To stem the violence that kills thousands of Guatemalans each year, the government must find the resources and will to carry out long-stalled reforms of the national police.
Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities, the latest International Crisis Group report, explores the prospects for change under President Otto Pérez Molina, who took office in January. Although his government has taken vigorous steps to combat organised crime, it is still overly dependent on the military and special task forces that operate outside the police hierarchy. Such efforts may lead to short-term gains, but they do not address the institutional weaknesses that render the police ineffective and corrupt.
Criminal organisations – from the drug traffickers who move at will over porous borders to the gangs that dominate urban areas – have helped fuel violence that has killed more than 57,000 Guatemalans over the past decade. The National Civil Police (PNC) is on the front lines of the battle against crime, though all too often citizens distrust them as much as the criminals.
Continued foreign assistance is essential to this effort, but donors should do a better job of coordinating their efforts and working closely with the government to establish priorities and devise sustained strategies with clear benchmarks. “The government needs to make police reform a top priority, as part of an overall effort to strengthen justice and law enforcement”, says Mary Speck, Crisis Group’s Senior Guatemala Analyst. “That means providing police with better training, better supervision and better working conditions”.
Progress has been made. Some investigative units – including a homicide unit supported by the Spanish government – have proven that given adequate resources, preparation and supervision, police can solve complex crimes. There are also encouraging developments within the area of preventive policing. In Mixco and Villa Nueva, municipalities outside Guatemala City, local governments are expanding community-oriented police patrols in cooperation with U.S.-financed model precincts.
These efforts remain the exception, however. For reform to succeed, the entire PNC – not just isolated units – must embrace reform as a matter of institutional self-interest and prestige. It is vital to design a police reform strategy with clear priorities and timetables that builds on progress already made, so as to improve oversight, combat corruption and avoid over-reliance on the military.
“Achievements made so far are fragile and easily reversed”, says Javier Ciurlizza, Crisis Group’s Latin America and Caribbean Program Director. “To turn limited initiatives into genuine reform will require not just continued international support but also the clear commitment of Guatemala’s leaders”.