Guatemala’s security policy has come under renewed scrutiny as the country marks its first full year under Otto Pérez Molina. Though the Patriot Party administration has trumpeted the success of programs such as the militarized Task Forces installed in marginal urban neighborhoods, measures of violence show the continuation of an overall declining trend established during the government of Álvaro Colom, leading to the assumption that structural and institutional dynamics, rather than specific security policies, are responsible for the decline. One possible factor is the ongoing campaign to strengthen the justice system: at the end of 2012, Attorney General Claudia Paz reported that her ministry had achieved a significant reduction in impunity rates for violent crime to 70%, from 95% in 2009, when Guatemala’s murder rate also reached its highest since the armed conflict.
Despite the overall reduction in violence, analysts have also pointed out that the last few months of 2012 showed a measurable uptick, a message that was slammed home during January in a series of high-profile incidents. January 16 saw the murder of six women, including two women and two young girls in pajamas whose bodies were discovered abandoned in different areas of Guatemala City. The month closed with violent day of shootouts in the capital, including a brazen attack on security forces transporting a prisoner, in which a prison guard and two police officers were killed.
The MP moved quickly to investigate the January 16 killings, arresting a father and son for their presumed responsibility for the murder of the two girls and two women. Perez Molina, meanwhile, announced the possible use of States of Exception as part of a campaign to disarm criminals, and military-police checkpoints on the highways were increased. The President also faced criticism for a series of gaffes, stating that the surge of violence was a “question of perception” and appearing in person at a Guatemala City checkpoint on an expensive BMW motorcycle, causing a snarl of traffic.
Far from a simple PR issue, the recent breakdown of security gains is reflected in official statistics showing 50 more murders in January 2013 than during the previous year. Security analyst Gustavo Berganza reports a similar trend of increasing violence against women in recent months, though overall femicides in 2012 are down. Berganza speculates that the late 2012 rise in violence could be related to changes in the Interior Ministry, where Vice-Minister of Security Julio Claverilla was replaced by retired military officer Col. Byron Prera. As GuateSec noted last November, Prera has been previously accused of links to military organized crime networks. The Vice-Minister of Security oversees the administration’s various inter-institutional Task Forces, which combine police, military, and public prosecutors in combating specific forms of crime including homicide, femicide, kidnapping, and extortion.
In the midst of this ambiguous security climate, journalists and analysts are using official statistics to clarify “common sense” assumptions about violence in Guatemala. In a report for El Periodico, Claudia Méndez Arriaza and Carlos Mendoza interrogate seven such “myths,” demonstrating for example that departments with higher percentages of indigenous population are among the safest in the country, despite low levels of policing. The report is worth examining in more detail, as Mike Allison has done over at the Central American Politics blog, summarizing key findings in English and offering commentary.
Security privatization challenged
- Prison contracts reveal conflict of interest: Investigation by the newspaper El Periodico revealed that the Interamerican Investment & Development Corporation (II&DC), the U.S.-based company selected by the Interior Ministry to administer a $69 million dollar prison-building and remodeling contract (Guatemala’s largest public contract in 2012), was a shell company incorporated in Nevada by Florida-based lawyer Michael Ortiz. El Periodico found that Ortiz is a business partner of Guatemalan “security expert” Fabián Castellanos, who in turn is a “friend and colleague” to Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla. Both Castellanos and Bonilla served as past presidents of McMillan Comunicaciones, a company which had won state contracts for X-ray inspection of shipping containers at Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala’s largest Pacific Ocean port. The bidding period for the prison contract had been extended to allow II&DC to become legally registered in Guatemala; its Nevada business license was also expired at the time the contract was awarded in November 2012. Following these revelations. Lopez Bonilla announced suspension of the contract, as well as plans to invest an additional billion quetzales in prison construction. GuateSec has not found further information relating to the status of these contracts.
- Police partner with private security firms: During December 2012, the Interior Ministry announced a cooperation agreement between the National Civil Police and the Trade Association of Private Security Companies for a 30-day trial period coinciding with the end of year celebrations. While Prensa Libre reported that the agreement would simply involve private security agents notifying the police when responding to crimes, El Periodico referred more broadly to an initiative aimed at the private companies “generating intelligence in support of state institutions.” Experts have long criticized the proliferation and lack of regulation of private security companies in Guatemala, as well as potential links to organized crime and parallel power structures. Human rights and security analysts criticized the cooperation agreement as a move towards privatization of state security functions in the absence of state control over private security firms. GuateSec will be alert for updates regarding this topic.