Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Militarization of law enforcement in Guatemala

Latin American countries have a long history of using the armed forces to carry out internal security duties. However, these militaries also have a long history of human rights abuses. While progress has been made, many countries in the region continue to deploy their troops to combat crime as they struggle with weak public institutions, pervasive impunity, and high crime rates.

Recently several governments have launched military initiatives to deal with these issues. In many cases the country is undergoing a longer-term police reform that is not yielding results, or in the case of Honduras, producing more headaches.

Although international bodies and human rights organizations have pushed for the region’s governments to allow civilian police to fight crime, leaders send their militaries into high crime zones or areas with a strong organized crime presence but poorly trained local law enforcement, in order to see results in the short term, and many times with U.S. support. There are several examples of this throughout the region and in a series of posts we will look at a few of them.


When President Otto Pérez Molina assumed the presidency in January 2012, he became the first career military official to hold that office in 25 years. Guatemalan security analysts say that now about 40 percent of security-related positions are held by former members of the armed forces. After taking office, Pérez immediately called on the army to collaborate in “neutralizing illegal armed groups by means of military power.” Since then, given the weakness and endemic corruption of the National Civil Police (PNC), Pérez Molina has relied heavily on the military to fight organized crime and contain social unrest.

In March 2012, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay expressed concern about “reports of an increased use of the military in law-enforcement functions.” She stressed that any such participation should only be in a “police support capacity without diverting resources from the police”; must be “subject to civilian direction and control”; and needed to be “limited in time and scope.” Since then, it appears little has improved:

  • Since the beginning of 2012, the government has opened at least five new military bases and outposts.
  • Currently there are over 21,000 troops deployed for maintaining security throughout nine states: from Huehuetenango to sectors of Quiche and Alta Verapaz,from Escuintla to sectors of Suchitepequez and Santa Rosa, and from Zacapa to sectors of Izabal and Chiquimula.
  • In September, the Maya Task Force was deployed to Zone 18 of Guatemala City, with 1,200 soldiers and 100 police, representing a ratio of ten to one. A similar operation began in Zone 12 in November.
  • On June 14, 2013 1,500 members of the military reserves were deployed to Huehuetenango in western Guatemala, Escuintla in south central Guatemala and Zapaca in the eastern part of the country as part of an initiative known as the Army “Citizen Security Squadrons.” They were split into three squadrons of 503 soldiers at a cost of $15 million (119 million quetzales), according to Guatemalan news outlet Siglo 21.
  • On July 1, a new military Inter-Agency Border Unit, also known as Joint Task Force Tecún Umán (Fuerza de Tarea Tecún Umán) began operating in zones along the border shared with Mexico. On June 28th the group finished two months of training. The U.S. also in part funds the unit.
  • Guatemala's army has a poor record of human rights violations and has yet to be held accountable for the abuses committed during the country's civil war from 1960-1996, in which 200,000 people were killed and 45,000 forcibly disappeared. According to the Historical Clarification Commission, Guatemala’s truth and reconciliation commission, the Guatemalan state (military and government paramilitaries) was responsible for over 90 percent of the human rights abuses. More recently, in October of 2012, six people were killed and another 34 injured when soldiers open fired into a crowd of indigenous protestors. The military has also been tied to drug trafficking and organized crime.

    For decades, the U.S. State Department has been barred from providing aid to the Guatemalan army over concerns of human rights abuses dating back to the civil war. However, this ban does not apply to Department of Defense assistance, which accounted for $26 million in antidrug assistance 2011 and 2012.

    While President Perez Molina has started a police clean-up initiative, reports indicate that the effort lacks sufficient funding and political will from much of the government. Aside from the concerns about human rights, analysts have questioned the overall strategy of military deployment, saying that it does not address the need for preventative policies, such as community policing. As one analyst questioned, “What is going to happen when the military finally withdraw?” she asked. “Won’t crime just go back up?”

    CIP intern Ashley Badesch contributed to the research for this post