Sunday, July 3, 2011

Reducing the Guatemalan Army

Adam Isaacson argues that Oscar Berger's decision to reduce the Guatemalan military from 50,000 to 17,000 in 2004 is not the main reason that the country is ill-prepared to fight drug trafficking and organized crime. He then makes four very good points.
  • Cutting back the Army wasn’t a mistake. The big mistake was not increasing the police to fill the gap...
  • Fighting organized crime is not what an army does...
  • It’s wrong to assume that Guatemala’s army would be less susceptible to corruption...
  • Guatemala’s army has never been held to account for human rights crimes...
I agree with every point that he makes, but would just want to add two more things. First, I am not sure that we know what happened to the 33,000 members of the Army that were let go. How many found their way into the ranks of the cartels or other shadowy groups? Would a force of around 30,000 have provided a career opportunity for young men and women and had any substantive impact on the number of unemployed, cartel footmen, or migrants heading north to the US?

Second, if Guatemala has one police officer for every 700 residents that means that it has a force of about 20,000. That’s the ratio that the WSJ uses. However, from what I read in November 2009, Guatemala had 23,287 police officers. That would work out to 1 officer for every 600 Guatemalans. That still does not meet the standard suggested by the UN, but it is a little better.

In 2006, the country counted on 19,600 police, or 150 per 100,000 Guatemalans. With a force of 23,287 in late 2009, that worked out to about 166 police per 100,000 (based on a population of 14 million).  This ratio is considerably less than that of El Salvador, a country confronting similar problems of insecurity, where the ratio was about 229 per 100,000 in 2006. With the 2009 increase in El Salvador’s force, it possesses about 242 agents per 100,000 (17,000 based on a population of 7 million) (Guatemala’s Drug Crime Challenge: How We Can Help It Cope).

The difference in police forces is magnified if one takes into consideration that El Salvador’s population is less than half that of Guatemala, it is geographically smaller at almost one-fifth the size (42,043 sq mi for Guatemala versus 8,124 sq mi for El Salvador), has only one coast, and does not share a 600-mile long boundary with Mexico.

An additional problem with the police is that President Colom stated (as of 2009) that he had added 6,000 new police since taking office. (I don't have more up to date numbers.) At a minimum, then, at least one quarter of the force has less than four years’ experience. The large percentage of new recruits among the Guatemalan police feeds into the lack of training and experience criticism.

None of this undermines Adam's argument. Reducing the military isn't the main reason that Guatemala has been unable to deal with drug trafficking and organized crime. A more important failure is that the country has failed to produce enough properly trained police officers.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think it's just a matter of numbers (reducing this, increasing that). What about the intelligence gathering apparatus? Sure, after the peace accords and the dismantling of the military intelligence apparatus (at least on paper), the SAE (now SIE) was created as a civilian replacement. But SIE has a lot of weaknesses, and works in coordination with the military when the head of it is a person with links to the military. Which brings me to the second question: Why is fighting organized crime not a task that can be taken by both the military and the police? Wouldn't it depend on how the issue gets defined and whether it poses a threat to national security?