The Guatemalan elections are taking place against a complex background of a largely impoverished population yearning for some semblance of law and order. The September 11th presidential elections resulted in a run-off between Otto Perez Molina, a conservative former general and Manuel Baldizon, a wealthy businessman running as a populist.

Guatemala is far from being a solid state. It is a state where insecurity, corruption and drug trafficking has destroyed its foundations. Institutional corruption is such that people have lost all confidence in their government up to the point that people often refuse to pay taxes or take the law into their own hands by conducting public lynching of suspected criminals.

As Mexican drug cartels control most of the trafficking of drugs to the United States, Guatemala has become a bastion of organized crime. Guatemala shares an uncontrolled border with Mexico. For a very long time it has had weak state institutions. This makes Guatemala a perfect transit country for the passage of drugs on their way to the U.S. Indeed, more than one ton of cocaine passes through Guatemala every single day.

As a result, Guatemala has turned into a very insecure country where murder rates are among the highest per capita in the world. (5,000 murders a year in a country of 13 million).  The number of people detained or prosecuted for murder is minimal. This makes the criminal work of the drug cartels easier. In addition, corruption is rampant in the security apparatus. This is more so in the police forces than in the military but drug cartels have managed to penetrate the military as well as influence public officials including mayors, members of Congress and others.

Given police and political weakness, current president, Alvaro Colom (elected in 2007) took a number of measures. He fired and replaced key ministers such as the Interior and Defense ministers as well as the inspector general of the armed forces. He also secured congressional approval of U.S. $1 billion to modernize the anti-drug operation. Likewise, he mobilized the army despite the army’s problematic past of being responsible for massacres that occurred during almost four decades of civil war. However at Colom’s own admission the Guatemalan security forces confiscated more than 10 billion dollars from the traffickers which could be an indication that cartels have much more money. This means that they can easily buy the Guatemalan state and there is no chance that this situation could be reverted.  In Colom’s own words:

“We seriously underestimated just how deep the infiltration of organized crime was in our institutions…We have done as much as possible, but there is a limit to what the state can do. The drug traffickers are much better armed and financed than our military government” (quoted from Alvaro Colom’s interview with Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera, August 14, 2011)

The problem has worsened as the Zetas, a most dangerous group composed by former Mexican and Guatemalan members of the military, has consolidated a presence in large parts of Guatemala. The Zetas have provided weapons to key Guatemalan families involved in drug trafficking. Therefore, violence has increased considerably as a result of this and the power-consolidation of the drug cartels has been further enhanced.

As a result of all of these developments, the amount of drugs transiting Guatemala doubled in the last decade.

Upcoming Elections

Candidates for public office have run on a platform that calls for the restoration of law and order. Presidential candidate, Otto Perez Molina, is seen as the most likely to win in the November run-off election (he received 36% of the vote in the first round) because he promised a tough hand against drug traffickers and violators of public order. The other candidate is Manuel Baldizon, a businessman and former congressman who also promised a tough stand on crime and promised to care for the needy and the poor. People are so thirsty for law and order that accusations that Mr. Perez Molina was involved in human rights violations during the civil war that ended in 1996 mattered very little to them. Amazingly enough among those cheering Mr. Molina are members of the indigenous population coming from areas where allegedly the candidate perpetrated human rights abuses.
The military today in Guatemala is seen as the least corrupt institution of all. Many view the military as the only hope. It is from this perspective that the popularity of Perez Molina should be understood.

Whoever candidate wins this election must follow Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s footsteps. Even we Mexico is still struggling with a major challenge, we have seen some success and a lot of good will.

However, the U.S should take into account that under the circumstances described above, it is very difficult to be under the illusion that a president, regardless of good intentions, will be able to deliver on his promises in Guatemala.

It is extremely important for U.S. policy makers not to rely on campaign slogans or promises. The situation in Guatemala can easily expand and, in fact, is expanding to the rest of Central America. Most recently the Honduras interior minister, Oscar Alvarez, was dismissed from office not for corruption but the opposite. Mr. Alvarez was an enemy of corrupt cops and very outspoken on this matter. Honduran president, Porfirio Lobo surrendered to pressure from within and ended up firing him.

The Merida Initiative, aimed at helping Mexico and Central America fighting drug smuggling and cartels, consists in helping local law enforcement agencies perform their jobs better. It provides sophisticated equipment, intelligence, and other devices to help their security forces enforce the law. However, this may not be enough. There are voices who criticize the insufficiency of such program even for Mexico.

Thus, perhaps more funding might be needed as some claim or at least some sort of upgrade.  But what is also needed is a closer presence and monitoring by the U.S.  The U.S may ultimately need to request permission from the Guatemalan government to increase its operations within the country.  Such permission should include an element of independence for U.S agents. This would be a situation similar to the one that existed with Pakistan until the killing of Osama Bin Laden last May: with Pakistan’s permission, the U.S used to launch missiles and conduct other type of military operations.

In the case of Guatemala, it could be a win-win situation for both countries and the region as a whole.


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