"Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities", crisisgroup

Latin America Report N°43 20 Jul 2012

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The 25,000 members of the National Civil Police (PNC) are on the front lines of Guatemala’s battle against crime. But all too often citizens distrust and fear the police – widely dismissed as inefficient, corrupt and abusive – as much as the criminals. Underfunded, poorly trained and often outgunned, they are frequently incapable or unwilling to confront criminals and gain the public trust needed to build a state based on rule of law. Drug traffickers, including Mexican cartels, move at will across porous borders, while criminal gangs dominate many urban areas. The government of President Otto Pérez Molina must reboot and revitalise police reform, as part of an overall effort to strengthen justice and law enforcement, with financial support from the U.S. and other countries interested in preventing Guatemala from becoming a haven for organised crime. Progress has been made, but achievements are fragile and easily reversed.

Since the 1996 peace accords that ended 36 years of armed conflict, donors have poured tens of millions of dollars into police and justice sector reform. But despite these efforts, Guatemala, with its neighbours in the Northern Triangle of Central America, remains one of the most violent countries in the world. Governments have repeatedly promised reform, including the Pérez administration that took office in January 2012. The new president, a retired general, campaigned on the promise that his government would combat crime with an “iron fist”. Since then, he has deployed troops to help patrol high-crime areas, reinforced the military in border regions to fight drug trafficking and declared a state of siege to quell a local protest. He has also promised to strengthen the police by adding thousands of recruits, while restarting stalled efforts to overhaul the institution. The question is whether his government will be able to muster the resources and will to bolster institutional reform or will rely primarily on militarised crime-fighting operations that provide short-term gains without solving long-term problems.

Some projects may provide templates for broader institutional change. Certain investigative units have demonstrated that the police can – given the proper resources, training and supervision – solve complex crimes. The UN-spon­sored Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is providing training to both police and prosecutors. There are also encouraging developments within the area of preventive or community-oriented policing. In two municipalities outside Guatemala City, Villa Nueva and Mixco, activist mayors are trying to combat gangs and create stronger ties between the local communities and law enforcement. Those cities are also the location of two “model precincts”, supported by the U.S. government, which finances the vetting and training of police and supports programs designed to strengthen police-community collaboration.

But these efforts are dependent on the financial aid and political backing of donors. The initiatives in Villa Nueva and Mixco rely on local politicians whose successors may not share their commitment. It is unclear whether reform efforts have enough support within the PNC hierarchy to survive over the long term. Without strong and consistent backing from the national government, business, civil society and the international community, the lessons learned from these pilot projects may be lost before they can be perfected and replicated.

Compounding the difficulties reformers face is that change must take place following a decade of rising violence, much of it fuelled by organised crime, including Mexican drug cartels. High crime rates tend to overwhelm incremental progress, making it harder to resist calls for tough solutions that rely on the superior strength and discipline of the army. Using the army to fight crime, however, further demoralises and weakens the police, especially when the military’s role is poorly defined. This makes it harder in the long run to build the competent civilian forces needed to enforce the law under stable, democratic regimes.

There is no single, fail-safe formula for reshaping an institution as complex as the police. Nor do police exist in a vacuum; permanent change can only take place within broader efforts to battle corruption and favouritism within the justice system as a whole. Nonetheless, there are steps that the government, with international backing, should undertake to ensure that the PNC becomes a professional force capable of investigating and preventing the crime that threatens Guatemalan democracy.


To make service to the community, protection of human rights, honesty and professionalism the foundation of police doctrine

To the Government of Guatemala:

1.  Design a police reform strategy with clear priorities and timetables that builds on progress already made by:

a) replicating initiatives that have been proven to work, such as the methodologies employed by investigative units that are getting results in homicide and extortion cases;

b) supporting community-oriented policing that includes local oversight and participation;

c) strengthening the new police reform commission and encouraging it to build on the work of its predecessor; and

d)   working with the UN-sponsored International Com­mission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to transfer investigative and analytic know-how.

2.  Improve oversight and combat corruption by:

a) training and deploying more supervising officers;

b) working with CICIG and the U.S. embassy to institutionalise periodic background checks, especially for officials and investigators;

c) reviewing disciplinary procedures to assure they are transparent and fair to both the public and the police;

d) furnishing the police academy with resources and top instructors;

e) providing ongoing capacity building and specialised training that matches institutional needs;

f) reviewing pay scales and benefits to provide adequate incentives and rewards;

g) renovating or building police stations and living facilities that meet minimum standards; and

h) allowing the PNC to administer the budget assigned to it by Congress and preventing the transfer of funds designated for law enforcement to other programs.

3.  Define the role of the armed forces as primarily to protect the borders and only secondarily to provide temporary emergency support to law enforcement under strict and effective civilian surveillance; and avoid overreliance on the military by:

a) phasing out joint police/military task forces and assigning their crime-fighting responsibilities to specially trained and vetted police units; and

b) strengthening police in border regions and rural areas and training them to cope with both criminal violence and social unrest, so that the temporary deployment of the army under state of siege declarations is no longer demanded or necessary.

To the Congress:

4.  Pass a statutory police law that includes clear rules for recruitment and merit-based promotions.

5.  Consider constitutional and legal reforms establishing that the police, not the military, are responsible for citizen security and placing strict limitations on the use of the military in emergency situations.

6.  Continue to pursue and monitor fiscal reform, including strong measures against tax evasion, to assure that the government has the resources necessary to strengthen civilian law enforcement.

7.  Approve legislation – such as the pending illicit enrichment law – to give prosecutors the tools they need to prosecute corrupt public officials.

To Donors:

8.  Work with the government to give police financial and technological aid within a strategy for long-term, sustainable reform.

9.  Avoid duplication of efforts and prioritise projects to:

a) perfect and replicate ongoing programs that are proven to be effective;

b) strengthen the police academy and proposed officers school;

c) create transparent mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating projects; and

d) assure that implementing institutions are held accountable for results.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 20 July 2012