CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015

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.”

Guatemala: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward?

Efrain Rios Montt testifying at his genocide trial | Photo by the Guatemalan government | public domain

Efraín Ríos Montt testifying at his genocide trial | Photo by the Guatemalan government | public domain

The decision of Guatemala’s highest court to overturn the guilty verdict in the trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt – found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity – has raised serious questions about whether, as many had hoped, the country’s elites will ever allow justice, national reconciliation, and democracy to move forward.  What was a clear victory for many in and outside of Guatemala has evolved into a massive setback, at least for now.  For the victims and survivors of the atrocities, the trial was the first time that their tragic stories got an open and respectful hearing.  For the noble prosecutors and judges who pursued the case despite personal risk and beat back repeated maneuvers by Ríos Montt’s defense team to derail proceedings, it was a solid validation of their commitment to build rule of law.  For Guatemalan society, it meant unprecedented public discussion of the past – and the symbolism of the condemned dictator being taken away by bailiffs promoted closure.  For the international community, it proved that persistence could help a country with chronically weak and politicized institutions become the first in the world to put a former head of state on trial for genocide.  But now the outcome is cloudy.

From the beginning, the long-term impact of the trial would depend on the followup.  Immediately after the verdict was issued, President Pérez Molina, a former military commander, set aside his vehement denials that genocide occurred and said he respected the court’s verdict.  But he conditioned issuance of an official government apology, as ordered by the court, on the exhaustion of all defense appeals – which could take years – and was noncommittal in responding to the court’s call for more investigations of people involved in the atrocities.  While he personally has immunity from prosecution, allegations of his own activities during the Ríos Montt period would obviously be problematic for him.  The powerful business organization CACIF, long aligned with the military, rejected the verdict and began mobilizing resistance to further investigations.  Even moderate politicians, such as former Vice President Eduardo Stein, criticized the genocide ruling and calls for more investigations, apparently fearing that more ethnic groups will stake claims.  Like other dictators facing justice, Ríos Montt has already suffered a supposed health problem requiring that he be moved out of prison and into a military hospital – leaving observers wondering how much of his 80-year sentence he would serve.

The U.S. Government supported the trial process and proclaimed it a victory for Guatemalan judicial institutions.  But it appeared cautious on next steps even before the upper court overturned the verdict (on which U.S. comment is lacking).  Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp who visited Guatemala last month and gave the trial a push, and U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Arnold Chacon, attended some proceedings.  The U.S. Embassy pledged its continued support to “credible, independent, transparent, and impartial judicial processes,” but its statement also suggested a lack of enthusiasm for more.  “In these moments it is significant to remember that Guatemala, as a country, was not on trial, but rather two individuals, one of whom was absolved and the other convicted,” it said.  It added that “now is the opportunity to advance to real reconciliation” – a prospect that appeared premature even before the upper court action.  Neither the prosecution nor defense spoke much during the trial of Washington’s direct or indirect role in the 1980s violence – a situation that U.S. policymakers may prefer to continue.  If so, it’s a far cry from the position taken by President Bill Clinton, who during a visit to Guatemala in 1999 apologized for American support for security forces that committed “violent and widespread repression.