Peace Through Security: What Does Central America's Crime Crisis Call For?

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Rodrigo Abd / AP

Dead again Another victim of Guatemala's violence

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's re-election victory on Sunday, Nov. 6, is widely regarded as an affront to democracy in Central America, since his Sandinista allies on the Supreme Court twisted the Constitution into a pretzel so he could run for another term. But Guatemala, which also held a presidential election on Sunday, might actually be a larger concern for the region. The problem there isn't democracy — retired army general Otto Pérez Molina won fairly — but security. Despite all his talk of a mano dura, or "iron fist," Pérez might not be the man to bring rule of law to Guatemala, which is one of the world's most lawless countries today.

Guatemala, along with El Salvador and Honduras, is part of Central America's northern triangle — which U.S. military leaders call "the deadliest zone in the world" outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Guatemala's murder rate is more than eight times the U.S. rate, but only 2% of Guatemala's violent crimes ever get prosecuted.

It has gotten so bad in part because Guatemala, like Mexico, has so little trust in its own security forces. Despite the fact that the creation of a modern national police force was a key component of the 1996 peace accord that ended Guatemala's bloody 36-year civil war, Pérez's predecessors accomplished little. The capital, Guatemala City, has only one officer for every 600 residents; New York City has one for every 200. Meanwhile, two of Guatemala's national police chiefs have been removed in the past two years under drug-corruption charges. So it is left to Pérez, 61, to decide: Will he get serious about developing a well-trained and well-paid constabulary? Or will the retired general follow his military instincts and ratchet up the role of soldiers against the mafias?

Taking the latter path could be disastrous for both Guatemala and the hemisphere. "The assumption shouldn't be that the military is the solution when the military in Guatemala is very much a part of the problem," says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The Guatemalan military was, after all, responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, sowing a culture of impunity that a generation later only helps gangsters flourish.

In fact, Guatemalan authorities concede that former members of one army unit in particular, commandos known as Los Kaibiles — notorious for massacres of civilians during the civil war — are today in the employ of Mexico's most vicious cartel, the Zetas (themselves former Mexican army commandos), who have set up shop in Guatemala.

Yet even if Pérez does dedicate himself to police building, it's unclear whether he'd have the resources. The Guatemalan elite, which continues to run the country like a personal fiefdom, pays some of the lowest taxes in the world. Tax collection there accounts for only about 10% of GDP, which means government social spending — less than 10% of GDP — is also some of the world's lowest. "There is a recognition among people with common sense in Guatemala that they have to have more robust police, to keep the mano dura under the rule of law," says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a senior associate with the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The big question is whether Pérez can get the elite to pay for it."

Mendelson, who watched Pérez up close during the 1996 peace negotiations, is hopeful he'll bring "center-right common sense" to the table as President. After declaring victory Sunday night, Pérez said that aside from improving security, he'll focus on "working with Congress to improve the federal budget" — which many hope means getting wealthier families and businesses to contribute a fairer share of revenues. In the meantime, Pérez can encourage the efforts of Guatemala's police-reform commissioner, Helen Mack, whose initiatives, which include welcoming advice from countries like Colombia that have modernized their police, have been applauded by U.S. Senators including Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy.

But perhaps the most commonsense thing Pérez can do at this point is look across his northern border, where Mexico "has thrown the army at drug traffickers without much effect," says Arnson. Mexico's bold but ill-conceived campaign, say President Felipe Calderón's critics, has simply exacerbated the gangland violence — the country has suffered 40,000 murders in the past five years. That's all the more reason why police reform should be a priority in Guatemala and throughout Central America, a region that doesn't need iron fists as much as it needs decent cops, prosecutors and judges.