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

GUATEMALA: A Candle in the Darkness of Impunity

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Jun 9 2009 (IPS) - "The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is our only hope for achieving justice, because it is not contaminated or compromised," Eduardo Rodas Marzano, the brother of murdered lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, told IPS.

Rosenberg’s May 10 murder triggered protests and unrest that have tipped the government into a serious political crisis.

Rodas’s words reflect the sentiments shared by many Guatemalans, who see the United Nations-sponsored CICIG as an opportunity for this Central American country to begin to take the first steps towards dismantling a culture of impunity.

"The Commission has limitations, but today it is the only institution with the resources and political support to carry investigations through to the last consequences, without yielding to pressure from anyone," said Rodas.

Rosenberg’s murder sparked demonstrations for and against centre-left President Álvaro Colom after the broadcast of a videotaped interview in which the lawyer himself accused the president, in case anything happened to him. (In the 18-minute interview, taped a few days before Rosenberg’s death, the lawyer said "If at this moment you are hearing or watching this message, it is because Álvaro Colom assassinated me.")

The lawyer also accused First Lady Sandra Torres and high-level government officials of covering up "dirty" business deals in the Rural Development Bank (Banrural), a commercial bank owned by the state, small business associations, cooperatives, indigenous groups, employees and individual shareholders.

The videotaped interview prompted thousands of Guatemalans to take to the streets to demand that Colom step down and to call for the clarification of the murder. Other protesters, mainly from poor neighbourhoods, came out in support of the president, who took office in January 2008.

The president’s social and tax policies have drawn strong opposition from Guatemala’s conservative elite, who have traditionally governed the country.

Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said Rosenberg's murder was "part of a chain of events over the last months" linked to organised crime. The OAS gave Colom its full support, passing a resolution backing the Guatemalan government "in its obligation to preserve the institutions of democracy and the rule of law."

At Colom’s request, the CICIG and the FBI (U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations) are investigating Rosenberg’s killing. The case highlighted the problem of impunity in Guatemala, where in 98 percent of all crimes, no one is punished.

In the first four months of this year alone, 1,996 people (16 a day) died violent deaths, according to the Interior Ministry.

Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America: 47 per 100,000 population in 2007, according to the 2008 UNDP Statistical Report on Violence in Guatemala.

The soaring levels of violence can only be fought by means of the CICIG because the tentacles of organised crime and corruption extend throughout the institutions of the state, say analysts and experts.

CICIG’s "impartial and independent work is essential, and is the only thing that can strengthen the work of the public prosecutor’s office and can help clarify the crimes that throw Guatemalan families into mourning every day," indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú told IPS.

According to Menchú, a Nobel Peace laureate, there is a pressing need for the CICIG because "in Guatemala impunity is deep-rooted, and major hidden economic and political powers are wrapped up in it.

"It is no secret that these vested interests are capable of undermining the country’s democratic order at any time," she said.

When the CICIG began to operate in January 2008, under Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castresana – appointed by U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon – it described its main task as restoring trust in institutions like the police and the justice system, which are plagued by corruption.

One of the key steps in that is to assist the Guatemalan public prosecutors' office, the Supreme Court and the police in identifying the existence of illegal, clandestine armed security groups and their possible links to the state, in order to dismantle them.

Threats against and murders of human rights defenders as well as judges, prosecutors, journalists, activists, trade unionists and political leaders have been linked to these clandestine groups, most of which are a holdover from the country's 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 in December 2006.

(A 1996 peace deal ended the 36-year armed conflict between government forces and the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas that left a death toll of 200,000 victims, mainly rural indigenous villagers. A U.N.-sponsored truth commission held the army responsible for over 90 percent of the killings.)

Because of their coercive methods and links to political, judicial and law enforcement leaders, the groups have largely gone uninvestigated. "They have managed to infiltrate state institutions, with ties to state officials and the police," said Beltran, referring to the organised network of illegal groups. "You might say they have established a parallel state."

"The justice system has been invaded by criminal structures that keep it from working properly," said Castresana. "Guatemala’s institutions must be purged from the inside; they need an exorcism. We have come here to help, to extend a hand to Guatemala in fighting this grave problem, for which representatives of this country have asked for assistance from the international community."

The CICIG consists of prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials familiar with human rights, criminal and international law.

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 network of illegal groups has been linked to violent criminal activities, corruption, drug trafficking and other organised crime in the country. "The universally agreed challenge is to end impunity – the fact that those who kill can get away with it and have no reason not to continue and even escalate their murderous ways," he said at the time.

Maureen Byrnes, head of the New York-based Human Rights First, one of the groups that lobbied for approval of the international commission, said "Guatemala's 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."

The CICIG is currently investigating Rosenberg’s murder, along with at least 15 other high-profile cases, including a 112-million dollar case of fraud in which former president Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) and former members of the army are implicated, and the November 2008 murder of 14 Nicaraguan vendors and a Dutch tourist travelling by bus from Nicaragua to Guatemala.

In its fight against impunity, the CICIG also presented a package of recommendations in September 2008 to the legislature, calling for amendments to several laws involving the justice system and weapons possession. The amended law on weapons was approved on Apr. 1.

The investigations and other actions taken by the CICIG have raised hopes for profound institutional changes in Guatemala, where the official poverty rate is 51 percent, although independent organisations put it closer to 80 percent.

"The arrival of CICIG and Castresana represents progress for civil society in eradicating parallel structures embedded in the state," Jorge Santos, head of the International Centre for Human Rights Research (CIIDH), told IPS.

A recent example of this, said Santos, were the efforts by former prosecutor Álvaro Matus to block the probe into the murder of government investigator and anti-kidnapping expert Víctor Rivera. "The CICIG has taken action against Mr. Matus in a case that has revealed a series of hurdles within the state itself that have stood in the way of access to justice," he said.

Rivera was investigating the February 2007 murders in Guatemala of three members of the Central American Parliament from El Salvador and their driver – another high-profile case that shook the region. Four police officers had been arrested for the killings.

"It’s like driving a wedge into so much corruption and lack of credibility," Norma Cruz, director of the non-governmental Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivors Foundation), commented to IPS. "The CICIG has brought together the different efforts to put an end to impunity, when all of the country’s institutions – from the public prosecutor’s office to the judges and the police – have been corrupted."

The high level of public confidence in the CICIG is not only due to the activities it has undertaken, but also to the trajectory of its director, Castresana.

The 52-year-old Spanish judge is widely respected as the original architect of the legal strategy that resulted in the 1996 arrest of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in London on charges of genocide and torture. Although he was not extradited to Spain and was released on humanitarian grounds due to alleged health problems, Pinochet spent 503 days under house arrest in London.

Before that, Castresana had achieved significant results in Spain’s high courts as part of the special anti-drugs and anti-corruption prosecutors’ offices.

Notwithstanding the CICIG’s strong qualifications and record and the hopes that Guatemalans put in its work, it cannot be expected to fix everything.

"There are problems deeply rooted in the state that the Commission will only be able to make visible and put on the table for debate, but it will be up to the strength of the country’s democracy to eliminate them," Amílcar Pop, president of the Association of Mayan Lawyers, told IPS.

Pop said CICIG’s contribution is clearly important, but that civil society must also play an essential role. "We witnessed the signing of the peace agreement, but today more than ever we must be proactive," she said.

As an example of the role that civil society must play, Pop cited a law that will allow the civilian population to have a say in the process of electing members of the Supreme Court, the Attorney-General’s Office, the Comptroller-General’s Office, the Solicitor General’s Office, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the Appeals Court, and the Supreme Electoral Court.

"Civil society should take advantage of that small quota of participation, because today we have limited possibilities for bringing about change," she said.

CICIG’s work has been so important that its mandate has been extended through 2011, in response to a request by the government. Only time will tell whether Guatemalan society will pick up where the Commission leaves off, once it completes its work.

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