War-Weary Guatemala Gets a Peace Plan and Corruption Cleanup in One Big Week

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When Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu won his office with a scant 4 percent victory margin last January, there was little expectation for what the former mayor of Guatemala City could accomplish.

Central America's oldest civil conflict was dragging on, with guerrillas demanding a war tax of rural landowners and top military brass accustomed to virtual free rein thumbing their noses at civilian society with their well-known but unchallenged dealings in contraband, kidnapping, and car-theft rings.

Nine months later, Mr. Arzu has national and international political observers taking notice and Guatemala's skeptical public applauding. With the signing Sept. 19 of an accord with the country's leftist guerrillas Arzu is on track to making good on his pledge to sign a final peace agreement by year's end and finish Central America's last cold-war-era conflict, one that over 36 years has cost more than 100,000 lives, torn families, and left the state weak and ineffectual. More astonishing still to Guatemalans accustomed to presidents either unwilling or unable to challenge the country's hidden powers, Arzu moved the same week against corrupt military and customs officials, smashing a crime and contraband ring he estimates was raking in about $200 million a year - or the equivalent of 10 percent of Guatemala's budget. He fired 17 top officials, including two generals - one of whom was the vice-minister of defense. Last week 12 more officials were fired in the corruption probe, while a former attorney general and 23 additional top officials were added to the suspect list. "People knew these networks existed, and there had even been investigations of some of these same people in the past," said Defense Minister Julio Arnoldo Balconi, in an interview with the Monitor. "The difference is the determination" to force change. Even before his recent actions, Arzu raised eyebrows by firing 118 national police for corruption shortly after he took office, and then by abolishing a military court that flagrantly perpetuated impunity in its jurisdiction over civilian cases involving any member of the Army. Citing those moves, one United Nations official here says, "The public is stunned by {Arzu's} political will. They see the government moving much faster and much deeper than they thought possible." Despite those accomplishments, however, the hard part may have just begun. Among the challenges Arzu and Guatemala now face will be achieving a peace that doesn't follow the pattern set by Central American neighbors Nicaragua and El Salvador, where many former belligerents slid into criminal activity - "doing what they'd learned to do best," as one diplomat here says, "using arms, intimidating people, violating others' rights." The country also needs urgently to develop a judicial system that can administer justice in the prickly situations that will arise as refugees and several thousand guerrilla soldiers try to carve out new lives. But the real test, says Cesar Parodi, a legal expert with Guatemala City's Myrna Mack Foundation, which focuses on strengthening human rights and challenging official impunity, "will be if these once-untouchable officials are tried and their sentences are made to stick. …