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Exclusive Interview: Felipe Bosch on the Private Sector's Role in Guatemalan Public Safety

August 15, 2011

AS/COA Miami Manager Madeleine Johnson spoke with Felipe Bosch Gutiérrez, board member of Corporación Multi-Inversiones, regarding the current security situation in Guatemala and the outlook for September presidential elections. Bosch advocated for greater transparency and government action to fight crime. In order to boost public safety, he says: “We have decided that the private sector has to get involved in letting the local and international community know what is going on in Guatemala.”

AS/COA: Security challenges in Central America are attracting increased international attention. What is the current situation in Guatemala and what do you see as the key issues to tackle that could improve public safety?

Bosch: Well, definitely, the challenges have increased since the last two presidential administrations. And I say presidential, because it’s a political issue. Of course, it’s a social one as well and probably somewhat of an economic issue, but mainly, it’s a political issue. So as long as we don’t have strict political plans or strict security plans—such as programs that are going to not only undercut the insecurity but also programs that will include prevention—we’re not going to improve the situation.

As far as the last two administrations are concerned, none of those issues have been addressed. Given this issue is going to get a high level of publicity, I’m sure that the next president is going to handle these issues in a different way. There is a lot of pressure and there are already different groups working towards Guatemala being a country having programs in prevention and also in detection, as well as programs dealing with improving the judiciary system.

AS/COA: Even if this is a political issue, as you’ve outlined it, the business community has been very active in Guatemala in promoting development and poverty reduction in Guatemala. What are some examples of the private-sector initiatives in progress?

Bosch: There are two or three main programs. The first one is the creation of a monitoring agency. We have decided that the private sector has to get involved in letting the local and international community know what is going on in Guatemala. We need an agency in place to deal with statistics of all kinds—armed robberies, kidnappings, drug trafficking—as the main hurdle is the availability of information. I am sure that this agency is going to be in place and start working, but having this information and seeing it in the newspapers is only a starting point.

After that initial phase, we are contemplating two phases. The first involves a group that will look in more detail at the different large-impact cases. These used to be the cases you would read about in the paper one day and then nobody would talk about it ever again. What we want now is to not just to see them in the newspaper, but for the paper and the community to also follow up on these major cases.

The next phase is that we really need the international community—USAID and the European aid agencies, for example—to be involved in helping create this monitoring agency. We have already spoken with different ambassadors and embassies, and everyone is looking forward to helping or trying to help on this issue.

Another point is that the private sector must be involved in national movements. We need to empower society so that when there is a crime or kidnapping, they can do something instead of feeling helpless.

One program already in place is called Guatemala Visible that has a webpage where you can see what laws are being passed in Congress and what is going on in different institutions in the country. We think these movements will help a lot, not only because everyone will be able to see what is going on, but also because the people in government will know that everyone can check in on them.

AS/COA: What about the private sector working more directly with the government? You have argued for more efficient use of public expenditures, particularly giving business a seat at the table to discuss how funds should be spent on security. Could you comment a little more on that?

Bosch: We first talked about this with [former Colombian President Álvaro] Uribe who told us about how he implemented this in Colombia. His administration passed an extra 1 percent tax on profits with the spending decided by a committee made up of the public and private sectors, as well as members of civil society.

The idea here is to better finance the local police in certain “red areas,” pinpointed by surveys and studies showing high rates of crime and extortion and these kinds of issues. The funds are very well targeted—the programs are going to go exactly to an affected area, and the local police from the area will be in charge. And that’s the planning point of this idea for Guatemala.

AS/COA: You mentioned that security is a real problem and not just skewed in the media. Certainly media coverage of security in the region tends to highlight the worst cases, but do you see any success stories that are being overlooked?

Bosch: There are several. In 1996 when President [Álvaro] Arzú came into office, we saw a rise in kidnappings among high-impact people, such as well-known politicians and business leaders, who were either kidnapped, or in a couple of cases, assassinated. President Arzú came to the private sector for help to establish a security committee. He needed money to finance this committee and ideas on who would know what to do and who may have handled cases like this in the past.

We didn’t have any names or know where to start, but we kept talking with the government and, after six to ten different meetings, names started to arise. We agreed with the president to finance this committee that would fall under presidential supervision, with the head reporting directly to the president.

Since then, no similar efforts have been made, but some of those people are now in government, or still in the police. And they still have a unit that covers high-impact cases. So with almost no presidential involvement or approval, and few resources, they have been working and trying to do things right. They have been making progress—technical progress and also more educational progress. They have roughly 70 members in the group covering these big cases that need a lot of investigation, and sharing ideas on how to handle them. They have had a lot of success—mainly in terms of kidnappings and in bank robberies—that are almost not occurring anymore in the country. And this is good news.

I also talked recently about the case of a 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped. This unit went in, investigated the case, and retrieved the youngster within three days. So the good news is that not all of the police are corrupt. Some units are working well and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

AS/COA: As a final point, you underscored that security challenges are a political issue. The next presidential election takes place September 11 (with a potential second round on November 6) and the new president will take office in January. What advice would you offer to the winner of the elections?

Felipe Bosch: What the business community has been communicating to the top candidates is that they really have to send the right messages. And the right messages have to deal with people knowing that there will be punishment if they something wrong, and no one is going to be above the law. Presidential decisions are going to be in order, and presidential decisions are going to motivate the judiciary system to work. And that’s probably the best message that any Guatemalan could hear because there has been a lack of these strong messages.

We often hear strong messages from presidential candidates. But once they are in office, we see little. So the next president knows what to do and we are waiting for him or her to do it. It’s always hard because different forces start to come into play in different branches of government. So what we’re expecting is the next president to really be a great leader, and to follow through in order to make things right.