Guatemala: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

Elections were held in Guatemala on September 11. As has become customary since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1986, no candidate was close to reaching 50% of the vote to win outright. A second round run-off will now take place on November 6. Otto Pérez-Molina, leader of the Patriotic Party and a retired general, came out comfortably on top with 36% of the vote, and will now be joined in the ballotage by Manuel Baldizón, a businessman, former member of Congress and standard bearer of the Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER) party, who reaped 23% of the votes.

The crucible. Threatened by the pervasive presence of organized crime and the spillover effects of drug-related violence in Mexico, Guatemala is facing an existential crucible that may well have regional implications. The signs of Guatemala’s predicament are everywhere. They range from a homicide rate (52 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009) that counts among the world’s highest, to a proliferation of high profile murders that pose serious questions about the ability of the country’s law enforcement institutions to bring violence under control. The worst of the lot, by far, is the massacre of 27 peasants in the northern department of Petén by operatives of the Mexico-based Zetas drug trafficking organization (DTO) last May. This was an ominous sign of the country’s worst security threat: the state’s loss of effective control over vast swaths of the territory to criminal gangs. Some estimates put at 40% the proportion of national territory under the control of DTOs, notably the unforgiving forests of Petén, bordering Mexico and Belize.

Guatemala’s law enforcement apparatus is not merely ill-suited to the task of turning things around. In actual fact it is a major part of the problem. Aided by a long tradition of impunity –which the 36-year long civil war made worse—criminal syndicates have been able to penetrate police and judicial institutions to a degree probably unknown in the rest of Latin America, including Mexico and Colombia. Since 2008, the country has had five Ministers of the Interior and four Chief Police Officers, including several with alleged connections to criminal organizations. It is no mystery why, according to Latinobarometer 2010, a regional opinion poll, only 17% and 18% of the Guatemalan population claim to trust the judiciary and the police, respectively, the lowest figures in Central America by far. Haiti aside, no country in the Western Hemisphere has more severe problems to uphold the rule of law.

This state of affairs led the U.N. and the Guatemalan Government to establish in 2006 the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), with the aim of dismantling illegal groups operating within the country’s security institutions. Ominously, in June 2010, Carlos Castresana, the first head of CICIG tendered his resignation, citing the government’s reluctance to clamp down on law enforcement corruption and its lack of support for the Commission’s investigations on organized crime. After four years, the Commission can point to real successes in solving high-profile criminal cases, much as its efforts have been frequently undermined by rulings by the local judiciary. Ostensible limitations notwithstanding, CICIG remains a carefully vetted unit in a country in which the penetration of law enforcement institutions by crime syndicates is rampant.

A most flawed democracy. Against this backdrop the electoral process has provided no sign that Guatemala’s political system is up to the colossal tasks facing the country. The symptoms are myriad. The electoral process has rendered evident the frailty of the country’s party system, which, alongside Peru’s, is the most volatile in Latin America. Ever since the democratic transition no incumbent party has been able to win reelection and most parties, in fact, have disappeared after a few years. Guatemala is, for all intents and purposes, a party-less democracy. Indeed, only an environment in which political structures are thin as a shadow could have engendered the ill-starred candidacy of First Lady Sandra Torres, which poisoned political debates for most of the campaign. Torres’ decision to divorce President Alvaro Colom overtly to circumvent the constitutional norm that barred her from running (“I’m divorcing my husband so I can marry my people”, she announced), would be more than enough to give politics a bad name in any country. By means of a Constitutional Court ruling, Guatemala’s legal system was able to put an end to this undignified soap opera, giving a hint in the process that the rule of law is not yet a lost cause in Guatemala. The legal system, however, proved incapable of protecting political institutions from other more ominous threats. That the assassination of at least 35 candidates and activists throughout the electoral process is generally considered a progress says plenty about the state of Guatemala’s democratic institutions. To this we have to add the blatant disregard of the main candidates for campaign finance rules that cap private donations, forbid foreign contributions and require parties to reveal their income sources. In a country where organized crime reigns virtually unfettered the complete opacity of campaign finance poses ostensible dangers. That a consortium of local NGOs presented data suggesting that parties spent a minimum of $35 million during the first round compounds the legitimate concern for the integrity of the electoral process. 

The candidates. And then there is the deeply problematic choice yielded by the election. Following his narrow electoral defeat in 2007, Pérez-Molina has somewhat softened his “iron-fisted” approach to crime, though he still embraces an expansive military participation in law enforcement duties. His policy platform is vaporous, but at least pays lip service to the notion of a national fiscal pact to raise revenue. The latter is a need of the highest order in Guatemala, where tax revenue barely reaches 10% of GDP, one of the world’s lowest figures and one of the root causes of the state’s structural weakness. The fiscal pact is also the Holy Grail of Guatemalan politics, which for decades has lived under the shadow of an all-powerful and, in many ways, pre-modern oligarchy hell-bent on blocking any attempt to increase its tax burden. Interestingly, despite his military past and conservative disposition, Pérez-Molina is generally distrusted by the local oligarchy, which embraced him reluctantly as the best way to stop the First Lady, whom they loathed. In his demeanor and rhetoric, Pérez-Molina gives the impression of being his own man, at least with regards to Guatemala’s traditional oligarchy. That ought to count in his favor.

More sensitive are the questions about his military past. He was head of military intelligence and army field commander in an area that saw the most atrocious human rights abuses during Guatemala’s civil war. It is fair to say that hard evidence implicating Pérez-Molina in the latter has not been forthcoming and, hence, he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt. However, any dispassionate observer would have to agree that such a past hardly amounts to a reassuring resume for a presidential candidate in a country whose paramount challenge is about ending impunity and bolstering the rule of law. What is most remarkable is that voters do not seem to care about any of this. This is partly because a large percentage of the electorate has no direct recollection of the tragedy of the civil war, which ended fifteen years ago, and also, and more ominously, because Pérez-Molina’s military background is actually welcome as a guarantee of resolve by a desperate population. His eventual electoral success could be a harbinger of things to come in Latin America. In a region where today the Armed Forces are vastly more trusted than civilian institutions (in 2009 the Armed Forces were trusted by 45% of Latin Americans; political parties by 24%, according to Latinobarometer), military officers –both active and retired—may well decide in a few countries that it is time for them to fill the void of credibility and solutions left by widely discredited politicians. Coups may be out of fashion in the region, but a military hand at the helm may not be.

That someone like Pérez-Molina has come to be seen as the most sensible and predictable, even responsible, political option in Guatemala is disturbing. Because none of the adjectives above befits Manuel Baldizón. Only a populist buffoon of the worst kind would be ready to serve voters a political platform whose main courses consist of applying the death penalty across the board (broadcasting executions live, for good measure), denouncing international Human Rights treaties, guaranteeing 15 months of salary to all workers by decree, slashing income tax rates to 5% while eliminating all other taxes, and, in a dazzling display of sorcery, promising Guatemala’s qualification to the next World Cup. That this farrago was taken seriously by nearly one fourth of the voters is a reminder that unjust and violent democracies are doomed to walking on the edge of a cliff. This smacks of desperation. Above all, it is an indication that a significant share of the citizenship has given up on a rotten political status quo, which they deem unable to solve their problems.

The real choice. And in this they may be onto something. The sad truth about Guatemala’s election is that its eventual result is highly unlikely to improve matters in the country. To put it shortly: the result is mostly irrelevant, except that some options can make things even worse than they are. Guatemala’s problems are deep and intractable as to appear way beyond the manifest abilities of the political leadership on offer. They are problems that concern the viability of the state, not the quality of any particular administration.

It is time to shed the pretence that Guatemala’s frail and corrupt institutions will be able to prevent the country from becoming a narco-state. In order to forestall this outcome, Guatemala needs not merely the abundant help but indeed the tutelage of the international community. U.N. involvement –so far limited to the investigation of a few high profile cases—must be expanded dramatically to encompass police and judicial powers, so that law enforcement institutions can be rebuilt wholesale. This means, in practice, that the Guatemalan government would have to consent to partly ceding essential attributes of sovereignty to some kind of U.N.-sanctioned body, to a much greater degree than allowed by CICIG’s current mandate and for a long, long time.

This is very unpleasant, not to mention riddled with risks. But it is no use assuming that Guatemala’s institutions in their current shape are up to the task or that ceding vital components of sovereignty is an affront to the country. Guatemala is already losing sovereignty every day, in every possible way, to some of the world’s most dangerous people. Guatemala’s next President will have to decide whether to relinquish vital prerogatives of the state to the international community in order to save his country, or to relinquish more territory to criminal gangs and doom his country to implosion.

Judging by the spectacle of the current electoral process, it would be delusional to expect from the leading presidential candidates the farsightedness and statesmanship that Guatemala sorely needs at this juncture. We can only hope. But we also need to start calling things for what they are and stop pretending that Guatemala is on the road to any kind of recovery.