Guatemala’s Uncertain Future

As Guatemala prepares for a runoff presidential election November 6, both presidential candidates are promising a mano dura (iron fist) approach to combatting crime and violence, which have escalated in the country in recent years. But while an increasingly militarized response to the violence may crack down on organized criminal groups, it does not solve the persistent weakness of the state which underlies Guatemala’s troubles, according to experts who convened at the Inter-American Dialogue on September 20.

The 1996 signing of the peace accords that ended more than 30 years of armed conflict was supposed to mark the end of discrimination, exclusion, and human rights violations in Guatemala, commented Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group. The stark reality of the past 15 years, he said, has been the “glaring failure of the political system to fulfill those accords.”  While the peace accords were designed to end state repression and begin to construct democracy, persistent state weakness has allowed drug trafficking and common crime to take hold in Guatemala, increasing fear and violence. The highly sophisticated trafficking group, the Zetas, has rapidly moved into Guatemala’s northern provinces and is particularly willing to use extreme violence to establish territorial control.

The organized mafias and the “eruption” of Mexican-led cartels in Guatemala “are only the latest in a cycle of failure,” remarked Javier Ciurlizza, Latin America program director at the International Crisis Group. He noted that Guatemala’s geography placed it at the center of the hemispheric drug trade, and its underemployed and marginalized population has provided a workforce for the cartels. Meanwhile, weak institutions and a “general climate of impunity” have allowed cartels to operate with little resistance. But he stressed that Guatemala is not a “failed state” as it does have regular elections, functioning schools and universities, and has experienced some economic growth over the past decade.

Anita Isaacs, professor of political science at Haverford College, agreed that Guatemala provides “fertile terrain” for organized crime, and she added that the current situation indeed has its roots in Guatemala’s armed conflict.  In economic, social, and political terms, Guatemala remains just as profoundly exclusionary and unequal a country as it was during the civil conflict, which claimed approximately 200,000 lives, 83 percent of whom were indigenous.

For these reasons a militarized, or counterinsurgency strategy will not work, Isaacs stressed. “Guatemala is the perfect case of ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past,’” she remarked. “The similarity of the before and after pictures makes me believe that militarization will not work. We know how a counterinsurgency war works: we see a privatization and a subcontracting of violence.”

Panelists offered some recommendations for moving forward, suggesting policymakers take inspiration from the text of the peace accords of 1996, the success of the UN International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and the institution-building work of the UN MINUGUA mission in 1997.

The key, all panelists agreed, is to strengthen Guatemalan institutions and tackle underlying structural deficiencies, efforts that will require sustained, long-term efforts to build state capacities and restore the confidence of the people.

In Guatemala’s first round of voting on September 11, no presidential candidate received the 50 percent necessary to win outright, forcing the runoff. Otto Pérez Molina, a retired army general, received 36 percent of the vote and Manuel Baldizón, businessman and former member of Congress, received 23 percent support. Notably, Sandra Torres, former wife of current president Alvaro Colom, was removed from the ballot by the court system, causing anger among indigenous communities where she enjoyed broad support.

The political process faces serious threats from the strength of organized crime groups, as illustrated by out-of-control spending during this election cycle. The International Crisis Group reported that campaign finance limits were disregarded by all parties, with levels of spending between $50 and $70 million. “There is no doubt that drug money reached into the campaigns on almost every level,” said Mark Schneider.

The panelists did express some optimism, however, that with the current levels of dissatisfaction among the population (11 percent of Guatemalans spoiled their vote in the first round), there could be a social movement stirring which demands greater political participation and institutional reform.  “People are disgusted,” said Anita Isaacs. “This election could be a watershed moment for Guatemala.”