With Protest Deaths, Guatemalan Army Disqualifies Itself for Police Role

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The Guatemalan Army’s fatal shooting of eight protesters is a reminder of the dangers of using the military in domestic security, with even the US expressing doubts about deploying Latin America’s armies to fight organized crime.

On October 4, protesters blocked the Pan-American Highway in the western Guatemalan province of Totonicapan, to complain about electricity prices and proposed constitutional reforms. Soldiers sent to control the demonstrations killed eight protesters and wounded another 40.

President Otto Perez, a former army general who has himself been accused of being involved in rights violations during the country’s civil war, initially claimed that the army had not been involved, then said the soldiers had not been armed. Once the facts became clearer, he called on the country not to let “the ghosts of the past keep deciding how we resolve conflicts.”

However, as public indignation grew, he was forced to say that the army would no longer be sent to control protests, and suggested that he might be prepared to apologize for the deaths, depending on the results of an investigation. On October 11, the Public Ministry announced arrest warrants for eight soldiers and a colonel over the killings. They are now in custody.

InSight Crime Analysis

Perez won power on a pledge to bring a hardline “iron fist” approach to fighting crime in Guatemala, and he has followed through. The president has created four new military brigades to combat organized crime — eradicating drug crops and guarding the borders — deployed soldiers to roadblocks around the country, and put military men in key government roles.

While the country’s security situation demands action, deploying the military domestically is a risky approach. As the recent deaths demonstrate, armies are not trained to keep order, but to fight enemies. United Nations-backed anti-impunity commission the CICIG wrote a letter of protest to Perez after the deaths, pointing out that police use force as the last resort, whereas soldiers are prepared to win a war by using force as their primary method.

This problem with using soldiers in a police role is also demonstrated by a recent Amnesty International report (pdf) which highlights the problem of abuse by the security forces in Mexico, where the army has been deployed to various parts of the country to fight organized criminal groups for the last six years, with no sign that they will be withdrawn soon. The organization notes the increase in torture and mistreatment, and places blame squarely with the militarized security policy, stating that “The deployment of 50,000 army and navy personnel in policing functions has contributed to this sharp rise in reports of torture and other ill-treatment committed by military personnel.”

Deploying the army in internal security is closely tied to the issue of police competence. Militaries are deployed across Latin America to make up for the shortcomings of police forces, but their presence can then retard police reform and exacerbate the problem. As International Crisis Group pointed out in a recent report, Perez’s use of the army is in danger of holding back his promised improvements to the police, by taking away the urgency of the reforms, demoralizing police officers, and using up public funds. Activist and former police reform commissioner Helen Mack recently said that the country would need between 50,000 and 80,000 police officers in order to take the army off the streets. Guatemala currently has some 25,000 officers, as elPeriodico reported.

It’s possible that international pressure, as well as domestic outrage, could force Perez to rethink his security policy. Even the United States, which has funded highly militarized approaches to internal security in Colombia and Mexico, spoke out days after the Totonicapan massacre, calling on Latin America’s governments to limit the use of the army in a police role. Without mentioning Guatemala directly, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the 10th Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas on October 8 that the use of the military in civil law enforcement could not be a long-term solution.

While the militaries of Colombia and Mexico are not known for their restraint in dealing with the civilian population, it’s possible that the Guatemalan context, where civil war massacres by the army are still very much in living memory, presents a bigger challenge. The CICIG has called for Guatemala’s government to pass a legal reform banning the military from taking part in criminal and policing matters. This is unlikely to happen, but the deaths, and possible pressure from the United State, may encourage the government to keep the military’s role temporary.

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