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Totonicapán: Tension in Guatemala’s Indigenous Hinterland
Totonicapán: Tension in Guatemala’s Indigenous Hinterland
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala
Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala
Report 47 / Latin America & Caribbean

Totonicapán: Tension in Guatemala’s Indigenous Hinterland

The killing of protestors last October was a tragedy foretold by those who have long warned against Guatemala’s use of the armed forces to maintain domestic peace.

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Executive Summary

On 4 October 2012, Guatemalan soldiers allegedly opened fire on Maya protestors from the highland province of Totonicapán, killing six and injuring more than 30. It was a tragedy that appeared to show not only the dangers of using the army to maintain public order but also the rising tensions within impoverished indigenous communities. Although President Otto Pérez Molina initially denied military responsibility for the shooting, he did the right thing by allowing prosecutors to conduct a thorough investigation. Now the government must step up efforts to reform and strengthen the national police, establishing clear benchmarks for the military’s withdrawal from law enforcement. To minimise the risk of new confrontations, it must also address the legitimate demands of indigenous communities for access to electricity, education and land, as well as their right to be consulted about decisions that affect their culture and livelihoods.

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The militarisation of law enforcement is especially perilous in a country with yawning economic inequalities between the descendants of European colonisers and the original, largely Maya, inhabitants. Protests over mining and hydroelectric projects, educational reform and access to land and public utilities, especially by the desperately poor indigenous population, are on the rise. The trigger of the October protests was high electricity prices. But the marchers also incorporated demands for affordable education and the recognition and promotion of indigenous rights.

The government and its allies within the business community are determined to pursue investments in mining and hydroelectric power that it believes will stimulate economic growth, creating jobs and generating the revenues necessary to fund both infrastructure and social programs. Opponents, including some Maya communities directly affected by those projects, fear the benefits will accrue only to a narrow elite, while the rural poor will bear the environmental and social costs.

Guatemala’s recent past makes such unrest particularly dangerous. Between 1960 and 1996, the country suffered one of the most brutal counter-insurgency campaigns in Latin American history, during which, a UN commission has estimated, 200,000 people died, most of them killed by security forces in Mayan highland communities.

Both ends of the political spectrum have used the Totonicapán tragedy to evoke the past: Some activists dubbed the killings a massacre, suggesting the army deliberately gunned down protesters to suppress legitimate dissent. Some conservatives have hinted at a radical conspiracy to create martyrs and neutralise the armed forces.

President Pérez Molina has taken several steps to defuse tensions. In the case of Totonicapán, his government promoted an agreement between local officials, the electricity utility and government regulators that may lower the cost of public lighting. It has also promised to continue pushing for a rural development law (stalled in Congress) designed to combat indigenous poverty by promoting local food production and access to land.

But tension over other issues, such as mining and hydroelectric projects, continues to fuel conflict in many rural areas. The government needs to give indigenous populations a voice and a stake in the formulation and implementation of policies that will have an impact on their fundamental interests.

The onus is not on the national government alone. Local and communal authorities, as well as organisations that represent indigenous and/or rural interests, need to negotiate in good faith to reach democratic compromises on how to manage natural resources. They must also commit themselves to peaceful protests that infringe as little as possible on the rights and livelihoods of other communities.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 6 February 2013

People hold national flags as they take part in a demonstration in demand of Guatemalan President Otto Perez's resignation, in Guatemala City, on 22 August 2015. AFP/Johan Ordonez
Report 56 / Latin America & Caribbean

Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala

Dramatic changes upended Guatemalan politics in 2015. Forcing the pace were international prosecutors, bolstered in their fight against corruption and impunity by a great wave of support from ordinary citizens. If Guatemala’s national reforms continue when outside help leaves, it can become a true role model for the region.

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Executive Summary

Guatemala – one of Latin America’s most violent, unequal and impoverished countries – is enjoying a rare moment of opportunity. A new president, Jimmy Morales, bolstered by a landslide victory, has taken office promising to end corruption. The old political elite is in disarray. Emboldened citizens are pressing for reforms to make justice more effective and government more transparent. Behind these changes is a unique multilateral experiment, the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose investigators work with national prosecutors to dismantle criminal networks within the state. CICIG is not a permanent fix, however. Guatemala will lose its opportunity unless national leaders assume the fight against impunity as their own, approve stalled justice and security sector reforms and muster the financial resources to strengthen domestic institutions.

CICIG began operations in 2007 to investigate clandestine security groups that continued to operate within the state following the 1996 accords that ended 36 years of intermittent armed conflict. Such groups still undermine the state, though their main goal now is economic power, not elimination of political opponents. International support and financing guarantee the commission’s independence, though it operates under Guatemalan laws. Unlike traditional capacity-building efforts, it not only trains, but also works side by side with national prosecutors and police, providing them with the necessary technical expertise and political autonomy to hold powerful suspects accountable before the law.

CICIG has promoted and helped implement legislation to create a witness protection program, tighten gun controls, establish rules for court-ordered wiretaps and asset forfeiture and institute high-risk courts for the trial of particularly dangerous defendants. At the same time, it has carried out complex, high-profile probes that resulted in charges against a former president for embezzlement, an ex-minister and other top security officials for extrajudicial executions and dozens of additional officials and suspected drug traffickers for fraud, illicit association and homicide.

The commission has faced significant setbacks and limitations, however. Some high-profile cases have ended in acquittal. Key reforms, such as a judicial career law, have stalled in Congress. While it has helped strengthen certain specialised prosecutorial units, the public prosecutor’s office remains overstretched, even absent, in much of the country. Other institutions essential for combatting impunity – notably the civilian police and judiciary – are still weak, vulnerable to corruption and largely unaccountable.

The most dramatic blows it has delivered against impunity came in 2015 with the arrest of almost 200 officials for corruption, including a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud customs. Working with national prosecutors, CICIG collected and analysed massive amounts of evidence. The evidentiary trail, according to prosecutors, led to President Otto Pérez Molina, who resigned (though denying any criminal activity) and now awaits trial in a military prison.

Much of CICIG’s recent success is due to the determination and persistence of its current commissioner, Iván Velásquez, a jurist known for uncovering the links between politicians and paramilitary structures in his native Colombia. CICIG cannot function, however, without the close collaboration and support of Guatemalan prosecutors. Very different attorneys general – Claudia Paz y Paz, a former human rights activist, and Thelma Aldana, a veteran jurist – have shown the independence and courage to pursue complex, controversial cases against powerful suspects.

A crucial ingredient is popular support. Both the commission and public prosecutors enjoy wide approval among citizens exhausted by violent crime and corruption. The investigations spawned a broad civic movement for justice reform and government transparency. In a country long polarised by ideological, economic and ethnic differences, the anti-corruption crusade has at least temporarily united groups ranging from business associations to labour unions, urban professionals to indigenous leaders.

Anger over government fraud holds this movement together, rather than any clear agenda for change. Elected leaders should channel discontent into positive action by initiating a national debate on the reforms needed to strengthen justice and encourage accountability. Morales, a former television comedian, campaigned as the anti-politician. He has yet to put forward a clear reform program, including new legislation to guarantee the independence of judges and prosecutors, toughen campaign-financing laws and create honest, professional civilian police. Moreover, a weak, underfunded state needs to enact fiscal and tax reforms so that its justice institutions have the resources needed to pay good salaries, provide decent working conditions and extend their coverage across the country.

CICIG’s mandate ends in September 2017, though the president wisely has proposed extending it. International assistance cannot last indefinitely, however. The commission is Guatemala’s best opportunity for genuine justice reform, and it should not be wasted, but the government must start planning for its departure by fortifying its own capacity to fight crime and corruption.

Recommendations

To translate anticorruption promises into clear action plans and prepare for the time when CICIG is no longer needed

To the Guatemalan government:

  1. Promote, adopt and implement legislation and policies to further professionalise prosecutors and judges, including reform of the selection and recruitment process, longer terms to guarantee independence and new mechanisms to evaluate performance and curb corruption.
     
  2. Revive efforts to transform the civilian police into professional forces focused on preventing violence and to revamp its investigative body to work with prosecutors on resolving crimes, including the transfer of capacities and knowledge from CICIG.
     
  3. Give police, prosecutors and judges more resources to fight crime and impunity by carrying through tax and fiscal reform, including by challenging private sector leaders, economic experts and civil society to devise proposals for making taxing and spending more efficient, equitable and transparent.

To the Guatemalan Congress:

  1. Work across party lines and with the president and civil society to devise a strategy, including tax and fiscal reform, for combating corruption and strengthening justice and security institutions.
     
  2. Schedule promptly a final vote on the bill to reform political parties and tighten campaign-financing rules.
     
  3. Reconvene the working group on justice reform, bringing lawmakers together with CICIG, judges and civil society to propose and debate initiatives to strengthen judicial independence and competence, as well as whether or how to limit the prosecutorial immunity of members of Congress and other public officials.

To the Guatemalan judiciary:

  1. Provide additional training for judges at all levels on use of criminal analysis, scientific evidence and new prosecutorial tools, such as plea-bargaining with defendant/informants.
     
  2. Work with the president, Congress and civil society on the career law and other initiatives to make the judiciary more independent and professional.

To the Guatemalan Public Ministry (MP) and CICIG:

  1. Expand cooperation to transfer capacities to specialised prosecutors working on complex cases, such as those investigating organised crime, money laundering and human trafficking.
     
  2. Strengthen the MP’s internal affairs office to identify, sanction or remove officials guilty of misconduct.
     
  3. Work jointly on a strategy to build a professional corps of investigative police.
     
  4. Promote accountability within the MP and CICIG by devising measurable goals and benchmarks.

To the U.S., European Union and its member states and other donor states and institutions:

  1. Continue to provide CICIG with the resources needed to conclude its work, including additional funds for capacity building.
     
  2. Encourage other countries struggling with corruption and violence to consider an appropriate version of the CICIG international/national partnership model.

 Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 29 January 2016

Use our interactive timeline to explore the developments leading to CICIG’s creation, its impact and the dramatic events of 2015.