Can a Conservative-Minded Leader Save Guatemala?

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On Saturday, President-elect Otto Pérez Molina will be inaugurated in Guatemala, following his November runoff election win against Manuel Baldizón Méndez. Pérez, a member of the conservative Patriotic Party, has no easy task in front of him as he steps up to lead what some have called one of the most dangerous nations in the world.

Like Mexico, crime and violence caused by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) is rampant throughout Guatemala. In 2010, for instance, the murder rate in Guatemala (41 people per 100,000) was six times the world average and more than double that of Mexico. To make matters worse, the judicial and legal system in Guatemala is plagued by corruption and inefficiencies, resulting in roughly 98 percent of violent crimes going unpunished.

While Guatemala is not alone in its fight against TCOs, it is of particular importance due to its strategic location. Sharing a 541-mile border with Mexico, Guatemala serves as a transit point for drugs traveling from South America up through Mexico and to the United States. Following “the path of least resistance,” both the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas, two of Mexico’s largest TCOs, are known to operate in Guatemala.

Pérez, a former general in the Guatemalan Army, has promised to use the military to fight the growing narcotics trade and to recruit 10,000 new members of the police force. These actions, however, may not be enough to enhance rule of law and combat the many issues that plague Guatemalan public security. With a history of military abuses stemming from the country’s not-too-distant civil war, throwing the Guatemalan military at the country’s security problems may not be the solution. Rather, as the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cynthia Arson explains, “Guatemala has to enhance the role of police and justice institutions or risk a return to a pattern of military abuses.”

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Even if Pérez puts serious effort into building up the Guatemalan police force, the fiscal realities in the nation may pose problems. With overall tax revenue amounting to 10.7 percent of total domestic income —low even by Latin American standards—Guatemala may not have the financial resources it needs to commit to public security.

As a nearby neighbor in the Western Hemisphere and a critical partner in security and trade, the United States has a vested interest in the security of Guatemala. While the United States has contributed to Central American security through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a greater degree of sustained support is needed.

Under soon-to-be President Otto Pérez Molina, we can hope that Guatemala will continue to stand as a key partner for the United States in promoting Central American security. Either way, however, Guatemala is a country of critical importance that the Obama Administration simply cannot afford to ignore.

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