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



Statement on the Ríos Montt Conviction for Genocide, War Crimes

Guatemala City/Brussels, 13 May 2013

In a historic decision, a Guatemalan court convicted former military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt on 10 May of genocide and crimes against humanity for the massacre, torture, rape and forced displacement of indigenous villagers during counter-insurgency campaigns in the early 1980s. The verdict is unprecedented: never before has a national court found a former head of state guilty of genocide. It sends a powerful message: no one is above the law and everyone – including indigenous communities long marginalized by discrimination and poverty – has the right to seek justice in the courts.

That the trial took place in Guatemala – a country where, as Crisis Group has reported, impunity was long the norm for abusive or corrupt officials, organised crime bosses and common criminals alike – is testament to the courage and persistence of judges, prosecutors, human rights defenders and members of the Maya-Ixil community themselves. Speaking through translators, witnesses recounted harrowing tales of murder, gang rape and flight after the army torched their villages and fields. Although truth commissions led by the UN and the Catholic Church collected similar testimonies in the 1990s, coverage of the trial allowed many Guatemalans to hear and read for the first time about atrocities committed during an armed conflict that began in 1960 and lasted for more than three decades.

By having the courage to testify in open court – subject to cross examination by defence attorneys – these witnesses may also encourage the victims of more recent crimes to come forward. Impunity feeds a vicious circle in Guatemala: because most crimes go unpunished, few bother to even report them. Opinion polls show that Guatemalans have little confidence in the courts or the police, who are often viewed as either ineffective or corrupt. But over the five-week trial, the country got a rare glimpse of an independent judiciary in action as the three-judge tribunal heard from about 100 witnesses, including indigenous survivors, psychologists, historians, forensic anthropologists and military experts.

The process is far from over. Ríos Montt's attorneys have motions and injunctions pending in other courts that could annul the trial. They have also promised to appeal his conviction, a process that could take months or even years. Nor is Ríos Montt the only individual targeted for prosecution as a war criminal. The tribunal acquitted his co-defendant, former director of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, because it concluded that he had no direct command over troops. But it urged prosecutors to pursue other alleged violators. Among those now facing trial is an ex-guerrilla commander charged with massacring civilians in the village of El Aguacate.

Critics contend that these prosecutions will re-open old wounds in a country where tension is already high in many rural areas over mining and access to land or electricity. But failing to prosecute those responsible for political repression in the past would only perpetuate the cycle of impunity that encourages criminal violence today. President Otto Pérez Molina should continue to support the efforts of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, recipient of Crisis Group's Pursuit of Peace Award in 2011, to bring criminals to justice, regardless of their military rank, political power or economic might. Pérez Molina has promised to respect the judicial process. By holding to that promise, he will demonstrate to the world – and more importantly to his fellow citizens – that Guatemala is no longer a country where criminals can operate without fear of prosecution.