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Security Sector Reform in Guatemala
For 26 years, from 1960 until 1996 and the signing of the Accord for a “Firm andLasting Peace”, Guatemala was the setting of one of the bloodiest of Latin
America’s Cold War armed conflicts. During this period, a national security doctrinemilitarized the state. The last provision of the Peace Accord in Guatemala, the‘Agreement on the Strengthening of Civilian Power and on the Role of the ArmedForces in a Democratic Society’, signed by the government of Alvaro Arzú and the
URNG, publicly acknowledged the institutional weakness of the public securitysystem which contributed to the conditions for civil war, and provided the blueprint for security sector reform in Guatemala. It is within this detailed,comprehensive, and often noted “overly-ambitious” framework that Guatemala has
undertaken the task of reforming its security apparatus, with one of the major aimsof subordinating the military to civilian authority and control (Jones, 2000, p. 147).
In May 1999, in a referendum in which only one out of every five citizens
voted, the constitutional reform project—the backbone of the peace accords—
which contained some key ingredients for successful SSR, was defeated. Since thesigning of the peace, there have been substantial changes in the security apparatus,but the military continues to play a significant role in Guatemalan society, and othersecurity institutions remain weak and often inefficient. The Government faces the
enormous challenge of how to efficiently and democratically address the chronicviolence that continues to envelop and destabilize Guatemala’s fragile democracy.
Constitutional Reforms that would have consolidated the separation of police and
army functions, and would have greatly reformed the military were defeated in the1999 nation-wide referendum and have been considered a major setback for militaryreform. Under Article 244, the army continues to have the explicit constitutionalresponsibility for maintaining internal security, although under the control of the
President. As a result, the pace of reforms to the Guatemalan military has greatlydepended on the incumbent President and his administration who have a carteblanche
in dictating the role of the security forces. President Arzu’s establishment ofcivilian supremacy over the military was a major accomplishment, and he has
achieved some other important successes. The army trimmed its overall size, shrunkits budget, civil patrols that controlled rural areas were demobilized, and even a newmilitary doctrine and educational system were established in late 1999 (Ruhl, 2005,p. 61). President Portillo made some moves that appeared to continue military
reforms, such as altering military leadership on several occasions. As a result of hisalliance with former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, Portillo has been noted tocontribute to the ‘politicization’ of the armed forces by giving senior appointmentsto loyal officers (Ruhl, 2004, p. 144). After 2000, under his presidency, the army’s
internal mission and budgets were both expanded. Although the Guatemalan armedforces’ budget was supposed to be reduced, official military spending ballooned toover US $198 million in 2001, a level not seen since the war (Ruhl, 2005, p. 71). Asense of crisis in the area of public security that emerged since the signing of the
peace accords has resulted in the decision by both governments of Arzu and Portillothat the army should participate in internal security missions jointly with theGuatemalan Police (ibid). The army has been assigned to continue patrolling thestreets and in rural areas, a number of military posts that were closed down in 1996
were reopened against the spirit of the peace accords (Jones, 2000, p. 148).
Allegations of corruption and human rights abuses by military leaders continue, andsecurity forces are often deployed to suppress agrarian disputes, which often resultin violence and the use of excessive force by the military. According to Amnesty
International, the upsurge in political violence and repression that targeted humanrights defenders, legal personnel and journalists, and has characterized Portillo’sadministration (2000–2003), has been noted as a direct consequences of thecontinued control still held by Ríos Montt (Amnesty International, 2005). Since
2004, under the current Presidency of Oscar Berger, there have been substantialchanges to the armed forces and an active effort to safeguard human rights. Bergerhas also made a pledge to replace corrupt senior military officials (Ruhl, 2004, p.
145). The Guatemalan military has decreased in size from 27 000 to 15 000, and it is
transforming its forces to co-operative peacekeeping missions. Such a reform isexemplified in Guatemala’s recent peacekeeping mission in Haiti. In 2005 the Bushadministration released US $3.2 million in military assistance as a reward toGuatemala for its progress in overhauling the military, and in 2006, US $900 000 will
be given to train and modernize the Guatemalan Armed Forces, specifically theunits which hunt narcotic traffickers (Lumpkin, 2005).
The failure of the constitutional amendments prevented appointing a civilian
minister of national defense; as a result, the minister of national defense continuesto be a military officer. However, this officer arguably holds his position at thediscretion of the President, and has tended to represent the interests of thePresident rather than the view of the armed forces (Ruhl, 2005, p. 75). The minister
of defense continues to be the principal coordinator of the defense sector, andvirtually only military officers continue to hold all the planning and policymakingpositions in the ministry (ibid, p. 76). In 2004, the minister of national defense hadonly one senior civilian adviser (ibid). In 2003 Portillo established a Governmental
Accord on National Defense Policy, creating a new civil-military structure fordeveloping defense policy, to be led by a six-person Collegial Leadership Committeecomposed of militaries and civilians. This new arrangements has not yet led toincreased civilian co-ordination, as the Ministry of Defense continues to develop its
own plans, doctrines, and educational curricula (Ruhl, 2005). Although plans weredeveloped for additional educational and human rights reforms to the military
academy curriculum, the incoming defense ministers have not been bound tocontinue educational initiatives that were initiated by their predecessors early in thereform process. There continues to be no coherent plan for modernizing militaryeducation (Ruhl, 2005). President Berger has recently altered some laws governing
the military and the chain of command, and he has proposed to create a permanenthuman rights office within the defense ministry (SOAW, 2005; Ruhl, 2004, p. 146).
The Directorate of Intelligence of the Military General Staff (D-2) has had a long
history of human rights abuses and interference with the criminal justice system.
The peace agreement provided for the restructuring and creation of new civilianintelligence agencies, more specifically: a Department of Civilian Intelligence andInformation Analysis (DICAI) in the Ministry of Interior, to collect information
related to internal security; and a Strategic Analysis Secretariat (SAE) to analyzeintelligence received from both DICAI and D-2, and inform the President (Ruhl,2004, p. 62). Although under President Arzu SAE was created, military personnelwere initially appointed to its staff (ibid). Furthermore, the army continues to be the
primary gatherer of information on internal security matters. According to aMINUGUA report, military agents in some cases have continued to “carry outparallel investigations without having any authority to do so, diverting official policeinvestigations, and obstructing judicial work” (Ruhl, 2004, p. 64). It was not until
2003 that the infamous presidential general staff (EMP-Estado Mayor Presidencial
),who was often implicated in human rights abuses, was formally abolished (Ruhl,2005, p. 145). President Berger plans to expand civilian intelligence capabilities as tolimit military intelligence to activities relevant to the country’s external defense
The peace accords established the creation of a new civilian police (PNC). TheGuatemalan PNC copied much of its organization, structure, and disciplinary
system from the Spanish Guardia (Byrne, Stanley and Garst, 2000). Since itscreation, the 21 000-member PNC has been understaffed, poorly trained, andcontinuously under-funded. In the February 1997 crisis over creating the newNational Civilian Police law, the government drafted and sent the law to Congress
where it was passed, before the Comisión de Acompañamiento
mandated to approve ithad even been constituted (Jones, 2000). The law itself created a number ofprovisions (e.g. about eligibility for service in the PNC) that violated the spirit of thepeace accords and threatened to leave the country with a militarized police force
(ibid). Serious questions have been raised by the formation of the PNC by recyclingof old security forces with virtually no consideration given their background. Inviolation of the accords and despite of protests by MINUGUA, at least 40 formerarmy officer, 22 ex-officials of the Military Guard, and 180 former Mobile Military
Police members were accepted into the PNC (Jones, 2000, p. 151). According toPerez, (2003/04, p. 632), the growing crime problem has attributed to theGuatemalan’s government decision to incorporate these former security agents. Itwas only in 2002 in response to wide criticism, especially from civil society groups,
that the control of the PNC was removed from ex-military officers to a civilian whowas appointed as Interior Minister. There is some civilian oversight of the police,specifically the Office of Professional Responsibility, whose main duties includeinvestigating misconduct by police officers (US DOS, 2004). Although the ORP has
made significant improvement in professionalism, its independence andeffectiveness is hindered by the lack of support from the PNC leadership (ibid).
Although no active members of the military serve in the police command structure,the government has increasingly relied on the army to support the police in
response to the rising rates of violent crime. Moreover, military personnel are notclearly subordinated to police control during joint patrols or operations (ibid).
MINUGUA stated in its March 1999 verification report, “… despite the fact that,on numerous occasions, the Interior Ministry has stated its intention to suspend the
combined patrols in areas where the new PNC has been deployed, this has still nothappened” (MINUGUA, 1999, p. 9). There is a USAID Mission contributing with anew crime-prevention plan designed to assist communities and local police. At thenational level USAID will provide assistance to the government of Guatemala to
build capacity in local police forces and educate the leadership on topics such ascommunity policing, respect for human rights, and the management of scarceresources (USAID, 2005).
The post-war period has been marked by the growth in the privatization of violencein Guatemala. Private security firms multiplied since the end of the conflict, withprivate security officers outnumbering the police 3 to 1 (Sieder, Thomas, Vickersand Spence, 2002). Although the Ministry of Interior has the responsibility to
regulate private security firms, little has done to investigate the more than 60 000private security agents that work in the country and often fail to comply with thenecessary legal requirements (US DOS, 2004). A great deal of political violence andthe mobilization of former civil defense patrols marked the 2003 presidential
elections, where the presidential candidate, former dictator Ríos Montt, wasdefeated. According to a report published by the Washington Office on LatinAmerica in 2003, the are groups of clandestine structures made up of powerfulbusiness interests, retired generals, ex-soldiers, and ex-PACs that play an
increasingly important role in organized crime and actively work to destabilize thepeace (Byrne, Stanley and Garst, 2000 see next quote).
Despite the fact that in 1992 Guatemala became the first country in Latin Americato enact comprehensive reforms to its Criminal Procedures Code, according to a2000 report by the Washington Office on Latin America, the Guatemalan Justice
System was almost non-functional. It also states that the authoritarian legacy and alack of confidence in both the police and the courts are a reflection of the popularityof private and punitive solutions to crime, including a recent wave of lynchings. TheGuatemalan Supreme Court President reported that the Court’s budget for 2004
was insufficient and inadequate for even the basic needs of the judiciary (US DOS,2004). Similarly, the Public Ministry has been hampered by efforts to investigatecrimes and prosecute offenders by inadequate training and equipment, excessivecaseloads, and insufficient numbers of qualified investigators (ibid). The
Guatemalan prison system is in crisis. It continues to suffer from a severe lack ofresources, particularly in the areas of prison security and medical facilities. Themilitary continues to provide perimeter security for various prisons in Guatemala.
The corruption of prison officials is endemic, which has also resulted in frequent
breakouts by prisoners. The government however, continues efforts to reform thejudicial system, and there is a ‘Modernization Plan for the Judicial Branch’ (WorldBank, 2005). In 2003, Congress passed a Minors’ Protection Law, which reformedthe Penal System and outlines the rights and expected treatments of minors in
detention. There are now also 15 justice centers in Guatemala, which providedispute resolution and problem solving (US DOS, 2004). There are multiple donorsin Guatemala’s justice reform, including the World Bank, the IDB, USAID, theUNDP, MINIGUA, the OAS, the EU and numerous bilateral donors.
Parliamentary oversight of Security Forces
Under the leadership of Arzú, the army lost some if its political independence;however, it was allowed to continue conducting its internal affairs with little outsideinterference and legislative oversight is limited (Ruhl, 2005, p. 65). As Arévalo de
León, a notable Guatemalan scholar points out, “… the military no longer exercisespolitical control over the state, but civilian authorities do not exercise full,democratic, institutional control over the armed forces either” (2002, p. 151). TheGuatemalan Parliament has done little to pass laws for military reform, not
undertaken its supervisory functions. There has been some progress to curtail themilitary’s institutional autonomy by increasing civilian capabilities to oversee itsactivities (Ruhl, 2004, p. 65). However, only a small number of civilian officialshave worked in the Ministry of National Defense, and only a few members of
Congress have stayed long enough on the Defense Commission to develop anexpertise of military affairs (ibid). There has not been a professional cadre of civilservants or political appointees assisting the minister of national defense in thedesign or implementation of security policies. In the aftermath of the conflict, the
military finances still remain secret and not subject to congressional supervision,
although the Guatemalan Congress now shares with the president some authority todetermine the size of the armed forces’ budget. The national security provision ofArticle 30 of the Guatemalan Constitution permits the armed forces to guard theirbudget as a state secret and the military has not offered any detailed accounting of
its expenditure to Congress (Republica de Guatemala, 1985). Moreover, although acivilian commission was supposed to be established to control the intelligenceorganisms of Guatemala, no such institution was created (Ruhl, 2004, p. 64). In2003 Guatemala published its first defense white paper with collaboration between
the military and civil society groups (Ruhl, 2005, p. 145).
Conclusion: An overview of Guatemala’s SSR process
Guatemala has undoubtedly made some significant reforms to its security sector.
However, there continue to be significant challenges and obstacles. While the Peace
Accords paved the way for instrumental reforms to be undertaken, the defeat of the1999 nation-wide referendum was a considerable setback to SSR in Guatemala.
Many security-related institutions remain unprepared and dependent oninternational funding to properly address the growing criminal violence, which has
become a mainstay characteristic of the post-conflict period. Increasingly thegovernment (and Guatemalan citizens) have accepted relying on the military forinternal security, often undermining some of the significant restrains that have beenpreviously achieved with the Guatemalan armed forces. Strengthening the judiciary
appears not only to be a greatly needed priority, but a necessity in order to rebuildconfidence in Guatemala’s judicial system, and prevent citizens from further takingjustice into their own hands.
Guatemala continues to be the recipient of multiple donor activities.
International aid to Guatemala, especially ‘democracy’ assistance, increasedsignificantly in the post-conflict period (from US $200 million from 1990-1995 toUS $600 million per year in 1996-2002) (Azpuru, 2004). The GTZ along with otherinternational donors such as USAID or CIDA for example, have prioritized their
program areas to focus on projects that contribute to the overall process of peacepromotion and conflict prevention, which either directly or indirectly target issuesrelated to SSR. However, the Guatemalan case demonstrates that assigning militarypersonnel to democratic institutions, such as in the newly established intelligence
agencies in Guatemala, is like having the “hardware of democracy” but operating itwith the “software of authoritarianism” (Arévalo de León, 2002). Good governanceof the security sector—effective, efficient, participatory, accountable, and with atransparent monopoly on the use of force—appears to be based not only on
appropriate democratic structures, but also on norms that reflect democratic policyand practices. Moreover, because Guatemala’s civil society groups remain weak andoften divided, combined with a political and economic system that continues to bedominated by national elites, ultimately, SSR in Guatemala seems to be highly
dependent on the will, co-operation, and vision of the incumbent politicalleadership. There are high expectations placed on the government of President
Oscar Berger, whose objectives are to implement the peace agreements, establishthe rule-of-law structures, and to reduce corruption, poverty, and immunity whichwill also help alleviate the growing crime problem, and hence improve security. Asto whether vested-interest groups will allow his government to make the necessary
reforms to achieve these ambitious goals, remains to be seen.
Amnesty International, 2005, Report: Guatemala. Available at
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