Top 3 Security Challenges Awaiting Guatemala’s President-Elect

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Alejandro Giammattei, a 63-year-old doctor linked to Guatemala’s right-wing elite, became the country’s president almost by surprise.

After starting low in the polls, Giammattei became president-elect after certain more popular candidates were prevented from running and the fact that right-wing voters had no real alternatives. He now faces a highly complicated security panorama, primarily regarding impunity, corruption and the country’s ever-present gangs.

But the complications begin with Giammattei himself. 

One of the darkest parts of Giammattei’s story began between 2005 and 2006, when he was the director of Guatemala’s penitentiary system. At that time, during the administration of former president Óscar Berger, two massacres occurred in the country’s prisons in which seven inmates were killed. 

In 2010, the Attorney General’s Office and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala — CICIG) pursued a case in which various members of the Berger administration were accused of participating in extrajudicial killings. Giammattei was among those accused. He spent 10 months in prison, but was eventually acquitted. 

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile

The president-elect’s resume casts doubt on the public security policies that his administration may enact.

On the one hand, there is Giammattei’s past, which links him to a state policy in which judicial executions were tolerated and endorsed. On the other, there is his campaign rhetoric, where he said he supports social prevention programs that address pressing problems such as gangs.

In regard to this point, it is necessary to add up the alleged ties of some of Giammattei’s main political operatives to the so-called Illegal Bodies and Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad — CIACS). These paramilitary and para-police entities took root in Guatemala’s public forces in the 1980s and are accused of various crimes. 

For example, an investigation by El Periódico revealed that Luis Enrique Ortega Arana, who will be a representative for Giammattei’s party and is close to the new president, is the son of Francisco Ortega Menaldo. An investigation by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLAlists Ortega Menaldo as one of the leaders of “La Cofradía,” a group of former military officials “associated with common crimes and administrative corruption.”

As of January 2020, Giammattei, the former prison director and prisoner who has now established ties with political operatives with questionable reputations, will assume the presidency. 

Within the fields of public security and the fight against crime, InSight Crime looks at three of the main challenges he will face.

1. Impunity

Giammattei will be the first president in a decade to govern without the shadow of the CICIG, the international body that, along with the Attorney General’s Office, accused three former presidents of corruption. The CICIG led the investigation that eventually imprisoned one former president, Otto Pérez Molina, and also accused current President Jimmy Morales of illicit campaign financing. 

The CICIG was also key in giving Guatemalan prosecutors political protection during corruption investigations that involved several of the country’s large business conglomerates. The Morales government started a political crusade in 2017 to expel the CICIG from the country. The crusade was a success. The commission’s mandate in Guatemala will end in September of this year.

Morales was accompanied in his eagerness to do away with the CICIG by business leaders and some of the groups of former military officers that are now close to the president-elect. In one of his first interviews after winning the runoff election, Giammattei reiterated that the CICIG will not continue. He offered other solutions for combatting corruption, such as the creation of a special commission linked to the executive branch.

In a state in which the last four presidents have been linked to corruption allegations and illegal activity — a dynamic that only started to get cleaned up with the presence of an international commission — an internal solution to counter impunity seems unlikely. 

2. Drug Trafficking

In 2019, the US State Department again cited Guatemala among the main drug-producing and transit countries. Over the past decade, the country became the number one destination in Central America where Mexico’s powerful cartels sought to establish “plazas,” in other words, to send their own operators to compete with local transporters. This resulted in violent confrontations and, in the political sphere, nationalized the influence of dirty money.

At the start of the decade, bloodbaths between drug trafficking groups, as well as an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG, weakened local criminal groups while the Mexicans opted to abandon the idea of setting up “plazas.” Nevertheless, the flow of cocaine continued throughout the decade through the traditional routes to the southeast of Guatemala and in the forests of the highlands in the north and west.

In recent months, press reports gave an account of the rise of drug planes landing on clandestine runways scattered throughout the country. 

In July 2019, InSight Crime wrote that “large swaths of remote land ripe for hidden airstrips and weak air control systems have made Guatemala a landing pad and transit point for drug flights loaded with cocaine.”

In 2018, the United States questioned the use of military equipment donated to Guatemala for the purpose of combating drug trafficking, which was instead used for political purposes. However, Washington already congratulated Giammattei on his victory. But it remains to be seen if the new president, without the CICIG as an international oversight mechanism, is capable of weakening the political nexus that has permitted drug traffickers to operate with ease in Guatemala.

3. Gangs

Of the three Northern Triangle countries in Central America, Guatemala has the lowest homicide rate. This downward trend has remained stable throughout the decade, including during the Morales administration. Extortion, however, is one of the principal public security problems in the country. Authorities attribute a significant percentage of the country’s homicides and extortion cases to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs.

In comparison to neighboring Honduras and El Salvador, territorial control among gangs in Guatemala is limited to marginalized neighborhoods on the periphery of its largest cities, primarily in the capital. Although it’s not one of the country’s most pressing problems, gang activity continues to be relevant. The new president has proposed, in his government plan, to address the issue of gangs with a combination of preventative actions, police reorganization and community organization. 

In this same government plan, Giammattei recognizes that the Guatemalan state has been completely permeated by corruption. “Such regrettable [security] conditions are accompanied by a serious scourge of rampant political and administrative corruption, and the misuse of, lack of austerity, and squandering of state resources,” the document reads.

According to information from the CICIG and Attorney General’s Office, less than 5 percent of homicides committed in Guatemala result in a prison sentence. Impunity seems to be the biggest challenge for Guatemala’s new president. This is the same issue that the CICIG tried to combat within the highest spheres of power. The CICIG, however, will no longer be present during Giammattei’s presidency.

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