Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 345 | Abril 2010



Media, Candidates, Cases, Expectations…

Facts and processes have appeared in Guatemala’s daily reality that the population will have to decide and vote on in a presidential race that’s still a year and a half away. Enough features of that election campaign are now available to begin to envision it.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

When the scandal caused by murdered Rodrigo Rosenberg’s accusations against President Colom, his wife and his private secretary exploded in Guatemala in May of last year, the media, especially the press, fell on the accused, taking the accusation’s truth and the guilt of the accused virtually at face value.

If Sandra Torres de Colom, Guatemala’s First Lady and current Commissioner for Social Cohesion, succeeds in overcoming the objections to her presidential candidacy by the Supreme Court and Court of Constitutionality due to her marriage to the incumbent President, it’s not hard to predict that the media would make common cause with a large part of private enterprise and use all its power to oppose her.

The power of the media

Throughout Latin America the media are pushing political campaigns with enormous power, positioning themselves as a force you must have on your side if you want to play the political game. In Chile people must still remember the furious opposition campaign of El Mercurio and La Tercera de la Hora against the government of Socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-73).

These days in Argentina the Clarín Group, clustered around its star, the newspaper of the same name, is in battle with the State over alleged tax evasion.

In El Salvador the media are concentrating on the great wave of criminal violence plaguing the country, projecting the image that this violence is the responsibility of the current leftwing government, incapable of putting a stop to it. The truth is that criminal violence in El Salvador has been steadily on the rise since the signing of the 1992 peace accords, and the media documenting it today never highlighted the powerlessness of the four rightwing ARENA governments (Cristiani, Calderón, Flores and Saca, 1989-2009) to contain it.

The media in El Salvador also spotlight every occasion on which President Funes and the FMLN fail to agree on government measures. Taking advantage of the real divergence between President and party, they play on it in a strategy that seeks to divide them even more. They turn every opportunity into a banana skin, hoping that one of the two will make enough of a slip to achieve a break in relations.

They aren’t “public opinion”

Non-official media are finding it very hard to function in Nicaragua, as are the media opposed to President Chávez in Venezuela; and the same thing could happen in Ecuador and Bolivia. What is not true is that the media represent “public opinion,” as they claim to do. They quite obviously represent the interests of their owners and directors, and sometimes their shareholders, which are economic interests of great importance. They dominate the editorial line, censure their own reporters, choose whether to publish columnists who would like to have a voice and, perhaps with the exception of the results of public opinion surveys, do not report all there is to report or do so equitably.

The media make an effort to mold public opinion according to their interests. The famous New York Times has as its motto All the news that’s fit to print, suggesting that they publish all information that isn’t clearly slanderous. In reality what is published and what isn’t is always filtered in this paper just as in other mass media, be it press, radio, television or the Internet.

The big media peddle the myth that they are “public opinion.” That’s why they demand absolute freedom of their own expression, as if it were the freedom of the citizenry’s expression. And they have a huge corporation, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), to defend them against any supposed violation of their freedom and accuse transgressors, usually the State.

The truth is that the mass media are big business, members of every country’s powerful private enterprise. The great majority of a country’s citizens don’t have the liberty to express themselves publicly or with freedom, because it takes more capital than they can amass.

In Guatemala, all big newspapers include the presence of some member of the Marroquín family. Not just La Hora, the daily established by Clemente Marroquín Rojas, the patriarch of this newspaper family. That newspaper still belongs to his children and grandchildren and one of them, Oscar Clemente Marroquín, directs it. Likewise the president of Siglo XXI is currently Juan Carlos Marroquín Godoy and its director general is Luis Eduardo Marroquín Godoy. The editorial director of Prensa Libre is Gonzalo Marroquín G. (who is also the current vice president of IAPA).

And let’s not forget that Nuestro Diario, the country’s most widely read newspaper, is published by the Prensa Libre Corporation for a “less refined” public more inclined to read about scandals, sex and crime. El Periódico has as its president José Rubén Zamora, grandson of Clemente Marroquín. Apart from this, Guatevisión, the only Guatemalan cable channel, belongs to part of the Prensa Libre capital, mainly that of Mario Antonio Sandoval, its vice president.

In El Salvador, TV Channels 2, 4 and 6, which are the most important, belong to media magnate Boris Esersky. In Nicaragua, the family of journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, assassinated by the last Somoza in 1978, controls the only two dailies, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, although anomalously their political lines have differed since the latter was created in 1979 by much of the staff of the former, when that newspaper, which had courageously opposed Somoza under the directorship of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, took a lurching tack to the far right after Somoza was overthrown.

The media vs. Sandra Torres

“Public opinion” about Álvaro Colom’s government is in the hands of the big Guatemalan media. Not one of them has apologized to the President for having blithely bought into the accusations made against him by Rodrigo Rosenberg before he was murdered.

In the event that Sandra Torres is permitted to run for the presidency, it’s probable that the media, which not only denounce the lack of transparency in the social cohesion programs she directs but also don’t like them at all, will join together in a common cause with private enterprise and whatever candidate is most likely to beat her in the 2011 elections. One of the issues they will try and get the public to remember is the confrontation of both her and her husband’s government with legislator Nineth Montenegro and the highest court in the land, the Court of Constitutionality.

Nineth Montenegro
asks for transparency

Congresswoman Montenegro has been in a head-on struggle for years to obtain transparency in the national budget’s execution and especially in the army’s budget. It is her greatest merit. In 2010 she also fought for transparency in the Social Cohesion budget and especially in the First Lady’s star program “My Family Progresses” (MIFAPRO).

MIFAPRO is a program of monthly subsidies that Social Cohesion assigns to poor families in exchange for them sending their school age children to school. The suspicion is that Sandra Torres is setting up a secret fund with a certain percentage of the MIFAPRO resources to finance her presidential campaign. Montenegro exercised her parliamentary right to demand transparency in MIFAPRO spending by asking for the names of all families and/or individuals benefiting from the program and the amount each had received. After a protracted battle the matter reached the Court of Constitutionality, which ordered the Ministry of Education, the body immediately responsible for running MIFAPRO, to respond to Montenegro’s request without further ado. The minister took his time complying with the order and meanwhile it seems that attempts were made to “encrypt” the names of the beneficiaries, making them inaccessible in practice. Finally the Court of Constitutionality ordered the President to dismiss the education minister for failing to respect its authority. Colom had no choice but to abide by the resolution and fire him.

A high political price was paid for this conflict and some say it’s the only time the President and his wife shouted at each other in front of other government members. The President reportedly protested her lack of political vision by pressuring the education minister not to comply with the Court’s order. The new minister, Denis Alonso, a technician who has held various posts in different governments, began carrying out the order although Montenegro complained that the MIFAPRO documentation submitted to her was seriously incomplete. Alonso made excuses and promised to complete it, which he appears to have done. There was talk of up to 120,000 “problematical” names in MIFAPRO but in a press conference together with the accounts comptroller, Montenegro only referred to at least 45,000 problematic names—not necessarily fictitious, but duplicated.

Montenegro, a legislative representative for the Encounter with Guatemala party, could end up being a presidential candidate in 2011. It is said that she has already received serious death threats.

The constant changes in
the Ministry of the Interior

Another issue that has been disturbing the country for a while is the succession of ministers in the Ministry of Government (MINGOB), which is responsible for the country’s security. The desperation of many people regarding the growing and uncontrollable criminality would doubtless be another of the big issues in an electoral campaign pitting Sandra Torres against other candidates. It won’t be forgotten that in his own presidential campaign Colom talked about opposing insecurity with “intelligence” rather than a “hard hand,” the slogan of his losing rival, retired General Otto Pérez Molina. MINGOB has been shaken by a series of ministerial changes similar to those it suffered during Alfonso Portillo’s presidency (2000-2004) and could even overtake it in the number of officials who have occupied the Minister’s seat.

President Colom made a big mistake by not confirming Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte in her post at the head of MINGOB. By the end of Oscar Berger’s presidency (2004-2008), she was the only person who had shown any political determination in confronting public security problems firmly, transparently, honestly and competently. She had been appointed in the final stage of Berger’s government, in the wake of the scandal around the murder of the three Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), one of whom was a son of deceased Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, and the subsequent murder inside the Boquerón maximum security prison of the policemen accused of the crime.

Colom first appointed Vinicio López, who had been Adela Camacho’s deputy minister. He only lasted six months, victim of a light airplane accident in Cobán—if the crash was thoroughly investigated, we are unaware of it. In his place the President appointed Francisco Jiménez, an intellectual with certain academic prestige, who was the head of the Criminal Investigation Department. Jiménez was dismissed six months later, at Christmas 2008, supposedly because an “indecisive” academic wasn’t the best person to take the problem of the country’s public insecurity by the horns. Jiménez was returned to his previous position and stayed on afterwards as secretary to the Security Advisory Council. Salvador Gándara was named in his place. He had been the MINGOB deputy minister during Alvaro Arzú’s presidency (1996-2000) and was Mayor of Villanueva when appointed.

More corruption and more changes

Villanueva, the country’s third most populous municipality, appeared to be leading an effective fight against criminality but it was said that Gándara used illegal methods that ended in extrajudicial executions of supposed wrongdoers. Gándara held his new ministerial post for another half year, until suspicions of corruption and his illegal methods led the President to change him for a fourth minister, Raúl Velásquez. Also under Gándara the police chief and deputy chief were imprisoned on suspicion of drug dealing.

Apparently, corrupt management continued under the new minister. It was said that the equivalent of roughly $12,000 was spent daily on the minister’s confidential purchases. Deputy Minister Marlene Blanco, Chief of Police under Minister Jiménez and also for a time under Minister Velásquez, was accused of organizing groups of hitmen parallel to the Police and forced to resign, although nothing was ever proved.

It was discovered that the budget that should have been used for the Police Academy had been diverted to other dodgy uses, while the Police cadets lived in conditions degrading to human beings. What broke President Colom’s capacity
for forbearance was assigning the provision of fuel to MINGOB to the nongovernmental organization MASCANA, which could not handle the task. While gas station owners were demanding payment of MINGOB’s debts, MASCANA paid them with IOUs that had no value. This NGO has links to Rodrigo Lainfiesta, who during President Portillo’s term helped make fraudulent disbursements from the Crédito Hipotecario Nacional (National Mortgage Credit).

In the end, despite the political price inherent in firing a fourth minister and appointing a fifth, President Colom dismissed Velásquez and appointed journalist Carlos Menocal, who at the time was the presidential commissioner against impunity and liaison between the President and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Velásquez’s entire team of deputy ministers was also removed. Former judge Yolanda Pérez, with a reputation for being competent and incorruptible, was appointed Deputy Minister for Justice Support; former officer Sergio Mendizábal became deputy minister for security; Pablo Leal was made deputy minister for administration and Lorena Guerra was named deputy minister for community support. In January, Helen Mack, president of the Myrna Mack Foundation, was appointed presidential commissioner for reform of the National Civil Police. She accepted for a four-month period, as yet uncompleted, with the aim of determining how much political will existed for reform from the presidential office all the way down to the Police rank and file.

What is the DEA’s role?

Commissioner Baltasar Gómez, who was the Chief of Police during the eight months that Raúl Velásquez was in charge of the MINGOB, was arrested on suspicion of colluding with drug traffickers. All these dismissals and arrests of police chiefs and police in charge of the Anti-Drugs Police Department throw a shadow on the US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency methods to enforce the law.

Just as during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict the Pentagon and US State Department worked with military officers who were effective in the counterinsurgency struggle, ignoring their corruption and ensuring their impunity, it’s suspected that the DEA is working with Guatemalans involved in drug trafficking who at the same time act as informants against their adversaries. This is likely happening today given that President Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, acknowledged on her stop in Guatemala that the United States is “part of the problem” in the chapter on the fight against drug businesses.

The Portillo affair

This crisis over the security issue is not one linked to a presidential term, but rather has to do with long-term consistent policy running through several terms. In this context one of the most important issues in which the struggle against impunity for corruption is at stake is the case underway against former President Alfonso Portillo. His adminisration , when democratically elected civilian governments started running the country.

In its favor, Álvaro Colom’s government has fought in the courts and gotten Portillo extradited from Mexico. After being granted bail, for a small amount, on his first appearance in court, Portillo is now skirting the edges of a far more severe trial. The US government is requesting his extradition for the crime of money laundering. Portillo is currently a prisoner in a high-security Guatemalan jail because it’s not absurd to imagine that someone might be preparing an attempt on his life. Many people’s own “security” depends on whether Portillo might plea bargain in a court case in the United States in exchange for denouncing many of his accomplices, both civilians and military, who have been playing with fire in Guatemala for a long time. There’s no doubt that these days the entire Guatemalan security and justice system is being subjected to serious pressure to avoid Portillo’s extradition to the United States.

The Bámaca affair

People in Guatemala are also talking about the upcoming return to the country of US lawyer Jennifer Harbury, partner of the murdered guerrilla fighter, Efraín Bámaca. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission is trying to close a number
of its open cases, among them the accusation against the Guatemalan State for Bámaca’s murder. In electoral terms this could threaten the presidential candidacy of retired general Otto Pérez Molina if, as is alleged, he was directly involved in the disappearance of Bámaca’s tortured body. A study of the documents President Colom demanded from the Ministry of Defense and the Army’s Chief of Staff from the era of the cruelest military offensives against the insurgents (1980-1985) would allow one to deduce the responsibility of many more people in the brutal human rights violations.

Our post-conflict experience

In March, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon publicly announced the appointment of Raquel Zelaya, executive secretary of Guatemala’s Research and Social Studies Association (ASIES), to a two-year post on second Advisory Group to the UN’s Peacebuilding Commission, an institution created in 2006 by the Security Council and General Assembly to channel resources and propose integral strategies for consolidating peace and recovery after conflict. The central idea revolves around the tasks of reconstruction, consolidating institutions and sustainable development in countries that have suffered internal conflicts.

Raquel Zelaya, a former finance minister, signer of the Peace Accords and coordinator of the Accompaniment Commission to those accords, was the first secretary of the Peace Secretariat, created in Guatemala in 1997 by Álvaro Arzú’s government to implement the Peace Accords. Her appointment acknowledges her as an expert based on this experience in Guatemala. It also means that what we’ve lived through in Guatemala, even though the Peace Accords have not yet been completely fulfilled, can be of use in this violent world and in many countries standing at the critical juncture of peace in Europe, Africa and Asia.

The fight against impunity

Might we in Guatemala be facing a watershed in the fight against impunity? President Colom is talking about asking the UN and the Guatemalan Congress to extend the four-year existence of the International Commission against Violence in Guatemala (CICIG) for another five years. If this is approved, nine years would be a long enough period, with CICIG’s counseling, to provide a good probability of genuinely transforming justice and security in Guatemala.

In the coming weeks six candidates will be selected for attorney general, from which the President will appoint one. After seeing the mess made of the PARLACEN assassinations and other cases by corrupt handling inside the Attorney General’s Office, it’s no exaggeration to state that this appointment is one of a series of events that could pave the way for a more effective fight against impunity—or not.

These important facts and processes will be part of the context in which the Guatemalan people will be called upon to vote a year and a half from now. And the major media will be called upon to treat this presidential campaign with national responsibility. If they continue defending only their interests, i.e. those of the powerful business world, they will do Guatemala a poor service.

Juan Hernandez Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent inGuatemala.

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