Battling Organized Crime in Guatemala

By Panner, Morris; Beltrán, Adriana | Americas Quarterly, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Battling Organized Crime in Guatemala


Panner, Morris, Beltrán, Adriana, Americas Quarterly


Guatemala's national authorities need to step up their efforts to root out lawlessness.

Over the past three years, Guatemala has been pursuing a unique experiment to fight organized crime and government corruption-with impressive results. Hundreds of corrupt or ineffective police officers, prosecutors, judges, and military officials have been investigated and dismissed. A multinational investigation involving the United States and France has led to money-laundering charges against former President Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004), who now faces extradition to the United States. Portillo has been accused of embezzling tens of millions of dollars worth of public funds (including approximately $2.5 million provided by the Taiwanese government and approximately $3.9 million from the Guatemalan Defense ministry), a significant portion of which he allegedly laundered through U.S. and European banks.

Guatemala's battle against crime has been a crucial element in the struggle to rebuild a country still suffering the effects of a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. But those efforts are now at a crossroads. Over the next year, decisions by both the Guatemalan government and the international community may determine whether the experiment-as well as Guatemala's fragile democracy-survives or fails.

The experiment was launched in August 2007, when the Guatemalan government, with help from the UN, established an international commission to investigate major cases of institutional corruption and organized crime deeply entrenched in the state. The 186-member International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) works under the umbrella of the UN but operates under Guatemalan law to investigate criminal networks and assist local investigators and police in developing prosecutable cases.

It incorporates both local and international staff but is funded entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states. This innovative setup permits the CICIG to work side-by-side with local institutions at every stage of the process. Guatemala's inability to confront rampant crime and the growing infiltration of organized crime with its own resources required outside, independent assistance. To cite one example, Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world, yet it has a staggeringly low conviction rate of just 2 percent.

The CICIG has also advised the government on the adoption of legal reforms and modern crimefighting tactics, with the aim of overcoming paralysis in the country's judicial system. As a result, Guatemala now boasts more sophisticated anticrime and anticorruption structures, including a special prosecutor, reduced sentences for collaborators and the use of supervised wiretapping capabilities. It is also pushing for the creation of special courts to try sensitive cases and a functional witness protection program.

In a country accustomed to rampant impunity, perhaps the CICIG's greatest achievement has been to show that the Guatemalan criminal justice system can be made to work, even against individuals who for decades have remained "untouchable." The CICIG has brought charges against seven former military officials for embezzlement (including former Minister of Defense Eduardo Arévalo Lacs and Major General Enrique Ríos Sosa, the son of former General Ríos Montt) and arrested the chief of police and his top antinarcotics intelligence officer, both accused of being on the payroll of the powerful Mexico-based Zetas cartel. The Commission's efforts also resulted in the removal of Attorney General Juan Luis Florido.

Yet despite this progress, the effectiveness and future of the CICIG's mission remain in question.

Clear Mandate, Uncertain Future

Although its mandate runs through September 4, 2011, domestic resistance to the CICIG's efforts to strengthen the country's judicial system is building. In June 2010, Carlos Castresana, the highly respected Spanish jurist and organized crime prosecutor who led the CICIG since its inception, resigned.

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