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Security, Crime Are Top Issues Facing Guatemala

Security, Crime Are Top Issues Facing New Guatemalan President

Improving social conditions is seen as a key for Guatemala's new president, Álvaro Colom, to combat crime and insecurity in his nation.

Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia told USINFO recently that the "big question" for Colom is whether "violent crime spills over into the general population or is more concentrated in the drug cartels vying for position" in Guatemala.

Roig-Franzia, who covers Latin America and the Caribbean for his newspaper, said Guatemala, a partner in a Central American free-trade agreement with the United States, is plagued by violent drug cartels and youth street gangs and is reported to have one of the world's highest murder rates.

Roig-Franzia said Colom has indicated since his election November 4 that he may choose to use the Guatemalan military to attack organized crime, as Mexican President Felipe Calderón is doing in his country.

"But I think Colom is also saying that in order to combat crime in Guatemala he is going to have to improve social conditions for the population, and combining those two issues" into a successful strategy is one of his "greatest tasks," said Roig-Franzia.

Colom emerged victorious in the election despite forecasts to the contrary in the public opinion polls, said Roig-Franzia, because his message of developing public education and delivering health care resonated in Guatemala's rural regions. The polls, he said, apparently undercounted in the rural districts, where many citizens do not have phones or live in hard-to-reach areas.

Colom had credibility in his message of offering improved social conditions, said Roig-Franzia, because he headed the National Fund for Peace, a government development agency that helped people living in Guatemala's poorest and most remote areas. That agency was created after Guatemala's 36-year civil war ended in 1996.

"So Colom had both a message that attracted" voters and a "record to point to," Roig-Franzia said. Meanwhile, Colom's opponent, Otto Pérez Molina, the former head of Guatemalan army intelligence, while strong with voters in the nation's capital, Guatemala City, did not have the "infrastructure" to allow that support to penetrate to areas outside the capital, the Post reporter said.

The United States said in a statement that it looks forward to building "excellent relations" with Colom, as it had with the previous Guatemalan president, Oscar Berger. The statement, posted on the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, congratulated Colom on winning the election and praised the Guatemalan people for conducting peaceful elections and for "demonstrating their commitment to democracy and the constitutional process."

The United States signed an agreement with Guatemala in September that provides more than $2.3 million in continued American support against narcotrafficking and organized crime in the Central American nation.


Daniel Wilkinson, deputy director for the Americas at New York-based nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch, told USINFO that Colom faces "daunting challenges" in his four-year term as president with state institutions that are "highly dysfunctional." Wilkinson said Colom is opposed by "very powerful criminal mafias who will do whatever they can" to ensure that Guatemalan institutions remain weak.

Wilkinson said that one potentially promising development for Guatemala is the creation of a U.N.-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), which is supported by the United States, the European Union, and international and Guatemalan human rights groups. The CICIG, he said, is designed to work with local prosecutors to investigate and prosecute the criminal mafias who present an obstacle to human rights, the rule of law and the strengthening of the Guatemalan state. (See related article.)

Wilkinson said that if Guatemala has "any hope in making headway in reining in the criminal mafias and strengthening the rule of law," it will be "absolutely crucial" for the Colom government to follow up on its verbal commitment to "actively collaborate and support" the initiative.

Another human rights group, Amnesty International, said in a July 2 statement that the CICIG "could become a valuable contributor in the fight against [Guatemalan] clandestine criminal groups and the impunity they enjoy." Amnesty International said the "existence and operations of clandestine groups" in Guatemala "severely undermines respect" for the country's rule of law and human rights.


Glenn David Cox, a political studies professor at Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala City, offered a harsh assessment of Guatemalan leaders, who he said have failed to provide for human rights and security protections in the country. Cox told USINFO that human rights in Guatemala will improve "when an open society of opportunity takes hold and standards of living rise across the board."

Cox said crime and security problems continue to dominate the concerns of ordinary Guatemalans and, if left unsolved, could result in "paving the way" for the potential election as president in 2011 of Pérez Molina, the defeated candidate in 2007. Cox foresees a run by Pérez Molina in the next presidential election on a "strongman platform" of "crime fighting, drug busting and combating terrorists."


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