Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina’s first year in office

An analysis of Otto Perez Molina, Guatemala’s former army chief and president, during his first year in office.

Guatemala''s President meets with EP President
Otto Perez Molina's first year has been a mixed picture for the people of Guatemala [EPA]

Otto Perez Molina of the Patriotic Party stepped onto the international stage in February 2012, after announcing to Guatemala and to the world that he would support the decriminalisation of marijuana and other illegal drugs.

While his proposal brought accolades abroad, his first year in office has been much more of a mixed picture, at best, for the people of Guatemala.

Upon his inauguration on January 14, 2012, President Perez confronted a challenging environment following four tumultuous years under Alvaro Colom. Fifty-four percent of the population lived in poverty, a three percentage point increase from the start of Colom’s term.

Among other reasons, the poverty rate increased because of the 2008 global food crisis, natural disasters such as the eruption of the Pacaya Volcano and Tropical Storm Agatha, poor tax receipts, as well as the global economic crisis that severely impacted Guatemala and its nationals living in the United States. While repeatedly asked, the United States government did not extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Guatemalans living in the US.

Doing so might have helped the country economically given the large amount of remittances sent back to Guatemala by those working in the US. It is possible that overall poverty would have increased even more had it not been for the social programs introduced under Colom, such as cash transfer programs that provided money to low-income families in return for keeping their children enrolled in school, but that is little consolation.

During his first year in office, President Perez launched a Zero Hunger Program designed to reduce chronic malnutrition. However, at the one year mark, many complain that the program has not yet reached much of the at-risk population, insufficient resources have been dedicated to the program, and there is a lack of organisation among the institutions that are involved in its execution.

Critics also claim that other social programs like Bolsa Segura, which provides food to needy families, do not do enough to break the cycle of poverty in Guatemala. Bolsa Segura was begun under Perez’s predecessor. During the campaign, Perez criticised Colom’s use of the program in order to benefit his political party. However, that criticism may by questioned now as only rhetoric for political gain, as he seems to appreciate its political benefits now as president even if some continue to question its economic benefits.

Experts estimate that Guatemala’s gross domestic product grew by 3.5-3.9 per cent in 2012 which is not nearly enough given a population growth rate of 2.5 percent and an inflation rate of 3.45 per cent.

Estimates for 2013 are similar which means that it is going to be difficult for Perez to reach his goal of reducing chronic malnutrition.

Violence in the country 

As measured by homicide rates, Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the world.

In 2011, the year prior to Perez taking office, Guatemala recorded 5,681 murders for a homicide rate of 39 per 100,000.

Many criticised President Colom because over 24,000 Guatemalans were murdered during his term, more than any other administration since the country’s return to civilian rule. Therefore, many looked to President Perez and his promised mano dura policies to save the country.However, while the country’s murder rate remained alarmingly high, it had actually decreased during Colom’s third and fourth year in office.

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During his last year in office, the country’s murder rate dropped to 38.6, lower than the 46 per 100,000 in 2009 and 41 per 100,000 in 2010.

Like overall murders, those of women declined at the end of Colom’s term. Gender-based violence remains a serious problem in Guatemala, as it does in every other country in the world, but at least in terms of femicide, the Colom administration appeared to have made progress.

The National Civilian Police reported that 631 women were murdered in 2011, down from 720 in 2009 and 695 in 2010. That progress continued during President Perez’s first year in office as about 570 women were murdered.

It is accurate to say that more people were murdered during President Colom’s four-year term than those of his predecessors, but that description purposefully obscures the improvements that were made in his last two years.

The work of Guatemala’s attorney general, police commissioner, and interior minister, and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) were partly responsible for the improved murder rate and marginally improved security situation. Paz y Paz was not Colom’s first choice, but he does deserve some credit for eventually appointing her attorney general.

Likewise, Paz y Paz may not have been on Perez’s short list of attorneys general but he has stuck with her and so deserves some credit. She has the support of many Guatemalans and, perhaps more importantly, the US and the international community.

CICIG Francisco Dall’Anese and former Commissioner Carlos Castresana have provided immeasurable support to Guatemala, improving the investigative power of prosecutors and enhancing the transparency of the judicial nominating process.

Fighting impunity 

While not perfect, CICIG has taken important steps to provide the Guatemalan people and its institutions with the tools necessary to tackle impunity.

Earlier this year, Perez and Dall’Anese agreed to extend CICIG’s mandate until at least September 2015. And, in an unprecedented move, CICIG provided the Guatemalan government with a list of 18 corrupt judges who most served the interests of organised crime.

While impunity remains the dominant outcome for most crimes in Guatemala, authorities appear to have made important progress.

In addition to extending support to Paz y Paz and CICIG, Perez promised to bring mano dura with him into the presidency. Given the history of mano dura policies in El Salvador and Honduras, I feared that his commitment to mano dura would lead to a worsening security situation in Guatemala.

“Even though independent bodies have concluded that the Guatemalan military carried out hundreds of massacres against unarmed, indigenous people, Perez denies that any took place, let alone genocide or crimes against humanity.

However, in 2012, Guatemala recorded 5,174 homicides, approximately 500 fewer than in Colom’s last year, thereby reducing the country’s murder rate from 39 to 34 per 100,000. However, while the government’s increased reliance on the military and mano dura policies has not led to an increase in homicides, there is good reason to be concerned with the government’s increasing reliance on the military to perform acts better suited for police.

Three months ago, eight Guatemalans were killed and several dozen injured when the military opened fire on protesters who had nonviolently occupied Cuatro Caminos, a busy intersection linking Guatemala City, Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, and Totonicapan.

The protesters were demonstrating their disapproval with hikes in electricity costs as well as government proposals to reform the education system and constitution. Totonicapan is a heavily indigenous department with 98 percent of the population Maya-K’iche’.

The government has also dispatched security forces to Santa Cruz Barrillas and other conflict areas where local indigenous are protesting hydroelectric and mining projects carried out on their lands over their objections. Five people were recently injured during an exchange in El Estor, Zacapa.

An area in which Guatemala advanced under the Colom administration was in the area of addressing the government’s violent past. Colom apologised on behalf of the state for crimes that it committed during the armed conflict and there was some movement in overcoming impunity through the use of trials.

President Colom apologised on behalf of the Guatemalan state to former President Jacobo Arbenz’s family for its complicity in the 1954 CIA-led coup that removed him from office. Four former military officials were sentenced to over 6,000 years in prison for one of the worst civil war massacres, the killing of over 200 men, women and children at Dos Erres in December 1982.

Authorities arrested several high-ranking officials, including former general Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, former intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez, and former general and de facto president Oscar Mejia. And in 2012, once he lost his immunity as a sitting member of congress, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt appeared before a Guatemalan court to answer charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Rios Montt took power in a 1982 coup and oversaw some of the worst abuses during the conflict.

Even though independent bodies have concluded that the Guatemalan military carried out hundreds of massacres against unarmed, indigenous people during the country’s armed conflict, Perez denies that any massacres took place, let alone genocide or crimes against humanity.

Fortunately, these trials have continued in spite of the president’s position. Unfortunately, other actions, including those of the last few weeks, have renewed concerns about Otto Perez Molina’s intentions with ongoing human rights cases. In June, the Peace Secretariat Antonio Arenales Forno announced that the government would be closing the Peace Archives. The Peace Secretariat has been one of the most outspoken critics of attempts to hold former military leaders accountable for gross human rights violations.

Since it was founded in 2008, the archives digitised over two million documents related to the country’s armed conflict.

“The Peace Archives also published nine important reports on issues such as forced disappearance, child trafficking, the notorious Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial-EMP), and the National Police archives. Its staff provided expert testimony for the Public Ministry in several key human rights cases, including the current indictment against ex-chief of state Efraín Rios Montt for genocide, related to massacres carried out in the Ixil in 1982-83.” – Kate Doyle

Between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the government also announced that it would no longer recognise the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ rulings on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987 and that it would no longer pay reparations to victims pre-1987 (Guatemala Rejects Inter-American Court Jurisdiction Over Pre-1987 Abuses).

Social unrest

Over 100,000 Guatemalans were killed between 1981 and 1983. Fortunately, Perez has rethought that decision and has promised to engage in discussions with others before moving forward. In addition, the Constitutional Court is set to make a ruling any day as to whether the courts can continue to move forward against Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and other crimes or whether he is immune from prosecution because of a 1996 amnesty law.

Lower courts have already weighed in with a resounding no – the law does not shield him from prosecution. Rios Montt was president during some of the worst months of government repression. Instead of accepting responsibility for what he ordered, Rios Montt and his lawyers have tried everything in their power to have the case dismissed.

A ruling by the Constitutional Court might be all that stands between Rios Montt and a conviction. All this goes on while the remains of over 500 indigenous men, women, and children are in the process of being exhumed from a clandestine military base in Coban.

For the last few weeks, all the Guatemalan newspapers have been running stories about social unrest throughout the country over land conflict, mining, and indigenous rights.

The massacre in Totonicapan, the earthquake and devastation in San Marcos, repression against civil society, tensions surrounding the poorly conceptualised, planned and executed end of the world celebrations, and Otto Perez Molina’s military history make for poor relations between a large number of Guatemalans and the government.

These are real concerns about the situation here as Guatemalans head into 2013 and the second year of this administration. I’m afraid that adverse decisions with regards to the prosecution of human rights violators and the increased reliance on the military to resolve problems that do not have military solutions will only stoke the flames of discontent which is unfortunate and dangerous for the people of this beautiful country.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.