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Guatemala Contributes to United Front against Organized Crime

The Guatemalan Army works with Central American armed forces to take down transnational criminal organizations.
Geraldine Cook/Diálogo | 25 June 2018

According to Guatemalan Army Major General Julio César Paz Bone, chief of Guatemala’s Defense General Staff, trust and strategic planning among the region’s countries are fundamental to the fight against security threats. (Photo: Geraldine Cook, Diálogo)

Army Major General Julio César Paz Bone, chief of Guatemala’s Defense General Staff, has a very specific goal: work with partner nations in Central America, Mexico, and the United States to topple transnational criminal organizations. Interinstitutional task forces, elite commandos, border patrols, and real-time information sharing are among the resources Guatemala uses to fight regional crime.

Maj. Gen. Paz spoke to Diálogo at the 2018 Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) held May 9th–10th in San Salvador. CENTSEC 2018 is a regional forum where defense and public security leaders can analyze security threats together, thereby allowing them to formulate new collaborative mechanisms for the region to bring down illegal networks.

Diálogo: What is the objective of Guatemala’s participation in CENTSEC 2018?

Army Major General Julio César Paz Bone, chief of Guatemala’s Defense General Staff: We want to offer the kind of support that helps us and our neighboring countries and allies achieve an environment that fosters the exchange of ideas and proposals to improve bilateral and multilateral cooperation on regional security matters. It is important to form strong partnerships so that we can communicate rapidly and effectively and counter the security threats we face.

Diálogo: What joint initiatives is the Guatemalan Armed Force pursuing to counter transnational organizations?

Maj. Gen. Paz: There are a variety of initiatives. We run joint, interinstitutional, and combined training sessions to improve our response capabilities. We deploy interinstitutional task forces comprising personnel from the military and the National Civil Police (PNC, in Spanish) along Guatemala’s borders with El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. We are currently working on creating a fourth task force, which will be called the Tikal Task Force, and will cover the northern part of the border with Mexico. We also have information and intelligence exchanges in place that help neutralize threats from transnational organized crime. Furthermore, we increased military involvement with people living in high-risk areas through multinational natural disaster response exercises.

Diálogo: Guatemala’s crime rate fell in 2017. What underlies this successful reduction in crime?

Maj. Gen. Paz: The Guatemalan Army supported PNC for more than 18 years while PNC bolstered its capacity to train officers and agents, perform criminal investigations, and carry out other tasks related to public security. But, on March 31, 2018, our support to PNC came to a close, and the military personnel working with them moved into their natural role of protecting Guatemala’s sovereignty. This drop in crime is also due to preventive awareness campaigns, programs targeting at-risk youth who are susceptible to gang recruitment, civil-military relations plans, and other measures. The creation of interinstitutional task forces and elite commando units further contributed to the drop in Guatemala’s crime rate.

Diálogo: Is PNC prepared to take up public security?

Maj. Gen. Paz: Yes, it is prepared. PNC now has the capacities needed to do so. It is adequately staffed and significantly more professional, enabling it to guarantee public security.

Diálogo: What successes has interinstitutional project Plan Fortaleza achieved in the fight against international criminal organizations?

Maj. Gen. Paz: Plan Fortaleza benefits Guatemalan security. Under the plan, the Army took action in five mission areas: border security, national sovereignty, national development cooperation, the protection of national areas of strategic importance, and support for PNC, an area we completed. We performed more than 20,000 operations, with record seizures of illicit substances, assets, and cash. Through the Army Corps of Engineers, we also helped fix roads, health centers, schools, and conducted medical assistance campaigns with the support of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). We worked with SOUTHCOM and Central American countries, including Mexico, to achieve interconnection and gain the information and intelligence support that were the foundation to our success. In 2017, the Special Naval Force seized nearly 13,000 kilograms of cocaine, and, in the first four months of 2018, we already confiscated nearly 75 percent of the amount seized last year [2017].

Diálogo: April 27th marked the conclusion of the 2018 Humanitarian Allied Forces (FAHUM) exercise, which simulated an eruption of the Fuego Volcano in Guatemala. SOUTHCOM sponsored the exercise that involved approximately 3,000 people from various government agencies and international observers. What lessons can be drawn from the exercise for future combined, joint, and interagency operations between partner nations?

Maj. Gen. Paz: Fundamentally, FAHUM was an opportunity to strengthen interpersonal relationships and interinstitutional training. The exercise gave us experience in how to channel humanitarian aid and assistance coming from partner nations, directing it through the established distribution channels to the intended recipients. With the presence of so many international observers and personnel from other countries, we were able to take stock of our actual natural disaster response capabilities. One of FAHUM’s major achievements is that it fostered a culture of prevention, which encouraged communities located on the slopes of the volcano to participate as well.

Diálogo: One of Guatemala’s most important security problems is the vulnerability of its airspace and porosity of its borders. What interagency, joint, and combined actions have the armed forces taken to address this vulnerability?

Maj. Gen. Paz: We improved our capabilities and enhanced our Air Force with its own resources. The air platforms give us a lot of information to intercept shipments coming from the high seas. We have a primary radar system that, in tandem with the air platform, transmits information to Special Naval Force personnel, who, in some cases, go as far as 300 nautical miles to intercept drug traffickers at sea. At the beginning of May, we carried out a combined operation with the U.S. Coast Guard that resulted in the seizure of 3,000 kg of cocaine from a vessel flying a Tanzanian flag. One week prior to that, 957 kg of cocaine were seized in a Guatemala-led combined operation.

Diálogo: Mexico and Guatemala have an active bilateral partnership to combat transnational organized crime. What maritime, air, and land interdiction operations do you conduct on a routine basis to counter this security threat?

Maj. Gen. Paz: The progress the two countries made in the fight against transnational organized crime stems from binational meetings between commanders of border brigades that conduct air, sea, and land operations. To curtail drug trafficking, it is crucial that Mexico and Guatemala share real-time information. The relationship between the two naval forces is based on trust and combined operations. Combined actions are undertaken within the framework of the Guatemala-Mexico Border Area Council of Military Commanders.

Diálogo: Why is cooperation between partner nations important when countering security threats?

Maj. Gen. Paz: Crime, drug trafficking, and other illicit acts know no borders.

Cooperation between partner nations when cracking down on these crimes is important because it fosters trust and strategic planning, which allows them to dovetail their capabilities in hopes of quashing emerging threats. The countries in this region take this problem seriously, and we work together to share information. The countries in the region have the trust they need to work together, especially Guatemala.

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