Guatemala: The War of Paz y Paz

By Steven Dudley*

CLALS Paz y Paz

Law professor and human rights attorney Claudia Paz y Paz’s selection as Guatemala’s first woman attorney general was a surprise, but strident opposition to her reappointment from the dark interstices of the political spectrum is not.  More hippy professor than government bureaucrat, she’s a woman who defied the odds when she took office in 2010.  Paz y Paz speaks with a soft, gentle tone to the point where she almost needs a microphone to run a staff meeting.  Yet, from nearly the moment she walked into the attorney general’s office, she made a difference.  She and her team arrested previously untouchable figures such Juan López Ortiz, alias Chamale, and dozens of members of the feared Mexican criminal group, the Zetas.  The country’s murder and impunity rates fell.  Paz y Paz also prosecuted former military officers, including former military dictator Ríos Montt and others allegedly involved in atrocities in the 1980s, and helped set up special offices to deal with violence against women.

Paz y Paz also demonstrated how, employing best practices, Guatemalan judicial institutions can excel.  Her office’s reliance on forensic evidence, telephone intercepts and video analysis made for stronger cases.  This took the onus off of eyewitness testimony, a notoriously unreliable means of fighting powerful criminal groups, especially those who have deeply penetrated the state.  Paz y Paz also widened the investigative net, looking at entire criminal structures, rather than focusing on single criminal acts.  She won praise from a broad array of international partners and pro-democracy forces inside Guatemala.  She was a 2013 Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

In spite of – or because of – these accomplishments, Paz y Paz is struggling to keep her job for another four-year term.  She has to be approved by a “postulation commission” made up of 14 lawyers who select the final six candidates, from which the president picks one.  Special interest groups, using shady brokers (some with ties to organized crime), are maneuvering to make sure that her attempt to reform Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office ends sooner rather than later.  She has opened up many wounds and frightened Guatemala’s traditional elite, some of whose members worked with the Army during the civil war and believe they could be next on Paz y Paz’s list.  Efforts to block Paz y Paz’s second term underscore that Guatemala is a country that is still struggling to deal with its past civil war and its forever lopsided power structure.  Despite ending a nearly four-decade-old conflict in 1996, Guatemala is still at war –though the battles now take place in the courts – and the elites don’t want a formidable player like Paz y Paz to be in the game.

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSightCrime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS.  Click here for the full investigation of “The War of Paz y Paz.”

Mexico: Policy on “Auto-defensas” Makes Things Worse

By Steven Dudley*

Photo credit: Pedro Fanega / Flickr / CC BY

Photo credit: Pedro Fanega / Flickr / CC BY

In a few short months, Michoacán’s “self-defense” groups have gone from being the Mexican government’s drunk uncle to being its strategic partner – underscoring what is wrong with the current government’s counterdrug strategy.  The vigilante groups are a multi-headed beast, born from sentiments that range from despair and frustration to opportunity.  Desperate small farmers and shopkeepers created some of the units because they’d been victimized by the “Knights Templar,” a splinter group with deep roots in the drug trade that has literally raped and pillaged their villages.  Frustrated agricultural and mining interests have funded their own “self-defense” groups.  And opportunistic rival criminal groups also seek to kill the Knights to take new, or reclaim old, territory.   Mexico’s federal and local governments are to blame for this chaos.  Drug-fueled corruption, ineptitude and lack of political will on the federal level have left the locals to fend for themselves, often leaving local politicians and security forces to align with the criminal interests, including the Knights Templar.

The federal government’s feeble and disjointed attempt to address the vigilantism is leading only to more confusion, chaos and most likely bloodshed.  In late January, it created a framework that legalized the organizations, placed then under one moniker – Rural Defense Units – and asked members to register themselves and their weapons.  But the framework makes no mention of their purview, jurisdiction, proposed length of service, nor does it clarify controls on their automatic and other sophisticated weaponry, which, under current Mexican law, requires military authorization.  Some of the groups accepted the government offer, including those that rode into the Michoacán city of Apatzingán last weekend to “take back” the city from the Knights.  More importantly, other vigilante groups have flat out refused the government.  Further fueling chaos, the federal government is applying a far harsher, more statist approach in the neighboring state of Guerrero, dispatching troops to stop the spread of “self-defense” groups that may have a longer history and more justifiable constitutional mandate than those in Michoacán.

Vigilante violence will undoubtedly continue to grow, as it becomes clearer that the federal government has no idea how to deal with it.  It is failing to address one of the root causes of the problem: illegal drugs have led to spectacular earnings that have made corrupting local and national officials easier; given criminal groups access to better training and weaponry to challenge the state and rivals; and created local, powerful criminal economies where perhaps they did not exist in the past.  In fact, no government official, vigilante group or other party in this conflict has even mentioned illegal drugs.  One vigilante told InSight Crime’s Mexico correspondent flat out: “We’re not against drug trafficking; we’re against organized crime.”  The causes of the violence are complex, but one cannot be addressed without addressing the others, and the Mexican government’s disjointed response is not pushing the country any closer to a solution.

* Steven Dudley directs InSight Crime and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

U.S. Marijuana Vote Unlikely to Impact Mexico in Short Term

The following is excerpted from an article by InSight Crime* analyst Elyssa Pachico

Photo by: Editor B | Flickr | Creative Commons

Approval last week in Colorado and Washington state of measures allowing the recreational use of marijuana has fueled debate on whether legalization will reduce drug traffickers’ profits and the violence surrounding the illicit narcotics trade.  In both states, ballots passed with comfortable margins of 53 percent (Colorado) and 55 percent (Washington).  The measures legalize personal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and allow the drug to be legally sold (and taxed) in licensed stores.  A similar initiative failed to pass in Oregon, gaining less than 45 percent of the vote.

A recent study by a Mexican think tank, the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO), and Alejandro Hope (an InSight Crime contributor) found that passage of the initiatives in all three states would reduce the revenue of Mexican drug trafficking organizations by as much as 30 percent.  Hope has pointed out on Animal Político, a popular Mexican news site, that the impact will depend on the U.S. federal government’s response.  Attorney General Eric Holder strongly opposed such measures in 2010 when California residents voted on Proposition 19, but he did not issue strong statements this year.  The government’s response to last week’s votes has been muted; according to Reuters, the US Justice Department reacted to the measures by stating that its drug enforcement policy had not changed.

Mexico, a major supplier of marijuana, is unlikely to feel the impact of these measures for a while.  Parts of the Colorado measure will come into effect after 30 days, but the Washington measure will not take effect for a year.  But, over the long term, the votes indicate shifting attitudes towards marijuana prohibition in the United States – on the heels of similar shifts in Latin American countries eager to find alternatives to the current war on drugs.  The presidents of Guatemala, Mexico, and Colombia have emphasized the need for discussions, and Uruguay and Chile have considered their own marijuana legalization bills.  InSight Crime cautions, however, that the drug organizations have proved to be very adaptable in finding new sources of revenue – including methamphetamines, migrant smuggling, and even illegal mining.

Insight Crime is affiliated with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, which produces AULABLOG.   Click here for the full text and additional links.