Guatemala: Country must find the way forward
Guatemala: Country must find the way forward
Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity
Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity

Guatemala: Country must find the way forward

The Guatemalan Constitutional Court's recent annulment of the 3-week-old controversial appointment of Attorney General Conrado Reyes was a promising blow against impunity in a nation wracked by drug trafficking, violence and corruption.

The court's courageous action came after Carlos Castresana, head of the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), resigned and denounced the alleged contacts between Reyes and organized crime and Reyes' efforts to gut the country's anti-corruption units.

A new Crisis Group report, Guatemala: Squeezed between Crime and Impunity, found that CICIG had given Guatemala renewed hope that combating organized crime, drug trafficking and state corruption is possible. Over the past three years, CICIG has been responsible for ridding the country of 2,000 corrupt police, firing the top police officials and an interior minister, and arresting the country's former president, Alfonso Portillo, on charges of embezzling public funds.

Yet Guatemala still faces serious challenges, which make naming an equally tough new CICIG director even more urgent. Its murder rate is among the highest in the world, Mexican cartels have made Guatemala the frontline of their battle for control of the cocaine corridor, and youth gangs and organized crime have undermined citizen security.

Peace with guerrillas

For the past 14 years, Guatemala has fluctuated between a functional and predatory state. In 1996, amid much optimism, the government of President Alvaro Arzú signed a peace agreement with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRG), an umbrella guerilla group, bringing the country's 36-year civil war -- the region's bloodiest armed conflict in the 20th century -- to an end.

The promise of those peace accords remains unfulfilled. Failure to address structural deficits linked to the causes of the civil war has created a destructive environment in which many in the elite prosper, indigenous peoples are marginalized, and ordinary citizens have no faith in government.

Central to the 1996 agreement was a promise to reform Guatemala's security sector and military apparatus. These reforms were bungled: The overhaul of security forces created an ineffective and deeply corrupt police force. The accords fell short of holding accountable those responsible for atrocities during the conflict, which has contributed to creating a pervasive culture of impunity.

Criminal organizations and their collaborators have little to fear from prosecutors or courts, in part because the state has never had the revenues to build its law-enforcement capability. The country has the lowest rate of tax revenue per capita in Latin America -- with fiscal decisions dominated by elite figures who have little interest in changing the tax and legal codes that protect their interests. Although indigenous people constitute half of Guatemala's population, they've been systematically marginalized for centuries.

Alvaro Colom, Guatemala's current president, was elected on the promise of stopping the violence and ending impunity. However, his tenure in office has been roiled by corruption scandals, instability, and the bizarre assassination of prominent lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg in 2009. In two years, Colom has had five interior ministers. With international assistance -- particularly from the CICIG -- some limited progress has been made, but Guatemalan institutions remain weak and under constant attack.

How to make progress

Despite the current crisis, there is a way forward.

  • The Guatemalan government should make reforming the police, military, justice, and tax systems its top priority, implementing a transparent and improved vetting process with CICIG support.
     
  • Internationally, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon must immediately appoint Castresana's successor, and work with President Colom to extend the CICIG's mandate beyond September 2011, when it is due to expire. For his part, Colom can press for internal reform so that a future Guatemalan government can gradually take over responsibility from the CICIG. The United States and Canada as well as other countries in the region and Europe should increase support to CICIG and to helping Guatemala build the rule of law.
     
  • Finally, President Colom is running out of time: Elections are scheduled for 2011, and if he wants his legacy to be one of progress against Guatemala's national ills, his first task is to support the CICIG reforms and insulate the justice system from partisan and criminal influence.

Perhaps then Guatemala will begin to feel the winds of change.
 

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