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GUATEMALA: Army Losing Fight Against Crime

Alberto Mendoza

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 27 2006 (IPS) - Although the military has not returned to power in Guatemala, it has returned to the streets.

But five months after 2,400 soldiers began to patrol the streets of Guatemala’s main cities, the number of murders continues to rise, while activists warn that the military presence could revive bad memories of the 1960-1996 civil war, when the army was blamed for the lion’s share of the atrocities committed.

Down the sidewalk of Seventh Avenue, which cuts across bustling downtown Guatemala City, marches a line of troops in olive green fatigues, carrying canteens and heavy assault rifles. They are led by a National Civil Police (PNC) agent.

The troops reinforcing the PNC since April do not have the authority to make arrests, but are designed to be a dissuasive presence aimed at curbing the epidemic of violence sweeping Guatemala. According to the Interior Ministry, 3,404 people were murdered between Jan. 1 and Jul. 31.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported last year that Guatemala had the highest murder rate in all of Latin America, with 70 homicides per 100,000 population.

But the involvement of the military in civil policing has not brought the hoped-for results, given that July became the second bloodiest month of the year, with 499 homicides, only surpassed by January, when 550 people were killed.

The use of troops to act as back-up for the PNC is nothing new. They have been deployed intermittently in previous years. But as Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann has stated, the so-called “combined forces” are a reflection of “deeper cooperation” between the armed forces and the police.

Vielmann predicted that no future government would hesitate to call on the troops to assist in domestic law enforcement, given the shortage of police officers and the lengthy training process that new police recruits must undergo.

“If the United Nations needs Guatemalan soldiers (in peacekeeping operations) abroad, we should also use them,” he argued. There are currently 80 Guatemalan troops taking part in the U.N. stabilisation mission in Haiti.

Nor is the practice exclusive to Guatemala. The Honduran government announced on Aug. 31 that 2,000 soldiers would help patrol the streets, while in El Salvador, 700 troops were added in late August to the 1,300 already providing back-up to the national police.

The Guatemalan constitution, which was amended in 1993, establishes that the army’s role is to maintain the independence, sovereignty and honour of Guatemala, its territorial integrity, peace and internal and external security.

But Marco Tulio Álvarez, assistant director of the analysis unit at the government office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights, told IPS that the military’s role in internal security was “intended to be on an emergency basis, but has practically become the rule.”

“The combined forces have become virtually a permanent fixture, and the aim outlined in the peace accords to strengthen and professionalise the PNC has been somewhat abandoned,” he added.

The peace agreement that put an end to 36 years of civil war between the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the armed forces was made up of 11 different accords, the last of which were signed in 1996.

The armed conflict left 200,000 people – mainly Mayan Indians – dead (including 45,000 victims of forced disappearance). According to an independent truth commission, the army was responsible for over 90 percent of the human rights violations.

The accord on the strengthening of civilian power and the role of the army in a democratic society strictly limits the army’s role to the defence of the borders and of Guatemala’s territorial integrity.

The reduction in the size of the armed forces stipulated by the peace accords was carried out, as was the creation of the PNC, a new police body aimed at strengthening civilian power.

But the PNC has only recruited 19,000 members – equivalent to just one-third of the estimated number of private security guards in this country of 13 million.

Human rights groups and social organisations are not pleased with the army’s new role in civil policing, although they do not challenge its legality.

Álvarez said that “the perception of insecurity still remains, but with the added element that the visible military presence brings to mind past eras, the years of militarisation that Guatemala experienced, and which people had seen as a thing of the past..”

Mario Polanco, director of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), a local human rights organisation, said “the armed forces are turning out to be as ineffective as the PNC” in curtailing the rising crime rates, and added that in rural areas their presence “could revive bad memories from the past.”

Under the scorched earth counterinsurgency policy applied in the early 1980s, some 440 rural villages of indigenous people were completely destroyed in Guatemala, along with all of their inhabitants, by the security forces and the “civil defence patrols” armed by the military.

Carmen de León-Escribano, director of the Institute of Teaching for Sustainable Development, said that putting the army on the streets is not a preventive measure. She advocated the creation, under the umbrella of the peace accords, of an intelligence centre commanded by civilians, to stop fighting “with our eyes closed.”

In her view, the government must design a comprehensive security policy that would not neglect the social and economic factors that drive young people into crime or youth gangs.

According to official statistics, 56 percent of the Guatemalan population is poor, although independent groups put the proportion as high as 80 percent.

Guido Albani, chair of the commission on human rights and security in the National Council on the Peace Accords, called for the re-launch of an advisory council for security made up of representatives of civil society. The council, created by the peace accords, was to support the government in designing security strategies.

The police themselves also contribute to the sense of insecurity. Between May and August, eight complaints were filed with the office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights – six for abuse of authority and two for violations of personal integrity.

These complaints involve procedures like forcing a suspect to strip in order to search for tattoos – a frequent sign of gang affiliation – searches of homes carried out at gunpoint, or mistreatment and insults of people who are stopped for a search.

In response to a question from IPS regarding these complaints, PNC director Erwin Sperissen said “no criminal admits to being a delinquent when he is arrested. They all try to present themselves as victims.”

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