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

Working to Uproot Impunity in Guatemala

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, May 24 2011 (IPS) - The controversial acquittal of former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo of embezzlement charges was a new frustration for anti-corruption groups who are pushing for reforms to fight impunity in a country where 98 percent of crimes go unsolved.

“There was a very limited evaluation of the evidence, and it was biased towards the interests of one of the parties. We hope that the verdict will be corrected on appeal,” Ramón Cadena, head of the International Commission of Jurists, told IPS.

Portillo (2000-2004), together with his former ministers of finance, Manuel Maza, and defence, Eduardo Arévalo, was charged with misappropriation of 16 million dollars in public funds from the Defence Ministry in 2001.

The court had admitted 577 items into evidence, including certificates of bank deposits and transfers of funds and the testimony of Armando Llort, a former Portillo administration official, which implicated the former president.

However, a lower court in Guatemala City rejected the evidence presented by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the United Nations-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a plaintiff in the case, and acquitted all three accused on May 9.

The former ministers were released, while Portillo remains in custody pending an extradition request submitted in January 2010 by a federal prosecutor’s office in New York for laundering several million dollars through banks in the U.S. and Europe.

Cadena believes sweeping changes are needed in the judicial system to combat impunity in Guatemala.

“We are working on proposed legal amendments based on the commitments made in the peace accords for strengthening the independence of the judiciary,” he said.

The peace agreements put an end to the 1960-1996 armed conflict between government forces, their paramilitary allies, and left-wing guerrillas, which left over 200,000 dead or disappeared.

The commitment to strengthen the justice system is included in the 13 accords signed in December 1996 between the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). But experts and ordinary citizens say no results have been achieved so far, according to opinion polls.

As an example, Cadena said the constitutional court, where cases against the highest state officials are heard, is made up of five permanent and five alternate judges. The alternates tend to work in private law firms as well, where “they devote themselves to influence peddling.”

To clean up the justice system, situations like this need to be urgently rectified, Cadena said.

To make the judicial branch independent, Cadena said the Law on Judicial Careers should be strengthened. The law was adopted in 1999 to regulate the income, promotion, training, discipline and other activities of judges and magistrates. It also provided for a mandatory 6-month training course for all judges who were newly appointed.

“A system for the protection of judges, and another to hold them accountable for their actions, are also needed,” he added.

According to CICIG, established in 2006, a shocking 98 percent of crimes go unpunished in Guatemala, which has become a haven for organised crime.

Against this backdrop, the acquittal of Portillo, the first former president to face trial in Guatemalan history, has galvanised the struggle against impunity.

“The verdict shows the need to strengthen the Organismo Judicial (the top justice authority in the country to which the Supreme Court and other high courts are attached) through the Law on Judicial Careers, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office,” Lorena Escobar of the Association for Research and Social Studies (ASIES), a local NGO, told IPS.

ASIES, together with the public University of San Carlos and the private Rafael Landívar University, presented a package of reforms to 11 articles of the constitution to Congress in April, with the aim of combating impunity and strengthening public security.

The proposals include strengthening the Judicial Career, lengthening the terms of office of Supreme Court judges from five to 10 years, and providing free legal aid to those who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.

“The emphasis is on well-trained, motivated human resources, and disciplinary measures so that those unfit for office are dismissed,” said Escobar.

Meanwhile, controversial verdicts continue to be handed down.

The day after Portillo’s acquittal, the head of the prison system, Alejandro Giammattei, implicated in the murders of seven inmates in 2006, was cleared of all charges in another reverse for the Public Prosecutor’s Office and CICIG.

“Both these sentences have had a dire effect, sending the country the message that impunity reigns,” human rights activist Claudia Samayoa, who still hopes the accused will be convicted on appeal, told IPS.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office and CICIG will appeal the acquittals of Portillo and Giammattei.

Marco Canteo, of the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences (ICCPG) said there is only one solution: constitutional reform for the justice system.

“Administrative measures for an in-depth purge of judges based on professional criteria, and the promotion of independent and career judges, cannot wait,” he said.

In Central America, the struggle of the justice system against abuses committed by government leaders is not a feature exclusive to Guatemala.

In Costa Rica, a court upheld the conviction of former president Rafael Calderón (1990-1994) for embezzlement on May 11, but reduced his sentence from five to three years and commuted his prison term to house arrest, to the indignation of some sectors of society.

On Apr. 27, another Costa Rican court sentenced former president Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (1988-2002) to five years’ in prison for corruption. Rodríguez, who was briefly secretary general of the Organisation of American States in 2004, announced he would appeal.

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