Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: New Commission to Investigate Prisons, Police

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 2 2007 (IPS) - The Guatemalan national police and the prison and customs systems will be the first to be investigated by a joint Guatemalan – United Nations Commission against Impunity (CICIG) designed to shore up the justice system in this Central American country plagued by high levels of violent crime, human rights violations and corruption.

In an interview with a local radio station Thursday, Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein acknowledged that there were "clear signs" of irregularities in the National Civil Police and the penitentiary and customs systems, which is why they would be the initial focus of the new commission, whose creation was approved by Congress Wednesday.

"I am absolutely convinced that Guatemala needs (CICIG) due to the weakness of the police, the Public Ministry (attorney-general’s office) and court system," said Stein.

Human rights groups demonstrated outside Congress Wednesday to press it to urgently approve the decree creating the commission, aimed at bringing down crime rates, strengthening investigation processes, and contributing to the dismantling of illegal, clandestine security organisations.

"Approval of this commission sets a precedent in the fight against impunity," a spokesperson for the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) told IPS Thursday.

According to a report by Congress, illegal and clandestine security bodies severely undermine human rights through their criminal actions, and foment impunity in Guatemalan society.

Although the creation of CICIG was ratified by a majority of lawmakers, the rightwing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), Unionist Party (PU) and Reform Movement (MR) voted against it.

However, spokespersons for the FRG, the second-largest party in Congress, told a local radio station Thursday that although it is "openly and clearly opposed" to the commission, it will not take any legal action against the legislative decision.

Those who are against the creation of the commission, which will assist the Guatemalan Public Ministry, Supreme Court and National Civilian Police in investigating the criminal activities of illegal and clandestine armed security groups, argue that foreign interference in internal affairs is a violation of the constitution.

"The constitution has been violated," said Arnoldo López, who took part in drafting the Guatemalan constitution. "National sovereignty is being sold off. There is no need for foreign forces."

By contrast, spokespersons for the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala welcomed the commission and said it would help strengthen the country’s institutions.

Former Christian Democratic president Marco Vinicio Cerezo (1986-1990) told IPS that CICIG was "conceptually necessary," although he added that the document creating it contained "errors" that brought it into contradiction with the constitution.

The commission’s tasks will include an investigation into the existence of illegal security organisations, their structure, modus operandi, sources of financing and possible links to state bodies or agents and other sectors that undermine civil and political rights in Guatemala.

Another of its missions will be to promote prosecution, although it cannot itself initiate prosecutions.

Threats against and murders of human rights defenders as well as judges, prosecutors, journalists, activists, and union and political leaders, have been linked to these clandestine groups, most of which are a holdover from the country&#39s 36-year brutal civil war, Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) told IPS when the agreement for the new commission was signed by the United Nations and the Guatemalan government last December.

"They have managed to infiltrate state institutions, with ties to state officials and the police," she said at the time, referring to the organised network of illegal groups. "You might say they have established a parallel state."

In early 2006, special rapporteur for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Philip Alston, on a visit to Guatemala, expressed concern for murders of women, selective killings by members of the police and the military, gang-related killings and social cleansing, which he said had given rise to a widespread sense of insecurity among Guatemalans.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported in 2005 that Guatemala had the highest murder rate in all of Latin America, with 70 homicides per 100,000 population.

The head of CICIG will be appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The new commission, which will have a renewable two-year mandate, will consist of prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials familiar with human rights, criminal and international law.

Maureen Byrnes, head of the New York-based Human Rights First, one of the groups that lobbied for approval of the new commission, said in a statement that "This unique Commission is a vital tool to break the culture of impunity in Guatemala and reduce levels of violence."

"In particular, we hope that the Commission will create a safer environment for human rights defenders. Ninety-eight percent of the nearly 300 attacks each year against human rights defenders are not investigated and only a handful of cases have resulted in convictions."

According to the international human rights group, "Guatemala&#39s 36-year civil war ended in 1996, but some of those responsible for committing the worst atrocities during that period formed illegal security organisations. These groups now rival the State in power and are involved in organised crime, drug trafficking, violence, and attacks against human rights defenders."

In one high-profile incident that highlighted the level of impunity in the country, four police officers accused of killing two members of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen) were murdered last February in a maximum security prison in Guatemala. The case has not yet been resolved.

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