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  Number 311 | Junio 2007
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Guatemala

Organized Crime is Embedded In the Public Institutions

February’s murder in Guatemala of three Salvadoran representatives to the Central American Parliament— including ARENA founder Roberto D´Aubuisson’s son— is the most revealing case among many of organizad crime’s penetration of and even encrustation in Guatemala’s public institutions.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

On September 9, Guatemalans will elect a new President, legislativerepresentatives and mayors. The latest poll conducted by Vox Latina for the daily newspaper Prensa Libre on May 12-20 shows a higher number of undecided voters than a poll by Borge & Assoc., published less than a week earlier. In the latest poll, 42.5% of potential voters say they are not sure who to vote for but plan to vote, whereas in the earlier one a combined 41% are either undecided or have already determined not to vote. The demographic groups with the highest percentage of undecided voters include those over the age of 56 and those with the fewest years of education.

Álvaro Colom, candidate for the National Union for Hope (UNE), remains in the lead in the Vox Latina poll with the support of 20.6% of those surveyed. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, running for Encuentro por Guatemala, polled a mere 2.9%. The Borge & Assoc. survey, done at the request of El Periódico also showed Álvaro Colom in the lead, but with nearly 26%, followed by the Patriotic Party’s Otto Pérez Molina with 15%. Alejandro Giammattei, the ruling Grand National Alliance (GANA) candidate, was fourth with 5.6%, behind Rigoberta Menchú with 6.2%, and the other candidates split 6%.

One striking finding in both surveys is that Miguel Angel Sandoval, candidate of the broad leftist coalition known as MAIZ, seems to have attracted very few supporters and is barely registering in the polls. MAIZ brings together members of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) and other leftist figures who had earlier broken with the URNG or were independent of it. Encuentro por Guatemala, led by Rigoberta Menchú and Nineth Montenegro, rejected a pact with MAIZ before the campaign began. Unless there is some swing over the next few months and MAIZ wins at least a seat in Congress, this could spell the end of the traditional Left in Guatemala.

The most revealing case

Montenegro, the general secretary of the center-left Encuentro por Guatemala, has described the start of the election campaign as marred by “a lot of violence.” She made the statement after Liberaldo Granados, the party’s departmental secretary and candidate for mayor of Zacapa, one of the departments most deeply penetrated by organized crime, was gunned down in front of his house.

In this context, a document drafted by the human rights organizations that make up the Regional Monitoring and Analysis Team for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama is especially relevant. The document was released three months after three Salvadoran representatives to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) and their driver were murdered in Guatemala on February 19. These organizations described that event and its aftermath as “the most revealing case in recent years that organized crime has become encrusted in our institutions.”

A crucial, pending problem

The document, which is in fact titled “Organized Crime Encrusted in Public Institutions,” begins by discussing the historical context in which the current institutionalized violence must be situated: “Some of our countries—Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras—were involved in armed conflicts during the military regimes of the 1970s in which the police and military structures committed serious human rights violations, defending the interests of large economic powers.”

“Even in those Central American countries that were not the site of armed conflict, the problem of subordinating the police and military institutions to the law and ensuring respect for human rights has always been a concern. When the armed conflicts in the region came to an end and peace accords were signed in some of our countries, our military and police institutions were redefined and restructured, and in this process the discussions revolved around the need to separate national security from public safety and to establish a civilian police force. Most of our countries have been through this process and have made important progress in recent years. Nevertheless, it remains the case that most of the region’s security institutions continue to violate the population’s human rights.”

What is organized crime?

Impunity and the longstanding acceptance of impunity have undermined these processes. The human rights organizations in the Regional Monitoring and Analysis Team put it this way: “Among the factors that have impeded these processes are corruption and the inability of our institutions to identify and purge those responsible for crimes against humanity in the recent past. This has been complicated by the phenomena of drug trafficking and organized crime.”

They adopt the definition of “organized crime” provided by Germany’s penal code: “Organized crime is the planned violation of the law in order to obtain economic benefit or power, whose crimes are independently or as a whole of special seriousness, and are carried out by more than two participants who cooperate through a division of labor for a prolonged or indeterminate period of time using (a) commercial or para-commercial structures, (b) violence or other means of intimidation, or (c) influence in the police, media, public administration, justice system or legitimate economy.”

What these murders have revealed

In this context, the human rights groups make extremely serious comments about events in the wake of the murder of the three Salvadoran parliamentarians.

“It is now clear that a parallel structure has been operating within the Guatemalan Police and the Government Ministry, which is responsible for social cleansing actions and is connected to organized crime. A letter made public several weeks ago from one of those involved in the murders, now a fugitive from justice, also points to President Oscar Berger’s involvement in these structures.

“The same people involved in the murders and in these structures took charge of the investigation and did everything possible to obstruct it: hiding or destroying evidence, giving false or distorted versions of the events and even revealing their own involvement in the death of the four police officers identified as the material authors of the crime, who were killed in prison only 24 hours after being confined there.

“The investigation has not yet identified the intellectual authors of the crime, nor has it cleared up doubts about other officials who may be involved. For this reason we fear that impunity will prevail in this case as in so many others due to the influence of illicit groups in our institutions.” In the light of this failure, the human rights organizations have demanded, especially of the Guatemalan and Salvadoran authorities, “an independent and impartial investigation that thoroughly explores the motives of those involved” and “makes it possible to identify, judge and sanction those responsible, including the officials involved.” They also suggest that this independent investigation clarify “the possible relation or participation of some of the murdered representatives in activities related to drug trafficking or organized crime, given that there have already been several cases in our countries of officials involved in such illicit activities.”

Penetrated by organized crime

Taking a broad, regional view, the human rights organizations concluded by saying what various organizations have been saying for some years: institutionalized violence during the war years remains in our region today under other forms hindering democracy, development and respect for human rights. The wars have ended, but organized crime prevents peace.

They write, “These murders and their context should not be seen as an exclusively Guatemalan phenomenon.
The existence of parallel structures working outside the law is a phenomenon that has been seen in the history of our countries under different forms, including death squads and various kinds of groups involved in murder or social cleansing.” They cite a well-known case in El Salvador from the 1990s, that of Víctor Rivera, alias “Zacarías,” who was an adviser to Guatemala’s Government Minister and set up a parallel organized crime structure with the assent of the then Salvadoran security minister.

“In fact, actions on the part of these groups at the margins of the law have been denounced in most of the countries
in the region,” wrote the human rights organizations. “These illicit groups..., which in the past were part of the military structures, have evolved into complex networks of criminals now involved not only in political repression, but also in drug trafficking, money laundering and other forms of organized crime. Although the exact level of their influence is unknown, it is believed that these groups have penetrated virtually all levels of the institutions in our states, given the cases of Central American officials who have been tried or detained in recent years because of their relationship to organized crime.”

Since the people murdered were members of the Central American Parliament—a supra-national institution for Central American integration that has been questioned from several angles—the human rights organizations demand that PARLACEN’s authorities “help fight organized crime and its influence in our governments by encouraging the discussion, development and implementation of international norms to fight organized crime and corruption.”

A new initiative for an urgent task

One very important development in this context is the Guatemalan Constitutional Court’s recent decision that the proposal to create an international commission against Impunity in Guatemala is not unconstitutional, as some interested sectors had claimed. This new commission would bring Guatemala and the United Nations together in the fight against organized crime, according to an agreement signed by the Guatemalan government and the United Nations in December 2006.

The Myrna Mack Foundation, which has strongly backed this initiative, believes “it creates opportunities to acquire the consensus and political will needed to begin a real fight against the crime and violence that are profoundly affecting the country’s population and institutions.”

Nevertheless, it warned that approval of the commission is not yet guaranteed due to the resistance of sectors in power. It also expressed hope that the official start of the election campaign, full of proselitizing and promises, will not delay this new mechanism or others it believes are urgent “to effectively fight the clandestine structures that create crime and violence with extremely serious political and social consequences.” These include the new Security Law and other stalled legislation such as reforms to the law ensuring due process, the weapons and munitions bill and the private investigation and security bill—These clandestine structures, it is now clear, are encrusted in our political institutions.


Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is envío’s correspondent in Guatemala.

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