During last year’s presidential campaign in Guatemala, many were wary of what a government headed by a former military officer, then-candidate Otto Pérez Molina, would look like. Specifically, the concerns centered on if Guatemala could retrogress to the era of abuse and totalitarianism that ruled the country from 1954 to 1986.
To the surprise of many, however, things appear to have turned out quite the opposite. President Pérez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) has thus far helped restore confidence in government institutions in a country plagued by high levels of organized crime and impunity.
The president has governed pragmatically, particularly by way of his progressive stance on drug decriminalization: an issue that dominated the media coverage of the Sixth Summit of the Americas earlier this month in Cartagena, Colombia. His decriminalization position represents a major shift in a country with strong traditional and religious values and a highly conservative economic and political class.
The hemisphere is listening. At the summit, Organization of American States (OAS) member-states agreed for the regional body to investigate the prospect of decriminalizing drugs—a notable breakthrough from previous regional conferences. Although some believe this is a political strategy to pressure Washington to boost aid in Guatemala, Pérez Molina’s push has brought results, including President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to increase security cooperation in Central America.
Having launched its 2012-2016 foreign policy agenda, Pérez Molina’s administration is leveraging Guatemala’s international exposure—notably its temporary, rotating seat on the UN Security Council—to enhance its role in global and regional politics. This falls under Pérez Molina’s security strategy of assuaging investors in order to enhance economic growth, transparency and competitiveness.
Pérez Molina has implemented specialized taskforces to dismantle extortionists, criminals and thugs—initiatives to which the United States has offered financial support. He has also made progress toward meeting his goal of adding 10,000 new police officers to the streets and restructuring their deployment. His administration is currently finalizing the location of a new academy for higher-ranking police officers, and recently announced the deployment of two new military brigades to regain control of the national territory.
Pérez Molina says he plans to turn over all citizen-security efforts to the national police once the entity attains functional capability independent from the military. To reach this objective, the president is seeking to strengthen the country’s prosecution efforts by supporting the continued mandate of the CICIG (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) and dually addressing the socioeconomic challenges that lead to crime such as continuing the social programs pioneered by his predecessor Álvaro Colom. To prove his commitment to social inclusion, Pérez Molina created a federal ministry for social development, pledging $160 million to the initiative.
All told, barely over 100 days into his presidency Otto Pérez Molina has begun taking concrete steps to confront Guatemala’s persistent crime and insecurity, trying to rally consensus among heads of state in the neighboring Northern Triangle and, more broadly, Central America—to varying levels of success. It remains to be seen whether political capital expended around the unorthodox proposal of decriminalization will translate into tangible security and justice improvements in Guatemala, or instead push away dissenting allies.
Joshua Ryan Rosales is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He works at a major global law firm in Houston, Texas, having previously worked as one of its lead analysts for the Americas as well as under an Ambassador of Guatemala. His writings on inter-American affairs focus primarily on foreign policy, economic development and politics.