Guatemala: Political, Security, and Socio-Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations*

By Taft-Morales, Maureen | Current Politics and Economics of South and Central America, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Guatemala: Political, Security, and Socio-Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations*


Taft-Morales, Maureen, Current Politics and Economics of South and Central America


Political Situation

Guatemala has suffered much violence for decades. Currently, it is considered one of the most insecure countries in the world, with a rate of 34 homicides per 100,000 people, and 76% of the population expressing little or no trust in the police.1 Guatemala endured a 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords. During most of that time the Guatemalan military was in power and engaged in violent repression against civil society organizations, and in gross violations of the human rights of its citizens, especially its majority indigenous population. Although Guatemala established a civilian democratic government in 1986, it took another 10 years to end the violence, during which time the military continued to engage in repression and violations of human rights. The United States maintained close relations with most Guatemalan governments before, during and after the civil war, including with the military governments.

Since the late 1980s, Guatemala has continued to consolidate its transition not only from decades of military rule, but also from a centuries-long tradition of mostly autocratic rule, toward representative government. Democratically elected civilian governments have governed Guatemala for 28 years now, making notable gains, such as carrying out significant military reforms and generally exerting effective control over the military. Nonetheless, democratic institutions remain fragile. In addition to military impunity for human rights violations and other crimes, drug trafficking, corruption, and grossly inequitable distribution of resources make political and social development difficult. Recent developments have caused concern among some observers that there is a backlash against some of the judicial reforms and that impunity for human rights violations and other crimes may rise again.

President Otto Pérez Molina

Former army general Otto Pérez Molina of the rightist Patriot Party (Partido Patriota, PP) was inaugurated as president of Guatemala in January 2012. He succeeded President Álvaro Colom of the center-left National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de Esperanza, UNE) coalition. Pérez Molina is a controversial figure. He commanded army troops during the violent counterinsurgency campaign of the 1980s, was director of military intelligence during the 1990s, and has been linked by international human rights groups, the press, and others to human rights violations, including death squads and major political assassinations.2 Pérez Molina is also known as a military moderate who opposed then-President Jorge Serrano's autogolpe (self-coup) in 1993, and was the military's negotiator for the Peace Accords that ended Guatemala's 36-year civil war in 1996. As a member of the Guatemalan Congress, he has advocated for legal and security reform, but has also been accused by the banking regulatory commission of involvement in the siphoning of state funds.3 In 2011, U.S. citizen Jennifer Harbury filed the first step to trigger an investigation of Pérez Molina for his alleged role in the 1992disappearance and murder of her husband, guerrilla leader Efrain Bámaca. Pérez Molina responded at the time that the case had gone nowhere before, and that the new effort had to be politically motivated.4 During his campaign, Pérez Molina pledged to combat crime with a "mano dura," or iron fist, generally interpreted in Latin America to mean the use of repressive tactics. The party he created, the second-largest bloc in the previous legislature, generally opposed reforms proposed by the government under former President Colom, such as laws on rural development and the Law against the Illegal Accumulation of Wealth and Budget Expansion.5

The Perez Molina Administration

Since taking office in 2012, President Otto Pérez Molina has focused on reducing crime, increasing social spending, and enacting reforms to strengthen Guatemalan institutions. Early actions in support of judicial, social, and fiscal reform showed "surprisingly liberal inclinations," as one analyst put it. …

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