Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 287 | Junio 2005



The United States Finds the Groundwork Laid

Security is a priority issue in Guatemala. Political violence and both common and organized crime have risen enough to push their way onto the national agenda. The United States, with new security issues added to its agenda of control and domination, would like to see the country’s army take a lead role so both Guatemala’s problems and its own can be resolved efficiently.

Myrna Mack Foundation

World trends on security, trade and other strategic issues, particularly those emanating from the United States to Central America—a crucial area of interest for this superpower—have created an internal situation in Guatemala that is aggravating old structural problems. Among these still unaddressed problems are land tenure, worker-boss relations and the gritty conditions of poverty and extreme poverty, together with the marginalization and exclusion of huge segments of the population.

Particularly through structural adjustment, these world trends are pressuring to bring national priorities into line with a “higher agenda” predetermined by the inflow of aid, especially from the United States and to a lesser degree from the European powers and Asia, particularly China, given its growing role in the world order. All these pressures are unleashing behaviors within the state apparatus and the diverse national sectors that are in turn playing havoc with state-society relations and the underpinnings of the already complex inter-sectoral communication. This not only augurs more governance problems, but also hinders the initiation of any reconciliation process or the attainment of greater inter-sectoral harmony, particularly given that the state is not coming up with any public policies or concrete actions to resolve the structural problems the country has been strapped with for such a long time.

Worrying signs

There are worrying signs, particularly the increased political violence against the opposition; organized crime attacks, which are concentrated on a specific type of victim and are consolidating due to government ineptitude and irresponsibility; and substitution of a rule of law for the tough, restrictive and even repressive application of law and order.

Other signs are closely related to these three. Among them are a virtually paralyzed democratization process, the silencing of dissonant voices and closing of participatory spaces; an increasingly inoperative institutionality, largely deliberate, in which the state apparatus and democratic controls only function
in special cases of interest to those managing the intricate political power structures; and a drop in the quality of life, which is generating more poverty.

Profile of the political violence

The various manifestations of today’s political violence in Guatemala are felt
in different ways and target different victims. Some violence is directed at those who actively oppose the government and question or touch the interests of both the traditional power bloc—made up of the business sector, political parties and the military—and the newer blocs emerging from organized crime, drug activity, mass corruption and other forms of criminal enrichment.

Other expressions seek to generate impunity and thus particularly enrage anyone conscientiously administering justice at whatever level, including lawyers and those linked to penal processes. Then there is the political violence exercised against people and organizations struggling to clear up and punish human rights violations, whether contemporary or committed during the war. And finally, there is the violence arising from the agrarian conflict, whose main victims are peasant organizations, their leaders and members.
They all reveal a systematic pattern, however, albeit with ups and downs and different emphases according to the moment. In late April and May, attacks were stepped up against organizations linked to human rights defense, peasant and/or development work and economic and social affairs. These attacks aren’t necessarily linked to the organizations’ daily work, but to their political opposition role. A number of the organizations affected participate actively in grassroots tendencies that reject mining exploitation, the concessions bill and the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). They are also pushing for passage of a cadastre law and are questioning the interests of the business class and the way public power is manipulated in its favor. A group of indigenous, human rights, peasant and union organizations reported having suffered 122 violent attacks in 2004, and catalogued 73 more cases between January and May of this year. These and other organizations were targeted for publicly opposing government dispositions that benefit the national and transnational business sectors to the detriment of social interests. These organizations’ grassroots activities affect projects and decisions of interest to both power blocs, not only the traditional one linked to the government, as is commonly believed.

Where do the attacks come from?

It is interesting to observe that CAFTA, the concessions bill and mining exploitation are all issues that emerged during the previous government. The concessions bill in particular is a fusion of proposals presented by former President Alfonso Portillo in 2003 and by Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) legislators linked to him the following year. The current government exploited this initiative and is promoting it as if it were its own, even though some of President Óscar Berger’s main advisers are not at all satisfied with the text and would have preferred to introduce substantial changes.

The victimized organizations charge that the attacks come from clandestine structures linked to the state security forces, military intelligence, business groups and organized crime. And so far the police haven’t conducted a reliable, objective, responsible, professional and independent investigation, so there aren’t even any hypotheses about the origin, authorship or real motive behind the attacks, at least not on the part of the security and justice institutions.

As a result, it is quite common for such cases to make little headway in the Public Ministry and never reach the courts. The theoretical chain of coordinated actions by the Civil National Police (PNC), the Public Ministry and the judicial structures to get to the bottom of such criminal actions and punish their perpetrators is not being formed. The lack of judicial certainty blocks any rigorous accusations against those individuals or institutions responsible, and the charges end up unanswered, isolated by impunity and indifference, leaving the accusers feeling that the entire state apparatus is working against them.

There are no plans
against organized crime

With respect to organized crime, the situation is out of control because there are no strategic state dispositions to allow any efficient fight against structures dedicated to drug activity, contraband, kidnappings and other criminal acts. The only possible explanation for the ongoing vacuum of public policies and strategies to combat such high-impact crimes, despite all the evidence, is that it appears suspiciously voluntary. Moreover, it is a fact that the security and justice institutions are riddled with agents of the emerging power, who also exercise widespread control over political institutions, especially in the departmental and municipal structures of political parties and in state entities that are vital to the “imperturbable growth” of this power rooted in criminal activity.

To enjoy such “imperturbable growth,” organized crime requires a level of impunity that prevents its actions and members from being subjected to the scrutiny of justice. It also requires contacts in the upper spheres of the state so its members can get on with their dirty business.

Moreover, it is essential that the police forces and justice institutions are weakened or incapacitated, or in any event hobbled by lack of responsibility or volition, so they do not act against organized crime. The participation of security forces has been revealed in numerous criminal acts, including kidnapping, drug trafficking, corruption, prostitution and arms peddling.

Solid “policies of error”

The Ministry of Government and its supposedly specialized structure, the Civil National Police, have been disabled not only by chronic institutional weakness, but also by the absence of any effort to strengthen it.
Other factors make matters even worse, such as the decision to turn to the army and retired officers to do police work with the argument that the PNC just doesn’t have the capacity, rather than focusing on strengthening the institution’s civil nature and supporting it militarily only in truly exceptional cases. A related factor here is the failure to develop any specialization and professionalization.

A third factor is the “policies of error” that originate in the PNC and spread to the entire security and justice system. These policies are reflected every day in the failure that commonly characterizes the PNC’s actions against both common and organized crime and political violence. No major studies are needed to see the complete lack of strategic plans dedicated to a sustained and comprehensive fight against crime and violence.

Capturing suspects and
squandering resources

What we obviously have instead is a police force dedicated to patrolling the streets—in combined or exclusively police patrols—in search of late night revelers, prostitutes, undocumented people, rowdy drunks or people committing public order offenses.

In the PNC’s opinion, the majority of those detained have a “suspicious appearance” and certain features linked to membership in youth gangs or maras. Given that there are no concrete charges against them and they haven’t been caught in the act, such police action is arbitrary and illegal, qualities that are further aggravated when police agents plant drugs on them in an attempt to justify the arrest.

The lack of evidence or use of false evidence logically result in the release of those detained, which increases the perception that the fight against crime is failing, because public opinion is largely unaware of the vices behind these police actions. In a climate of increasing crime, people feel frustrated when they constantly hear of cases being dismissed.

This illegal, arbitrary and perverse behavior generates a chain of errors that costs millions every year. When an arrest is made, it puts the entire system in motion, including judges, prosecuting attorneys and public defenders. These administrators of justice, and the PNC itself, are thus concentrating resources and energies on minor crimes and misdemeanors, invented as often as real, all of which involves salaries, the use and inevitable deterioration of equipment and other activities involving an investment of time and money. Meanwhile, organized crime, drug trafficking, common crime with a greater social impact and the structures of political violence remain untouchable.

Enter the United States

Given the situation afflicting the police force, it is no surprise that the United States is meddling in and even setting the national agenda on security issues. It is urged on by its political-strategic needs for control and domination, especially now that the hypothesis is gaining force of an alliance between terrorism and other, more long-standing vices: drug activity, organized crime, immigration and the growth of gangs.

From this perspective, the army is the main beneficiary, because it stands out as the force that can ensure an “efficient” fight against all these threats. This explains why for some time now there has been talk of renewing US military aid to Guatemala, the first steps of which were taken in January 2005, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell certified Guatemala to receive equipment worth over US$3 million. Other programs will foreseeably be renewed over the course of the year, especially those related to training and equipment.

Powell signed a document praising Guatemala’s progress in modernizing its army, reducing military spending and preparing new military legislation, as well as in the fight against organized crime and drug activity and achievements in defense of human rights. After learning about this certification, the Myrna Mack Foundation sent its own considerations to various US government spheres. While acknowledging some of these advances, we also qualified the assertions, because this seal of approval did not correspond to Guatemalan reality.

The army sees its chance

The PNC’s ineffectiveness is convincing the US of the need to convert the army into the kind of armed force that can take charge of for fighting organized crime, illegal drug activity and potential forms
of terrorism, which today’s military chiefs see as a new chance for the army to reassert itself. It would also give them a shot at repairing the discredited reputation the institution earned for its criminal behavior during the war, the discovery
of serious internal corruption that reaches far beyond the past government, and participation by some of its members in organized drug and crime. Though little or no progress has been made in the criminal investigations and penal processes initiated against some of its members, the army’s legitimacy was significantly undermined by the scandal.

While a few officers fear that replacing or even reinforcing the PNC in its public security work would lead to criticism and erosion if situations occur that put the legality of their actions in doubt, the military authorities as a whole are more than willing to assume police tasks and act against the US-identified threats. They argue that it is not unconstitutional and that the PNC is unquestionably in over its head.

Converting the army is
not a done deal

The Guatemalan Congress’ National Defense Commission has issued favorable findings on four military justice bills: the military penal law, the military penal procedural law, the law on organization and faculties and the military penitentiary law. This legislative package would expand military jurisdiction, creating new structures with judicial functions, responsibilities and jurisdiction that would be under the Ministry of National Defense. We view this as backpedaling that opens a new window of impunity for crimes committed by military personnel.

It must be pointed out that although a new military doctrine has been drafted with the participation of social organizations specializing in the issue, it has not been applied in the army’s institutional life. The concepts that emerged during the Cold War and guided the counterinsurgent policy during Guatemala’s civil war still prevail.

The plan to modernize the army, which in principle has been limited to reorganizing military deployment in the country and reducing the number of soldiers, has a very narrow scope compared to the goals proposed for conversion of the armed forces in the Peace Accord agreement on strengthening civil power and the army’s function in a democratic society. The army’s conversion is far from a done deal given such limited application of a more appropriate contemporary doctrine in the modernization plan, the eventual expansion of military jurisdiction and the sluggish work on the new organizational legislation. The army is having to face the challenges imposed by the US-promoted continental security agenda in conditions of still inconclusive and extremely slow-moving transition.

The government doesn’t censure;
it silences dissonant voices

Other elements of the current situation contribute to this hardly encouraging panorama. Some political measures are being practiced to silence high-profile dissonant voices. In contrast with the relaxed attitude observed toward the sectors of real power, the prevailing tendency toward the opposition and those making social demands is to close certain democratic arenas and strictly apply law and order and democratic controls.

The government isn’t applying censure, but it is using its political influence to silence the opposition and any other figures who make it uncomfortable. It was learned, for example, that Guatemala’s ambassador to the United Nations presented a formal complaint to the United Nations Development Program because some UNDP officials of Guatemalan nationality were publishing opinions and analyses the government considered prejudicial. It was later confirmed that Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, an economic and financial expert who had a career post in the UNDP for almost two decades, had resigned.

The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union Party (URNG) also charged that Congress’ president rejected the proposed hiring of Miguel Ángel Sandoval as adviser to this party’s parliamentary bench, arguing that he is a known opponent and leader of demonstrations that have turned violent. There are also rumors that government agents are trying to block international donations to nongovernmental organizations viewed as systematic opponents.

This situation is nothing new; it’s just getting worse. The state apparatus has historically been selective about whom
it serves and protects and the demands of people who participate in social movements continue to be ignored.
The only new aspect is that these people are also suffering criminal persecution, police abuse and jail for even expressing their claims.

Eradicate the repressive order

Security is Guatemala’s hottest problem today. In this climate, democratic security policies should be approved to strengthen the political institutionality, eradicating concepts of a repressive order and creating a national intelligence system with particular emphasis on strategic civil intelligence and its respective controls to avoid venturing into illegal operations and perverting its function.

A concrete policy is also needed to halt both the violence surrounding the defense and promotion of human rights and the institutional behavior that constantly endangers or actually violates individuals’ rights and liberties. In this context, the setting up of the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights needs to be speeded up and a mechanism should be created for dismantling the clandestine structures that generate political violence and punishing those responsible, given that the initiative to create a commission to investigate the clandestine corps and illegal security apparatuses was declared unconstitutional.

Strengthen the police, not the army

The PNC needs to be strengthened and cleansed of any elements linked to corruption, drug trafficking, organized crime and other criminal acts. Its internal regulations need to be rigorously applied and the Police Academy should be strengthened to ensure the graduation of truly professional and specialized officers.

The tendency to use the army to substitute or help out the PNC in routine security activities, relying on the supposed “effectiveness” of army officers, hinders adequate PNC development, as it doesn’t bank on strengthening and improving the civil institution. The continental security agenda being promoted by the United States is already having an irreversible effect on the army’s functions, and if things continue in that direction, it could eventually acquire important functions in combating organized crime.

Let’s not repeat what
happened during the war

Given these realities, it is essential to go back to the principles of political neutrality and submission to civilian power that underpin the commitment to army conversion. The contrary could lead to unbridled military strengthening, as happened during the civil war. To avoid that, the contents of the conversion need to be reviewed and priorities defined, necessarily including the application of the new doctrine alluded to in the Peace Accords, the transformation of the educational system, military justice and legislative modernization.

Those who reject a course based on the analysis of such evidence have not realized that improved governance and containment of social conflicts could be achieved just by distancing themselves a bit from the authoritarian concepts that have traditionally brought the Guatemalan population so much pain and suffering.

The Myrna Mack Foundation is a
Guatemalan social research institution that collaborates with envío.

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