Guatemala’s Crisis is Not Over

By Eric Hershberg*

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

With President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation early this morning, Guatemala lurches into a new phase in its long-running political crisis, with little prospect that this weekend’s elections will resolve much.  The investigations into the Pérez Molina administration’s corruption, the national assembly’s unanimous vote to suspend his immunity, and the peaceful surge in popular protests demanding that he step down all suggest progress in the country’s efforts to build a functioning democracy.  The UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) fulfilled its mandate, and its example and training were arguably important factors in the ability of judicial officials in Pérez Molina’s own government to support the processes that led to his downfall.  (Click here for an AULABLOG assessment of CICIG in May.)  The Congressional vote to strip him of immunity was unanimous, including even his most loyal supporters, who until then had rejected popular clamoring for the president’s ouster.  By the end of last week societal disgust with the political elite had reached the point that even the most recalcitrant of incumbents realized that their own survival required ditching the president.  The comptroller’s office called on him to resign “to avoid greater social unrest that could have unpredictable consequences” – a sentiment echoed by powerful business groups and the Catholic Bishops Council.

The Guatemalan Constitution and laws lay out the next steps.  The Congress has accepted the resignation, clearing the way for Vice President Alejandro Maldonado – who replaced Vice President Roxana Baldetti after she was jailed in connection with the same corruption scandal – to take office.  The first round of Presidential elections, with 15 candidates in the running, will proceed as scheduled this Sunday, despite calls from some civil society organizations to delay the balloting on grounds that the campaign regulations reflect the influence and interests of criminal elements.  In all likelihood, a runoff round will be necessary six weeks later (October 25).  The convulsions of recent months and deep distrust in government suggest that tensions will be high between now and then, but there’s no indication yet that civil unrest could threaten the electoral process, and military intervention appears to be a thing of the past.  There is every reason to expect that a new President will be inaugurated on January 14.

The elections are unlikely, however, to lead Guatemala into an era of less corruption and greater accountability, or to install leadership willing or able to spearhead economic and social policies to enable the majority of the population to live with dignity.  The slogans on the banners of the tens of thousands of protestors in Guatemala City’s central square lacked any message beyond a rejection of the status quo.  “Throw them all out” and “I have no president”are potent rallying cries but do not address the core challenges of a country where the elite pay no taxes, half of all children are malnourished and tens of thousands of young people desperately seek better lives anywhere other than Guatemala.  

The reputations of the leading candidates and their failure to articulate coherent governing platforms give little room for optimism.  Leading in the polls is a wealthy businessman, Manuel Baldizón, whose running mate is already being investigated for corruption and whose own closet is widely understood to contain plenty of skeletons.  Protestors have already singled out Baldizón as unacceptable, taunting him with chants of “it’s your turn next.”  In second place is a comedian named Jimmy Morales, who enjoys the support of the economic elites and media but has advanced no policy platform whatsoever.  Former first lady Sandra Torres appears to be running third.  She divorced President Álvaro Colom in 2011 to circumvent a court ruling that, as First Lady, she couldn’t run for office.  (The Constitutional Court put a final stop to her campaign a month before elections that year.) 

Electoral victory by any of these candidates would leave Guatemala with weak leadership at a time that most government institutions desperately need revitalization.  Corruption is too deep-rooted for CICIG and its few allies in government to face down alone, and these candidates won’t use the presidency to carry out the needed purge.  The organized criminal groups that traffic drugs and persons through the country and permeate governing institutions stand to grow only stronger, and the misery that plagues a population deprived of education, health care and jobs will continue unabated.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s billion-dollar aid package for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already in trouble in Washington, may have nowhere good to go.

September 3, 2015

*Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University, witnessed the protests in Guatemala City last week.

CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015

Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015

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

El Salvador: The Maras, Community Action, and Social Exclusion

By Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Maras and gangs in El Salvador have become social actors with great power in communities suffering from a high level of social exclusion. They have been linked to violence and organized crime, and they have been blamed for the highest number of homicides, organized criminal actions, and the generalized insecurity in which the country lives. They have brought a sense of isolation to the communities in which they live, as well as a reputation that increases the communities’ exclusion. According to a study being conducted in crime-ridden communities of Santa Tecla (near San Salvador) and Sonsonate (64 km. west of the capital), the maras’ power derives from their ability to cause fear and terror among inhabitants as a result of their effective and organized criminal actions. Their influence has a strong psychological impact and broad influence over people’s lives. The criminal activities of the gangs in the community are generally rejected by inhabitants because they put families at risk, make neighborhoods the target of police operations, and taint both the community and its residents socially – making it hard for people to get or keep jobs.

Nonetheless, many citizens in these communities have a positive assessment of the maras when it comes to providing important neighborhood security, due to a lack of national or local authority. In Santa Tecla and Sonsonate, the Salvadoran government, the municipality, international organizations, and other institutions have invested heavily in programs to stem the tide of mara violence, with mixed results. These communities suffer from low levels of employment, education, and social security, particularly among women. Afraid of retribution, citizens in these communities do not turn to state institutions to report crimes or to request protection, and they instead approach the maras to take actions regarding conflicts with neighbors and situations related to domestic violence. The void in institutional services, which has been permanent in some communities, is being filled by the maras and their members, making them the primary support for the local Asociaciones de Desarrollo and implementers of development plans.

Changes in the community philosophy of the National Civilian Police (PNC) in one of the communities of the study offers a useful example of how new approaches can help improve citizens’ lives. The PNC’s new approach to the community and its underlying social and security problems has also led to the evolution of the maras’ role as community actors and their legitimacy in the people’s eyes, primarily based on the fear they instill. This has benefited some communities.  Likewise, international cooperation – which has played an essential role – and the recent implementation of community policing practices as a model within the national security strategy to reduce gang criminality have driven debate on how communities can confront violence and crime in a sustained manner. The problems are far from resolved, but the gangs, the police, and the state each appear to be redefining strategies and roles. It remains to be seen whether these actions are sustainable and applicable in other territories – and whether the maras’ involvement in development programs can help create conditions for citizens to cope with the violence and social exclusion that plague their communities.

* Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya are researchers at FLACSO-El Salvador.  Their study is funded by the International Development Research Centre.

Prison Reform in Latin America: Lessons from Costa Rica

By Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran*

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Prison overcrowding is a widespread problem in Latin America, primarily because of harsh drug-sentencing laws and inadequate budgets, but Costa Rica may be setting a useful example for dealing with it.  In most countries, guards control the perimeter, but groups of prisoners or criminal gangs organize and control life inside the prison compound.  Rehabilitation and re-integration programs are limited.  Not surprisingly, there is little political leadership for prison reform; the issue wins few points with the general public.  Even dramatic events – like prison riots in Venezuela or prison fires in which hundreds of young men die as in Honduras – don’t generate interest in prison reform.  A key component of the criminal justice system – as a deterrent, a punishment, and as a provider of rehabilitation and reintegration services that will reduce recidivism – the prisons are often neglected.

While Costa Rica faces growing drug-related problems, a multi-country analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America of persistent criminal justice and prison problems in Latin America – aimed at identifying strategic solutions – indicates that the country stands out as having undertaken at least modest reforms of its prisons to prevent them from becoming the breeding grounds for increasingly hardened criminals and gangs.  Prison conditions in Costa Rica have not been among the worst in Latin America, although the U.S. State Department said in its Human Rights Report for 2013 report that they were “harsh” and that “overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems.”  Until very recently, when new drug sentencing laws and tough anti-crime measures pushed the prison population up, the system generally did not exceed capacity.  Even today, the system is at 140 percent of capacity – far less than the 200-300 percent seen in other countries.  Prison conditions also seem less abusive than those seen in other countries.  An external oversight body was created to protect the rights of prisoners.  Moreover, the government, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is reaching out to local businesses to support vocational training programs for inmates.

This process has been driven by reformers inside the government and prison system, in contrast to most reforms elsewhere in the hemisphere driven by international donors.  This is a rare example of how reformers inside and outside the system worked to achieve institutional changes that increase citizen security while respecting human rights.  In this case, long-standing mid-level and senior staff of the penitentiary system, with the support of successive Ministers of Justice appointed by President Laura Chinchilla, played a key role in resisting pressures from legislators who want to toughen sentencing, which would increase prison populations.  They have advocated measures to ease overcrowding and ensure proportionality in sentencing.  At the same time, they have also used the IDB loan to both defend and expand the rehabilitation and re-insertion programs in the prison system.  Every country’s situation is unique, and Costa Rica has advantages — a relatively low crime rate, a relatively strong state structure, a relatively well-established respect for the rule of law – that others lack, but San José has shown that reform in this difficult, politically sensitive area is possible.

*Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), recently led a small delegation to visit Costa Rican prisons.

Guatemala: The War of Paz y Paz

By Steven Dudley*

CLALS Paz y Paz

Law professor and human rights attorney Claudia Paz y Paz’s selection as Guatemala’s first woman attorney general was a surprise, but strident opposition to her reappointment from the dark interstices of the political spectrum is not.  More hippy professor than government bureaucrat, she’s a woman who defied the odds when she took office in 2010.  Paz y Paz speaks with a soft, gentle tone to the point where she almost needs a microphone to run a staff meeting.  Yet, from nearly the moment she walked into the attorney general’s office, she made a difference.  She and her team arrested previously untouchable figures such Juan López Ortiz, alias Chamale, and dozens of members of the feared Mexican criminal group, the Zetas.  The country’s murder and impunity rates fell.  Paz y Paz also prosecuted former military officers, including former military dictator Ríos Montt and others allegedly involved in atrocities in the 1980s, and helped set up special offices to deal with violence against women.

Paz y Paz also demonstrated how, employing best practices, Guatemalan judicial institutions can excel.  Her office’s reliance on forensic evidence, telephone intercepts and video analysis made for stronger cases.  This took the onus off of eyewitness testimony, a notoriously unreliable means of fighting powerful criminal groups, especially those who have deeply penetrated the state.  Paz y Paz also widened the investigative net, looking at entire criminal structures, rather than focusing on single criminal acts.  She won praise from a broad array of international partners and pro-democracy forces inside Guatemala.  She was a 2013 Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

In spite of – or because of – these accomplishments, Paz y Paz is struggling to keep her job for another four-year term.  She has to be approved by a “postulation commission” made up of 14 lawyers who select the final six candidates, from which the president picks one.  Special interest groups, using shady brokers (some with ties to organized crime), are maneuvering to make sure that her attempt to reform Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office ends sooner rather than later.  She has opened up many wounds and frightened Guatemala’s traditional elite, some of whose members worked with the Army during the civil war and believe they could be next on Paz y Paz’s list.  Efforts to block Paz y Paz’s second term underscore that Guatemala is a country that is still struggling to deal with its past civil war and its forever lopsided power structure.  Despite ending a nearly four-decade-old conflict in 1996, Guatemala is still at war –though the battles now take place in the courts – and the elites don’t want a formidable player like Paz y Paz to be in the game.

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSightCrime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS.  Click here for the full investigation of “The War of Paz y Paz.”

Central American Governments Face Tough Challenges

by Benedicte Bull*

CLALS last week convened a panel in San Salvador to discuss the findings of its multi-year project on “Elites, States and Reconfigurations of Power in Central America.”  Attended by over 120 people, the event analyzed how the evolving role of elites will affect the new administrations in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Honduras.  The following day featured a daylong event to launch the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigación sobre el Desarrollo e Inclusión Social (INCIDE), a new think tank that aims to foster fresh thinking about the difficult challenges facing the region.  Here are some key conclusions:

The leftist FMLN in El Salvador and the centrist Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) in Costa Rica have won crucial elections, but their ideological labels don’t fully capture how they will relate to three decisive actors: legal capital (the private sector), illicit capital (organized crime) and the United States.  The elections of Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Luis Guillermo Solís do not signal a strong turn to the left in Central America, but rather show that the population in both countries increasingly questions the political elites and institutions.  Solís capitalized on the corrupt image of Costa Rica’s two traditional parties, and what tipped the elections in El Salvador were all those who feared the return of a corrupt and elitist right, whose dirty laundry was made public in feuding between ARENA and the breakaway party GANA.

The new governments’ ability to restore confidence will depend firstly on how they relate to business and private capital.  All the countries of Central America are included in the free trade agreement with the United States (CAFTA-DR) and have been generally pursuing market-oriented development strategies since the late 1980s, but economic elites are still dependent on the state for survival.  Many build their business primarily on contracts with the state; all depend on the state involvement in infrastructure and services; but few are willing to pay sufficient taxes to allow their governments to face important challenges.  Honduras, which has accommodated elites the most, may establish a free zone fully exempt not only from taxes but all government regulations.  Nicaragua’s approach, under Daniel Ortega, is to build an alliance between the presidency and business, facilitated by Venezuelan assistance and growing integration into ALBA trade networks.

Institutional weaknesses throughout the region make it difficult to bring organized criminal groups under control.  In Guatemala, where congressmen frequently jump between political parties, organized crime easily buys political control and influence.  Weak parties, weakened ideologies, and leaders’ unwillingness and inability to build a state capable of implementing policies for the common good also allow organized crime a strong grip over politics.  In both Honduras and Guatemala, criminalization of politics has blurred distinctions between legal and illegal elites.

Central America’s relations with the United States also tend to hold it back.  While South America has come a long way towards independence from the United States, many Central Americans believe the old hegemon does not intend to let go of their region.  U.S. policy has in many ways become more sophisticated, but former members of governments speak freely of various methods the U.S. uses – often with the support of Washington lobbyists representing Central American rightwing elites – to restrict Central America’s room for maneuver.  This overshadows debate in Central America over China’s influence and Brazil’s growing leadership.

Taken together, these factors contribute to the conclusion that, even with winds blowing slightly to the left in Central America, the new presidents will have little space to make new policies.  For former guerrilla Sánchez Cerén and former history professor Solís, their experience and wisdom may be their best assets to move forward their agendas.

*Dr. Bull is Associate Professor at the Center for Development and the Environment (SUM) at the University of Oslo.

Mexico: Policy on “Auto-defensas” Makes Things Worse

By Steven Dudley*

Photo credit: Pedro Fanega / Flickr / CC BY

Photo credit: Pedro Fanega / Flickr / CC BY

In a few short months, Michoacán’s “self-defense” groups have gone from being the Mexican government’s drunk uncle to being its strategic partner – underscoring what is wrong with the current government’s counterdrug strategy.  The vigilante groups are a multi-headed beast, born from sentiments that range from despair and frustration to opportunity.  Desperate small farmers and shopkeepers created some of the units because they’d been victimized by the “Knights Templar,” a splinter group with deep roots in the drug trade that has literally raped and pillaged their villages.  Frustrated agricultural and mining interests have funded their own “self-defense” groups.  And opportunistic rival criminal groups also seek to kill the Knights to take new, or reclaim old, territory.   Mexico’s federal and local governments are to blame for this chaos.  Drug-fueled corruption, ineptitude and lack of political will on the federal level have left the locals to fend for themselves, often leaving local politicians and security forces to align with the criminal interests, including the Knights Templar.

The federal government’s feeble and disjointed attempt to address the vigilantism is leading only to more confusion, chaos and most likely bloodshed.  In late January, it created a framework that legalized the organizations, placed then under one moniker – Rural Defense Units – and asked members to register themselves and their weapons.  But the framework makes no mention of their purview, jurisdiction, proposed length of service, nor does it clarify controls on their automatic and other sophisticated weaponry, which, under current Mexican law, requires military authorization.  Some of the groups accepted the government offer, including those that rode into the Michoacán city of Apatzingán last weekend to “take back” the city from the Knights.  More importantly, other vigilante groups have flat out refused the government.  Further fueling chaos, the federal government is applying a far harsher, more statist approach in the neighboring state of Guerrero, dispatching troops to stop the spread of “self-defense” groups that may have a longer history and more justifiable constitutional mandate than those in Michoacán.

Vigilante violence will undoubtedly continue to grow, as it becomes clearer that the federal government has no idea how to deal with it.  It is failing to address one of the root causes of the problem: illegal drugs have led to spectacular earnings that have made corrupting local and national officials easier; given criminal groups access to better training and weaponry to challenge the state and rivals; and created local, powerful criminal economies where perhaps they did not exist in the past.  In fact, no government official, vigilante group or other party in this conflict has even mentioned illegal drugs.  One vigilante told InSight Crime’s Mexico correspondent flat out: “We’re not against drug trafficking; we’re against organized crime.”  The causes of the violence are complex, but one cannot be addressed without addressing the others, and the Mexican government’s disjointed response is not pushing the country any closer to a solution.

* Steven Dudley directs InSight Crime and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Mexico’s Situation after Peña Nieto’s First Year at the Helm

By Manuel Suárez-Mier

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

After Enrique Peña Nieto’s first full year in office, the situation and prospects for his country are mixed. On the positive side, his structural reforms encompassing labor, education, taxation, finance, telecommunications, anti-monopoly and energy – the crown jewel – are unexpected and sweeping successes. Three previous administrations had failed to get such reforms through Congress in the preceding 18 years. The reforms, the success of which will depend on the implementing legislation, have attracted worldwide attention, generating a “Mexican moment,” and increasing substantially the flows of foreign direct investment.

On the dark side, however, Peña Nieto’s performance has been less than stellar regarding the pacification of the country from the violent onslaught over the last decade at the hands of bands of narcotraffickers. He changed the emphasis of the war on drugs from the stubborn fixation that it had in the Calderón administration (2006-2012), and he altered the terms of cooperation with the United States on this issue.  But he has been unable to stem the violence, which in some cases has worsened.  In the southwestern state of Michoacán, a new actor has emerged besides the narco and government forces: self-appointed groups of armed citizens that are battling the criminals while denouncing the government’s ineffectiveness.  Simply declaring victory in the war on drugs and moving on to other issues has not stemmed the violence.  Many observers believe that Peña Nieto’s security team is not up to par and that tolerating, and more recently collaborating, with the paramilitary groups is not the solution to the problem – and indeed will only worsen it down the road.  Also the terms of cooperation with the United States on the war on drug trafficking organizations are not clear yet.

It is too soon, of course, to declare victory on the reform front since the way these changes are implemented will determine their success or failure. We have had “Mexican moments” in the past, especially after NAFTA was approved in 1994, just to see them wiped out by government mismanagement and crises. But it is also too early to declare the final failure of the campaign to pacify the country since there have been some bright spots – notably in Ciudad Juárez. Coordination among security agencies has improved and the gendarmerie, a special rural federal police force that would replace the army in restoring the peace where violence rages, is being trained and will begin operations with 5,000 men in July.  But the appearance of paramilitary “self-defense” groups and the apparent alliance that they are forging with the federal government are deeply troubling considering what we have seen in other latitudes – especially Colombia – when such groups thrived. These contradictory trends explain why many people are enthusiastic about Mexico’s economic future while Peña Nieto’s approval ratings remain soft after a year of slow growth, tax increases, and unabated violence.

*  Manuel Suárez-Mier is Economist-in-Residence and Director of the Center for North American Studies in American University’s School of International Service.