According to Guatemalan Army Major General Williams Mansilla Fernández, the Guatemalan Minister of Defense, a regional solution must be given to the traditional and non-traditional threats to security that Latin America and the Caribbean face. The general granted an interview to Diálogo during the Regional Conference on Countering Transnational and Transregional Threat Networks (T3N), held from June 20th to 22nd in Antigua, Guatemala.
Maj. Gen. Mansilla who assumed control of the defense portfolio in July 2015, said that international cooperation requires resources from each country. The synergy between cooperation, friendship, and mutual trust are decisive factors in the fight against transnational criminal organizations. He also spoke about his country’s security priorities, the advances that have been made in the fight against transnational crime, respect for human rights, and gender inclusivity in the armed forces, among other issues.
Diálogo: Minister Mansilla, what are your most important challenges in terms of Guatemala’s defense?
Major General Williams Mansilla Fernández, Guatemalan Minister of Defense: The scarcity of resources is a constant challenge. There is no institution that has what it needs to do what it is trying to do. One of the main challenges that we face is being able to do the most we can with what we currently have. There is a growing demand for the state to be present in many parts of the country. We have based our actions on human resources. Our staff’s commitment and their spirit of service have been keys to overcoming the resource limitations. Despite the limited budget, we never stop thinking about recovering the capacities that we have been utilizing in recent years. We are even looking to acquire new capabilities that will allow us to carry out our duties for the benefit of the citizenry.
Diálogo: What are the most important security priorities that Guatemala faces?
Maj. Gen. Mansilla: Prioritizing attention to issues of civil safety is within the scope of the Ministry of the Interior. Those public safety issues that require the temporary use of military resources are the subject of the National Security Council. All situations that lead to a lack of public safety are priorities since the complexity of those interwoven relationships demands that none of them be neglected. In this scenario, the priority in the area of security is to achieve coordinated action by the state, such that the available resources are maximized and used to counteract or eliminate threats, concerns, and other challenges.
Diálogo: What achievements or advances have you pursued in your two years on the job?
Maj. Gen. Mansilla: In the political sphere it has been the institutional role that the Guatemalan Armed Forces played during the difficult situations in the transition that we went through in the last half of 2015. All of us in the military were able to show our commitment to democracy as an institution. We acted as a non-deliberative entity that was obedient to the democratic mechanisms set forth in the Guatemalan Constitution.
As for interagency coordination, we have strengthened our relationships with other government agencies with which we have a duty to operate for the benefit of all Guatemalans. We have pooled our capabilities and resources in order to achieve our mutual objectives on a range of government strategies and policies. One example is our participation in the Development Train Strategy, in which we shared the Army’s capabilities with other institutions in order to find solutions to local problems, such as access to highways and the renovation of the school, medical, and community infrastructures. It is worth highlighting that this is a result of the demands made by municipal authorities who benefit from this kind of interagency action.
Internally, we have provided continuity in establishing the best defense planning and management methods. This leads to capacity-based planning, performance-based programming, and results-driven budgeting.
Diálogo: Gangs represent one of the [most pressing] security problems in some neighboring countries. Is that the case in Guatemala? If so, how are you confronting it? What role do the Guatemalan Armed Forces play in this fight?
Maj. Gen. Mansilla: As I indicated previously, when a threat exceeds the capabilities of the entities charged with countering it, those of us who make up the National Security System must act together. In the case of the gangs, the attention that they require crosses over various spheres. One of them is to keep young people from joining such groups, which requires a social intervention. Then, there is the need for preventive action and police coercion in the face of violent acts. In order to carry out these government activities, there needs to be a controlled and secured space. In this regard, we have assisted with governance by having our personnel present in order to create an environment in which the other responsible agencies can operate, employing specific measures to provide public safety and development opportunities.
Diálogo: What are the Guatemalan Armed Forces doing to fight illicit trafficking?
Maj. Gen. Mansilla: This scourge exemplifies the type of threat that falls within the area of public safety and demands the partial involvement of military capabilities that are adapted to addressing it. We are part of a Central American region which, due to the lay of the land, represents a bridge and a barrier, commercially speaking. We are a bridge for north-south transit across the continent. On the other hand, we are also a barrier to east-west transit between the Pacific and the Atlantic, with the exception of the bottleneck represented by the passage through the Panama Canal. This geostrategic situation is exploited by those who engage in illicit trafficking.
In order to counter illicit trafficking, there has to be control over air, land, and maritime spaces as well as direct combat against the organizations. In exercising control over its airspace, Guatemala has invested in gaining the capability to detect intruders by setting up primary and secondary radars which are being added to those that civil aviation already has. Here, we are providing information to the civil system in order to allow for safer navigation in legal air traffic, while also allowing us to detect those trying to penetrate our airspace illegally.
With regard to ground control, we are continually modifying our contingent in order to block the illicit use of the country’s entrance and exit routes. Especially in border areas, we join forces with our neighbors to operate cooperatively against this type of illicit activity. We also have special forces trained in urban combat. Additionally, we incorporate aircraft with VIR capability, which boosts our detection of anomalous activities.
For the control of our maritime space, we also employ our Special Naval Force as an operational entity for intercepting vessels used for transporting narcotics, in addition to our VIR capabilities. This activity, which is supported by United States intelligence, allowed us to seize a record number of drugs last year, and I believe we are on track to exceed that this year.
Diálogo: What type of relationship exists between the Guatemalan Armed Forces and the National Police?
Maj. Gen. Mansilla: Both institutions maintain a complementary relationship. We always keep channels open between the ministries of Defense and the Interior, as well as various coordination activities that are carried out centrally and locally in order to optimize our performance. The genesis of this interaction stems from the order by the president [Jimmy Morales Cabrera] aimed at strengthening institutions in all of the state’s constituent parts.
The police component has been growing in its resources and capabilities, which now allow for a reduced involvement of military personnel in duties that are befitting of the police. There is a plan to that effect which is being faithfully met. We are hoping for, and working towards, our military component soon being able to focus on the multiplicity of duties that are its own, and that we have been neglecting for now. The relationship between both institutions is harmonious, and that is how it should be, since our commitment is not to the internal workings of each entity, but to the citizens who are our reason for existing.
Diálogo: We know that Guatemala has made progress on the issue of gender inclusion in its Armed Forces. What is the importance of this change, and what have the results of these efforts been so far?
Maj. Gen. Mansilla: Its importance lies in recognizing the constitutional principle that establishes the responsibility of all Guatemalans to serve and defend the homeland. We all have a lot to contribute. Women’s participation has been adding to the richness of humanity that nourishes our armed forces.
Inclusion is a decision that was made many years ago, and which requires time to be implemented. What I have just stated is due to the fact that growth in the hierarchy, primarily in the officer ranks, requires generational turnover. Each year, the involvement of female personnel in our ranks increases, and with that same proportion, their presence grows at different levels along the hierarchical ladder. The results are being seen in that gradual measure of change.
Diálogo: What progress has Guatemala made in terms of human rights in the Guatemalan Armed Forces?
Maj. Gen. Mansilla: There are two large areas we have been working on for several years and will continue to do so. The first is the knowledge and practice of human rights and international humanitarian law by all of our members in all of our military activities. This has been achieved by the mainstreaming of human rights issues throughout our process of military education. Thus, we are able to lay the foundations for the armed forces to respect these fundamental rights on the outside.
As a subjective result of this objective action, these principles were absorbed for application within the institution of the military. To support this action, an institutional body was created at the highest level by the Ministry of Defense’s Directorate General of Human Rights.
Diálogo: How does Guatemala cooperate at the regional level to fight against illicit trafficking and transregional crime?
Maj. Gen. Mansilla: The uncertainty and volatility that international crime represents require states to act cooperatively. There are no simple solutions to complex problems. That’s why the networks into which these unlawful actors are interwoven can be countered only with equivalent networks by the regional community.
Our good neighborly relations allow for the development of a rich bilateral agenda on these issues. Within that framework, we currently have cooperation mechanisms with all of our neighbors on the specific issue of security. An example of that is the so-called High-Level Groups for Security and Justice that join forces to mount a common front against these threats. Another action that has become a reality is the creation of interagency task forces between the nations that make up the so-called Northern Triangle.
In turn, we participate in multilateral agreements, such as the accords to eliminate the illicit trafficking of narcotics in maritime space. In the Pacific, we are working with United States agencies, while in the Caribbean our commitment is with various countries, including those European nations that have overseas territories.
In everything I have mentioned, we are giving our fullest commitment. It doesn’t matter what limitations we may have in the area of equipment and materials; we have the richness of our human resources, who do efficient and effective work using the means at our disposal. This is due to the professionalism of said personnel, who manifest the commitment that Guatemala has made on these multiple problems. We start from the basic notion that nobody is strong enough to be able to do it alone, and nobody is too weak to be unable to help. In these problems, which manifest in shared spaces, only cooperation and a pooling of efforts and capabilities can yield the fruits that we desire.
Diálogo: What are the advantages of working with the United States and other partner nations to jointly confront these threats to regional security?
Maj. Gen. Mansilla: More than advantages, they are commitments. As I have emphasized, no state has the capability of acting on its own against the diversity of threats, concerns, and challenges in this region. Inaction by any one of the members of this conglomeration of democratic states leads to the existence of gaps in which international crime can act with impunity. To keep the threat from reaching comfort zones, the pressure must be continuous, coordinated, and simultaneous.
It also needs to be highlighted that not every action will be solely based on employing the coercive power of the state. Many of the vulnerabilities that appear in our nations come from conditions that are unfavorable for development and they, in turn, constitute a breeding ground for illegal organizations. Therefore, the response is comprehensive and integrated, both within each nation, as well as in the region as a whole. It is integrated because it must pool resources from all institutions, and it is comprehensive in order to cover the multidimensionality that underlies these threats, concerns, and other challenges.