Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 296 | Marzo 2006



Institutions under Siege

Many of the country’s legislators and police are implicated in drug trafficking, and the army, ruled by crime and cloaked in secrecy and complicity, still wields undue power. Organized crime and the “hidden powers” that have long ruled Guatemala are penetrating the country’s institutions with total impunity.

Myrna Mack Foundation

The political institutions underpinning the democratic system established in Guatemala two decades ago, when the military regime ended, are under siege. Some people are trying to transform those institutions—designed, created, and developed twenty years ago to promote democracy and ensure the rule of law, respect for human rights, access to justice and Guatemala’s citizens’ personal security and integrity—into ones where impunity and arbitrariness reign.

Election campaign already underway

The successive civilian governments have failed to effectively consolidate democracy. The current attacks on the country’s institutions come from a range of sources with a variety of motives, one of the most significant of which relates to the struggle among power blocs to dominate the decision-making governing the functioning of state institutions. Unfortunately, ensuring that these institutions serve the common good would appear to be a secondary concern in their minds.

The national scenario is characterized by serious social and political tensions and the trend suggests increasing confrontations between sectors, exacerbated by the din of an election campaign that has gotten underway far too soon. This is a key year for the definition of candidates to the highest elected posts: president, vice president, municipal mayors and representatives to both the national Congress and the Central American Parliament.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal will call the general elections in 2007, but political leaders are already jockeying for position, totally immersed in the struggle to win support. As a result, the actions of the parties’ legislative blocs in Congress are infused with this goal, while the work of approving legislation and cooperating to ensure effective government action have been relegated to second place.

Parliament discredited

Last year was a hard one for Congress. Its reputation has been deteriorating for some time, and its actions in 2005, especially the negotiations that led to several important decisions, only fueled the flames. The legislature quickly approved the 2006 national budget, elected the congressional leadership and passed several other bills that pave the way for multi-million dollar business deals in the area of infrastructure, such as the expansion and paving of the Northern Highway, which will connect the whole northern part of the country and has been without asphalt for 30 years.

This work could only be achieved so rapidly though some highly questionable agreements, however. These included a decision to allocate substantial resources from the congressional budget to create unnecessary posts for friends, relatives and fellow party members of representatives who opposed the measures. The congressional leadership also agreed to discuss several legislative proposals that are either not priorities or that, if approved, would have a negative impact on democratization. Some of the decisions sent very negative messages indeed. Ceding the chair of the legislative commissions on public probity and human rights to the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) was particularly scandalous given the FRG’s highly questionable record in both areas; its recent term in office, from 2000-2004, was plagued by serious acts of corruption. Several FRG leaders are facing trial, while former President Alfonso Portillo fled to Mexico to escape justice in Guatemala, which is now seeking his extradition, and various suits are pending against FRG founder and leader General Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and human rights violations committed in 1982-83, during his de facto government.

Legislators linked to organized crime

Doubts about the legislature don’t end there, however. Information, partially confirmed by security authorities, implicates some legislators in drug cartels, organized crime structures and groups of hired killers. Such is the case of representative Manuel Castillo, a member of the National Unity for Hope Party’s legislative bench, reportedly investigated for these questionable connections. But Castillo resumed his work in Congress with no problem when the investigations against him were halted. Some police investigators—who have chosen to leak information to the media rather than make public comments—have let it be known that other representatives are in a similar situation.

The media has also reported that high-ranking members of some political parties have been suspected of participating in serious criminal activities for several years and that the US government has cancelled their entry visas into the United States. The participation of state agents in organized crime is one clear sign of how criminal influences affect state operations.

Hurricane Stan’s consequences

The economic and social scenario is potentially explosive, with increasingly precarious conditions and heightened vulnerability, especially in rural areas, after the disaster provoked by Hurricane Stan. The storm’s impact is just beginning to be felt in the loss of jobs, rising cost of goods and services and deterioration and destruction of basic infrastructure and social services. This disaster has been a very painful one, responsible for over a thousand deaths, with another several hundred people still unaccounted for. It has also affected tourism and visibly increased the number of displaced people, without housing or access to essential services. Given the government’s inefficiency, it’s not easy to recover the rhythms of a “normal” life.

The country’s profound social and economic inequalities have only increased in the wake of the storm. The dominant elite continue to block efforts to adequately respond to the problems of marginalization, social exclusion, extreme poverty, racism, discrimination and lack of opportunities for the poor. Smaller political parties that find their way into the circles of power lack the political will to address them because they establish alliances with these elite groups, which are opposed to change or channel their limited efforts into fostering an inefficient, corrupt kind of populism.

Poor grades internationally

The worldwide trends of globalization and free trade do not bode well for countries like Guatemala, with important social sectors that remain stuck in the past. Most of the economically active population has not had the education or the opportunity to develop marketable skills. As a result, there’s a shortage of skilled labor and the country’s young, poor, excluded population has no access to jobs that pay a decent wage. What we have instead is a huge informal economy that provides subsistence but no good opportunities to the young.

The increasing levels of common crime, organized crime, drug trafficking and corruption, which have a real, palpable effect on the daily practice of public administration, discourage potential investors. In the international arena, Guatemala gets very poor grades for the provision of acceptable security and transparency standards.

The repressive structures
remain unchanged

In the fight against crime, police operations aren’t well coordinated or planned. Over the past two years, the government has conducted several improvised operations in response to immediate problems, but with few if any results. The drugs confiscated were trifles considering the large volume of drugs that pass through Guatemala on the way to the United States, or the somewhat smaller volume sold and distributed in Guatemala and neighboring countries. In addition, the police operations have merely netted dealers and traffickers on the lowest rungs of the criminal ladder, and completely failed to address any of the multiple facets of other illegal activities.

The National Civil Police was established as a result of the Peace Accords but it has never lived up to its potential. Forming the new institution moved slowly at first then ground to a halt altogether under Portillo. To make matters worse, it has been a constistent source of scandals.

The repressive police structure that acted in tandem with the army during the internal armed conflict hasn’t changed substantially. The Peace Accords mandated the replacement of the former National Police with a new professional civilian corps shielded from military influences. The process got underway in 1997 but there were serious flaws in its conception and implementation. Most of the corrupt officers involved in crimes and human rights violations kept their places in the new institution and the army has continued to keep watch over it—with the previous administration’s nod—making it impossible to implement the necessary changes regarding training, professionalization, specialization and promotion by merit. A large part of the police budget has also been diverted to the army to pay for its participation in the joint operations conducted by police and army units.

Routine corruption in the police

In recent years, a number of police officers who specialize in fighting drugs and organized crime have been implicated as collaborators, informers and even members of the criminal gangs. In several cases, police officers have organized to commit robberies in homes, businesses and the streets. This kind of routine corruption runs throughout the institution.

The police depot where confiscated drugs are stored while awaiting a court order for their destruction has been broken into on several occasions. The most recent attack was on December 31, 2005, when 475 kilos of cocaine were stolen. An even more serious event occurred in November, when the heads of Guatemala’s Anti-Drug Analysis and Information Service were arrested in the United States, accused by the US Drug Enforcement Agency of working for the Guatemalan drug cartels.

Whenever this police depot is held up, the evidence against people accused of drug trafficking is lost and opportunities are created for millions of dollars in illicit business, since the drugs then circulate freely in Guatemala and neighboring countries.

Police agents have also been accused of abuse of power and human rights violations for their use of torture against people who have been arrested, most often for minor infractions, and for sexual abuse against detained women. These accusations were detailed in reports prepared by the country’s Human Rights Ombudsperson, international organizations and national research centers, and by the United Nations Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA), which has since concluded its work.

Impunity in the army

Similar things are happening in the army. Few officers have been tried and even fewer convicted of human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict. The only concrete cases are the sentencing of Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio to 30 years in prison in 2004 for the murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack and the upholding earlier this year of the sentences imposed on Colonel Byron Lima and his son, Captain Byron Lima Oliva, for the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi.

Many officers are now under investigation for acts of corruption committed in 2000-2004, but these investigations are moving very slowly. It’s far from certain whether the cases of embezzlement of funds from the national defense budget can be cleared up or those involved tried and punished. In any event, the investigations appear unlikely to reach the officers who reportedly masterminded these illegal operations, as they are focusing instead on lower-ranking officers and civilians who may have acted as accomplices.

In December 2005, several colonels were due for promotion to the rank of brigadier general. The ceremony was suspended, however, on orders of President Oscar Berger, who serves as army commander in chief according to the Constitution.

This decision broke with a long tradition of promotions at the end of each year. The lack of any explanation accompanying the announcement led many people to speculate that the promotion was being postponed indefinitely. Several of the officers with few commendations to their credit do reportedly have fat dossiers on criminal activities. The daily El Periódico published investigations alleging the involvement of some of these colonels in various acts of corruption, abuse and other criminal activities.

Integrity in the police

The ethical, moral and professional shortcomings in the army and National Civil Police have been dealt with in various ways. While the police authorities have chosen to publicly address the problem, the army has chosen to cover it up.

Police authorities have acted publicly and with a fair amount of integrity to address the problems in their ranks, including the influence of organized crime and other problems that have caused the police to be viewed with suspicion, fear and disdain rather than enjoy public confidence. They have investigated allegations and brought many cases to the Public Ministry for legal action, though in some cases they’ve simply dismissed the officers involved.

These actions are not enough, however. The police won’t be credible or regain the public’s confidence until they can effectively respond to today’s crushing levels of common crime. According to police sources, there were over 5,000 violent deaths in 2005, and the victims were women in over 600 of those cases. The situation is aggravated by the fact that justice is extremely slow, and in the rare cases when the process actually works, the results are either invisible or come far too late.

Still, it must be recognized that the recent decision to tackle the corruption and crime within the police force has at the very least opened up the possibility of eradicating a phenomenon that has undermined the force for many years.

Cover-up and complicity in the army

The army is addressing the problem of internal corruption very differently. The military authorities typically shield officers accused of committing illegal acts from the punitive power of the state. Secrecy and esprit de corps continue to operate as mechanisms of cover-up and complicity. This is the only way to explain why the public is now well informed about what’s happening in the police, but receives little if any information about things that might reflect badly on the army or reveal the deteriorated moral integrity of many military officers. This is further evidence that the army continues to wield undue power, free of judicial oversight.

Little progress has been made in transforming the army, another key point in the Peace Accords. The institution has refused to comply with the commitments it made at the end of the war, showing little if any interest in revising its military doctrine, training program or internal regulations to serve the needs of a society at peace. It is instead still operating according to the old national security doctrine and using practices similar to those it used during the war.

A need for stronger action
and the likely response

Authorities are beginning to talk about the need for better legislation to deal with organized crime and a crime-fighting strategy that involves several institutions, not only the police. They also predict, however, that a large-scale, frontal attack could spark a wave of even greater violence, targeting police officers, justice officials, witnesses and informants—precisely those with the greatest role in police investigations, criminal prosecutions and trials.

For now, important cases against state officials allegedly involved in organized crime are going nowhere. None of the accusations has been followed up on and no criminal investigations are underway, at least not openly. For example, no progress has been made in the investigation begun in 2002 by five special prosecutors against the same number of high-ranking army officers accused of being part of the hidden powers that have traditionally run the country.

Until real changes are made, these hidden powers and the organized crime structures will continue penetrating deeper and deeper into the country’s institutions. As they do, the alarming trend we’ve been witnessing, in which these institutions are used to foster criminal social behavior in a context of total impunity, will become firmly rooted in our society.

The economic, social and political variables involved here are growing worse. The government and civil society both need to work harder to find the political will and make a stronger commitment to change course, to resolve the current crisis of governance that threatens, in the worst of cases, to lead us into a thoroughly ungovernable situation.

A cloud hangs over
two anniversaries

In 2006, Guatemala will commemorate two historic events, two courses of action that point us in a very different direction from the one the country has followed thus far. It has been twenty years now since the democratization process got underway in 1986, with great expectations about the country’s development, greater democracy and stronger institutions that could effectively address its deeply rooted problems. Secondly, December will mark the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords, whose letter and spirit renewed, reiterated and expanded upon those aspirations of twenty years ago.

It appears, however, that these two commemorations will take place under a cloud, with the country’s institutions under siege. This puts Guatemala at a serious disadvantage in light of international trends. It also leaves us little room to maneuver in response to the onslaught of the US agenda towards countries it still sees as part of its backyard.

This article was written for envío by the Myrna Mack Foundation, established in 1993 to conduct studies and formulate proposals to promote justice, peace and democracy in Guatemala.

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