* Guatemala plans to raise defense spending by nearly a quarter
* Mexican drug gangs sparking security fears in Guatemala
By Mike McDonald
GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Guatemala’s congress approved an $8.5 billion budget for 2013 on Tuesday that aims to lower the fiscal deficit and provide a significant boost for defense spending in a nation scrambling to face down powerful drug cartels.
The country’s defense ministry will receive some $260 million in 2013, a 23 percent increase from 2012.
President Otto Perez took office in January promising to crack down on violence in the Central American nation, and has announced plans to open five new military bases by mid-2013 and train 2,500 more soldiers before his four-year term ends.
Perez, a retired general, trained some 300 new elite soldiers known as ‘Kaibiles’ this year to battle encroaching Mexican drug gangs using Central America as a stop-over point to ship South American cocaine to the United States.
He has also dispatched soldiers to dangerous areas of the capital city controlled by street gangs known as ‘maras.’
Military spokesman Erick Escobedo said the defense ministry hopes to train 300 more Kaibiles next year.
Human rights groups have questioned the military’s bigger policing role in a country that is still trying to heal the wounds of a 1960-1996 civil war, in which around 200,000 mostly indigenous civilians died and another 45,000 went missing.
Activists fear more soldiers may worsen the country’s already high murder rate of 37 homicides per 100,000 people.
Authorities arrested eight soldiers and their colonel earlier this month and charged them with extra-judicial killing for firing on protesters demanding lower electricity prices and the scrapping of a new education reform. Eight protesters died.
The nation of roughly 14.5 million people also aims to cut its fiscal deficit to 2.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, down from 2.6 percent this year, through a mix of increased tax revenues and tighter government spending.
Finance officials said they will look to sell more debt abroad in 2013 where interest rates are lower than at home. They have not announced details of the planned bond sales.
External net financing is due to total 1.3 percent of GDP in 2013, up from 0.7 percent in 2012.