Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: New Law Hits Drug Cartels, Corrupt Officials Where They Hurt

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 30 2010 (IPS) - A new law that will allow Guatemalan courts to seize goods and assets obtained through illegal activities, including drug trafficking and corruption, is being hailed as the new hope in fighting organised crime.

“The formulation of the Asset Recovery Law includes very important elements for attacking organised crime and the corruption of state officials,” Arturo Chub, of the non-governmental organisation Security in Democracy (SEDEM), told IPS.

The unicameral Congress passed this legislation, the first of its kind in Central America, on Dec. 8, with the unanimous support of the 112 lawmakers present, of a total of 158. The law takes effect in June 2011, and is a considered a “blow to organised crime” that has this country’s 14 million people on edge.

The new law orders the seizure of goods and assets derived from illicit activities, and establishes a broad catalogue of crimes like fraud, embezzlement, misappropriation of public funds, kidnapping, murder, extortion, person trafficking, international transit of drugs, money laundering that will be subject to its application.

The seized goods will be handed over to the Judiciary, the Ministry of Interior, and the Public Ministry (coordinator of criminal investigations) so that they can turn them around to be utilised in the fight against insecurity and impunity.

Until now, only the Judiciary had the authority to use the seized assets, and had to go through a long legal process to do so.

In Chub’s opinion, a valuable aspect of the law is that “the assets that have been taken from indigenous peoples and communities can be returned to their legitimate owners.” Several government officials have been accused of misappropriating indigenous lands.

“It’s good, but it needs other conditions to ensure positive results,” said Chub. “First, it has to strengthen the criminal investigation entities, and a Public Ministry capable of using the law, and judges with the courage, support and independence to apply it,” he said.

Mariano Rayo, a legislator from the opposition Unionist Party and sponsor of the bill, told IPS, “Now the big challenge is to achieve the education and the technical and scientific training of those carrying out justice.”

According to the legislative deputy, that is why the law does not enter into force until mid-2011. In the first half of the year, judges and prosecutors will go through the necessary training “so that they apply the law correctly and effectively,” he said.

Rayo has been pushing for this law since 2007, with the intention of “providing the government with an exceptional tool for preventing crime.”

Drug trafficking is one of the criminal activities that has recently become deeply rooted not only Guatemala but across Central America. The drug mafias have moved their operations to the countries of the isthmus, and with them the bloody confrontations, driven by the anti-drug battles being waged by Mexico and Colombia, with backing from the United States.

In a crackdown on the members of Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel active in Guatemala, President Álvaro Colom decreed a 30-day state of siege starting Dec. 19 in the northern department of Alta Verapaz, mobilising hundreds of police and soldiers.

The “state of siege” is second in severity to the “state of war,” but is still a serious matter. It limits constitutional guarantees like freedom of movement, and freedom of assembly, and allows people to be detained without arrest orders.

The president’s decision comes at a time when drug-trafficking activity has reached unprecedented proportions in this country.

In Guatemala, where more than half the population lives in poverty (17 percent in extreme poverty), according to United Nations statistics, today it is common to run across luxury homes and vehicles in rural areas — all protected by armed guards.

“The Asset Recovery Law means that anyone who cannot demonstrate the origin of their wealth could be subject to investigation… It is a significant step in the fight against organised crime,” Mario Polanco, of the human rights organisation Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, told IPS.

The law not only addresses drug trafficking, but also corruption, which is what slowed the approval of the legislative bill, because some groups like the opposition Patriotic Party wanted it excluded.

Guatemala has a long way to go to root out corruption. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, published in October by the non-governmental watchdog Transparency International, the country comes in 91st place, with 3.2 points out of 10, in a list of 178 nations.

Leily Santizo, who works with the anti-impunity Myrna Mack Foundation, told IPS she thinks the new law has several positive aspects, including the detailed list of 47 crimes related to the government, mafias and common criminals, which lays out how they are to be dealt with.

But she also has some reservations. “The administration of the seized assets will be up to the vice-president’s office, which could generate suspicions because that office acts more as a political entity than a technical entity, in addition to the fact that it isn’t its job,” she said.

She believes that the National Secretariat for the Administration of Seized Assets, created by the new law, should be overseen by a council made up of members from the judicial branch, the Public Ministry and attorneys.

Nevertheless, Santizo said she is pleased that the government has a new tool to fight crime and impunity in Guatemala.

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