Guatemala: Success in community-based policing requires not just more police officers but also education, training and institutional resources.
Story by: Benjamin Rojas
Early last autumn, as part of ongoing research into community policing in Guatemala, ICT4COP-researcher Arturo Matute of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala and I attended a presentation of the project “Strengthening the training of human resources of the police through the dissemination of the philosophy of community policing”.
The project, a collaboration between the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Military Police of the state of Sao Paulo in Brazil and the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC), aims to improve the knowledge regarding community-based policing (COP). This is a continuation of previous educational support of the Sao Paulo military police to the PNC. In 2008, 48 Guatemalan agents were trained in Brazil on COP and crime prevention.
The Military Police of Sao Paolo are a reserve force of the Brazilian army and their role is to maintain public order, and fight, prevent and reduce crime. It has been suggested that police forces should not be trained by highly militarized police and this has been a recommendation since the creation of the PNC in 1997.
However, militarized police training has a longer history in post-war Guatemala. As part of the democratisation of the Guatemalan state and the demilitarisation of security provision, the PNC was created as a civilian police force. Yet in 1999, although it was considered to be a highly-militarized police force, the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil Española) had the task of supporting, advising and training the new police force in Guatemala. As a result, 11,000 of the 19,000 members of the new PNC had been members of the old police, transferred after receiving a scant three months of training.
The collaborative project between Japan, Brazil and Guatemala also intends to strengthen the so-called Police Model of Integral Community Security (MOPSIC), which started in 2014. This is a national community-based policing policy to be implemented in the training of new police recruits and the rest of the police force.
Before its implementation, the Division for Community Relations within the PNC’s Sub-Directorate of Crime Prevention (SGPD, for its acronym in Spanish) was the main section in the police that had received community-based policing training. 546 men and women are part of the SGPD, about 1.69 percent of the total police force. Through MOPSIC, SGPD and the Sub-Directorate of Operations (SGO, for its acronym in Spanish), which includes more than 27,000 officers, will work together on community-based policing.
In effect, then, this is the majority of the police in Guatemala. SGO officers have, however, not yet been trained in COP methodology. The SGO director received such training in Japan for two weeks and, at the presentation of the project, he was extremely enthusiastic to implement the MOPSIC program in this directorate. Through MOPSIC as well there will be education teams (so-called multipliers MOPSIC teams) for community policing in all 27 main police stations to teach police members in stations and sub-stations about new tools of how to interact with civil society, monitoring criminal activity, and reporting them.
Moreover, the PNC has increased significantly over the last years. In 2009, the PNC was 20,136 strong, i.e. 1.5 police officers per 1,000 inhabitants. This was one of the lowest rates in Central America. Currently, the PNC is constituted by more than 35,000 members, having passed through a 50 percent increase in seven years. These efforts are to be celebrated. However, improving the police is not just about quantity but also quality. Quality has to do with education, investment, infrastructure, among other needs of the national police.
Education and training in the PNC have varied over time. In some cases, to become a police agent, the training period lasted only 3 months, whereas in other periods it has been 9 months. One could argue that this is too short a period for a police recruit to learn “how to be a judge, a lawyer and have a proper training of COP”. It is also a short period of educational training compared with other countries of Central America such as Costa Rica (11 months), El Salvador (14 months), Nicaragua (10 months).
Moreover, initial results of our research in Guatemala suggest that police officers claim that there is no incentive to “climb in the hierarchy of the institution”. Expected salaries fail to match the added workload and responsibilities. For example, in 2013 the salary of a police agent (the lowest rank) was on average US$ 500 dollars. The salary of a “third officer” was US$ 766.
Consequently, this is reflected in the quantity of “third officer” agents. In the following year, there were expected to be 1,100 “third officer” agents. However, there were only 340. It is important to highlight that on the Guatemalan budget for 2016, 98% of the resources destined to the police go to salaries and other expenses. Only 2% goes to investments in the institution. These are numbers to consider when thinking of a viable COP implementation and an improvement in the conditions of the police force.
During the presentation of the project, it was highlighted that police officers know the “what” of COP but they lack the knowledge of “how” to implement COP philosophy in action in their daily operations. COP actions are integrated and applied with different methods in rural and urban areas. In rural areas, the police can have a closer relationship with communities and do “door by door” presentations and interactions of the police roles. In urban areas, however, such as Guatemala City, this procedure is unthinkable due to fear of knocking on the door of one of the “maras”, notorious criminal gangs.
Furthermore, public security is not just in the hands of the National Civil Police. Private security companies are estimated to triple the PNC’s human resources and many of these firms are led by former military officers. According to critics and some governmental authorities, these companies, although they provide protection to those who can pay for their services, many times they hinder efforts to reduce crimes and violence: maintaining high levels of insecurity perception contributes to keeping demand high for these services. There have been allegations of relations between private security firms and assassin rings and weapons trafficking networks. The military is also involved in public security, with 4,500 soldiers who accompany the police on patrols in high-crime areas and man checkpoints, and who provide logistical and intelligence support.
These critiques are not new. Most pilot projects of COP in Guatemala have not been sustained over time due to a lack of police officers, corruption, and insufficient monetary support, among other reasons.
It would, however, be incorrect to state that all is going amiss. The new Vice Minister for Violence and Crime Prevention, Axel Romero, proposes that all police officers involved in crime prevention should work to improve efficiency and avoid duplication of efforts in accordance with an up-coming national crime prevention plan. Also, MOPSIC comes to re-enforce the need to introduce the use of ICTs in COP and provides new ways to organize information and planning.
Meanwhile, the United States Agency for International Development has provided technological resources for geo-referencing work in places considered “hotspots” of violence. After fieldwork carried out by the police using a geographic information system (GIS) software, information is uploaded to an internal PNC map. The map allows for geographical visualization of crimes and violence. However, the PNC does not have the technology and resources to do this everywhere: the priority is in certain sectors of the metropolis, such as Villa Nueva, a municipality close to the city. It has the highest crime rates in the country and several COP pilot projects have been implemented.
According to Romero, this is an innovative tool to reinforce MOPSIC and it can be very useful in the current situation. In fact, he argues that most of the paperwork done by the police is hand written, and even in Guatemala City there is little knowledge of the quantity of homicides and crimes in the different zones. Early findings from our research in the capital indicate that in some police stations the GIS, computers and smartphones, donated by international donors, have not been used due to lack of internet access. Neither the municipality nor the police have sufficient funds for their operations.
Meagre education, lack of monetary and human resources, poor infrastructure and reluctance from police agents are among many of the issues that community policing faces when implemented in post-conflict countries. Although the PNC’s capacity has improved enormously, now it is time to focus on how to improve the quality of its members. Further research in Guatemala on COP should focus on how these different peculiarities affect the way policy implementation works and how the new introduction of these ICT tools can support it.
Benjamin Rojas pursues a masters in international environment studies at the Department of International Environment and Development Studies, Noragric, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, where he also earned his Bachelor’s degree. Rojas also studied political science at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica in Santiago, Chile.