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Research Report

A state under siege:: elites, criminal networks and institutional reform in Guatemala

Ivan Briscoe
Martín Rodríguez Pellecer
Copyright Date: Sep. 1, 2010
Published by: Clingendael Institute
Pages: 72

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. None)
  2. (pp. None)
  3. (pp. i-ii)
  4. (pp. iii-iv)
  5. (pp. 1-4)

    Afflicted by some of the world’s worst criminal violence, Guatemala, the largest and most populous nation in Central America, has often been diagnosed as a country that has failed to complete its emergence from conflict. Former rebel combatants and army officers, arsenals of weapons, and security forces’ links with narco-traffickers are among the legacies of conflict that remain the chief impediments to the construction of a strong state across the national territory. A culture of public life based on fear, patronage, self-preservation, impunity and clandestine activity – translating into a machinery of state that is corroded from within by ties...

  6. (pp. 5-14)

    Despite the context of war, political repression and close military surveillance in which it was created, the Guatemalan Constituent Assembly of 1984 managed to craft a Constitution that set up the framework for a workable democracy. The system of powers that resulted resembles the typical Latin American arrangement: the three organs of state are a presidential executive, an elected Congress and an independent judiciary. Below them, a system of elected municipal and departmental units administers local matters through a guaranteed share of the national budget.

    This brief description, however, fails to capture the essence of political power in post-conflict Guatemala....

  7. (pp. 15-26)

    Why should this post-conflict settlement, in which a certain level of political and social stability has withstood moderate use of strategic terror by former counter-insurgency groups and a violent crime wave, be subject to any substantial change? For the three key sectors of governance on which this research has concentrated, namely the economic elite, organized political parties and movements, and the local level of power, the consensus in recent press articles and academic literature is virtually unanimous. The elite has assumed an unassailable position, “adding to its traditional economic power… the ability to create forms of political control and ideological...

  8. (pp. 27-36)

    The extreme weakness of Guatemala’s political parties is apparent in numerous and abundantly documented aspects, including their public legitimacy, longevity, organizational coherence and ideological content (Sánchez 2008; ASIES 2009; Instituto Interuniversitario 2005, ch. 3). Studies of the country’s party system have highlighted the fact that the source of these flaws may be found in the democratic transition, which began during the war and was “engineered purely from above” (Sánchez 2008, p. 145), thereby impeding the consolidation of popular and inclusive political forces.

    Ironically, the Law of Political Parties, introduced with the status of a constitutional clause in 1985 (Instituto Interuniversitario...

  9. (pp. 37-44)

    Alta Verapaz, on the border with Mexico, is emblematic of the most important historical tides to have swept Guatemala since the arrival of the Spaniards: its population, which is largely indigenous, has witnessed and participated in the coffee revolution of the 19th century, the civil war and the decline of the feudal aristocracy.

    For these reasons, and due to the fact that it now sits on one of the main narco-trafficking routes snaking through the country, it was chosen as the site for research into the local ambit of governance. The aim was dual: first, to examine how the political...

  10. (pp. 45-52)

    The preceding chapters have established that Guatemala is entering an unpredictable period of change in its governance structures, marked above all else by the emergence of challenges to its post-conflict, elite-led status quo. These challenges – one from the organization of a structured centre-left political force, and the other, and more important, from the occupation and annexation of informal power mechanisms by emerging actors, entrepreneurs and criminal forces – are set to reconfigure the nature of the state. But will the new Guatemalan state be more or less fragile? Will it be more responsive to citizens’ needs, in welfare and...

  11. (pp. 53-58)

    This paper has striven to cast light on the three areas in which the future of state-building and political competition in Guatemala will be determined. By exploring not merely the surface phenomena of governance in these areas, but also the clandestine systems of finance, incentivemaking and criminal activity, it has endeavoured to trace the scale of the dilemmas facing the country. On one level, it might be said that the fate of the current centre-left administration, and the results of the elections in 2011, will be crucial factors determining the future of the Guatemalan state.

    However, it is evident from...

  12. (pp. 61-64)