Guatemala's military to tackle internal threats

Guatemala isn't the only Latin American nation to use its army to fight internal armed groups, but guest blogger James Bosworth warns that 'protect the population' should be part of the mission.

Moises Castillo/AP
Guatemala's newly sworn-in President Otto Perez Molina, second from right, is flanked by a trio of high-ranking generals during a military ceremony recognizing Perez as commander-in-chief, in Guatemala City, Sunday Jan. 15. Perez, a retired general, is the first military officer elected as Guatemalan president since the end of a military government 25 years ago.

Just one day in office, Guatemalan President Perez Molina met with his military commanders and issued a new top priority for the military: "Achieve an interdiction of external threats and neutralize illegal armed groups, through the use of military power, by regaining and maintaining control of the air, maritime, and land domains."
 
None of this is a surprise. Perez had promised to use the military to improve internal security throughout the current and previous campaign. Perez also promised to provide the military with the technology and equipment to meet that objective including surveillance systems, radars, speedboats, and combat aircraft.

The use of the military isn't unprecedented. Former President Colom used the military in combating the Zetas and other Latin American militaries are deployed internally to fight crime. However, it appears that Perez went a step further, symbolically and perhaps legally, in making the mission to fight illegal armed groups the primary focus of the Guatemalan military.

Several key questions come from this statement. First, will this have a real impact on how the Guatemalan military trains, equips, and deploys or was it just symbolic? Second, where is the money? Is Perez going to pass any new taxes, reform the budget, or appeal for new international aid? Third, what is the long term strategy and goal? Is there a defined end state, perhaps including a return to a reformed, more capable, and less corrupt civilian police force? How will Perez know when Guatemala has won? Like too many other Latin American presidents, it appears Perez is sending in the military to fight the bad guys before he has a strategy to win or a vision for what he wants to achieve.
 
I'm disappointed to see that "protect the population" wasn't in the main mission statement, at least as far as I can tell from the reporting. Protect the population and measure the results is a good general recommendation for Latin American countries trying to fight crime. Going on the offensive and fighting the illegal armed groups can lead to the wrong measures of success. Declaring protection of the population as the mission means the government must judge success based on less violence. Declaring the offensive fight as the mission generally leads to more violence, though I'd be glad to be proven wrong.
 
By starting with the military offensive, not focusing on protection of the population and not placing the military actions in the framework of a full government strategy, Perez threatens to make the same mistakes as his neighbor to the north. Perez should have a more comprehensive strategy in place before he deploys the military.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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