Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Fighting Violence with Death in Guatemala

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 1 2010 (IPS) - As the movement for the abolition of the death penalty gains ground worldwide, Guatemala is seeking to reintroduce capital punishment, which has been in legal limbo since 2000. Congress has already approved a law paving the way for the execution of 41 death row inmates.

“The law is the law, and whether it is a deterrent or not, as long as it is in effect it must be enforced,” Anabella de León, a lawmaker belonging to the rightwing Patriot Party (PP), told IPS. “Personally I am in favour of human rights, including life, but the lives of honest people, not of someone who has no scruples about taking the life of another.”

On Oct. 5, five days before the celebration of World Day Against the Death Penalty, the legislature passed a law reinstating the death penalty, as well as the power of the Guatemalan president to grant or deny pardon to inmates condemned to death by lethal injection.

This complies with article 4, item 6 of the American Convention on Human Rights, ratified by Guatemala, which stipulates that any person condemned to death has the right to appeal for amnesty, pardon or commutation of the sentence, which cannot be carried out while the prisoner’s appeal is pending.

The law will come into effect Jan. 15, 2012, when the government voted in at the September 2011 general elections takes office in this Central American country of 14 million people.

At present, 41 people are under sentence of death in Guatemala for crimes like kidnapping, extrajudicial execution and murder. The last to be executed under the death penalty were two people in 1996 who were shot by firing squad, and one in 1998 and two more in 2000, executed by lethal injection.

Capital punishment has not been used in Guatemala since 2000, when under the administration of President Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004), Congress repealed the law that allowed death row inmates to appeal for a presidential pardon.

Incumbent President Álvaro Colom, a social democrat, vetoed a 2008 law bringing back the appeal for presidential pardon, on the grounds that the president should not interfere in a judicial process.

Colom has announced he will also veto the new law that paves the way for the reinstatement of the death penalty. However, the single-chamber legislature can overrule a presidential veto if two-thirds of its 158 members vote for the law. The governing National Union for Hope (UNE) party has only 41 lawmakers.

Opposition parties like the PP and the conservative Renewed Democratic Freedom (LÍDER) have promised to reinstate the death penalty, in their electoral campaigns.

“Not enforcing the death penalty contributes to the generalised impunity in Guatemala, and to higher levels of crime and violence. That is why we are in favour of it, on condition that all legal appeals have been exhausted,” said de León.

Guatemala, Cuba and the United States are the only countries in the Americas that retain the death penalty on their statute books, although Cuba has not applied it since 2003.

Article 43 of Guatemala’s Criminal Code says the death penalty is an extraordinary punishment which can only be applied in cases explicitly defined by law, including kidnapping, murder and rape.

The bill has drawn fire at the national and international levels.

“It has been demonstrated over and over again that the death penalty does not solve the problem of violence, in Guatemala or any other country,” human rights activist Miguel Ángel Alvisurez told IPS.

Nery Rodenas of the Catholic Archdiocese’s Human Rights Office told IPS that political parties are promising capital punishment as part of “populist” campaigns, even though it is known that the death penalty does not curb violence.

Javier Monterroso of the Centro de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Políticas y Sociales (CIJUPS), a centre for legal, political and social research, told IPS that reinstating the death penalty “is a sign of the lack of seriousness of national political debate on matters of security and justice.”

He described the measure as “a backward step in terms of human rights,” that does “nothing” to reduce crime in the country.

In Monterroso’s view, the debate on this issue shows only that political parties are seeking votes for the 2011 elections. Meanwhile there is an urgent list of laws on security and justice that need to be passed.

Reforms to the General Law on the Public Prosecutor’s Office, to strengthen the work of prosecutors and create a system for evaluating performance, and a law on private security firms, are awaiting approval, Monterroso pointed out.

Meanwhile, violence in this country spirals unchecked.

The Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM), a human rights group, reported 2,132 murders between January and August 2010. Another 136 people were lynched in acts of vigilante justice by the public.

In these circumstances, the country is trying to reinstate the death penalty as a deterrent, to avoid more lives being lost, in spite of the fact that 98 percent of crimes go unpunished, according to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a body established by agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government.

“President Colom should now honour his commitment, as he did in 2008 when he vetoed a similar proposal by Congress,” Sebastián Elgueta, a Central America researcher with the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International, said in early October. “If Guatemala restores the death penalty it will be going against the global and regional trend, which is to abolish capital punishment.”

The European Union also made its voice heard, indicating in a communiqué that “these latest legislative developments send a worrying signal to the international community at a time when the global consensus in favour of abolition is growing.”

At the initiative of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, an International Commission Against the Death Penalty was established Oct. 7 in Madrid with the aim of achieving a universal moratorium on capital punishment by 2015. The commission is chaired by Federico Mayor Zaragoza, the head of the Foundation for a Culture of Peace.

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