In a tactical shift at the end of March 2018, the Guatemalan Army deployed reserve units to the country’s borders. The goal is to reinforce security tasks in the country’s border areas and help safeguard critical infrastructure.
“This government is taking on political commitments and tackling new plans at the regional and international level,” Army Colonel Óscar Pérez Figueroa, press director of the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense, told Diálogo. “The troops that deployed have a constitutional function: to safeguard critical infrastructure that has strategic value for the country, such as the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam [the largest in the country], international bridges, ports, and airports.”
Nine Army reserve battalions were mobilized to the borders of Guatemala on March 31st. According to Col. Pérez, 2,400 soldiers from different brigades deployed in the initial stage to protect the 1,667 kilometers of border shared with Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize.
Due to its geographical position Guatemala serves as a transit point for illegal migrants headed north. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2015, one out of every four illegal immigrants who entered the United States passed through Central America.
“There is a worsening phenomenon of unaccompanied minors migrating to the United States,” Col. Pérez said. “Everyone from the south traveling in search of the American dream passes through Guatemala. Its geographic position makes it a funnel, affecting the country and region.”
Guatemala also experiences threats from transnational organized crime and serves as a transit point for drugs bound for the United States. In its 2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the U.S. Department of State estimates that in 2017, over 1,400 tons of cocaine were smuggled by sea through Guatemala.
According to the Ministry of Defense, so far in 2018, the naval forces of the Guatemalan Army and combined operations with partner nations intercepted over 5,700 kilograms of cocaine in Guatemalan territory, worth around $78 million on the international market.
“The [Guatemalan] Ministry of the Interior’s excellent relationship with the Ministry of Defense allows us to work together to interdict illicit substances on land and at sea, and also to carry out short-term air interdictions,” said Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart. “We have the support of the international community, which enhances the capacities of our institution so we can do a better job in this area.”
New Army focus
The personnel participating in the strategic mission were part of the reserve battalions assigned to patrol tasks with the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC, in Spanish). But a marked drop in the national homicide rate—the Police recorded 26.1 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017, compared to 47 in 2006—allowed for a change of focus for the troops.
“The Army was always available to help with security tasks it was assigned,” Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales stated in early April during a ceremony that marked the shift. “We must deploy reserve battalions because we face major threats,” the president added.
A total of four Guatemalan brigades received units: the Second Infantry Brigade in charge of the departments bordering Honduras and Belize, and the Third Infantry Brigade responsible for the departments bordering El Salvador. Soldiers were also deployed to the Special Jungle Operations Brigade in the northern department of Petén, which borders Mexico and Belize, and the Mountain Operations Brigade based in the southern department of San Marcos, near Mexico.
The Guatemalan troops at the border have interinstitutional task forces comprising service members and police elements of Guatemala and neighboring countries. These include the Maya Chortí Task Force, with El Salvador; the Xinca Task Force, with Honduras; and the Tecún Umán Task Force, with Mexico.
“The [Army] Naval Special Force Command is also being bolstered due to the presence of organized criminal activity,” Col. Pérez concluded. “Security at ports, airports, protected areas, infrastructure will be enhanced... [and] a new task force will soon be operating in northern Guatemala.”