Major General Juan Manuel Pérez Ramírez, chief of the Joint Staff of Guatemala, made a surprising statement at the 2017 Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC), held in April in Cozumel, Mexico. He stated that his country’s Armed Forces will be completely transformed in 20 years. To discuss this and other topics, Diálogo spoke with Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez at the end of the conference.
Diálogo: What is your main challenge as chief of the Joint Staff of Guatemala?
Major General Juan Manuel Pérez Ramírez: Promoting the Guatemalan Army’s vision through the Integrated Defense Planning and Management System [SIPLAGDE, per its Spanish acronym]. I am quite satisfied because, as I said, this is the vision the Army has, and there’s this whole strategy for developing it, in which we are going to effectively line up the objectives, the resources, and the strategy so that we can achieve them. Definitely, I am very pleased to say that the United States has supported us in this through DIRI [Defense Institutional Reform Initiative]. That’s the institution in charge of bolstering and supporting processes for strengthening defense institutions. And this has been underway for five years. We are projecting out to 20 years, and just now we are finishing the adaptation phase. We are now heading into the next phase, which is modernization, and after that, transformation. What I mean is that in 20 years we are going to transform and we are going to modernize our Armed Forces. That is my main challenge, promoting the SIPLAGDE vision and making sure that our current management, working with my team of advisors, promotes it with all its energy and willingness, and with all its knowledge.
Diálogo: Can you provide an example of this change?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: We are going to decentralize the defense budget and, through capacity planning and results-driven budgeting, we will be able to carry out those three phases, which are, as I say: adaptation, modernization, and transformation of the Armed Forces at another level.
Diálogo: Do you agree with what General Salvador Cienfuegos of Mexico said, that the challenges, the problems are shared, that the threats are the same throughout the region?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: Definitely, there are individual efforts in each nation, but integrating those efforts is essential. That’s why today we, through the Northern Triangle with Honduras and El Salvador, have the Tri-national Task Force. At present, the Fortaleza Task Force is operating, positioned on the border. And that’s something historic that we were able [to achieve] through concepts such as interoperability and interagency coordination, merging and working together with Immigration, with the Civil Intelligence Directorate, with the National Civil Police, with antinarcotics units, and with the Army itself. In other words, we are positioned, we are coming together, and that is historic, as it is being done in a permanent way, 24 hours a day. So with that, we are going to deny the mafias and organized crime a space in which to operate. This is what we share with our sister nations of Honduras and El Salvador, as they are doing their own thing as well. So this is how we know that the criminal mindsets, or the crime problem, are changing, or that they are acting in different ways in the three countries that I indicated. But that’s why these kinds of meetings are so valuable, because they help us coordinate with what our neighboring country is doing to create synergies to be able to counteract the mafias’ freedom of operation.
Diálogo: Speaking of neighbors, what do you think of Mexico being the co-host of CENTSEC for the first time? Does that somehow break down the barriers between north and south?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: Yes, exactly. The task force’s projects are quite important because they merge two forces into the Army, the police, and the intelligence component, which is also quite important. That has been bolstered through agreements with Mexico. So we have the means, we have the intelligence, we have the personnel to be able to take space away from organized crime by cooperating, reviewing, and improving our strategies, in this case, with Mexico. These kinds of meetings truly are important because, in my case, I will return to my country and I will meet with people from other ministries who don’t have the opportunity to come here, precisely to create that interoperability and interagency cooperation. Definitely, these kinds of forums are quite effective and historic. With our Mexican brothers, we have strategies on the border that we share along the Usumacinta River. It’s immense, and the contact patrols, the tactics, the strategies, and the operations that we carry out, including the airborne ones, are quite effective.
Diálogo: You mentioned Honduras, El Salvador, and also Mexico, which are three nations where the armed forces are very involved in supporting the police. How is that done in Guatemala?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: In the case of Guatemala, last year we worked with various government agencies – Foreign Affairs, the National Civil Police, and the Ministry of Interior – precisely to discuss that withdrawal, a progressive withdrawal of support to police forces by the Army. Why? Because the police, as their leaders say, are at another level. They have acquired intelligence and investigative capabilities as never before, and to demonstrate that there are operations in which they have captured and dismantled gangs and networks of extortionists. So really, for us, that’s quite encouraging. Because in the end, it allows us to have folks available, troops available, to be able to operate effectively on the borders and effectively protect the countryside, in this case, within the sphere of national security. While it is true that the lines are blurred, or there are gray areas between national security, public safety, and citizen safety, nowadays, the Constitution itself allows us to work together. There is a mandate in our Constitution that says that we are involved in domestic security, but we are giving that a different reading in order to support the National Civil Police when their capacity is pushed to the limit. On the border issue, it’s through this interoperability and interagency cooperation that we are able to position ourselves and effectively control its porosity, and of course, the nation’s security.
Diálogo: When will the Armed Forces stop supporting the National Civil Police?
Maj. Gen. Pérez Ramírez: In the coming year, if not sooner, because the interior minister has already told us that with this Fortaleza Plan that is now up and running, they are interested in ending support of the National Civil Police before the end of the year. So we will be left with people available, to use them in five mission areas. The five mission areas that the Army has are border protection, the second is supporting road infrastructure with engineers, the third is supporting domestic security through the National Civil Police that we are doing in this phase, the fourth is support during natural disasters and manmade events, and the fifth is support of our foreign policy. So really, this is a unique thing in Guatemala because this logic, this dynamic, differs from El Salvador’s or Honduras’s.