For decades, impunity has reined in Central America. Dictatorial rule, coups, murder, and genocide have, for the most part, gone unpunished. This month, however, events in Guatemala have suggested a potential turning of the tide. In the last three weeks, Guatemalan authorities have solved the potentially destabilizing Rosenberg case and arrested ex-President Alfonso Portillo for money laundering $70 million when he was in power. Meanwhile, in Honduras, the rule of law appears as in jeopardy as ever, as the Congress has rewarded de facto President Roberto Micheletti and pledged amnesty for all those involved in ousting President Manuel Zelaya. When it comes to the rule of law, Honduras lags as far behind as ever.
Since the Peace Accords brought Guatemala’s 36-year civil war to an end in 1996, Guatemalan activists and international observers have demanded justice for the state-sponsored genocide in the 1980s. For the most part, however—as in most of Latin America—justice has not come. Moreover, since the late 1990s, crime has spiraled out of control, perceptions of corruption are high, and the legal system has proved incapable of apprehending and prosecuting both common criminals and thieving politicians. Pervasive impunity partially explains the horrific practice of lynchings that plagues Guatemala. But the failing of the rule of law in the region also contributes to Guatemalans’ disenchantment with democracy (desencanto democrático).
Not only have Guatemalan voters lost faith in democratic government’s ability to bring economic development and alleviate massive poverty, but vast swaths of the citizenry have come to believe that the laws simply do not apply to the powerful. As the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) has shown, perceptions of corruption and insecurity negatively affect democratic values in Guatemala. Compared with other Latin American countries, it is unsurprising that Guatemala ranks low in popular preference for democracy as a form of government.