Guatemala: Squeezed between Crime and Impunity
Latin America Report Nº33
22 Jun 2010
The 1996 peace accords formally ended Guatemala’s civil war but failure to address the conflict’s root causes and dismantle clandestine security apparatuses has weakened its institutions and opened the door to skyrocketing violent crime. Guatemala is one of the world’s most dangerous countries, with some 6,500 murders in 2009, more than the average yearly killings during the civil war and roughly twice Mexico’s homicide rate. Under heavy pressure at home, Mexican drug traffickers have moved into Guatemala to compete for control of Andean cocaine transiting to the U.S. The UN-sanctioned International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has brought hope by making some progress at getting a handle on high-level corruption. However, in June 2010 its Spanish director, Carlos Castresana, resigned saying the government had not kept its promise to support CICIG’s work and reform the justice system. President Álvaro Colom needs to consolidate recent gains with institutional reform, anti-corruption measures, vetting mechanisms and a more inclusive political approach, including to indigenous peoples.
The administration of President Álvaro Arzú and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrilla group signed peace accords fourteen years ago that promised a massive overhaul of the military and of a system that marginalised the majority of citizens, among them large sectors of the indigenous population, and served the interests of the small economic and political elite. However, there has been little follow-through. Tax collection is still the lowest in Latin America (some 10 per cent of gross domestic product, GDP), in flagrant violation of a key provision of the peace accords. In addition to the rise of clandestine groups, many directed by ex-senior military officers and politicians, the country has seen the proliferation of Mexican drug-trafficking organisations (DTOs) and youth gangs (maras). Criminal organisations traffic in everything from illegal drugs to adopted babies, and street gangs extort and terrorise entire neighbourhoods, often with the complicity of authorities.
Guatemala has become a paradise for criminals, who have little to fear from prosecutors owing to high levels of impunity. An overhaul of the security forces in the wake of the peace accords created an ineffective and deeply corrupt police. High-profile assassinations and the government’s inability to reduce murders have produced paralysing fear, a sense of helplessness and frustration. In the past few years, the security environment has deteriorated further, and the population has turned to vigilantism as a brutal and extra-institutional way of combating crime.
President Colom took office in 2008 with the promise, like his predecessors, at least to slow the spiral of violence and to end impunity. However, his administration has been plagued by instability, corruption and a lack of capacity. There have been five interior ministers, two of whom are facing corruption charges, while two police chiefs have been arrested for connections to drug trafficking. The president himself was nearly toppled, when a prominent lawyer and businessman were assassinated under bizarre circumstances in 2009. Nevertheless, some progress has been made with international assistance, in particular from the CICIG. To achieve lasting results, however, Guatemalans and their international counterparts need to act in the following areas:
The government of Guatemala should give priority to reforming the police and military as well as the corrections and justice systems; ensuring the vetting of and financial disclosure by high-level government and state officials, so as to combat corruption; stimulating the full political and economic participation of indigenous leaders and communities; and improving the legislature’s professional capacity in the area of justice reform and law enforcement.
Central American governments, as well as Panama and Mexico, together with the Andean region, should continue to advance cooperation and information-sharing initiatives, in order to better combat crime, gangs and drug trafficking.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should quickly appoint a new CICIG director, and the international community should extend CICIG’s mandate beyond September 2011; expand it to specifically address crime and corruption; and increase political and financial support. At the same time, the international community should increase support for institutional reform and capacity building, so that Guatemala can eventually take over CICIG’s functions effectively.
The U.S., within the Mérida Initiative framework, should increase funding and make its support to Central America, especially Guatemala, more effective.
Bogotá/Brussels, 22 June 2010