Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Agents of the Guatemalan National Police at their graduation.


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Getting away with murder in Central America

By Guillermo Farias

Guatemala is an excellent place to escape the consequences of committing murder. According to official 2013 figures, only 2 percent of crimes are prosecuted. Honduras and El Salvador present similar opportunities to murder with impunity and have criminal violence levels to match. According the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the three countries of Central America’s “northern triangle” have faced homicide rates above 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants for much of the last decade. The high levels of violence are the result of a myriad of factors, including the entry of Mexican drug trafficking organizations into Central America, deteriorating socio-economic conditions and an increase in gang-related violence. However, the governments of the region have poured gasoline on the fire by adopting shortsighted security strategies that sacrifice human rights for a false sense of security.

In the face of the security crisis, the governments of the region have chosen to follow security strategies that emphasize arrests and violent action over effective prosecutions and institutional reform. Over 20,000 soldiers are currently deployed in a public security role in Guatemala and the government recently announced the creation of an inter-agency task force to address drug trafficking that includes military personnel. Simultaneously, the administration of President Otto Pérez Molina has undermined efforts to reduce impunity and increase accountability for abuses by security forces. In an opaque decision that many saw as motivated by outside forces, the Constitutional Court removed the Attorney General from office seven months before her term was due to end. Pérez Molina has also announced that the mandate of the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has supported efforts to investigate and prosecute organized crime, will not be renewed when it expires in 2015. Guatemala’s neighbors have followed a similar path.

Honduras deployed the military to carry out public security duties in 2011 and created a military police force that has the power to carry out arrests and seize control of violent neighborhoods in 2013. In 2014, the military police was deployed. Despite these drastic actions, the 2015 murder rate in the country remained the highest in the world. As in Guatemala, the aggressive security strategy has been accompanied by an assault on judicial and prosecutorial independence. Four judges that were removed from the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber in 2012 reported being subject to police harassment and death threats. Even more alarmingly, over 40 judges have been suspended by the Council of the Judiciary, a body created in 2011 and given authority to appoint and dismiss judges that has been criticized for lacking safeguards against political interference.

The director of the El Salvador’s national police recently urged officers to use their weapons against criminals with “complete confidence” and aggressively defended the use of lethal force in security operations. In tandem, the appointment procedure for judges has been weakened, raising concerns that appointments will be made based on political affiliation.

The aggressive use of force and the parallel weakening of the judiciary and other rule of law institutions in these three countries lays bare a raw political calculation: security requires action, not checks and oversight. In other words, you can either have security or you can respect human rights, but doing both is impractical. The international community, especially the United States, should put pressure on the governments of the region in order to change this calculation. Reducing impunity and focusing on institutional reform will go further in improving security than the fight-fire-with-fire approach that the governments of the region have adopted.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Gobierno de Guatemala/Creative Commons

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