Ricardo Guzmán Guatemala Government

National Penitentiary Reform: Challenges of Guatemala’s Penitentiary System

// Interview: Ricardo Guzmán Loyo

First Vice Minister of Safety of the Ministry of Government of Guatemala


In face of the Guatemalan penitentiary crisis – where chaos is planted due to the innumerable shortages of all natures – in 2014, the Vice Minister of the Interior Ministry, as president of the CONASIP, demanded the elaboration of a National Penitentiary System Reform Policy, whose principal objective would be to progressively transform the prison system in a reliable and safe way, to achieve an efficient rehabilitation as proposed, in theory, by the constitution of the Republic of Guatemala.

Many national and international stakeholders were involved in the acquisition of the document for the National Guatemalan Penitentiary Reform Policy, such as the well-known Conference of Ministers of Justice of Ibero-American Countries (COMJIB) and teams from the EUROsociAL programme of the European Commission.

This way, and as a result of the execution of the reform document, the penitentiary system of Guatemala is undergoing various transformations, in turn, supported by the Government, to comply with the planned reform, and with the international cooperation programmes. However, the road of transition to a new model is still long and full of challenges.

The National Penitentiary Reform Policy should be implemented completely by the year 2024 and includes 10 strategic areas that propose 40 general strategies and 209 specific actions.

JT: Over the last years, Guatemala has been making an effort of control and modernisation of its justice system. However, the road ahead is still long and challenges appear to be many.
Which are the main challenges that are put to the Guatemalan justice system and which are the measures that you wish to apply?

RG: To solve the problems we have in the penitentiary system is a true challenge. We have an overcrowding of 300%, we received, in the year 2016, 18 900 inmates, with space for 6800 and at this moment we have almost 22 000. Facing this overcrowding, any action that is taken – whichever it is – the result will be insufficient.

The document of the new policy is an excellent instrument and in reality what we started to do since we arrived was to acknowledge that it was there, to see what the spirit was and what could begin to be implemented… It is a medium-term process.

The first problem we have is overcrowding, but the issue of control is the biggest complication, that’s why we are starting with very basic things, for example, prison guards, for reasons of survival – I will say so – commit acts of corruption as entering, especially, cell phones, which is one of the ways of communication for the prisoners that want to continue committing crimes from within.

In order to implement the policy of prison reform we also had the support of representatives of the penitentiary system and the national penitentiary school of the Dominican Republic. We had the opportunity to know this new model and the idea is to implement it as it is in the Dominican Republic, but it is finally written and grounded for the reality of Guatemala.
In fact, the truth is that we have started from scratch with the implementation of the reform.

A recruitment was made in areas of the country that are not the most violent, so we are looking for people who have the profile of living in a quiet environment, not very hostile in the area of serious crimes and such, so the idea is to train people who are not accustomed to environments of crime or violence.

After passing the entire evaluation process (academic, psychological, etc.), a three-week exercise was conducted with two Dominican instructors who came to Guatemala.

We lost 70% of the students in the first weeks, which forced us to basically do the recruitment all over again. We were finally able to complete a group of 89 people, 85 for the penitentiary system and 4 for centres for minors in conflict with the criminal law that belong to another dependency in the State of Guatemala.

They spent three months in the Dominican Republic with the sponsorship of the American Government and with the academic orientation and training of the Dominican Penitentiary School. During these three months they had training in behaviour or action within the detention centres, but not only focused on the issue of security – which is something that the current guards in Guatemalan penitentiary system were used to or formed – but to be agents of treatment of those deprived of their liberty who have entered the penal system.

That was the first exercise, then they came to Guatemala and received legal training. Recently we managed to inaugurate the first penitentiary [of the new system] and at this moment we’re deciding on the inmates that will integrate this new centre.

The idea is that the centre of deprivation of liberty is just that, we only deprive them of freedom, giving them the opportunity of academy and work, and occupying their time from 6 in the morning until 10 pm.

We’re doing research in the private sector to place the prisoners in the work environment so that they can gain means of survival for when they leave the penitentiary system. The difference in relation to Dominicans is that they speak of a recidivism rate of about 5% and we are exactly the other way around.

JT: Which is the reaction of the institutions involved in the penitentiary reform, seeing what it is producing and if they are participating as well in the implementation of the reform plan?

RG: Last year a revision of the policy exercise was done to see how steps were taken. All cooperations that supported the Guatemalan penitentiary system came, as well as ONGs and public institutions, above all from the Justice system.

Actually, they are on the lookout now of how the implementation goes and they say that they are ready to be able to accompany and all have been invited to observe us, but above all our biggest arbiter, or judge – in my words – is the patronage.

In Guatemala there are people that made a super suitable selection, they are critically legitimated that are accompanying and supervising uses that this remains in time so that it won’t just be an exercise, a trial and error, because we (the government) are transitory and this must remain over time.

They are, in the civil society space, who are following us during all this process; and other institutions that were involved in the policies are also observing us, not that close but they are very aware of what we are doing.

Actually, all are on the lookout if we are going to advance or not, and I believe that this will make them get closer, little by little, and become part of this project. It is not the same to participate in the creation of a document as to be involved in the “carpenting” of the process.

At this moment we always tell them “observe us, and accompany us” and they are doing this, even though from afar, but I am sure that while we start showing solid results all will start approaching us, that is what we hope.

Overcrowding is no longer controllable in our country, anything could happen... We are living in agony and the alternative criminal measures that enable the relief of the system are welcome.

JT: How do you see the possibility to implement diversion measures to prison sentences such as house arrest with an electronic bracelet and other measures for those that present a lower risk for the society?

RG: The legislative power, in the last months of the year 2016, created the telematic control law, with the goal of supporting the solution of the problems of the prison system, especially the overcrowding problem.

I don’t know if we will be able to revert this situation, but at least we won’t be stacking up new inmates anymore. It is an excellent measure, it is another option, controls should always exist.

We haven’t been the most successful in reality, in Guatemala, in the penitentiary centres, I don’t know what would be so different being arrested at home, but possibly what is guaranteed with the telematic control is that the person doesn’t go to prohibited areas.

And it is an opportunity for people who have been prosecuted but have not committed a crime that had endangered lives, and if they can continue working because it is always useful to go on with their lives as the process progresses.

Secondly, it doesn’t mean further burden to the State and does not sum in this overcrowding that is no longer controllable in our country. Anything could happen… We constantly live in agony and exactly these measures that serve to relieve the penitentiary system will be welcome.

The discussion continues being about the economic question. The law says that the processed that can pay will pay them (the telematic control devices), one who cannot pay will be provided for by the state.

We haven’t been told that part but we were evaluating different providers – which are a dozen – which would be the prices to know what impact it would generate on this Ministry.

JT: The support of external organisms has been very important in the past and it still is currently. But there are critics that are frequent regarding the institutional weakness in Guatemala and other countries in the region.
How do you think these weaknesses could be overcome in order to guarantee that the changes in the penitentiary system will be sustainable in the future?

RG: The patronage is fundamental… I believe the new penitentiary model could remain in time as we begin to show results of the implementation of the reform policy according to what the dominicans show us – they fortunately have remained in time.

From the positions that we occupy what we have to do is to run to start giving results, from that moment we will find the sponsorship of all these external bodies, civil society and cooperation that will want to continue the investment. Among other cooperations, there’s SEJUST that is sponsoring us in centres for mothers [deprived of liberty] accompanied by children from 0 to 4 years old that the law allows them to be, and we are about to inaugurate a facility for 40 mothers by the middle of this year.

Again, it is going to inaugurate with personnel of the new penitentiary model. It is the combination of the change of the model and the methodology, of getting the people to have an education and work because as far as they have an education and work it means that we are bringing them an opportunity that they did not have outside; they idea should be, more than to reeducate, to start educating them because possibly they were never educated and above all to give them a job that has them entertained, something to generate money because the majority of delinquents does it for money.

So what we must look for is that they have this opportunity to work. The biggest challenge is to get the teachers and to get the employers because nobody is going to get close to us because of the trust issue.

JT: In terms of international cooperation, what type of support would Guatemala like to obtain?

RG: I think this support that we are being given is and has been ideal because we have been given economical support – because capacitating costs money – that we are clear on; the construction of the centre for mothers – which is backed by SEJUST – more operation protocols within the new system, and, additionally, a technological platform in which for the first time we started to enter the files of the inmates to be clear on when the count of the sentence starts and finishes (because nowadays we do not clearly know or the inmate possibly knows but the penitentiary system doesn’t.)

This is the kind of support that is working for us, I wouldn’t think about another in this moment because we are starting to have results of the support we are having. The fantastic thing about the people that came with the cooperation is that they not just gave us money but they also came with their technical staff and this way we were focused on that each penny was invested and that we are going to have, in the future, positive results for the people that are detained in the penitentiary centres.

In a supervision of a penitentiary system – which is the COF – Feminine Orientation Centre – we have revised the records and concluded that the necessary information was missing, nor the sentence, nor the punishment count, then the record is really pretty useless and what it documents does not serve us.

We made the approach to start documenting the information we need to start making the system more efficient. This is also the result of the support that we have been having and I hope that they keep supporting and monitoring us.

JT: The challenges are innumerable especially when it comes to putting into practice an extensive document that gives a complete shift in paradigm, given that in the current traditional system the communication channels and the veracity of the information are very fallible.
In what state of progress is the implementation of the first reformatory measures?

RG: These problems with the lack of correct information continue, actually, but we are starting to get better. To administrate this change of penitentiary management model administratively and financially, from the Ministry of Government, a unit was created that has the financial power and the power of control to administrate the personnel that is working in the new model.

An uneasiness that the representative of the American Government in Guatemala had was that if we were supportive of the implementation of this new policy with new management and new personnel, but what were we going to do with the prison guards that we had to change this mentality, to change that methodology and to face the excessive corruption installed in the old system?

I told him two things that we are about to do: we are starting to select small groups of guards who we will capacitate to work according to the operation protocol of the new model, we did this in small centres.

Additionally, their salaries were improved last year, because another of the claim was that they had a hunger salary, and it is true; and, additionally, something we observed to be a real weakness is something that does not allow at all to generate administrative purifying, is that an internal sanctions’ regulation does not exist in the penitentiary system.

So, someone (a guard) that is caught entering alcoholic drinks or anything else that generates disorder inside the prison is consigned, and the judge gives him freedom and the other day he will come to work because this is not regularised even though this creates a lot of disorder.

The system, the team of this office, has been supported by making an internal regulation, the technical team of the penitentiary system was moved so that they could say what changes they needed and it is now about to be implemented. As long as a sanctioning system does not exist, this will be an anarchy.

We are also working to equalise, in the present system as well as in the new penitentiary system, a real penitentiary career. Agent “x” is agent “x” until he retires in twenty years, they don’t have any promotion possibilities and that’s why they don’t have a future, and they have the same salary from when they started until they retire nor do they have an institutional growth, this didn’t exist and it is being worked on, it still hasn’t been concluded and we hope it will in a near future.

JT: What else would you like to highlight?

RG: I would like to greet our sponsors, especially SEJUST and the support from the European Union, they are truly fantastic. And we have just had a visit from an expert looking to bring the prison officers closer to the multidisciplinary teams.

Additionally, I would like to greet our American sponsors that have helped us with a lot of synergies. We advanced with one centre and in very little time we have moved the detainees that were doing a lot of damage from there and in two weeks we managed to reduce crime rates by 50%.

Roberto (Santana) and Ysmael (Paniagua): they are fantastic because they respond to our worries that come up at any time and they are always open to helping us with practical information from their reform example in the Dominican Republic.

With the new penitentiary reform, one day we are working to take them (offenders) to the penitentiary centre and the other we are working to make them better citizens. It is truly an honour to be in this exercise (of penitentiary reform) now.


H.E. Mr. Ricardo Guzmán Loyo is the first Vice minister of Safety of the Ministry of Government of Guatemala. He is a graduate in Juridical and Social Science by the San Carlos de Guatemala University; lawyer and notary, he also has superior studies of Criminology by the same university. Since 2007 he is a Specialist in the Tipification of the Crime of Discrimination.

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