The Challenges Ahead for Guatemala’s New President

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Despite concerns over newly-elected President Otto Perez’s ties to the notoriously corrupt Guatemalan military, the early signals from his administration bode well for the future of security and criminal justice in the country.

When Otto Perez won the Guatemalan election in last November, many were concerned about his past as a former army general during the country’s 36 year-long civil war. He is the first ex-military official to come to power since military rule came to an end in 1986, and there was fear that his election would mean a return to the judicial impunity of the era.

This perception was partially fueled by his emphasis on security during his campaign. Perez’s trademark was his promise of a “mano dura” (iron fist) approach to dealing with organized crime, and he called for a significant expansion of military’s role in counternarcotics operations. The campaign promise was controversial, as elements of the military were responsible for a number of mass killings as part of an infamous scorched earth campaign during the civil war.

Additionally, the reputation of the Guatemalan military has been tarnished by several allegations of links to drug trafficking. Two senior army officers were recently sanctioned for attending a horse race in September 2010, along with suspected members a powerful crime family. The military has also admitted to several instances in which its arms caches have been raided by members of the Zetas, and it is believed that former Guatemalan special forces operatives have helped train the Mexican drug gang. With this record, it could easily be argued an increased reliance on the army would not necessarily be an appropriate remedy for insecurity and corruption, and Perez Molina’s anti-crime strategy seemed questionable.

However, for the moment Perez seems to have proved these fears unfounded. While he has only been in office for three weeks, the president seems to be on track to continue many of the more effective security policies of his predecessor, Alvaro Colom, especially as they relate to strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala.

Perez’s administration has kept on Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who has made a name for herself as a crusading figure who is not afraid to take on powerful criminal networks. Although there is evidence to suggest that Perez’s support of Paz y Paz is only in response to the support she enjoys from the United States State Department, he has endorsed her efforts all the same, and has even promised more resources to her office. At least in part due to Paz y Paz’s repeated requests for more investigative officers, the president has promised create a new branch of investigators known as the Crime Investigative Police (PIC).

Another encouraging sign is Perez’s stated support for the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). On January 24 he announced that he would support the two-year renewal of the commission’s mandate when it expires in September 2013.  Indeed, it would seem that Perez so values the CICIG’s work that he appointed the former link between the commission and the interior ministry as his new anti-drug minister.

Perez has also carried out some promising policy initiatives of his own. He has named a new director of the National Police, and has created a series of special task forces force, each charged with investigating and reducing kidnapping, robbery, femicides, extortion and homicide in the country. On January 31, he announced the creation of a sixth group, which will focus on increasing safety in the transportation industry. Bus drivers in Guatemala are often extorted by local gangs, and robberies at gunpoint are a relatively common phenomenon on buses in the country. As InSight Crime has reported, more than 500 bus drivers have been killed in Guatemala since 2007.

But Perez’s security strategy will cost money. He has promised to modernize the military and hire 10,000 new national police (an increase of 40 percent), but it is unclear where the funding will come from. One source of security funding he appears to be seeking is military aid from the US, which has been halted since 1990. Alvaro Colom attempted to lobby for resumed US military aid during his term, but was informed by the US Defense Department that Guatemala needed to meet several conditions, one of which was the release of all military documents relating to the civil war. Because of Perez’s military background, it is unlikely that he will be willing to do so.

As such Perez seems to be looking for revenue domestically, as evidenced by his recent proposal to Congress which aims to raise a number of taxes. He may have some difficulty, however. The level of tax collection in Guatemala is one of the lowest in Latin America, and political and economic elites have fought hard to keep it that way.

Still, it should be noted that the security situation in Guatemala is already improving. While the number of homicides in Guatemala is still among the highest in the world, it has dropped significantly over the past three years. In 2008, the homicide rate was 46 per 100,000 homicides, but fell to 38.61 per 100,000 in 2010, according to a recent government report. There is evidence to suggest that the justice system is seeing some small improvements. In 2007 just 2 percent of murders resulted in a conviction, compared to about 9 percent in 2011. This suggests that even if Perez fails to implement much of his current strategy, he may be able to claim responsibility for a trend that started under his predecessor, managing to stick to his anti-crime platform.

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