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

Iron Fist Cracks Down on Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY, May 4 2012 (IPS) - Rightwing President Otto Pérez Molina is keeping his promise to take a hard line on soaring crime in Guatemala, but his government is neglecting prevention measures. Analysts warn the strategy, along with upcoming legal reforms, may jeopardise human rights.

One of the first steps taken by retired general Pérez Molina when he took office on Jan. 14 was to send army troops out on street patrols together with the National Civilian Police (PNC).

He also created special task forces to investigate the causes of and propose solutions for robbery, extortion, homicide, kidnapping and femicide (gender-based killings of women).

A sixth military unit to guard the border, beginning with the northwestern department (province) of San Marcos, on the border with Mexico, is expected to become operational in July. Its mission, according to the authorities, will be to combat contraband, and trafficking in persons, drugs and arms.

In April, a new department on drug trafficking was established in the Interior Ministry, while the police are receiving training in rapid response and use of weapons.

So in his first 100 days in office, Pérez Molina has set in motion his main electoral promise: to combat crime with “mano dura” (iron fist). But analysts and activists emphasise the need for preventive measures to bring down the skyrocketing crime rates.

“The country lacks a democratic policy on crime that takes into account basic, elementary matters and regards punitive intervention as the last resort,” said Marco Canteo of the Guatemalan Institute for Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences (ICCPG).

Canteo told IPS that criminal policy in a democratic country should be based on crime prevention and on safeguarding economic, social and cultural rights.

But the new government’s strategy is based on aggressive law enforcement ordered by the executive branch, backed by legislative measures, he said.

For instance, lawmaker Fernando García of the governing Patriotic Party (PP) introduced a bill proposing chemical castration of those convicted of sexual offences.

Pérez Molina is also considering changing Article 8 of the Civil Code to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 12, and he is pursuing an anti-gang bill introduced by his party but bogged down in Congress.

“These initiatives are essentially repressive in nature, and do not meet minimum standards in terms of human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” Canteo said.

Studies by international bodies rank this Central American country of 14 million people among the 14 most violent countries in the world. Last year, 6,187 people were murdered, 706 of them women, according to the state National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF).

But repressive measures in reaction to the violence do not of themselves ensure a solution, experts say.

“Prevention must be emphasised in schools, where the state should invest more money and not regard it as an unwelcome expense,” Nicolás Pacheco, an activist with the Social Movement for the Rights of Children, Adolescents and Young People in Guatemala, told IPS.

“What 17-year-old teenagers are doing now (in the epidemic of youth gang violence) is happening because no work was done with them 10 or 15 years ago on issues like human values and citizenship, and now we are reaping the consequences,” he said.

Therefore, Pacheco said, the idea of criminalising children and adolescents is “worrying.”

He said the anti-gang law “stigmatises young people because of the way they speak, dress, and cut their hair.” In his view, when crimes are committed by minors, “the adults responsible for the children should be prosecuted.”

The previous government of social democratic former president Álvaro Colom implemented the “Open Schools” initiative, which allowed public schools to be used at weekends for learning, recreational and artistic activities, to help prevent violence.

Verónica Godoy, of the Public Security Monitoring and Support Group (IMASP), a local NGO, told IPS that projects like “Open Schools”, which has been suspended, “should continue but in a comprehensive fashion.”

As a positive example, Godoy cited Brazil, where society, state and private institutions and local authorities work with different social groups, such as single mothers and gangs, through recreational programmes, anti-drug campaigns and situational crime prevention.

Godoy considers it essential to develop prevention programmes that have an impact “that is not evaluated in the immediate term, but in the medium and long term.”

Education also deserves more attention, according to Janet Possié, a teacher. “If every government focused on education, crime levels would fall, but this country is one of those that invest least in this area in Latin America,” she told IPS.

Possié added that she knows of no violence prevention initiative adopted by this government. But she said that “it would be unfair to criticise it for the actions it is taking, because the people are demanding tough measures against crime.”

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