Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 308 | Marzo 2007



Crime and Corruption in the Guatemalan Police

The killing of three Salvadoran PARLACEN representatives in Guatemala has shown that Guatemala’s security forces are still involved in crime, and led to tense relations with neighboring countries, especially El Salvador.

The February 19 murder in Guatemala of three Salvadoran representatives to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN)—Eduardo D’Aubuisson, William Pichinte and José Ramón González, all members of the ARENA Party—along with their driver, Gerardo Ramírez, has created a severe security crisis. More so than other recent events, it has also given rise to a wave of discussions and analyses that all point to the same conclusion: the Guatemalan state has collapsed.

Commentators largely agree that we’re living in a failed state whose institutions have been taken over by networks of corruption, organized crime and drug trafficking.

Strong statements to this effect were heard two days after the murder of the Salvadorans when it was learned that those responsible included officers in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Guatemalan National Civil Police, including the head of the Organized Crime Unit. As if this weren’t enough, the four police officers arrested on February 22 were killed four days later in unclear circumstances while being held in the El Boquerón maximum security prison.

The authorities have indicated that other officers were also involved in the murder of the Salvadorans. On March 1, officer Marvin Contreras turned himself in. He has been kept under heavy guard to protect him from the same fate as his colleagues. The Public Criminal Defense Institute took his case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to ensure precautionary measures to protect Contreras and his family. This state institution says he is ready to talk, as long as his security and that of his family is guaranteed.

The last straw

Because of these events, what little confidence the Guatemalan people still had in the police has virtually evaporated. The image of the police couldn’t be much worse. Even before this, public charges of the undeniable participation of state security force members in criminal networks had already mounted to the breaking point. The Government Ministry has previously been the source of many of these charges.

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office is currently investigating several cases. A typical case is one opened in early 2006 after a police informant talked about participating in social cleansing operations. The informant—a criminal identified as Félix Mendoza who had been granted impunity in exchange for collaborating in such extra-judicial executions—left the country for his own protection.

Police involved in
“social cleansing”

The practice of “social cleansing” against gang members, common criminals and people otherwise considered “undesirable”—prostitutes, street kids, transvestites and the like—has been attributed mainly to police officers. Some neighborhood groups have also been involved in such crimes and have invariably enjoyed a degree of police support in the form of cover-ups or plain indifference.

It is also important to note charges of police abuse against people arrested for minor crimes, the rape of women on police premises and in prisons, torture and other practices that violate human rights. The Human Rights Ombudsman and the country´s social organizations have formally denounced numerous cases of this kind to the international human rights agencies in the United Nations and the Inter-American system.

Weak, insufficient measures

The Government Ministry and the Police’s General Directorate have tried since 2004 to purge over a thousand police officers accused of common crime, but have failed in most cases because the officers are protected by labor laws, so the dismissals and other administrative sanctions tend to be overturned by the courts.

The problem is largely due to a lack of solid evidence establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and this is due in turn to the fact that the internal disciplinary boards are infiltrated or weak and do poor work that doesn’t hold up in court. Another basic problem is that in very few cases are formal charges filed to try the accused in the justice system. In short, the administrative measures taken by the police are weak and insufficient and thus tend to be ineffective.

The criminal, contaminated
origins of the police

It is important to recognize that while ineffective, these administrative measures have at least made it possible to publicly air the dark, criminal side of the police, an institution plagued with problems ranging from internal weaknesses to a dearth of results in the area of public safety and a lack of strategic plans to fulfill the mandate entrusted to it.

Why has this happened? The root of the problem largely lies in the fact that the police was initially formed in 1997 with the already contaminated members of the former National Police, Military Police and other security forces that operated in support of the counterinsurgency under army directions during the internal armed conflict. Most members of the new institution were thus already compromised by their participation in crimes of various kinds and magnitudes.

Denying the obvious

The crisis was still raging two weeks after the murder of the Salvadoran legislators. The government minister and chief of police, overwhelmed by the public pressure and lack of progress in the investigations, continued to deny what could no longer be denied and to staunchly defend the police chiefs most questioned since the start of the affair.

Because of the pressure, the head of the Criminal Investigation Division, Víctor Soto, was removed from office and the deputy general director of investigations, Javier Figueroa, resigned his post then left the country with his family on March 4. His departure proves that administrative measures alone are not enough, since all evidence suggests that he left not only for his safety, but also to avoid having to answer to the courts. As he was not yet under investigation, he was free to go.

President Saca keeps
a finger on the raw nerve

The murders in Guatemala have made for tense political relations with El Salvador, and while they are not expected to deteriorate any further, there has been friction, anger, and even a desire on the part of the Salvadoran government to keep pressing this raw nerve publicly.

During his recent visit to Washington, Salvadoran President Antonio Saca took the opportunity to ask George W. Bush for his support in the case, and didn’t hesitate to make serious accusations against top Guatemalan police officials for the murder of his compatriots. He also proudly claimed that any results in the investigation thus far were due to the participation of the Salvadoran police rather than the work of the Guatemalan authorities.

President Saca and justice and security officials in El Salvador have consistently argued that there is no indication that the murders were ordered or planned in El Salvador. They lay full blame for the planning and implementation of the operation on people in Guatemala, and seem to believe that Guatemalan groups with no ties to El Salvador were responsible for ordering the murders.

An angry response to Saca

Saca apparently made his statements dismissing any possibility of Salvadoran involvement in the murder of the PARLACEN representatives in response to speculation by Guatemalan President Oscar Berger that groups of drug traffickers operating in both Guatemala and El Salvador were behind it. For his part, the Guatemalan government minister has emphatically denied Saca’s claim that Salvadoran authorities are responsible for the results obtained thus far in the investigation. According to the minister, the results are the work of the Guatemalans, and the Salvadorans are simply trying to pretend they’re in charge.

The tensions between the two countries have led to what Guatemalans are calling a “dirty campaign” against their country in El Salvador. This has stirred fears of a reduction of Salvadoran tourism, among other things. Guatemalan businesspeople are hoping that the events will have no negative impact on commercial relations, but have warned of this possibility and demanded that the murders be cleared up.

Some Guatemalans are getting angry over the statements made by President Saca and other Salvadoran officials, which they see simply as Salvadoran propaganda against their country. One statement that elicited a sharp response was Saca’s criticism of the prevailing impunity in Guatemala, demanding that the murder of his compatriots not become yet another case in point. Although it can’t be denied that we have a history of generalized impunity, the national sense of pride was offended because the levels of impunity are no better in the country throwing the stones than in Guatemala—especially with respect to events during the war.

More impunity here
than in El Salvador?

According to reports by Salvadoran human rights organizations over many years, the amnesty included in the peace agreement between the FMLN and the Salvadoran government brought about a kind of iron-clad impunity that put an end to any possibility of reviewing massacres, disappearances, torture and extra-judicial executions, among other horrendous crimes. To name but two of the highest-profile cases, the amnesty made it impossible to prosecute and sanction those responsible for the assassination of Monsignor Romero in 1980, or of the six Jesuit priests and their two household employees at the Central American University in 1989.

Similar crimes committed during the armed conflict haven’t been solved or punished in Guatemala either, but at least there is still a possibility of bringing cases before the justice system. The doors aren’t closed—at least not formally—since there was no general amnesty and the National Reconciliation Law that grew out of the Peace Accords stipulates that there is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.

Commentators believe it unlikely that the events could ultimately undermine in any fundamental way the respectful, harmonious relations the two countries have enjoyed. But there is an urgent need to put a stop to the verbal confrontation to keep the situation from getting any worse.

There is nothing positive about the tension. On the contrary, it aggravates the crisis and could well exacerbate the already heated spirits of some segments of the Salvadoran population, especially members of the ARENA party, since one of the murdered representatives was the son of the party’s deceased founder, Roberto D’Aubuisson.

Strong international pressure

Guatemala is now facing very strong international pressure. In the wake of the murders, several European Union countries have begun to mobilize as they have not done for a decade or so, when the peace process was underway, for example, or when former president Jorge Serrano broke the constitutional order in 1993.

Especially since the discovery of the involvement of the police officers who were later executed, diplomats have held numerous meetings with Guatemalan authorities to express their concern and demand appropriate measures to clear up and punish these and other crimes and to purge the institutions involved.

The diplomats have been circumspect but firm. They have lamented the fact that their countries’ technical and financial cooperation with Guatemala—especially in the area of security—is not bearing fruit. There is speculation that some European countries may withdraw their support from security-related projects and fears in political circles that Guatemala will be removed from the international agenda altogether.

For the moment, the diplomatic missions have not formally raised the possibility of suspending technical, political and financial aid, but they have insisted that there must be results in the area of public safety and that institutional transformations must take place. In particular, they are demanding approval of a proposed agreement to establish an International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and the assignment of enough resources for the National Institute of Forensic Sciences to start up its operations. These are two mechanisms that would help strengthen the justice system.

This crisis has national and international implications. In addition to instability and ungovernability, Guatemala now has to face international pressure and the risk of losing the place it has earned in the family of nations. If not handled well, the situation could even end up in a confrontation with El Salvador. Meanwhile, bodies continue to be found in ravines and empty fields and on roadsides. Over a hundred women have been killed in the first two months of this year and serious crimes are a dramatic daily occurrence, with 12-18 murders a day.

Carmen Aída Ibarra is the coordinator of political analysis in the Myrna Mack Foundation in Guatemala. This article is
a special report for envío.

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