Will the Fight against Impunity Continue? Will We End Up a Failed State?
The resignation of CICIG head Carlos Castresana hit Guatemala like a bombshell.
Completely worn out, Castresana threw in the towel, leaving Guatemala uncertain whether CICIG and the fight against impunity will now become a low-intensity struggle.
The State is riddled with corruption and some think it will only take a spark
for Guatemala to go up in flames, favoring drug-related criminal capital.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
When Carlos Castresana, the commissioner who headed up the UN International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for two and a half years, announced on June 7 that he was resigning, it hit the country like a bombshell.
A great lossHis resignation is a great loss to those of us who have seen him investigate the Rosenberg murder and piece together a credible hypothesis of suicide-murder—although it still must pass through the final crucible of first an oral trial and then probably the Appeals Court and Supreme Court, unless those accused of being the material and intellectual authors choose to confess. Castresana’s hypothesis freed the presidential secretary general, the President and his wife from the accusations thrown at them by Rosenberg himself in a video filmed by journalist Mario David García and distributed at his funeral by Luis Mendizábal, both of whom are linked to this country’s extreme Right.
But that was not Carlos Castresana’s only important action. His team’s scientific investigation led to the capture of former President Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004). Portillo was the main person responsible for one of the most corrupt governments Guatemala has ever had. He was accused of embezzling over a million quetzals from the State and extradited to Guatemala by the Mexican State, and is also wanted in the United States for money laundering. The US wants him extradited there to stand trial. One of his alleged accomplices in organizing the embezzlement, retired Major Napoleón Rojas, was also captured.
Thanks to the actions of a Castresana-led CICIG that followed up on an investigation conducted by various civil society organizations, several candidates that Guatemala’s Congress elected to the current Supreme Court have been denounced as lacking “recognized honorability.” Thanks also to Castresana, the voting was repeated for the denounced candidates, and although not all of them were dumped—four were elected again—two were rejected and replaced by people of recognized honorability.
An effective performanceAs a result of the CICIG team’s investigations, strong indications were found that former Crimes Against Life Prosecutor Álvaro Matus had taken and destroyed highly important files, including the one on the murder of Government Ministry advisor Víctor Rivera, (alias “Zacarías”), a Venezuelan national killed days after being fired from his post. The files allegedly destroyed by Matus probably also included those Rivera had in his car with him when murdered, almost certainly related to the case of the Salvadoran Central American Parliament representatives murdered in Guatemala in March 2007. “Zacarías” worked for considerable periods of time with both the Salvadoran and Guatemalan police.
Castresana’s work at CICIG also led to the questioning of how the commission that nominated candidates for the attorney general post operated, and of why the President chose lawyer Conrado Reyes from among the six proposed to him. Castresana publicly denounced Reyes’ alleged links with organized crime, specifically with law firms that manage illicit businesses for the adoption of minors. CICIG kept a close eye on the Attorney General’s actions and revealed a very short-term plan to withdraw files related to organized crime from his office. Various civil society organizations cooperated with the CICIG, including the Myrna Mack Foundation and the Guatemala Forum, which are working for consolidation of the judicial system in Guatemala and fighting for justice, particularly for consolidation of the rule of law and the eradication of impunity. They demanded that the Court of Constitutionality rule on an appeal against the procedures used by the committee responsible for nominating the six attorney general candidates presented to the President. Colom had no alternative but to take the same line in speaking to the country, and the Court of Constitutionality finally accepted the appeal and ordered the nominating commission to repeat the procedure, at the same time dismissing Conrado Reyes and ordering his predecessor, Gloria Porras, back into the attorney general post. The President then complied with the sentence handed down by the Court of Constitutionality.
We could go on detailing the actions taken by CICIG since Carlos Castresana was named its commissioner, but these suffice to demonstrate the transcendental nature of his work.
What triggered his resignation?An easy way of answering why Castresana resigned, which he himself used during his press conference to announce the fact, is to indicate that these diplomatic UN posts tend to have a normal term of two years and he had already been in the job for longer than that. It’s a term considered long enough to achieve results, but not to wear down the person occupying the post.
Castresana, however, also explicitly mentioned other reasons, the most important being the media campaign to cast aspersions on his private life and even comment on his supposed lack of morality. The most important person behind this campaign was radio journalist Mario David García, who used his daily two-hour spot, very expensively rented from Emisoras Unidas, the radio station with probably the largest audience in Guatemala. On his “Let’s speak clearly” program, García accused Castresana of keeping his wife and children in Mexico so he could have an affair with a woman hired by CICIG, stating that Castresana’s wife had already filed for divorce.
The “private life” argumentOne quite high-quality journalist, Gustavo Berganza, wrote the following on the opinion page of the June 8 edition of the newspaper El Periódico: “In a job as delicate as that performed by the commissioner there was a need not only for courage, knowledge of politics and juridical solidity—all of which Castresana possessed—but also to have one’s flanks well covered.
“None of the people who take risks and launch themselves into public life die with an odor of sanctity. They are people of flesh and blood, with weaknesses, defects and inclinations that can run against what a hypocritically puritan society like the Guatemalan one wants to see. When the weaknesses are publicized, whether through rumors or media action, it can hinder and endanger the work of the person exercising that public function. That happened to Castresana: his enemies identified his open flank and being experts in psychological operations were able to exploit it in such a way as to undermine the commissioner’s public image and entangle him in emotional and marital problems that could have compromised his effectiveness in fighting organized crime. So the decision to step away from the leadership of the CICIG is healthy. It allows Castresana to avoid the possibility of blackmail and protects the institution he headed until yesterday from discredit.”
Mud sticksNot a few people in Guatemala would have thought that way, because you always have to act prudishly in public no matter how you are in private and because this kind of morbid fascination is expected, and Mario David García and others like him are all too ready to promote it. We shouldn’t forget that when the government of Álvaro Arzú withdrew government publicity from Crónica, the serious, critical, independent and reflective weekly newspaper directed by Francisco Pérez de Antón in the eighties and nineties, it had to choose between folding or selling, and sold to who knows who.
But the fact is that Mario David García ended up director and that Crónica became sensationalist and sexually exploiting. And let’s not forget that in the Army, where García worked with Luis Mendizábal on intelligence matters from the “Little Office,” there has always been a naturally clandestine “Love Department,” which is probably where the insinuations were cooked up that Bishop Gerardi’s murder was a “crime of passion.” Be this as it may, Carlos Castresana challenged those who were morally attacking his private life to prove their accusations.
Leaving the truth or fiction of the accusations to one side, Berganza’s opinion contains a lot of sense. The age-old maxim that mud sticks can be applied in this case. Certain manipulators of communication don’t respect the right to a private life, citing the public’s right to know everything about famous people.
UN sensibilitiesNeither of these two explanations are probably the real reasons behind Castresana’s resignation. CICIG was not receiving all the support it needed in the United Nations. It’s almost certain that the UN frowned on Castresana’s prominence after he spoke publicly of the hypotheses resulting from the investigation of the Rosenberg case, rather than delivering them discretely to the corresponding organ of justice and the Attorney General’s Office, and after he went to Congress to question the “recognized honorability” of some of the newly elected Supreme Court members.
The representatives of UN bodies, whether rapporteurs on different subjects or delegates of the various agencies in the countries (UNDP, ECLAC, FAO, UNICEF…), tend to be diplomatic figures used to working in the shadows who seldom venture out into the midday glare of the sun. They might talk very clearly to the governments behind closed doors, but they rarely adopt positions like those of Amnesty International or Greenpeace. That tends to be reserved for the Secretary-General, under secretaries or the General Assembly president. Castresana, in contrast, has had notable prominence, as has CICIG through him, so he probably ruffled a few feathers in the UN’s New York skyscraper. His actions could have been viewed as not quite politically or diplomatically correct in the UN, where in fact his request for diplomatic immunity for CICIG members was unsuccessful.
From our impotenceFrom Guatemala, however, Castresana’s attitude appears to have been the right one. We’re not in a country that listens to diplomatic suggestions. We’re in one where it’s very hard to achieve results if you don’t talk firmly, thus generating public opinion—which isn’t at all the same as talking with the arrogance of a conquistador.
Although Guatemala is a UN member, in a certain sense we’re a very small percentage of the big boss that sent us CICIG. And yet it’s also true that the Guatemalan government asked for UN help to fight the impunity of clandestine organized crime organizations and both national and now transnational systems that traffic drugs, arms, children and their organs, people for prostitution, etc., etc., all of which are globalized. Guatemala asked for help in the anguish of being unable to fight impunity because the organizations responsible for doing so are undermined by those very same structures. Very important sectors of Guatemalan civil society demanded that Castresana take on the role of protagonist, which he accepted.
Conflicts and denunciationsBut the arrogance that certain people in Castresana’s team have demonstrated is rather different. Around 150 people work in CICIG. Many of them ought to be Guatemalan, more than in fact are, which has generated a serious complaint about Castresana with the Guatemalan State. The team contains people of Spanish, German and other nationalities, and some of the attitudes of the non-Guatemalan members of the team towards lawyers in the Attorney General’s Office and judges in Guatemala’s justice system appeared contemptuous. Let’s look at a notorious example. In one of Castresana’s visits to the UN in New York, he stated that CICIG had managed to detain 50 people. Angel Sas, a reporter for El Periódico, questioned this figure, claiming that it was actually 38, adding that former President Portillo wasn’t imprisoned due to CICIG actions, but rather to a petition from the United States. CICIG sent a note to the newspaper certifying that the real number was indeed 50 arrests and Angel Sas apologized. However, CICIG copied the note to the whole of the press and to the Embassies in Guatemala, which undermined sympathy for it among journalists.
Edgar Gutiérrez, currently director of state civil intelligence and foreign minister in former President Portillo’s government, used his weekly column in El Periódico to campaign against CICIG, claiming that the only way to explain why Castresana hadn’t investigated Carlos Vielman was that he had made a pact with Guatemalan big business. Vielman was government minister under former President Oscar Berger and allegedly ultimately responsible for the murder of the PARLACEN representatives and of the police officers who “discovered” the murder.
He also accused Castresana of not going after the Valdés Páiz brothers, two pharmaceutical businessmen who Castresana believes masterminded the Rosenberg murder, even unaware who the victim was going to be. Other renowned journalists have also gone after Castresana from the pages of El Periódico.
Castresana worked right to the endCastresana didn’t waste his brief time remaining as commissioner before his successor was named. During the last days of his administration, the Valdés Páiz brothers were handed over to Guatemalan justice. This was done on condition that they be held in one of the Army brigades in the capital city, as they feared they would be murdered if imprisoned in the Zone 18 jail or one of the maximum security prisons. This fear may have been linked to their decision to talk about the people who organized behind the scenes the murder of their cousin, Rosenberg. Turning them in undermined one of the accusations from those using El Periódico to argue that Castresana had a pact with the businesspeople of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations not to touch criminal businesspeople in his investigations.
Castresana also publicly accused Attorney General Reyes of having links with organized crime and promised to present the proof to the President. It was that accusation that pressured the Court of Constitutionality into dismissing Reyes, thus aborting the undue appropriation of his office’s files by his brother Julio and retired Army Captain Juan Roberto Garrido Pérez. Unfortunately we don’t know how many of those files had already been destroyed or photocopied, thus allowing the criminals under investigation to discover which way the investigation into their particular case was moving.
What Castresana has certainly done with his resignation is leave a post in which the wear and tear on him had become too serious. The danger is that CICIG didn’t spend long enough under his leadership to consolidate its work. Who knows if this debilitation will impede Castresana from organizing other kinds of national commissions or even a regional one with the UN and other Central American governments, whether directed by him or organized based on his current experience.
The new commissionerAt the time of Castresana’s resignation, there was still a year and a half left of CICIG’s second two-year period. The UN Secretary-General named as his successor Francisco Dall’Anese Ruiz, who was Costa Rica’s attorney general at the time, and had held the post for ten years. During that time he had investigated two former Costa Rican Presidents: Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, who was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement; and Miguel Angel Rodríguez Echeverría, who is still standing trial. Dall’Anese is president of the Central American Council of Attorneys General and Public Ministry chiefs. The fact that he is Central American could be slightly in his favor, as it might give him a better knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of those he’s going to support. But it will evidently not be easy for a Costa Rican to be respected in Guatemala; any respect will have to be earned through hard, clean work.
Let’s hope he acts with the same efficacy as Castresana, even if his ways and manners are different. After all, this
is going to determine whether or not Guatemala can really be at all optimistic about the present and immediate future
in the fight against impunity. Furthermore, only his work in Guatemala and the success or failure of Castresana’s subsequent efforts will tell the direction taken by countries harassed by organized crime and impunity, now operating on the regional level as well as the national one.
Colom’s glass housePresident Alfonso Portillo broke all records for instability during his government, due to the corruption that surrounded the presidency and forced him to flee to Mexico a month after his successor took office to avoid ending up in jail. Instability was also generated by the interminable rotation of ministers, deputy ministers and police chiefs in the ministries of Government, Communications and Infrastructure, Economy, Finance and Defense, not to mention Civil Intelligence and the Foreign Ministry.
The situation is even more complex in the current government. For two long years (2008-2010) we’ve had a presidential couple in the style of Nicaragua or Argentina. Álvaro Colom’s wife, Sandra Torres de Colom, was named commissioner or coordinator of Social Cohesion, where she coordinated the ministries of Health, Education, Culture and Sports without heading up any ministry herself. After two years and a few months, following a Court of Constitutionality sentence, she has been forced to give up that position, which doesn’t exist in the Constitution. In addition, her stubbornness in trying to avoid transparency in the use of the money going to the “My Family Progresses” program (MIFAPRO) has generated Court of Constitutionality rulings that have been negative for her but absolutely just, and have lost her many of the best members of her team, particularly former Education Minister Bienvenido Argueta.
She has been accused of building up three funds using money from Social Cohesion during her time coordinating it: one for her own pockets, one to finance her intended candidacy for the 2011 presidential elections, and the third for her to use afterwards. No proof of this has yet been provided because there hasn’t even been any fiscal investigation or judicial trial. But parliamentary representative Nineth Montenegro has conducted an audit, with great difficulty, although supported by the Court of Constitutionality. The battle waged by Torres to hinder that audit through people close to her in the social ministries suggests a desire to cover up murky dealings.
This is the glass house in which the government of Álvaro Colom is living. Tropical storm Agatha, which according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization left 156 dead, 36,149 at risk, 135,766 affected, 135,374 evacuated, 76,245 in shelters, 100 disappeared and 87 injured, provided the First Lady—who like all First Ladies heads up the Social Welfare Secretariat—her greatest opportunity to generate a feeling of indebtedness that can be milked during her planned presidential campaign. According to non-verifiable information from certain mayors, aid packets couldn’t be given out until she had arrived to do so in person. The fact that such rumors are making the rounds indicates the pestilent plague of corruption apparently endemic among Guatemalan Presidencies ever since the time of President Vinicio Cerezo (1985-90).
The maggot pile that is CongressIf this is a plague, it’s difficult to name what has penetrated and contaminated the Guatemalan Congress. Very few people in Guatemala credit many of the representatives with any honorability, a fact that has held true now for several electoral periods.
One of the worst realities is the “transfugism.” The population elects representatives on the slate of a particular political party, and within six months dispersion starts and independent benches begin to appear, or else parliamentarians switch from one party to another. In the current Congress, the most emblematic case is that of Manuel Baldizón from the Petén region, who was elected on the governing National Unity of Hope party ticket, but soon left to establish the LÍDER group.
When Congress failed to approve the CICIG’s mandate at the first attempt in August 2007, Vice President Eduardo Stein referred to it as a “maggot pile” and talked clearly and openly about the danger of drug traffickers seeking to buy posts on the party payrolls to obtain legislative representation and thus shackle draft bills that threatened their free circulation throughout the country.
The first president of Congress in 2008, an UNE representative and former rector of the University of San Carlos, had to resign both that post and his seat for having allegedly helped himself in a big way during the embezzlement of Congress funds under the previous legislature. But the clearest case of corruption was the one committed with the election to the Supreme Court of lawyers compromised with Roberto López Villatoro, known as the “sneaker king” for selling false-brand sports shoes.
Meanwhile, in the Supreme Court, the proposal of candidates for the Court itself and the Appeals Courts has also been questionable. Some civil society organizations have been trying to investigate and publish the background of those proposed for the posts. The state of the Attorney General’s Office is another embarrassment.
Resignations over the But let’s return our focus to the executive branch. Five ministers and various deputy ministers have passed through the Ministry of Government in the two and a half years of the Colom administration. The “star” minister in his Cabinet, Finance Minister Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, a renowned economist who worked for a long time at the United Nations Development Programme, resigned in June after three unsuccessful attempts to push a genuine fiscal reform through Congress.
fiscal reform and mining laws
Once more such reform has proved impossible due to the intransigent opposition of private enterprise. It was also said that Fuentes Knight was unwilling to go through the torture of appearing again before a Congress like the Guatemalan one. Fuentes Knight is the son of Fuentes Mohr, who held the same post in 1966-70 and was forced to resign due to exactly the same sense of impotence. He ended up foreign minister, before being assassinated in 1978, the same year President Colom’s uncle, Manuel Colom Argueta, was also assassinated. Fuentes Knight will now work at the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
Among the handful of other ministers who, like Fuentes Knight, had kept their post since the start of the Colom government was Carlos Iván Meany, a mining businessman from the eastern part of the country. But he resigned as minister of energy and mines when President Colom accepted the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ sentence establishing that work in the Marlin gold mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Zipacapa, department of San Marcos, should be suspended until it could be determined how much truth there was to denunciations of serious water contamination that inhabitants of those municipalities made against the Canadian Montana Mining Company. Another factor was the government’s decision not to extend the agreements with the Perenco oil extraction company.
So while Fuentes Knight’s resignation can be attributed to his leftist fiscal leanings—after all, Guatemala is the Latin American country with the lowest tax burden—in Meany’s case it appears to have been motivated by his rightwing leanings on energy and mining.
And the police?Ever since Helen Mack accepted the post of pre-commissioner of police reform, her work has been noteworthy. The hardest blow was the firing of eight National Civil Police (PNC) chiefs for not having passed various tests of honesty. Finally, after two consecutive pairs of PNC directors and deputy directors had been imprisoned, Deputy Commissioner Jaime Leonel Otzin was named the new PNC director, although Mack did had reservations that he didn’t totally fit the profile for the post. Her current title of pre-commissioner is because the government wants her to be named commissioner through a law approved as the result of an inter-party pro-justice pact.
The news from the Government Ministry is not good, with Marlene Blanco, a former PNC director and former Government Ministry deputy minister, having planned to flee the country under accusations of having organized a group of hit men.
What the polls and A CID-Gallup poll shows a voting intention for the coming presidential campaign of 22% for Sandra Torres (UNE) and 26% for General Otto Pérez Molina (PP), which is not an insurmountable gap. General Pérez Molina has seen his support worn down by his repeated mention in connection with war atrocities. Meanwhile, polls at the Latin American level give Álvaro Colom a 50% approval rating, and he evidently he has good relations with the other Latin American Presidents, thus personifying the saying, “Light of the street, darkness at home.”
pre-candidates are saying
For 2011 there is talk of the need for a “pact of elites” or a “national consensus body,” which are both projects of private enterprise in conjunction with the country’s intellectuals. It is probable that Nineth Montenegro wants to run under the “Encounter for Guatemala” banner, but as part of a grand alliance. Rigoberta Menchú has always talked about 2012 as her year, as it is the final year of a Mayan era. Also mentioned is the possible candidacy of Baldizón (LÍDER) on the GANA ticket, in a group that would end up providing cover for drug trafficking interests.
The problem is definitely not one of putting together alliances to produce a nice image, but rather of forging them with people who have the art of governing (“governance”) and the backing of those both on high and back down on earth.
A failed state?Down “on earth,” the social organizations find it very difficult to take government seriously. This applies not just to this one, but to the three previous ones as well. The current government isn’t complying with the recovery of lands in the Petén and Alta Verapaz that were shared out as perks among the military. It isn’t complying with the social and economic development projects for rural Guatemala. And it’s still not complying with International Labor Organization Convention 169, signed by the Álvaro Arzú government, as it isn’t taking seriously the consultations in which peasant communities have expressed their position or the consultations over hydroelectric, mining or oil extraction projects.
While the social movements have tried to talk to President Colom without success, dialogue with the State is increasingly less important. What is important is to think about and discuss territory and autonomy. Some relations with capital don’t pass through the State, such as with mining companies. The State does still make attempts to dialogue, however, as that is the tradition.
Where, then, should a sit-down protest take place? Talks have been held with the three agriculture ministers, the three economy ministers, the President and Congress… But authority is becoming ever less credible. The leaders of these movements have grassroots bases, but don’t know how to respond to them. Long-term discourse is fine as long as there are short-term results, but the lack of any short term leaves the leaders devoid of a way to resolve anything.
The growing power It’s a time of minimum agendas, and we’re also at a point of inflexion. The drug traffickers are getting involved, forcing people to sell their lands or businesses, or insisting that “my son marries your daughter.” Word has it that a few weeks ago the PNC captured the wife and daughter of a drug cartel boss in Alta Verapaz, and shortly afterwards the following message arrived: “Either you let them go, or La Magdalena goes today at five in the afternoon.” La Magdalena is the star mall of German capital in Cobán, the departmental capital of Alta Verapaz. The wife and daughter of the drug trafficker were duly handed over as and where instructed.
of the drug traffickers
Some people think it will only take a match, which anyone could strike, for Guatemala to go up in flames. And that’s when “the rats” would take over…
But if we look at past history, it isn’t easy to see drug-criminal capital having the power to govern transversely, from one compass point to the other, throughout the country. In Colombia, Espinosa governed in Envigado, a suburb of Medellín, and in many other parts of the city, but not in the country as a whole. He could perform kidnappings and plant bombs wherever he wanted but he couldn’t govern, because you don’t learn about the organizations and structures of State policy in the short term. That’s little consolation, however, when that learning certainly exists among political professionals who until recently were serving the country. Of course there are always exceptions, which is a small ray of hope.
Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.