Guatemala: Are Governments Missing the Story on Homicides?

By Steven Dudley*

2048px-PNC_Guatemala

The special forces of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police (PNC). / Danilojramirez / Wikimedia Commons

A study of hundreds of homicides in Guatemala revealed major problems with authorities’ contention that “gang-related” and “drug trafficking-related” murders are at the center of the violence in that country, findings that complicate violence reduction programs in that country and elsewhere.  InSight Crime analyzed the murders in two areas: Zona 18 in Guatemala City, where 300,000 inhabitants live in what authorities designate a “gang area,” and the municipality of Chiquimula, a community of some 100,000, or what authorities call a “trafficking corridor.”  We also studied how police, forensic doctors, and government prosecutors gather and use information they gather during homicide investigations to clear cases or not.  It is less CSI and more creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucracy.

Key findings from the report include:

  • The confidence with which Guatemalan authorities attribute homicides to traffickers is not warranted by the available facts. In the trafficking corridor, we could reasonably attribute only 28 percent of the homicides to what we termed “organized crime-related” activities – significantly less than authorities normally publicly attribute to organized crime.  Drug trafficking, we believe, is an incorrect way of describing the dynamics behind this violence.  Another 38 percent of the cases lacked information to make a determination.
  • In the gang area, where Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) operate, we could reasonably attribute 41 percent of the homicides to gang-related activities – an estimate in line with what authorities say in Guatemala. Another 35 percent of the cases did not have enough information to make a determination.
  • Regardless of area, the widespread availability of firearms is a clear factor in the murder rate. An estimated 75 percent of all homicides occur at the end of a gun in Guatemala.  At 15.8 guns per 100 inhabitants, the country has the highest number of guns per capita in the region, according to World Bank data.  (El Salvador has 7.0 per 100, and Honduras, 6.2.).
  • Another theory to explain the level of homicides – that the more “indigenous” western highlands are less prone to violence than the more “ladino” eastern states – is in its infancy and beyond the scope of our study.

In both areas, the information from authorities was fragmented, disorganized, and sometimes missing altogether.  Reports are filled out by hand or typed into computers, but they are quickly buried in massive piles of data and are most likely erased or lost by the next person in that job.  Multiple, clashing bureaucracies operating on the different platforms and with different formats also have differing criteria for classifying data.  The low priority given to collecting and analyzing information, and poor training, seriously undermine authorities’ ability to understand the homicide phenomenon as well as resolve the homicide cases themselves.  Indeed, our observation is that the resources used to gather what are considered more politically salient statistics – such as the overall number of criminal acts in any one area – hurts efforts to resolve cases or give authorities the ability to analyze criminal dynamics.

The confusion between the sources of violence has a palpable impact on how money is allocated over the years.  The U.S. Congressional Research Service has estimated that 66 percent of the $1.2 billion that Washington disbursed under its Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was “hard-side” assistance – aimed at attacking drug traffickers whose role in the murder rate we have assessed to be lower than previously thought.  Only 31 percent of U.S. aid was “soft assistance” – violence prevention, social and economic programs – that would address the more serious problem of gang violence.  The allocation of Guatemala’s own funding is harder to discern, but the Mano Dura tactics adopted by the Northern Triangle countries over the years have more resembled the militarized strategy against the drug traffickers, implementing various states of siege in affected locales (Guatemala), enacting “emergency measures” inside jails and in particularly troublesome states (El Salvador), and using the military police in numerous places (Honduras).  Aggressive police sweeps have, moreover, overcrowded prisons bursting with inmates in horrifying conditions.  While some of these programs may have helped slow the increase in homicides, our report clearly indicates that a deeper understanding of the problem – based on more rigorous collection and analysis of information on homicide cases – is necessary to evaluate and improve international and local strategies.  Especially if Washington cuts Northern Triangle funding, as it is widely reported to be intending, a smarter approach will require becoming smarter about the problem.

 May 4, 2017

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSight Crime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS.  The full report “Homicides in Guatemala,” funded by USAID and prepared with administrative support from Democracy International, is available here.

El Salvador: Dual Crackdowns Raise Questions

By Fulton Armstrong

El Salvador Seguro

Photo Credits: Presidencia El Salvador and Departamento de Seguridad Pública OEA (modified) / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén’s months-long crackdown on gangs has broadened into a crackdown on proponents of negotiations with them.  Upon orders of Attorney General Meléndez, 18 former officials involved in the past truce (covering two periods in 2012-2014) have been arrested, among them a principal mediator, former FMLN Congressman Raúl Mijango.  Three others, including the former head of prisons, are on the run.  Meléndez claims that the recent passage of legislation outlawing negotiations with gangs was not a factor, and that the detainees are not being held for their role negotiating the previous truce, but rather for violations of laws in place during the truce.  They are accused of “dereliction of duty,” “illicit association,” smuggling mobile phones into prisons, and possible misuse of US$2 million for truce implementation.  Meléndez said the government-gang pact “was not illegal” and he noted that it did help reduce reported murders, but he has asserted that it gave rise to disappearances and other violence, and allowed the gangs to re-arm and consolidate their control in some sectors.

The campaign against pro-dialogue voices has left several prominent players untouched.  The government has distanced itself from the activities of current Interior Minister Arístides Valencia, whose taped conversations with gangs have been revealed by the media, but he has been neither fired nor arrested.  Former Security Minister (and current Defense Minister) David Munguía is widely seen as the principal architect of the previous truce (securing essential cover from the Church for it), but he too remains in place.  Munguía’s name is prominent in Meléndez’s report, according to press accounts, but the Attorney General said that he lacks evidence of his involvement in wrongdoing.  Paolo Luers of El Diario de Hoy (himself a secret negotiator in 2012) and others are severely criticizing the lack of charges against Munguía while others, whom they call “political prisoners,” are detained.

  • Meanwhile, the government is deploying elite joint Army-Police units to hunt down alleged gang members in the countryside, amid growing unconfirmed reports of human rights violations.  The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman has identified 13 cases of extrajudicial killings in two operations last year.

The recent arrests have caused debate to flare over the costs and benefits of the past truce and any future agreements with the gangs – as well as the efficacy of the mano dura approach. The crackdown on advocates of negotiations and the simultaneous emerging signs of death squad operations could threaten the credibility of the Sánchez Cerén government’s El Salvador Seguro strategy, which entails an array of efforts requiring political agreement on how to address the violence crisis.  Amidst mounting concern about the implications of the police and army crackdown on gangs, Washington has kept a low profile on these developments.  If current trends continue, however, the dual crackdowns could potentially raise doubts about the Administration’s ability to meet the human rights and other conditions that the U.S. Congress has put on the Alliance for Prosperity under which El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have agreed to form and execute a common strategy against violence and other problems in Central America’s northern triangle.

May 16, 2016

For previous AULABLOG items on the impact of the Salvadoran truce, click here (January 2013), here (November 2014), and here (April 2015).

*This version of the blog was updated May 16, 2016 at 10:25 a.m.

Is a “CICIH” the answer to Honduras’ Crisis?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

The success of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) in driving anti-corruption efforts there – culminating in the resignation of President Pérez Molina – has stoked debate in neighboring Honduras on the wisdom of creating a “CICIH” with the same mission to root out the rot that permeates state institutions and perpetuates the misery of the citizenry.  President Juan Orlando Hernandez has stated categorically that no such entity is needed in Honduras given advances in the country’s own institutions and his own putative commitment to good governance.  Some civil society organizations are at least implicitly concurring by taking part in accountability initiatives involving collaboration with the government.  Other voices from civil society are objecting vociferously, however.  Most notable among them are the indignados, a largely youth-based movement that insists that the President himself and virtually the entire institutional system in Honduras is so rotten that only an international body can be trusted to root out endemic corruption.  The argument rages on, with the indignados staging regular demonstrations and the government – occupied simultaneously with promoting its credibility at home and abroad and maneuvering to secure authorization for presidential re-election – holding fast to its opposition to any such international role.  The debate will continue for the foreseeable future.  We sketch below our understanding of the competing arguments.

Arguments in favor of a CICIH:

By nearly all accounts, corruption has rendered the public and private sectors chronically ineffective – from the President (who admitted that millions from Social Security made it into his campaign coffers and who engaged in nepotism), through the government ministries and even the judicial bureaucracies (where political pressure, intimidation, and bribery are rampant), and companies large and small (for whom payoffs are merely an added budget item).  The country has topped the charts in non-war homicides, including targeted killings, and other violence for several years, further discouraging investigations and prosecutions.  The flood of narcotics and cash through Honduras has thrown fuel onto the flames.  Only an independent, UN-endorsed entity like a CICIH – with its unique ability to train, protect, and motivate judicial personnel, issue indictments, and put powerful people in jail, and shame local government into taking action – can help the country climb out of this deep hole, this argument goes.

Arguments against:

Steven Dudley of InSight Crime notes that the call for a CICIH comes at a time that the Attorney General’s office is showing some signs of life.  Its anti-corruption efforts have led to the indictment and arrest of the former head of the Social Security Institute on charges of embezzlement and illegally financing political parties (although some charges were dropped).  Combating crime, cheaper homemade solutions are showing results in Honduras in terms of training and cases resolved.  Organizations like the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) are doing groundbreaking work to keep homicide levels down in some of the worst neighborhoods at a fraction of the cost of a CICIH.  Expense is another important factor.  In Guatemala the CICIG costs between $12 million and $15 million annually, which even that country, far wealthier than Honduras, cannot afford.  CICIG has provided valuable assistance and training to Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, but its foreign investigators, who move around in armored vehicles with armed bodyguards, leech massive resources that might otherwise go to fortify local prosecutors’ offices.  Moreover, according to this argument, the investigators don’t need foreign prosecutors to tell them what they’re doing wrong.

Skeptics further contend that international donors and pro-reform Hondurans arguably will not get the quick fix and public relations victory they want from a CICIH.  It took over a decade for CICIG to set up in Guatemala and nearly eight years to get the right mix of cases.  Its greatest strategic goal – fortifying Guatemala’s justice system – remains a work in progress.  The Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office has not yet executed a complicated, forensic investigation leading to a high-level prosecution.  Honduras’s greater reliance on foreign assistance, according to this argument, suggests a CICIH would actually enable its dependency, rather than break it.

The weakness and rot within Honduran institutions and the venality of national leadership strongly suggest that neither approach – a foreign-backed entity like CICIH or a home-grown solution – could quickly reverse the tsunami of corruption and violence that the isthmus’s poorest country has been experiencing since the 2009 coup.  Ideally, the best of Honduras’s own efforts could be buttressed by a Honduran version of the CICIG model, but the knack of the country’s leaders for overwhelming even the best of intentions, as they did the “Truth Commission” charged with determining accountability for the coup and rights abuses carried out in its aftermath, argues for extreme caution in forming expectations.  The debate therefore may boil down to the moral argument of whether the international community, witnessing Honduras’s descent into utter lawlessness and destitution, can stand idly by or should at least offer its help in what form it can, such as a CICIH.  Even if a CICIH is not a panacea, it at least would send a powerful message to Honduran elites that the world is watching.

September 15, 2015

Brazil: Jailing the Youth

By Paula Orlando*

Brazilian Penitentiary System.  Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian Penitentiary System. Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

A push for legislation to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years could worsen court backlogs and overcrowding in Brazil’s notorious prisons.  According to the International Center for Prison Studies (ICPS), the country’s jails now hold the fourth largest prison population in the world, behind the United States, China, and Russia.  The Brazilian inmate population has doubled in the past ten years – from 296,919 people in 2005 to over 615,000 now – boosted by arrests of young and black people.  The Map of Incarceration, a study released this month by researchers at the Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCAR), shows that prisoners are increasingly between the ages of 18 and 29 (54.8 percent) and black (60.85 percent), with a growing presence of females (from 4.35 percent in 2005 to 6.17 percent in 2012).  The study also notes that the main reasons for arrest are crimes against property and “involvement in drug trafficking.”  Further, on average 38 percent – or four in every ten inmates – are awaiting trial.  According to a report by the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the wait times may vary from months to years – sometimes longer than the actual sentence for the crime committed.  Of the total jail population, over 18 percent would be eligible for alternative sentences, but they either haven’t gone to trial yet or the judges have opted for heavier sentences.

A group of hardline conservative legislators – the “bullet caucus” – is pushing aggressively for a law that would lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and consequently place more youth in the already overcrowded adult jails.  Currently, the Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA) establishes that those between 12 and 17 years of age who committed a crime should be sent to juvenile centers, and for a maximum of three years.  The proposal to lower the age has received overwhelming popular support. This support is generally based on the perception that minors commit more violent crimes because they are not currently accountable as adults – and that harsher sentences would deter them.  However, official data shows that, among those in the juvenile system, only 9 percent committed violent crimes.  On the other hand, homicide is the leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 15 and 29.  Out of the 56,000 yearly homicides, 30,000 victims are young.  By crossing data from the Ministry of Justice and the 2014 Map of Violence, the report also debunks the popular perception that more arrests lead to safer cities.  On the contrary, just as incarceration grows, homicide rates have also steadily risen in the country.  According to press reports and other observers, there’s a good chance the legislation will move forward in the next few weeks.

Since the bill amends the Brazilian Constitution, it must pass both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate with at least two-thirds of the votes.  In addition to increasing youth incarcerations, if passed, the initiative will undermine the 1990 Child and Adolescent Statute, considered a landmark by children’s rights advocates.  It will further remove the state from its responsibility for the protection and education of the youth, essentially eliminating any chance of youths’ rehabilitation while broadening the “school-to-prison pipeline” that envelopes many.   Moreover, passage of this reform, under the banner of law and order, will strengthen the ultra-conservative sectors – including some religious leaders and representatives of agribusiness – who already dominate the Brazilian Congress in an open crusade against social welfare policies and minority rights. 

 June 29, 2015

*Paula Orlando is a CLALS fellow and a PhD candidate at the School of Communication at American University.

Colombia’s Peace Talks: The End of the Beginning

By Aaron T. Bell

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Recent events suggest that, as peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas resume in Cuba later this month, substantial progress toward an agreement is at hand.  Talks were suspended in November when a Colombian general and two lawyers were kidnapped under circumstances that remain unclear, but cooler heads prevailed and the three were quickly released.  The FARC announced an indefinite unilateral cease-fire in late December and, in the first such act taken by either side, acknowledged their responsibility for a 2002 civilian massacre in the town of Bojayá and asked for forgiveness from victims.  President Juan Manuel Santos has been reluctant to ease military pressure on the guerrillas, but the FARC’s show of good faith led him to call on government negotiators last week to prioritize the arrangement of a bilateral cease-fire.  Santos has encouraged negotiators to accelerate talks so that a public referendum on the peace accords can be held concurrent with October’s local elections.

A final agreement may still be several months off as negotiators work through the complexities of victim compensation and a transitional justice system, but the effects of negotiations are already being felt in Colombia.  Observers from the Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos reported the lowest level of violence related to the armed conflict in 30 years during the first three weeks of the FARC’s cease-fire. This news was complemented by reports that Colombia’s murder rate hit a 30-year low in 2014, thanks in part to truces brokered among the country’s largest criminal gangs.  The success of the government’s negotiations with the FARC appears to be spilling over into the armed conflict with the ELN guerrillas as well.  At the beginning of 2015 the ELN announced willingness to enter into peace talks like those with the FARC, and they strongly implied that such talks would lead them to lay down their arms.  A six-point agenda for negotiations was publicly announced this past weekend, and a cease-fire may not be far behind.  In economic terms, an end to insurgent violence may spell much-needed relief for Colombia’s oil industry, a frequent target for guerrilla sabotage over the years, which is now reeling from falling oil prices.  Negotiations have also procured European political and financial support for Colombia.  Beginning this month, the European Union will begin funding a five-year, $86 million program to bolster small-scale producers and reduce rural inequality, and other potential funding may result from a European tour by Santos last fall.  Germany pledged $95 million in loans to follow peace agreements, and the EU and several member nations pledged funding for post-conflict reconstruction projects.

While the Santos government and the FARC appear to be entering the endgame of peace negotiations, the process of resolving the underlying conditions that have fueled decades of conflict in Colombia will be long and difficult.  The FARC was unhappy with the government’s unilateral decision to implement a peace referendum, preferring instead a constituent assembly that would give greater representation to traditionally marginalized groups in Colombian society.  Political inclusion is a substantial concern given both Colombia’s history and the attitude of right-wing opponents of negotiations.  Among the groups gearing up for a substantial run in the October elections is the Centro Democrático, the party of former president Álvaro Uribe, which took Santos to a second round of voting in last summer’s presidential elections.  Uribe claimed recently that the FARC – with Santos’s support – is using the threat of terrorism and the allure of peace to take power through elections in 2018 and even eventually establish a “totalitarian government.”  Land reform is another major concern.  Skewed land distribution has traditionally been a major source of social unrest and has worsened over the last 50 years of fighting.  Amnesty International and Oxfam have identified serious obstacles to resolving the problem and it will be difficult to ensure that large multinationals won’t benefit disproportionately from redistribution schemes.  The government and the guerrillas both deserve praise for their progress, but winning a lasting peace will require continued cooperation in reforming an ingrained system of inequality and exclusion.

January 20, 2015