Thursday, March 11, 2010
Guatemala and organised crime
Mar 11th 2010 | GUATEMALA CITY | From The Economist print edition
FOR the second time in less than a year, Guatemala’s national police chief has become one of its most prominent criminal defendants. Last August Porfirio Pérez Paniagua was arrested for stealing drugs and cash. He was replaced by Baltazar Gómez (pictured above, left), a respected officer who had passed a polygraph test. Yet on March 2nd Mr Gómez was himself apprehended, along with Nelly Bonilla, the country’s anti-narcotics tsar. They were charged with involvement in drugs trafficking and with thwarting the investigation of a firefight last April, when five corrupt cops attempting to seize cocaine for resale were killed by the drugs’ owners. This parade of police chiefs in the dock shows both how much progress has been made in the fight for justice in Latin America’s most lawless country, and how much remains to be done.
Just a few years ago, such high-level arrests would have been unthinkable. Guatemala’s 36-year civil war was the Americas’ worst armed conflict of the 20th century: it killed 200,000 indigenous people, and was declared a genocide by a commission sponsored by the United Nations. Yet unlike most of its regional peers, the country was unable to establish a clear break with the past after a peace treaty was signed in 1996. A generous amnesty law meant that no members of the army were jailed for their participation until last year. One of the authors of a truth-commission report, Juan José Gerardi, was bludgeoned to death two days after its publication. Efraín Ríos Montt, who was president of the military regime when the worst atrocities took place, remained a congressman until his unsuccessful bid to return to the presidency via the ballot-box in 2003.
Free from prosecution, many veterans of the intelligence and security services who had run right-wing death squads regrouped into crime gangs with a lucrative kidnapping business, some of them continuing to serve in the police. Their profits were used to buy off witnesses, judges, and politicians. These networks, present in almost every government agency, joined forces with international drugs traffickers, giving them new funding and firepower.
The result was a surge in violence, propelling Guatemala’s murder rate into the world’s top ten. Since only 3.5% of murders are punished, there has been a rise in vigilante justice: 49 suspected criminals were killed by mobs last year.
In 2006, faced with a failing narco-state, the government agreed with the UN on an effort to establish the rule of law. They jointly founded the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an agency with 180 staff that would work through the country’s own courts to strengthen them and root out criminal networks operating inside government bodies.
Mr Gómez’s arrest—backed by seizures of illegal weapons, video recordings, and witness testimonies—is the most recent of CICIG’s string of successes. In January it demonstrated conclusively that Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer who had recorded a video, three days before he was shot dead, accusing President Álvaro Colom of plotting to kill him, had in fact ordered his own murder. The methodical presentation of the evidence by CICIG’s chief, Carlos Castresana, convinced a highly sceptical public, and removed a cloud that could have brought down the government. The agency also played a critical role in the arrest of Alfonso Portillo, a former president, on charges of embezzlement, just as he was attempting to flee to Belize. Mr Colom says these cases are “breaking the paradise of impunity.”
CICIG, initially given a two-year mandate, has already been invited to continue until September 2011. The president says he will push to have it remain in place beyond then. “The most important thing is transferring CICIG’s expertise to the prosecutors and courts. I think CICIG needs time to have a bigger impact before it steps back,” he says. Mr Castresana says his agency is doing its best to ensure that national law-enforcement bodies are ready to take on its work by then. What should help, he says, is that Guatemalan public opinion has swung strongly against the culture of impunity, making it easier for Mr Colom’s government to push through measures to strengthen local institutions.
CICIG has instigated a wholesale reinvention of the country’s justice system. The agency got an attorney-general and ten unco-operative prosecutors fired in its first year, and last year it prevented some underqualified candidates from being chosen as judges. At its suggestion Congress has given prosecutors the ability to wiretap, strike plea-bargains and transfer some defendants to special courts. The legislature is now considering implementing a robust civil asset-seizure law like Colombia’s, on CICIG’s advice.
Yet these advances pale in comparison with the difficulties that lie ahead. CICIG can handle only around 15 cases at a time, each of which takes months to solve. That leaves an overwhelming majority of crimes to be investigated by the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office, which is grossly understaffed, relies almost exclusively on witnesses at the expense of hard evidence, and is vulnerable to intimidation and bribery. And as shown by the arrest of Mr Gómez, the situation is even worse among the police, where corruption remains endemic, training for senior officers is lacking and pay for junior ones is often pitiful.
Solving these problems will require an achievement far beyond Mr Castresana’s powers: strengthening the weak Guatemalan state. The central government’s spending is just 13.7% of GDP, the lowest in Latin America. And its authority over much of its territory is tenuous: according to the United States Department of State, “entire regions…are now essentially under the control of drug-trafficking organisations.” Mr Colom says he will try to get tax increases passed in 2010, but there is little reason to believe he will be more successful than his predecessors. Perhaps the greatest obstacle will be convincing citizens that the government is capable of using their money to protect them.