The Guatemalan Government's Enduring Security Problem

The first round of presidential elections on Sunday comes at a time of rising murder and crime

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Riot police talk with a boy during a patrol on a street in Santa Catarina Mita / Reuters

Front-runner Otto Pérez Molina won 36% of the vote in first round of Guatemala's presidential elections on Sunday, and will face off against second place finisher Manuel Baldizón in the second round in November. Though winning the runoff election will not be easy for either candidate (both have to build coalitions to clinch a second-round victory); far trickier will be facing Guatemala's long list of challenges, topped by insecurity.

Guatemala's murder rate has more than doubled in the last twenty years, reaching a high in 2009 when nearly 6,500 people were killed - 17 a day -- more than in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past four years the government of Álvaro Colom has been unable to quell the violence or bring its perpetrators to justice. During the campaign the leading presidential candidates advocated a mano dura, or iron fist security policy, with Pérez Molina as its most forceful proponent (his Patriot Party has a clenched fist as its emblem). He even proposed bringing back the notorious military task forces used against guerrillas in the 1980s and 1990s, this time to take on drug traffickers.

It is unlikely this strategy will work. Guatemala's military today doesn't have the capacity to ramp up its public safety functions. As a part of the 1996 peace agreements (ending 36 years of civil war) the military agreed to downsize. The current force stands at 17,000 troops (roughly 60 percent less than 1990 levels).  Earlier this year, when the government called a state of siege in the northern province of Alta Verapaz taken hostage by traffickers, the military could only send 600 soldiers in to patrol the area - less than one tenth the size of the Mexican military force sent to fight the La Familia cartel in Michoacán in 2006. After the operation, President Colom himself admitted that the military could not match the drug traffickers' vast resources, noting "just the weapons seized in Alta Verapaz are more than those of some army brigades."

But the issue is not just one of capacity. Even if the government found the resources to beef up the military, it shouldn't be the force to take over the fight against organized crime. If deploying the armed forces in Mexico's drug war is considered controversial, in Guatemala it is decidedly more complicated. The Guatemalan army enjoys considerably less citizen trust than their Mexican counterparts due to their long and ignominious involvement in the country's brutal civil conflict. The U.N. truth commission report (whose findings Pérez Molina questions) deemed the war a genocide, and blamed the army for 93 percent of the massacres of innocent civilians that occurred. Breaking the peace accords' promise to keep the military out of citizen security would be a step backward to a past many would rather not revisit.

Growing evidence too suggests the military itself may well have ties to organized crime. Reports from the UN peacekeeping mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), and a number of NGOs  show that long standing military ties with the criminal groups that today work with Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers.  The Kaibiles, an elite special operations force, trained some of the Mexican soldiers that would later become the Zetas, and many former Kaibiles now work full time for the cartels.

If the army is not the right choice for improving security, the only alternative is the National Civil Police (PNC). Unfortunately, the PNC faces many of these same challenges: a lack of manpower, resources, and public trust. Furthermore, the U.S. and the Guatemalan government have tried a number of times, and on the whole failed to reinvent the PNC in the past.

Still, trying again is the least bad alternative. And there are a few hopeful signs from the past year. With new wiretapping, plea bargaining and seized assets laws in place (in no small part due to the work of CICIG), the police have arrested some high-ranking drug traffickers and suspects in high-profile murders. With human rights leader Helen Mack at the helm of a new police reform initiative, some observers are more optimistic about the chances of finally building a professionalized Guatemalan police force.

As the U.S. and other countries in the region look to begin working with the new administration, security assistance - including Mérida funds -- should focus on strengthening the national police (and court systems). Despite the PNC's past failures, and Guatemala's weak institutions in general, the issue of security is simply too important to let fall by the wayside, or worse, into the wrong hands.

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