A version of this post ran on the Washington Office on Latin America site. The views expressed are the author's own.
November 2016 was the least violent month in Guatemala in the past ten years. Although President Jimmy Morales’ achievements during his first year in office are few, it is possible to highlight those made in security, including the sustained decline in homicides during 2016.
Last year, Guatemala’s homicide rate hit its lowest point in the past 15 years, at 27.3 per 100,000 inhabitants, with a decrease of 258 violent deaths – from 4,778 to 4,520 – according to figures from the National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC). Violent deaths among women also declined, from 601 in 2015 to 573 in 2016.
Although the decline began in 2010, as 2009 was the most violent year in the country’s recent history, it is important to emphasize that the trend has been maintained largely due to the continuation of strategies specifically designed to respond to the high levels of violence.
One of these strategies has been the joint work between the Public Prosecutor’s Office and Ministry of the Interior in the investigation and dismantling of criminal networks linked to extortion and homicide. There have also been improvements in the use of scientific evidence through the National Institute of Forensic Sciences, particularly through forensic medicine and ballistics.
In 2016, this coordination facilitated three major operations against the 18th Street Gang and MS-13, which detained and put on trial individuals who, according to investigations, were responsible for extorting urban and suburban transportation companies and for the murders of bus drivers, members of the rival gang, and government officials, among others.
Another strategy the Interior Minister implemented was to identify the 30 most violent municipalities in the country, and design prevention and deterrence plans focusing on greater police presence during critical days and hours. The sustained increase in police officers, which reached 37,000 following the graduation of 2,128 new recruits in December 2016, has contributed to the implementation of this strategy.
Although Guatemala’s homicide rate still remains above the Latin America and the Caribbean regional average of 22.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and places it among the ten most violent countries on the continent, sustained justice and security policies have led to a consistently declining homicide rate – to the point that the country reports the best statistics of the three countries that make up Central America’s Northern Triangle, compared to 84.9 in El Salvador and 58.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in Honduras.
Without a doubt, much remains to be done with regard to citizen security in the country. Reducing overcrowding and ensuring security in prisons should be priorities for 2017. So should implementing the plan for demilitarizing internal security, which would mean the withdrawal of more than 4,000 soldiers from the streets and their return to the barracks. It is also essential to continue with the professionalization and specialization of the PNC, and with the strengthening of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the investigation of crimes against life.
However, it is important to recognize the results of effective policies, including team training and specialization, coordinated inter-institutional work, the use of scientific evidence, and the design of intervention strategies based on prioritizing specific places and situations in order to reduce violence.
These efforts should be evaluated and adjusted in 2017 so that the downward trend of violent deaths may continue. Likewise, they should be complemented by strategies that prioritize crime prevention, especially measures to facilitate access to work and education for youth.
Developing and implementing plans to strengthen the rule of law, create civilian, professional, and responsible police forces, and limit the role of the military in police activities have been identified as some of the conditions of the United States aid package to the region. The Interior Minister has taken important steps to reduce violence and has made explicit his commitment to the demilitarization of internal security, the professionalization of the PNC, and the reform of the penitentiary system. As implementing and strengthening these policies is on the common agenda of both countries, they must be monitored and strengthened to ensure continued progress.
Adriana Beltrán leads WOLA’s Citizen Security Program, focusing on violence prevention, and police and judicial reform in Central America. In addition to her work on citizen security, Ms. Beltrán has worked extensively on human rights and organized crime, particularly in Guatemala.