Major General Juan Manuel Pérez Ramírez, chief of defense of Guatemala, has enjoyed a long military career. With more than 30 years of military training and service, especially supporting peacekeeping operations, and combating terrorism and organized crime, Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez today finds himself focused on modernizing the Guatemalan Army in order to counter threats to national security.
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez spoke with Diálogo during the closing ceremony of the Central American Regional Seminar on Countering Transregional-Transnational Threat Networks, held June 20th to 22nd in Antigua, Guatemala. Cooperation by Northern Triangle nations, interagency work, and gender and human rights issues were some of the subjects highlighted by this Guatemalan military chief.
Diálogo: What does it mean to you and to Guatemala to have the country host this seminar, which analyzes transnational organized crime?
Major General Juan Manuel Pérez Ramírez, chief of defense of Guatemala: It’s an extraordinary experience because as a Guatemalan and an Army officer, it is through seminars and conferences like these that one acquires a wealth of experiences and lessons learned. To be speaking with El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and official and military leaders one-on-one, face-to-face, is a very worthwhile experience. Following these events, we meet and we form working groups so that we can review our strategies and create new mechanisms for us to be more effective. There are activities in which we have been taken into account as Guatemalans, and that is all evidence of our effectiveness. We are quite willing to work with and bring ourselves in line with other nations, such as El Salvador and Honduras. The relationship and level of cooperation we have with Mexico is also extraordinary. So, all of this is a big help to us, and these kinds of seminars allow us to strengthen and reinforce those relations.
Diálogo: General, you assumed your position in January 2016. After a year and a half, what have your major challenges been?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: We have found very good opportunities for the Guatemalan Armed Forces. Today, we are working on a new planning system known as the Integrated Defense Planning and Management System (SIPLAGDE, per its Spanish acronym). This is the Guatemalan Army’s vision for the future. Our vision is really for a system of high-level management to basically direct the Guatemalan Armed Forces toward a new course with new capacities in its land, sea, and air forces, which will be reinforced to fulfill their constitutional mission. This is very important because it helps us gain the capacities to take part in our constitutional mission, and additionally, it helps us to interact with other agencies. What’s more, it is helping us, and it will help us, work with other nations in the region. Today, we know the problems affecting our nations: organized crime, drug trafficking, etc. We need to join forces to combine our strategies in order to counter these criminal activities.
Diálogo: As Guatemala’s chief of defense, what is your key challenge?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: The challenge is to be able to contribute to SIPLAGDE and move it forward. This is a system that is supported by the United States. Our team has been working on it for approximately five years, and over the last year and a half, we have made significant progress. We are quite hopeful that our Armed Forces will be at a level in which they can fulfill their constitutional mandate and that it can be extended to up to five mission areas.
These mission areas are what define SIPLAGDE. The first deals with protection of our national borders and the defense against transnational threats. The second deals with contributing to the national development as well as the protection of critical infrastructure. Currently, we are working on strategic projects that address these areas in such a way that the integral interagency actions might be effective in geographical areas where governmental presence has been lacking, in order to complement the security strategies in a comprehensive manner. The third mission area concerns institutional support within the internal security. The fourth has to do with cooperation in terms of the risk management system, civil defense, and the National Disaster Response System. And the fifth area has to do with proactive measures in support of Guatemala’s foreign policy.
Diálogo: Tell us about the cooperative efforts that are being made with the Northern Triangle nations to combat organized criminal activities.
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: Right now, a plan called Plan Fortaleza is in progress. Historically, the porosity of our borders waxed and waned, and nothing happened. This plan has positioned our integrated security forces into that porosity. We have shared that experience with El Salvador, and similarly, with Honduras because, in the end, the problems are the same; it’s the same border. This security strategy has been very successful, and we want to replicate it. We want to reproduce this same border security plan with Mexico. The intention is to replicate this jointly with other ministries so we can be strong at the borders. In achieving this, we can have more secure borders and we will have more control over illicit goods that cross through those areas. In effect, we will be able to have the conditions for security and prosperity in that region.
Diálogo: Why is it important to cooperate with partner nations to combat these security scourges?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: I have just participated in meetings in Cozumel, Mexico in May, and in Salvador de Bahía, Brazil, and other meetings in Houston, Texas because we are definitely continuing to analyze our security strategies. I want to underscore the support of the United States, in its support for these kinds of activities so that we can develop our discussions and working groups, as this has yielded a very significant result for us, because in sharing this with other institutions we can be more effective when it comes time to develop security strategies. We are absolutely certain and aware that if we have security as our priority, prosperity will follow.
Diálogo: The Guatemalan Armed Forces have forged new ground on the issue of gender. What have the results been?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: Today, women serve in special units. For example, in the Kaibil Special Forces Brigade, two women in that brigade serve as paratroopers. Women were already participating before but today there is this focus and support all the way from the Army Joint Staff. And that is how we are going to expand their participation. We already have a woman in an important position in the humanitarian rescue unit. We know the value, quality, and capabilities that women have. It is important to highlight that during the month of July the conference “Women in the Military Profession and Security 2017,” will be held and will include the participation of 18 countries and the support of U.S. Southern Command. Its commander, [U.S. Navy] Admiral Kurt W. Tidd will attend.
Diálogo: What progress have the Guatemalan Armed Forces made on the issue of human rights?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: I recall a training I had at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, and as part of that training, there was a course called “Train the Trainer on Human Rights.” Back then, I held the rank of major, and since that time, I have practiced and disseminated the basis of human rights within the ranks of the Army. As head of the Armed Forces, today human rights are a multidisciplinary guide for us. Human rights and respect for them are present in educational centers and in the civic-military centers that we have at the Polytechnic School. We know that democratic societies are growing stronger every day, in terms of their respect for human rights. As the Armed Forces, we are no exception. In our educational centers, our military brigades, and the places where our troops are to be found, the topic of education in the human rights field is ever present.
Diálogo: The Guatemalan Army and National Police have been working together to protect the citizenry. Will this type of relationship continue in the future?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: Since last year, based on a presidential order, we have been working to reduce our involvement in civil safety using military security to support the National Police. Today, we are in the second phase. By the end of the year, support for civil safety — soldiers aiding the police — will end. For us, this is very important because we are going to have more resources to use in those five mission areas previously mentioned. This is something that is very important and that was decided in the Security Council. We have seen, and noted, that today the National Police has recovered and resumed its historical capacities, and to us, this is very encouraging since each institution plays its own rightful role.
Diálogo: General, would you like to add anything about the importance of teamwork between nations for fighting international crime?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: Yes. Criminals have illegal networks, and there are no borders or limits to those networks. We have legal networks within the state. These kinds of conferences, these kinds of meetings, help us bolster our legal networks to combat illegal networks. To the extent that we continue to meet, we will keep sharing strategies and we will become stronger, we will trust each other more, and we will be able to combat these threats more effectively.