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.

El Salvador Security Challenges: Shaky Response So Far

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After five and a half months in office, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén is still groping for ways to address the country’s pressing security concerns.  According to official figures, the homicide rate has rebounded to 11 per day – compared to five or six per day for four months last year during a gang truce sponsored by President Funes and his Security Minister, General  Munguía.  Highly unpopular among Salvadorans and despised by the United States – the key partner in security issues – the truce turned out to be the most effective homicide reduction policy since the end of the Civil War.  For Sánchez Cerén, however, the failure to renew the truce has proven to be politically toxic as violence has once again surged.  Inside sources say that the new government has engaged in a quiet dialogue with gang leaders but refuses to publicly embrace it as a mainstay of its approach to security.  Instead, Public Security Minister Benito Lara is pushing a model of community policing that has yet to prove effective and will be difficult to implement nationally.  Low morale within police ranks, the unwillingness of citizens to cooperate with police in gang-plagued territories and, as always, the lack of meaningful resources to address social investment in poor and violent communities are undermining the policy.

Two main elements of a successful approach – funding and political courage – are lacking.  Truce implementation was supposed to be followed by a comprehensive social investment program called Comunidades libres de violencia (Communities Free of Violence), but it never got funded.  Sánchez Cerén, moreover, has shown reluctance to take on the security issue.  The United States, for its part, has provided millions of dollars in assistance under its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for vetted units of special investigators, transnational law enforcement initiatives to combat gangs, police equipment and training, and prison management, but institutional weaknesses remain acute and violence has continued to climb.  Moreover, many critics say the programs are flawed by a failure to condition aid on concrete government steps to end security forces’ impunity, corruption, and secret cooperation with organized crime.

The days in which iron-fist approaches and fanfare-hyping law enforcement activity represented a credible security strategy have passed.  Salvadoran politicians can no longer talk their way out of the security chaos by selling mano dura fantasies.  The truce under President Funes helped gang leaders consolidate their influence and hone their political skills to the point that a solution to reduce homicides without gang leaders’ imprimatur is plainly not possible.  As President, Sánchez Cerén has the opportunity to provide strong leadership, while addressing the public’s concerns, to pursue talks under clear conditions and with credible consequences for gang violations.  In return for a gang promise to reduce homicides, stop recruitment in vulnerable areas, and end gang rapes, the President could credibly offer to allow them greater sway in prisons and to support social programs in affected communities.  He can also commit to find the necessary resources.  The elites will resist paying, but a mini-summit of the three Presidents of Central America’s northern tier and U.S. Vice President Biden hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank this week affords Sánchez Cerén a chance to make a bilateral pitch for help to Biden and a multilateral pitch to the IDB.  He will have to steel himself for the political hits that will ensue, but without strong leadership, security in El Salvador will only continue to deteriorate.   The former guerrilla leader must know that there is no easy solution at hand, but as President – validated by a democratic election – he has the responsibility and holds the power to act.

November 11, 2014