors. The report says that Perez is in a better position than his predecessors to carry out serious tax reform, because his party is stronger in Congress, and because the country is recovering from the 2008 financial crisis. In February, he passed a fiscal reform law that could raise revenue to 12 percent, collecting an additional $585 million over his four year term, according to the report.

Crisis Group calculates that some 65 percent of this revenue would be needed for Perez’s plan to add 10,000 new police officers in his time in office.

Perez is therefore in a strong position to carry out police reform, having brought about the long-awaited tax reform that is a prerequisite for strengthening the force. He has also shown his intention to limit the role of the armed forces in security, via his proposed constitutional reforms.

However, as Crisis Group points out, broader changes will be needed to bring security to Guatemala; “The [national police] does not exist in a vacuum: its problems and deficiencies reflect those of a country where the law has never applied to rich and poor, white, mixed or indigenous, alike.”

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