Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: Impunity, Corruption Drive Wave of Kidnappings

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 19 2009 (IPS) - Byron Ranulfo Rustrián was just 12 years old. He loved playing football and was a good student. On Jul. 23, a group of youngsters he didn’t know invited him to play a match and he agreed, but it was a trap: he was kidnapped and his body turned up five days later.

His family made two ransom payments totaling 15,000 dollars. But it didn’t secure his release. Byron’s body was found on Jul. 28 in a suitcase. He had apparently been strangled.

A total of 109 kidnapping cases were reported to the security forces in Guatemala in the first six months of the year, while seven people have died in the ransom negotiations, according to the police.

People of all ages, businessmen, and even government officials fall victim to kidnapping in this Central American country, which has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America and the world (an average of 16 murders a day in a country of 13 million).

“There is a climate of tension and tight secrecy surrounding this. In fact, we wanted to do a field study, but we decided to wait because people were distrustful and reluctant to provide information,” Carlos Martínez, assistant ombudsman in the southern province of Escuintla, the country’s second-most violent province, where Rustrián was killed, told IPS.

There are other, equally disturbing, phenomena: clandestine groups that take justice into their own hands. “We received a note that is going around, which accuses several individuals of being engaged in kidnapping, blackmail and other criminal activity, and urges people to ‘disappear’ them,” said Martínez.

The extremely high level of impunity – an estimated 98 percent of crimes committed in Guatemala go unsolved – drives the phenomenon, he said.

The Rustrián case shows that kidnappings are no longer limited to the capital but have expanded to the rest of the country, where the police presence is even weaker.

In this country of 13 million people, there are only 20,000 police officers, 60 percent of whom work in the central province of Guatemala.

“They kidnapped me and held me for a day and a half. They stole my car and hit me over the head,” Congressman Efraín Asij told IPS.

“They took my documents and went to an automated teller machine to steal my money. When they looked at my identification and saw I was a legislator, they got scared, and I managed to escape,” said Asij, of the rightwing opposition Patriotic Party (PP), who was kidnapped in February while driving his car in the capital.

But his position as a lawmaker has made no difference in terms of securing an effective investigation. Nearly six months have gone by and the police and the prosecutor’s office have made no arrests. “There is no reason to believe in justice here,” he said.

According to Asij, the government “has no visible plan to combat the lack of security” and “does not have the political will to do so. If it did, it would purge the police and get to work on it, because it is a state obligation to guarantee public safety.”

President Álvaro Colom, the first left-leaning president in more than 50 years, took over in January 2008 from Óscar Berger of the PP.

The social democratic Colom administration has in fact sacked more than 800 police officers for corruption.

The latest police corruption scandal broke on Aug. 7, when four top police officials were fired and charges were brought against them in connection with the disappearance of more than 100 kgs of cocaine.

Michelle De Leal, the head of Madres Angustiadas (Anguished Mothers), a group that emerged in 1995 in reaction to the growing wave of kidnappings, agrees that they are flourishing thanks to impunity.

“Impunity is factor number one, two, three, four, five, six and seven in the phenomenon of kidnapping,” she told IPS.

“Since the criminal knows he’s not going to be caught, he keeps committing crimes,” she said. “Until there is justice, the situation will not change.”

Analysts also point to the high poverty rate in the country – just over 50 percent according to official statistics, although NGOs put it much higher.

Besides kidnappings, this impoverished Central American country has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 47 per 100,000 population in 2007, according to the 2008 UNDP Statistical Report on Violence in Guatemala.

The high levels of violent crime and the continued existence of death squads that carry out “social cleansing”, often targeting suspected youth gang members, are seen by many analysts as holdovers from the 1960-1996 civil war in which 200,000 mainly rural indigenous people were killed, the great majority by the security forces and allied paramilitary groups.

Besides impunity, De Leal also said corruption is a factor. “The kidnapping rate is on the rise, but many cases actually go unreported because people know there is corruption in the police, the prosecutor’s office and the judiciary,” she said.

Rafael González, the father of 19-year-old murder victim Rosmery González, recently remarked to IPS that all law enforcement authorities and agents “are on the take.” He was pointing out that when his daughter was killed a year ago, neither the home nor the office of the chief suspect – finally arrested this month – were searched.

Corruption is such a widespread problem in Guatemala that a United Nations-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created.

The main task of CICIG, which began to operate in January 2008, is restoring trust in institutions like the corruption-riddled police and justice system. One of the key steps 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 apparatus, in order to dismantle them.

The head of CICIG, Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castresana – who was appointed by U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon – has stated that “the justice system has been invaded by criminal structures that keep it from working properly. Guatemala’s institutions must be purged from the inside; they need an exorcism.”

The director of the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences (ICCPG), Luis Ramírez, said the rise in kidnappings has to do with a lack of effective investigation and intelligence work in the criminal justice system.

“When kidnappings are so widespread, real intelligence work is needed to determine the logic of how they are carried out,” he told IPS. Besides, “we do not have a criminal investigation police force. There should be a unit of investigators independent of the police, which answers to the president’s office.”

Chilean Ambassador Jorge Saavedra said that in Guatemala, “investigations are not conducted, there are neither detectives nor investigators,” and “the problem is much more than urgent.”

For several years, Chile has been working with the authorities in Guatemala to help train police.

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