Guatemala’s elite resist U.N. team working to curb violence
GUATEMALA CITY — In this nation whose murder rate is more than triple that of Mexico, judges and prosecutors are underpaid, underprotected and under attack by organized crime. Guatemala teeters on the edge of failed-state status.
Yet a U.N.-backed investigative team that by all counts has been highly effective in prosecuting criminals is suddenly meeting stiff resistance from the very people who should stand to gain from a stronger rule of law: Guatemala’s political and business elite.
The pushback occurs as nearly half the territory in a country of 14 million is controlled by drug gangs and other criminals, with violence even at the capital’s swankiest addresses. More than 96 percent of murders go unsolved, and just last month stray bullets killed three bystanders at a crowded restaurant in the capital’s hotel district.
“We live in a terrifying anarchy,” psychologist Oscar Quintero said on a TV show in which mental health experts discussed coping strategies.
The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG in Spanish, was started three years ago at Guatemala’s request to dismantle illegal security groups, many of them tied to the military and a legacy of the 1960-96 civil war, and to end criminal impunity. It has taken on rampant vigilante justice, which includes contract killings of criminals.
The work by a team of police and prosecutors from 25 nations has landed a raft of senior officials in jail — a remarkable feat for a country whose elite has long made sure that law enforcement was selective and the penal code lax.
Eduardo Stein, a well-respected vice president from 2004 to 2008 who helped bring the commission into Guatemala, has accused it of “going out of control” for filing extra-judicial execution charges against top officials from his government over the allegedly premeditated killing of inmates. Stein and other businessmen have suggested the commission be put under local political control, arguing that it has overstepped its mandate and even operated outside the law.
Its director, former Costa Rican attorney general Francisco Dall’Anese, rejects the campaign for local control as sabotage, part of “a dark campaign by powerful groups” seeking to dissolve the commission, although he declined to name names.
“It is touching people we never expected it to touch,” said Pedro Pablo Marroquin, editor of the La Hora newspaper. “And the problem is we live in a society where some people are untouchable.”
Facing trial on criminal charges dominated by embezzlement are former President Alfonso Portillo, a son of ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt, an ex-defense minister, two former interior ministers, a prisons director, three national police chiefs and two anti-narcotics police commanders.
Then there are the convictions, all surprisingly swift, for murderers, drug cartel enforcers and kidnappers, including members of Mexico’s notoriously violent Zeta narco gang.
“All the cases we’ve brought to justice have so far ended in prison sentences for the accused,” said Carlos Castresana, the Spanish magistrate who led the commission until August. “It’s an earthquake for a country like Guatemala.”