Guatemala Changes Army’s Role Amid Political Crisis

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Guatemala President Jimmy Morales’ announced reduction of the role of the military in citizen security matters looks like a brazen attempt to score political points and probably will not reduce corruption in the institution.

Morales recently announced that at the end of March the army will stop performing public security functions once and for all, according to news agency EFE.

The president also said that, starting in April, a total of 2,200 army officials will be sent to Guatemala’s borders and other strategic areas to combat drug trafficking, reported elPeriódico.

These changes are part of a project under way since last year through which domestic security will become the sole responsibility of the National Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC). In December 2017, the PNC graduated more than three thousand agents who will cover the positions once occupied by the military.

Changes in the army have also touched the institution’s higher ranks. On March 6, Erick Cano Zamora, a figure close to President Morales, stepped down from his post as chief of staff and was replaced by Julio César Paz Bone. A day later, 187 high- and middle-ranking officers stationed at the border areas were relieved from their duties, among them Colonel Fernando Álvarez Aguilar, who was in charge of combatting drug trafficking in the northern department of Petén.

Sources close to the army told elPeriódico that these changes are part of “an internal sweep at the military institution aimed at making the fight against drug trafficking more effective.”

Security policies have been an important area of focus for the Morales administration, especially in regard to combatting gangs and, now, drug trafficking. However, the president has brushed aside the issue of corruption that directly affects him, his family and his political allies.

InSight Crime Analysis

While the army’s return to its constitutional role of protecting the country from external threats rather than fighting crime in the streets may be a positive move, Morales’ announcement appears to have political ends because it is taking place when the president’s legitimacy is in question.

Morales has had a tense relationship with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), an independent body backed by the United Nations, and the Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Público – MP), after they requested his immunity be lifted in August 2017, so they could investigate possible illegal financing in his presidential campaign. On February 28, a group of civil society organizations and business elites founded the Citizen’s Front Against Corruption (Frente Ciudadano Contra la Corrupción) in support of the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office.

Outside Guatemala, Morales is facing scrutiny by the United States, which has also expressed support for the CICIG and the fight against corruption in Guatemala. The changes within the army and the purge of its top brass could be an attempt to appease the US government, given that they were announced just a week after a visit from Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations.

The possible reason why the president specifically chose the army as a tool to improve public opinion about his performance could be related to the close relationship the institution has with the current government.

According to an investigation by Plaza Pública, this relationship has been developing since Morales’ 2015 campaign, at least 37 percent of which was financed by military officials within his FCN-Nación party. To be sure, the party was founded by a group of ex-military officials in the Military Veterans Association of Guatemala (Asociación de Veteranos Militares de Guatemala).

                SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile

One of the party’s founders is Edgar Justino Valle Maldonado, who is currently being investigated for crimes against humanity during the armed conflict in Guatemala (1960-1996). He was also one of the main advisors and strategists during Morales’ campaign and the early years of his administration. As Nómada wrote in 2015, FCN-Nación can thank Valle for the party’s decision to promote Jimmy Morales for the presidency.

Another prominent former military official who has contributed funds to the Morales campaign and later became an advisor is Herber Armado Melgar Pandilla. Now a member of congress, he was also in charge of Morales’ security during the campaign. Currently up for debate is whether the relationship between the president and Melgar Padilla influenced Morales’ decision to promote his brother Erick Fernando Melgar Padilla to commander of the honor guard in December 2017, and his other brother, Manfred Alfredo, to Viceminister of Food Security. The Attorney General’s Office is now accusing Erick Fernando of tampering with the country’s justice system.

Such reports suggest that Morales came to power partly due to the backing he always had from military figures. It makes sense that the control he has over the army thanks to these connections would better enable him to make changes to the institution in an effort to show a commitment to the improvement of public security and the fight against corruption with little to no pushback. To wit, the army has not criticized any of the changes so far.

On the other hand, some of the commanders who have been dismissed, like Cano Zamora, belong to “the 108th Class” (“Promoción 108”), a controversial military academy graduating class. Erick Fernando Melgar Padilla belonged to the same military class, in addition to other figures such as Francisco Estuardo Arana Barrera, who is under arrest for aggravated robbery; Luis Alfonso Magaña Franco, who is charged with money laundering; and the infamous Byron Lima, who was known as the “prison king” before he was killed inside jail.

Even though Cano Zamora has not been charged with any crimes, the president’s actions can still be interpreted as a desperate attempt to show the public he is committed to removing the stains some members of Promoción 108 have left on the country’s military through their criminal activities.

              SEE ALSO: Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime

However, such organizational changes are unlikely to have any significant effects. Systematic corruption within the military also begs the question of whether positioning soldiers in border areas to combat drug trafficking will have a positive effect, or if it will simply make them an easy target for bribes by criminal groups.

In the  meantime, the army remains supportive of Morales, and several of its members will continue to have significant influence on the country’s politics.

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