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Guatemala: Squeezed between Crime and Impunity

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The 1996 peace accords formally ended Guatemala's civil war, but failure to address the conflict's root causes and to dismantle clandestine security apparatus has weakened its institutions and opened the door to skyrocketing violent crime. The UN-sanctioned International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has made some progress in addressing high-level corruption, but in June 2010 its director resigned, saying the government had not kept its promise to support CICIG's work and reform the justice system. The President needs to consolidate recent gains with institutional reform, anti-corruption measures, vetting mechanisms and a more inclusive political approach, including to indigenous peoples. Reform of the police and military as well as the corrections and justice systems are among the priorities.

Guatemala is one of the world's most dangerous countries, with 6,500 murders in 2009 - more than the average yearly killings during the civil war. In addition to the rise of clandestine groups, many directed by ex-senior military officers and politicians, the country has seen the proliferation of Mexican drug-trafficking organisations (DTOs) and youth gangs ('maras'). Criminal organisations traffic in everything from illegal drugs to adopted babies, and street gangs extort and terrorise entire neighbourhoods, often with the complicity of authorities.

The administration of President Alvaro Arzu and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrilla group signed peace accords fourteen years ago that promised a massive overhaul of the military and of a system that marginalised the majority of citizens, and served the interests of the small economic and political elite. However, there has been little follow-through. Guatemala has become a paradise for criminals, who have little to fear from prosecutors owing to high levels of impunity.

  • An overhaul of the security forces in the wake of the peace accords created an ineffective and deeply corrupt police.
  • High-profile assassinations and the government's inability to reduce murders have produced paralysing fear, a sense of helplessness and frustration.
  • In the past few years, the security environment has deteriorated further, and the population has turned to vigilantism.

Some progress has been made with international assistance, however, in particular from the CICIG. To achieve lasting results, Guatemalans and their international counterparts need to act in the following areas:

  • The government of Guatemala should give priority to reforming the police and military as well as the corrections and justice systems; ensuring the vetting of and financial disclosure by high-level government and state officials, so as to combat corruption; stimulating the full political and economic participation of indigenous leaders and communities; and improving the legislature's professional capacity in the area of justice reform and law enforcement.
  • Central American governments, as well as Panama and Mexico, together with the Andean region, should continue to advance cooperation and information-sharing initiatives, in order to better combat crime, gangs and drug trafficking.
  • The international community should extend CICIG's mandate beyond September 2011; expand it to specifically address crime and corruption; and increase political and financial support. Increased support for institutional reform and capacity building is also needed, so that Guatemala can eventually take over CICIG's functions effectively.
  • The U.S., within the Mérida Initiative framework, should increase funding and make its support to Central America, especially Guatemala, more effective.


Author: International Crisis Group
Source: International Crisis Group, 2010, 'Guatemala: Squeezed between Crime and Impunity', Latin America Report No. 33, International Crisis Group, Washington, D.C.
Size: 31 pages (2.3 MB)