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GUATEMALA
Has the Pérez Molina administration really managed to tackle crime?
Louisa Reynolds
8/18/2014
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Heavy-handed policies have failed to reduce murder rates, extortion, robberies, kidnappings and femicides.

On June 7, an ordinary journey home turned into a nightmare for the passengers on a bus travelling to the colonia Maya, a notoriously crime-ridden neighborhood in Guatemala City, when a car pulled up next to the bus and a man unleashed a shower of bullets on the driver and terrified passengers. The bus driver was injured but the passengers on board managed to escape unscathed.

Scenes such as this are a common occurrence in Guatemala, where, according to police statistics, 97 bus and taxi drivers were killed during the first semester of 2013 — mostly by gangs demanding extortion money — more than double the number reported in 2012. These figures show that attacks on the public transport system persist despite the fact that a new bus network — the Transurbano — that requires passengers to pay their fares using a prepaid card in order to eliminate the use of cash, was launched in 2010.

Extortion has become such a widespread problem that in July 2013, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said that even garbage collectors and sex workers in the city center were being targeted by gang members and forced to pay a weekly impuesto or extortion fee. 

Added to this, femicide rates have continued to rise and according to the National Institute of Forensic Science (INACIF), 759 women were murdered in Guatemala in 2013, a 7.35% year on year increase. Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla has stated that this is the result growing female involvement in crime, an all too easy explanation that shifts the blame to the victim, say human rights activists.

Gangs are blamed for everything
The shooting of two teenage sisters, Karla Daniela and Nancy Paola Oscal Pérez, aged 17 and 14, which shocked a nation that has become desensitized to violence, is a case in point. In April this year, the two girls were shot a few meters away from their school by gunmen who fled the scene on a motorbike. Karla Daniela was instantly killed and Nancy Paola died in hospital three weeks later. The case caused outrage and controversy after President Otto Pérez Molina visited Nancy Paola in hospital to offer the family his condolences and openly stated that the shooting was gang related, despite the fact that the police investigation had only just begun, and should serve as a warning for other young girls who could be tempted to get involved with gang members.

“This should be a warning for young men and women so that they’re careful with who they hang out with, so that they don’t allow gang members to use them. [Gangs] begin by using them and then they end up getting killed”, said Pérez Molina.

With 34 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to police statistics, Guatemala continues to be ranked as one of the most violent countries in the world.

It is thus hardly surprising that Pérez Molina, a retired army general, was elected mainly on his promise to enforce heavy-handed mano dura policies to fight crime, a campaign pledge that would later become one of his administration’s three major “pacts”, the other two being reducing hunger and fiscal reform. However, after two and half years, what does his administration have to show for?

The current government has focused on the creation of 10 “task forces” — police units supported by experts in criminal investigation as well as soldiers, in some cases — in order to tackle specific crimes such as murder, femicide, kidnapping, car theft, mobile phone theft and extortion. Their mission is to identify criminal organizations, produce analysis and investigations that allow criminals to be prosecuted and strengthen the police. Other special police forces have also been created to act as a deterrent and prevent criminal activity in some of Guatemala City´s most dangerous neighbourhoods.

The effectiveness of this strategy has been hotly debated. Pérez Molina and López Bonilla, one of the possible candidates who could face off during the primaries of the governing Partido Patriota, point to the fact that the number of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants has fallen during two consecutive years, as evidence that this strategy is working.

In January this year, the police released statistics showing that the number of homicides had dropped in the last two years from 38.61 to 34.03 per 100,000 inhabitants. “Over the past two years, under this government, important steps have been taken in order to build a safer and more prosperous Guatemala”, said Pérez Molina.

The use of armed forces
Security expert Carlos Mendoza, of Central America Business Intelligence (CABI) told Latinamerica Press that although these figures do suggest a downward trend of homicides, it is difficult to explain the reason for this without a serious and in-depth study on the issue.

For many critics, though, the use of the military to fight organized crime has set alarm bells ringing and has been regarded as an obstacle to police reform. Since he took power in January 2012, Pérez Molina has increased the role of the armed forces, deploying soldiers to road blocks across the country and creating new military brigades to fight drug trafficking and patrol the country’s borders. More controversially though, he has repeatedly used the armed forces to “intervene” in institutions that are perceived to be underperforming as a result of corruption and mismanagement, such as the customs offices.

“The armed forces have not been trained to provide citizen security but the population respects the army and holds it in high regard. Its presence acts as a deterrent but ideally the police should be capable of taking on these responsibilities”, says Mendoza.

However, the army has also been used to suppress peasant protests often using excessive force against unarmed civilians, as occurred in October 2012 when seven indigenous peasants were killed in a deadly clash between the army and demonstrators who had blockaded the Inter-American Highway during a demonstration against excessive energy prices. As a result, army colonel Juan Chiroy Sal and eight soldiers were charged with the extrajudicial killing of the protesters.
—Latinamerica Press.


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The current government has created special police units to tackle criminal organizations. (Photo: Ministerio de Gobernación)
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