Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel heads to Guatemala this week to “add muscle and sinew” to defense ties between that country and the United States and highlight the importance of helping partner nations improve their militaries. However, a recently released United Nations 2013 Global Study on Homicide offered alternative methods of combating the violence plaguing Guatemala.

Besides Hagel’s trip, Guatemala has received various high level visits from US officials over the last several months focused on security cooperation, including General John Kelly, head of US Southern Command, and Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield. The increased attention has corresponded with an increase in security assistance as well. Guatemala jumped to the third highest country recipient of Department of Defense military and police aid in Latin America in 2012. The US State Department has also provided significant funding to a joint task force on Guatemala’s northern border with Mexico, and has donated 42 vehicles to a recently announced base on Guatemala’s southern border with Honduras.

General Kelly, in a recent statement before Congress, asked for additional funding to fight drug trafficking through Central America, complaining that he is forced to sit by and watch 74% of the drug flow pass him by due to a lack of resources. However, in a later press conference in which General Kelly participated about a joint military operation in Central America, Operation Martillo, his Guatemalan counterpart claimed that the operation had reduced the flow of drugs from South America to the United States by 62% (though Kelly’s spokesman later said that the reduction was actually to 62% of previous flows).

Whether or not Operation Martillo and the joint task forces have reduced drug flows through Central America, what is clear is that current security policies in Guatemala have not improved security for Guatemalans. From 2009-2012, there was a reduction each year in the number of homicides committed in Guatemala. However, in 2013, after the implementation of significant involvement by the Guatemalan military in law enforcement, there was a rise in the number of homicides committed compared to 2012.

The recent UN report offers alternatives to militarization and heavy handed policing to tackle Guatemala’s pervasive violence. According to the study, even increasing the number of police in a country, which is sometimes offered as an alternative to increased military in Guatemala, does not necessarily reduce homicide rates. The report also linked Latin America’s high homicide rate to its high incarceration rate. Murder rates in the prisons themselves are astronomically high, and beyond that prisons act as criminal finishing schools, further driving up the murder rate. Pointing to programs in El Salvador and Brazil, the report instead suggests improving social inclusion and community development as a more effective way of preventing violence.

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