Memo to Otto Pérez: Central America Needs Fewer Iron Fists and More Decent Cops

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Retired general Otto Perez of the right-wing Patriot Party attends a news conference in his party headquarters in Guatemala City November 7, 2011. (Photo: Jorge Dan Lopez / Reuters)

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s re-election victory on Sunday, November 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 even though Nicaragua is under caudillo rule again, many Central America watchers are still more worried about Guatemala, which also held a presidential election on Sunday. The problem there isn’t one of democracy – retired army general Otto Pérez Molina won legitimately and fairly – but of security. And the fear is that Pérez, despite all his talk of a mano dura, or “iron fist,” isn’t 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.’s, largely because violent drug and extortion gangs have overrun the country. And they’ve been able to do that for two major reasons: one, even though Guatemala is Central America’s largest economy, well over half the population live in poverty; and two, its police and judicial institutions are meager and corrupt. Only 2% of Guatemala’s violent crimes ever get prosecuted – making Guatemala, like Mexico, a criminal cauldron at America’s doorstep.

But equally troubling is the notion among Guatemala’s political and business elite that the military is the answer. Armies don’t fight crime, professional police do – and like Mexico, which has also had to employ its military against drug cartels because it can’t rely on its cops, Guatemala is paying for centuries of unpardonable neglect of public security. A key component of the 1996 peace accord that ended Guatemala’s bloody, 36-year civil war was the creation of a modern national police force; but precious little has been accomplished. So will Pérez, 61, get serious about developing a well trained and paid constabulary; or will he 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, D.C. “Guatemala has to enhance the role of police and justice institutions or risk a return to a pattern of military abuses.” And that history is infamous: the Guatemalan military was responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, sowing a murderous culture of impunity that a generation later only helps gangsters flourish.

Suspected links between those thugs and elements of the Guatemala military, in fact, are a big concern. Guatemalan authorities concede that former members of one army unit in particular, commandos known as Los Kaibiles, who were 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.

(SEE: “Guatemala’s Kaibiles: A Notorious Commando Unit Wrapped Up in Central America’s Drug War”)

Yet even if Pérez does want to get serious about police-building, another key question is 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 Americas Program associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The big question is whether Pérez can get the elite to pay for it. One of the biggest gaps in Guatemala is the elite’s unwillingness to pay for public security, largely because they use private security.”

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 also encourage the efforts of Guatemala’s police reform commissioner, Helen Mack, whose work – including the advisory participation of Latin American countries like Colombia that have achieved police modernization – has been applauded by U.S. Senators like 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 critics, has simply exacerbated the gangland violence – a tally of 40,000 murders the past five years. That’s all the more reason the U.S. should make police reform its own priority in Guatemala and Central America – a neighboring region that doesn’t need iron fists as much as it needs decent cops, prosecutors and judges. And, by the way, it could use fewer caudillos, Mr. Ortega.