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Q&A: “It’s Not Easy to Fight Impunity”

Jim Lobe interviews Guatemalan President ÁLVARO COLOM

WASHINGTON, Feb 19 2010 (IPS) - Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom said he intends to extend the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), in this interview with IPS during a three-day visit to the United States.

Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom greets Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Credit: Office of the Guatemalan president

Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom greets Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Credit: Office of the Guatemalan president

The United Nations-sponsored CICIG, which began to operate in January 2008, was set up to strengthen and purge the country’s justice system and security forces. One of the key steps is to identify the infiltration of the corruption-riddled police and justice system by organised crime and illegal, clandestine armed security groups.

In Washington, the social democratic Colom – Guatemala’s first left-leaning president in over 50 years – met with the Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, addressed the hemispheric body’s Permanent Council, and had a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Q: I know you spoke at the OAS about the work of CICIG and what it’s doing. Do you know how much longer CICIG will be required to work in Guatemala in order to do what you wish it to accomplish? A: I wish it could be a short time. But honestly speaking, I think more than a year and seven months (the time left of its mandate) will be needed. It is making an important contribution to the country. It’s not easy for a government to fight impunity in a country where impunity reigns, but I am totally committed to the goals of justice and security.

I believe that in the next three or four months, the office of the public prosecutor and CICIG will solve several complex cases, which would set an example in terms of curbing impunity. But in concrete terms, I think there is a great deal to be done.

And the most important thing is for CICIG’s experience not to disappear when it is disbanded, but for it to leave its experience with the office of the public prosecutor, the Supreme Court, and the interior ministry.

Q: How long do you think it will take before the CICIG will have completed its work to your satisfaction? A: Its mandate ends in September 2011, but that won’t be enough time.

Q: You will try to have the mandate extended? A: Yes, I will.

Q: You are supposed to choose a new attorney general in May, I believe. What would be the ideal profile for your appointment and how transparent will that process be? A: The legal process has already begun. The nomination committee, made up of Supreme Court magistrates, university law departments and the bar association will draw up a list of six lawyers, from which I will select one.

It is the nomination committee that can be credited with carrying out a transparent process. I will merely select one of the six candidates. Frankly, the next attorney general will be someone who will facilitate and give a boost to the progress made by CICIG, who will deepen the purge of the public prosecutor’s office and who will take full advantage of the independence that I give the attorney general, which I believe was not the case before.

Q: There have been recent scandals with a gasoline company that point to possible corruption in the police and interior ministry. What actions are you taking to combat this corruption? A: An in-depth investigation was launched in this particular case, which is very complex. In fact, the denunciation of the case came from within the government itself.

As of Monday, 90 percent of the funds had been located, and they were indeed used to purchase gasoline. But the rest were still missing, so the inquiry is ongoing.

Q: There’s another investigation regarding the diversion of some 600 weapons from the military to the Zetas (former Mexican soldiers who now work as a private army for Mexican drug cartels) involving both active and retired military officers? A: The report on the disappearance of army weapons came from the defence minister (Abraham Valenzuela) himself. And obviously, our intention is to take this to its ultimate consequences.

The theft of arms has to be seen in three stages. The main one occurred in the last two years of the previous government. A smaller-scale incident, quite a bit smaller, occurred in late 2008. And a very small one a week ago, in which six of the eight or nine rifles were recovered. But the big theft took place in 2006 and 2007. The aim is to put an end to such practices.

Q: In March 2009, you created the Commission to Declassify Military Archives composed of representatives from the Defense Ministry, the Presidential Human Rights Commission and three different secretariats. The Commission had the mandate to provide the president secret and top secret military archives from the period 1954 to 1996. The work of the Commission was supposed to conclude in December, but you extended its mandate for another six months. Once the work is completed, will you make the archives publicly available? A: The declassification of military records has been a taboo subject in Guatemala. When the current armed forces leadership was named on Dec. 21, 2008, one of the conditions that we set was to begin the process of revealing the secret documents.

Taboos and paradigms are being broken down in this process. In the Commission, people continue to talk in terms of the “civilian” and “military” delegations. Last week, the actual review of the records began. So far this year, the documents had been sorted and filed. I would expect that we will begin to declassify and release files in the next few months.

Q: Do you intend to declassify all of them? A: I would say Guatemala is not currently facing any threat of invasion or war. What we do have are open wounds from the (1960-1996 civil) war. Anything to do with the declassification of these archives, as well as the records of the National Police, which are already public, should be treated with great maturity and a deep spirit of reconciliation.

In my view, and to judge by the past of my father’s family (several of the president’s relatives, including his uncle Manuel Colom, a presidential candidate, were killed in the civil war), until 1982 it was the National Police that did the dirty work. These archives are already open to the public. There is a short period, from 1982 to 1986, because that’s when things changed, and it was no longer the police. We need to be patient, in order for the declassification to be more far-reaching.

Q: Last year, the Guatemalan Human Rights Protection Unit registered a record number of 353 attacks on human rights defenders, including 15 cases of murder. Very few have been investigated, putting the defenders at risk for carrying out their work. In the two years you have remaining in the presidency, what steps will you take to further protect human rights defenders and combat the impunity that prevails for the perpetrators? A: I am aware of these numbers. Obviously, my government does not have a policy of repressing or attacking any sector. But I did receive a country in a state of appalling violence. No sector – whether trade unions or human rights groups – has been safe from becoming victims.

We have managed to build an office with a culture of human rights within the interior ministry. There are cases of human rights abuses that are being resolved. A sentence was handed down for the El Jute massacre (in which members of the military were found guilty in the 1981 forced disappearance of eight villagers), which was historic. And there will be other cases. That should go a long way towards bolstering respect for human rights.

Q: The United Nations recently warned that Guatemala will not meet its MDG (Millennium Development Goals) targets and that drought and other effects of climate change on Guatemala are helping to perpetuate poverty and hunger. A: I think that in two years, my government has positively transformed the social indicators. We have acknowledged and addressed the structural problems of poverty and malnutrition, with a totally realistic focus. They were always concealed and ignored by the politicians. So was the threat of climate change.

This is a challenge facing humanity as a whole, but in Guatemala there are very real risks and threats from climate change, one of which is drought.

Q: The military is becoming increasingly involved with respect to the Merida Plan (a U.S. strategy for Mexico and Central America) and counter-drug efforts and insecurity. Are you concerned that these issues are becoming increasingly militarised? A: The role of the army is to defend the national territory. It cooperates with the National Civil Police. But I am convinced that the fight against drug trafficking must be integral, focusing on social issues, security, justice, and programmes involving young people, which we have, although there is still a lot to be done.

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