Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Guatemalans Long for Security, Fear More Abuses

GUATEMALA CITY, Jan 18 2012 (IPS) - Guatemala’s new president, retired general Otto Pérez Molina, made campaign promises to deal with crime with a firm hand (“mano dura”) in this country, one of the most violent in the world where impunity is almost absolute, giving rise to cautious hopes from civil society.

Pérez Molina talks to journalists after being sworn in as president. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

Pérez Molina talks to journalists after being sworn in as president. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

“We are giving him the benefit of the doubt, but in view of the appointments that are in the pipeline, we believe that he is going to apply reactive measures that may result in abuses,” Arturo Chub of Seguridad en Democracia (Security in Democracy), an NGO, told IPS.

Rightwing President Pérez Molina took office Jan. 14 for a four-year term, committing himself to “work for peace, justice and comprehensive security”. Two days later he announced changes in the interior ministry, in charge of domestic security.

He created three task forces, focusing on violent robbery, extortion, and killings by hired assassins, the leading crimes that terrorise Guatemalan society.

Pérez also appointed a new chief of police. The force has been severely discredited since large numbers of police officers were accused of participating in illegal activities, such as drug trafficking.

“These are reactive actions, but there is still no clear policy for coordination between the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which carries out criminal prosecutions, and the Judicial Branch, the highest judicial authority,” said Chub.

He also expressed concern about the absence of a crime prevention policy, like the “Open Schools” programme instituted by former social democratic president Álvaro Colom (2008-2012), which opened the doors of public schools on weekends for educational, recreational and artistic activities.

“The programme created opportunities for the socialisation and training of young people who have few options; some places lack any public spaces, and using schools is an alternative option,” he said.

Chub also said he favours a programme for developing a culture of respect for the rule of law, “because as a society we have lost these values, and we behave as if it were normal to break the law, physically assault people, pay (a bribe) for a driving licence, and so on.”

Guatemala is ranked among the 14 most violent countries in the world, according to a 2011 report by the secretariat of the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, a diplomatic initiative launched in 2008 that aims to reduce armed violence worldwide in conflict and non-conflict settings.

Published in October 2011, the document states that 25 percent of all violent deaths worldwide are concentrated in these 14 countries, six of which are Latin America.

According to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) established in 2008 by the United Nations and the Guatemalan government, 98 percent of crimes committed in this country of 14 million people remain unpunished, making Guatemala a paradise for criminals.

The Interior Ministry reported Jan. 3 that in 2011 there were 5,632 homicides in Guatemala, equivalent to a murder rate of 38.6 per 100,000 population, a decline of 8.4 percentage points since 2008. But the murder rate is much higher than the already high average rate in Latin America, at over 29 homicides per 100,000 population, according to international bodies.

“As a specialist civil society organisation, we are waiting to learn what the new government’s security policy will be,” Marco Antonio Canteo, an expert with the Institute for Comparative Studies in Criminal Sciences in Guatemala, an academic NGO working on criminal policy and human rights, told IPS.

“So far we have observed certain actions, but we hope that these are part of a comprehensive strategy,” he said.

Canteo said the new government should consider some “very important” key measures, such as creating a ministry for security, a police force for criminal investigations and other reforms to strengthen the police institutionally.

He said the government should also contribute to the fight against impunity by assigning financial resources to strengthen every level of the justice system.

“We want the new government to fulfil its promise to improve security, under the principles of democratic security and respect for human rights. We will make known our approval if it succeeds, and our condemnation if it fails to do so,” Canteo concluded.

Verónica Godoy, of the Public Security Monitoring and Support Group, a local NGO, told IPS that Pérez Molina “will find it difficult to achieve results in the area of security, especially if he believes that he can do it within six months.” Godoy said the perception of security is “very important for the population”, for example, “the previous government reported a 7.4 percent fall in the murder rate, but this was not really felt by the population.”

She also regarded crime prevention as “an essential issue”, requiring a lot of work at community level in conjunction with municipalities and local authorities.

“Unless this is done, any gains in the fight against crime may be only temporary,” she warned.

And the struggle against impunity must go hand in hand with combating crime.

“There needs to be a lot of coordination between all the institutions involved in the steps toward attaining justice, like the police, the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF), the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the judicial branch and the prison system,” she said.

In Godoy’s view, the new government of the rightwing Patriot Party has an opportunity to achieve results in the fight against crime, although it definitely “will not be at all easy,” she said.

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