Guatemala’s Eternally-Woeful Tale: The country’s problematic fight against impunity

On June 7th, Carlos Castresana announced his resignation from the UN-brokered International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). This joint venture between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government was formed to help eradicate clandestine security groups within the country; specifically, CICIG has targeted members of the government and law enforcement sectors that were engaged in a variety of terrorist-related activities. The Commission’s mandate has enabled it to carry out investigations, aid in criminal prosecutions, as well as recommend legal reforms. Castresana had been leading the Commission since its official commencement in 2006. However, the immediate factors behind Castresana’s resignation were his stated disappointment over the Guatemalan government’s lack of commitment to the Commission’s efforts and the rash of smear tactics that have targeted CICIG’s work as well as his professional and personal life. Although the UN has recently replaced Castresana and plans to continue CICIG’s work until the end of its mandate in 2011, this resignation, at the very least, sends a clear signal to the Guatemalan government that it must take an active role in eliminating corruption and prosecuting criminal offenders if it wants to rehabilitate its shabby reputation in the international community. As human rights specialist Adriana Beltrán observed in an interview with COHA, “it is now time for the Guatemalan government– the executive, legislature and the courts– to take concrete steps in supporting the work of CICIG and to demonstrate that they are serious about combating impunity, organized crime and corruption.”

Impunity in Guatemala

Corruption and impunity have pervaded Guatemalan society since the country’s perilous restoration of democracy after the 1996 UN-brokered Peace Accords ended its Civil War. Guatemala suffered the most prolonged civil war in Central America, which lasted over thirty years and accounted for more than 200,000 people killed and missing. During the war, the Guatemalan armed forces committed tens-of-thousands of extraordinarily harsh human rights abuses throughout the country. Many have since described the violence as a genocide due to its consistent targeting of indigenous groups. Although the 1994 Oslo Accords created a Historical Clarification Commission for the country, little has been done to actually prosecute the perpetrators of the human rights abuses. In 2009, former military commissioner Felipe Cusanero was the first person to be convicted in relation to the civil war atrocities and proceeded to receive 150 years for the disappearances of six farmers between 1982 and 1984.

Since the end of the war in 1996, implicated clandestine groups within the public and private sector have remained at large. These groups suspected of being involved in illegal activities have faced little prospect of being prosecuted. Corruption in the country is widespread, and as the US State Department’s 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report states, “in many cases where corruption does not work, intimidation does.” Many of these clandestine groups have strong ties to organized crime within Guatemala as well as links to drug trafficking activities.

In their 2003 report Hidden Power in Post-Conflict Guatemala, Susan C. Peacock and Adriana Beltrán illuminate the structures and activities of what they call the country’s “hidden powers.” These structures are concentrated amongst four main groups: La Cofradía, El Sindicato, the Presidential General Staff, and the Civil Self-Defense Patrols. These four groups are closely linked to Guatemala’s military or have played significant roles in the government, particularly with the security forces. Recently, a number of major actors within these groups have faced investigations regarding their implication in contraband networks, drug trafficking, and human rights violations. As of 2003, the report notes that there had been a consolidation of these clandestine networks and that they have been in close liaison with several major political parties, most visibly with the right-wing Guatemalan Republic Front (FRG). During the notorious Portillo administration from 2000 to 2004, a number of these groups formerly involved in military activities became active participants in the government. As Peacock and Beltrán have observed, “the hidden powers specialize in connections that allow them to carry out crimes involving state resources…at the same time they manipulate the justice system in order to protect themselves from prosecution.” With their frequent connections to organized crime, the circuit can be described as a “corporate mafia” (Amnesty International). Such syndicates promote not only their own economic interests but also manage to protect themselves from prosecution for past human rights abuses by intimidating those seen as a threat.

The murder of human rights defenders is a common occurrence that displays this type of ill intention. According to the Guatemala Human Rights Protection Unit, there were 353 attacks on human rights defenders registered last year, with fifteen instances of murder. These attacks have included “killings, attempted killings, threats and break-ins in which human rights information were destroyed or searched” (Amnesty International). Most of these cases remain virtually uninvestigated by the authorities. Also, members of the judiciary are often personally threatened and/or bribed to influence the outcome of criminal prosecutions. The UN Human Rights Commission found, for example, that in 2000, Guatemalan judges and prosecutors were often denied health insurance because their job was deemed too dangerous.

Before CICIG commenced its operations, little had been done to curb the rampant impunity that operated throughout Guatemala. Although Portillo ostensibly ran his election campaign on curbing corruption and pursuing prosecution, his administration was rife with illegal activities that were carried out unchecked by safeguards. The President himself greatly benefited from the vast amounts of funds he was allowed to pocket during his four-year term. Since then, organized crime networks have infiltrated nearly every government institution, and the country’s economic elite has prevented any major structural reform from being enacted by the legislature. Even with the commendable work CICIG has done, it has been an extremely uphill battle. Although the country has a homicide rate of eight times that of the United States, only 2% of all murders committed end in criminal prosecution.

CICIG and Guatemala’s Precarious Relationship

CICIG was formally established on December 12th, 2006, based on a joint agreement between the UN and the Guatemalan government. Its functions were to work closely with local authorities––specifically, with the Ministry of the Interior, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the Judiciary––to investigate, dismantle, and prosecute clandestine security groups within the country as well as recommend the authorship of public policies that would prevent these groups from forming. Unfortunately, CICIG was unable to begin its work in earnest until 2007 due to endless debate in Congress over the institution’s mandate.

Nonetheless, against grave obstacles, CICIG still has done commendable work in prosecuting both police officers and government authorities who have been involved in various illegal activities. As a private prosecutor, CICIG has been involved in at least six high profile cases, including the notorious Rosenburg affair. Attorney Rodrigo Rosenburg was murdered on May 10, 2009. Before his death, he recorded a video accusing President Colom, his wife and certain government officials for his murder. This triggered a huge uproar, putting the president under extreme pressure for possibly being implicated in an infamous assassination scandal. In September of 2009, CICIG ordered the arrest of ten individuals connected to criminal organizations and who possibly could be involved in the murder. As it turned out, Rosenburg, in fact, hired hit-men to carry out his own murder with the help of the Valdés brothers, and created the video to frame President Colom. Lat week, the brothers turned themselves into Guatemalan authorities. Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rigoberta Menchú have all stated that Rosenburg’s death was a plot to overthrow the left-leaning president, though most analysts would agree that Guatemala was by no means close to experiencing a coup.

Rosenburg’s planned suicide is one of the many bizarre and seemingly implausible crimes that have become commonplace in Guatemala. CICIG also has recently finished investigating the Amatitlán case, a 2009 narcotics bust in which five policemen were killed. The case ultimately ended in the arrest of Police Chief Baltazar Gomez and top anti-drug official Nelly Bonilla on charges of drug trafficking, abuse of authority, and obstruction of justice. Recently, as Mexican drug cartels begin to extend their tendrils into Guatemala, drug trafficking has become an increasingly menacing threat to the country’s national security and further raises the strong probability of the corruption of law-enforcement mechanisms.

CICIG was also a complementary prosecutor in the extradition of former President Portillo in 2008. The would-be strongman is now facing charges both in Guatemala and in the U.S. for embezzlement. It is alleged that Portillo pocketed over 70 million USD during his four year term, including 2.5 million USD that was given to him by the Taiwanese government ostensibly as a donation for primary education schoolbooks. As Preet Bharapa, a US attorney based in New York, has stated, Portillo essentially “turned the Guatemalan presidency into his personal ATM.” This scandal is particularly outrageous, seeing as Portillo based his election campaign on eradicating corruption and impunity and actually proposed, in 2003, letting the UN set up a special commission to carry out such a mission.

Although CICIG has recommended many legal reforms to create anti-impunity laws and upgrade Guatemala’s woefully decaying prison system, both the judiciary and legislative branches have yet to take action. CICIG also has been forced to construct a witness protection program to ensure the safety of those caught up in organized crime cases. Because of CICIG’s unique mandate to strengthen institutions within the country in order to create sustainable reform, it has both the promising and the challenging role of working with, rather than around, the Guatemalan government.

Healing the Wounds of War

Guatemala still throbs from the wounds it suffered during its thirty-six year civil war. The Truth and Reconciliation commissions set up around the world have illustrated the benefits of boldly confronting past violence and misdeeds while seeking a goal of peace and restorative justice. Guatemala has yet to make significant progress with either producing closure or pursuing a respectable number of prosecutions in regards to the country’s brutal civil war. Many of the power structures that formed during the civil war remain today, thus investigating these organizations may have dualistic benefits both in seeking solutions for past misdeeds and challenging those that might occur in the future.

Guatemala has begun to face up to its past, as Cusanero’s imprisonment indicates. As for President Colom, at times he has been influential in promoting truth and reconciliation. In 2009, he created the Commission to Declassify Military Archives for the purpose of publicly releasing documents concerning acts of military violence committed during the civil war. Yet much of the work remains, and so far, the Ministry of Defense has not even begun to put Colom’s initiatives into action. Amnesty International’s 2009 study states that the recommendations established by the Historical Clarification Commission’s 1999 report have yet to be implemented, “depriving survivors, victims, and their families of justice and reparation.” In 2008, the Constitutional Court denied certain military officials from gaining amnesty under the National Reconciliation Law based on the nature of the crimes committed. This is a positive step towards achieving justice, as human rights violators may not be acquitted without a trial; on the other hand, prosecutorial initiatives have not yet been sufficient. Amnesty International recommends that reparations should be made, including establishing a commission to determine the fate of those who have disappeared, returning of human remains to family members, and insisting that the government take concrete steps towards ensuring justice for the victims of the war.

CICIG has taken some genuine steps to dismantle power structures that were created during Guatemala’s violent civil war. Although the country faces new challenges tied to the growing drug trade, ignoring the past will only handicap efforts at reform. The Guatemalan government needs to become legitimate in the eyes of its citizens, and one of the key ways to do this is to reaffirm its commitment to disseminate information to the public while prosecuting human rights violators, many of whom still remain in power or at least are not incarcerated.

What this Means for Guatemala

Castresana’s resignation sends a clear message to the Guatemalan government that it needs to alter its image if it wishes to continue receiving governmental aid. CICIG is funded entirely by other countries, and Guatemala must uphold its side of the agreement or the work of the Commission will be greatly impaired. As CICIG’s 2009 report states, it is there to help strengthen state institutions, and it is imperative “to emphasize the importance of Guatemalan’s involvement in rescuing their own justice system.”

At the time of his resignation, Castresana accused newly appointed Attorney General Conrado Reyes of involvement in drug trafficking and the organization of illegal adoption of children. While Reyes denied these accusations, on June 11th, President Colom asked him to step down from his post, citing that Castresana had presented him with “firm evidence.” On June 14th, compelling evidence against Reyes was made public. According to Latin News Daily, Reyes has been linked to the Valdés brothers, two pharmaceutical executives who had been caught up in the Rosenburg case. Furthermore, he was accused of actively undermining the work of CICIG.

Although President Colom has done commendable work in aiding CICIG’s fight against impunity, actions like the appointment of Reyes to Attorney General illuminates the need for active oversight and judicial vigilance. According to an interview conducted by the third world news wire, IPS, with President Colom in February, a nomination committee—which includes Supreme Court magistrates, university law departments and the bar association—compiles a list of six eligible lawyers for possible appointment to Attorney General, from which the President would select his choice. Colom stated, “the new attorney general will be someone who will facilitate and give a boost to the progress made by CICIG.” Considering the allegations raised against Reyes, it is disconcerting that he achieved such a position in the first place, and it reiterates the need for the government to maintain close scrutiny of all questionable events taking place throughout Guatemala.

Guatemala’s Future

Guatemala and well-intentioned international allies need to address the country’s vast human rights and impunity problems. Homicides rates have increased substantially every year, and on June 11th, four days after Castresana’s resignation, four severed heads were found in prominent public places throughout Guatemala City. These heads carried written threats against the government in response to the crackdowns on Guatemala’s abhorrent prison system. Many of these prisons are actually run by organized crime, and Congress, at the request of CICIG, has been only slowly moving to reform the system. Quoted by the BBC, a Guatemalan police spokesmen stated, “criminal gangs are taking advantage of the vacuum left by Mr. Castresana’s resignation to ‘wreak havoc.’”

Recent evidence also indicates that Mexican drug cartels are gaining vital grounds in Guatemala. The existence of Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most violent and feared drug cartels, is a sobering example of the country’s present challenges. Earlier this year, President Colom asked the U.S. to formally lift the embargo on military aid that has been in place since the end of the civil war. A partial lifting was approved in 2007, but so far no extensive action has been taken to provide military assistance to Guatemala. If the U.S.’s continued failure in both Mexico and Colombia to substantially advance its anti-drug agenda is any indicator, military aid is not the only answer to Guatemala’s drug problems. Furthermore, monetary assistance to the country’s police force may be detrimental, given the amount of corruption present in that body.

Guatemala’s hope better lies in strengthening its institutions and restoring the government’s credibility with its citizens. This in itself is a formidable challenge; Transparency International’s 2007 report on judicial corruption states that reform in Guatemala will be incomplete “until problems are seen as integral and directly linked to issues of career, salary level, internal controls, accountability and elimination of conflicts of interests.” Sustainable change means substantial reform in all areas of government, especially in the military and law enforcement sectors. UN Special Rapporteur Param Cumaraswamy stated in 1999 that impunity was the “cancer of Guatemala.” If impunity is not seriously combated by those within the country, Guatemala cannot hope to become stable anytime in the near future.

Castresana’s resignation is a clear message to the domestic and international community that the situation in Guatemala has become dire. Clandestine cells within the government are holding on tightly to their positions and benefits, and those battling for change are facing increasingly violent threats. The UN has worked quickly to appoint a new commissioner: on June 30th, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon named Costa Rican Attorney General Francisco Dall’Anese head of CICIG. While Attorney General, a post he has held since 2003, Dall’Anese led anticorruption campaigns against two former presidents and introduced significant legal reforms to help dismantle organized crime. As Latin News Daily states, “the appointment of a Central American to the post is significant given recent emphasis by leaders in the region…of the need for regional cooperation in the fight against organized crime.” Dall’Anese seems to be a promising choice for CICIG, and hopefully his appointment will promote greater support for the Commission’s work throughout Latin America. But for CICIG to have any chance at advancing reform, the international community must pressure those within Guatemala to uphold their commitments to the UN if they wish to continue benefiting from international aid and recognition.