The Guatemalan legal system has made significant improvements recently but is facing major obstacles in its attempts to bring criminals—past and present—to justice.
Impunity is an everyday event in Guatemala. From the most minor traffic offense being ignored or the less than 3 percent of murders that are investigated. However, with the trial and conviction of four former Special Forces soldiers for their roles in the Dos Erres massacre in 1982 and a steady flow of arrests of narcotraffickers wanted in the United States and corrupt police officers, things appear to be changing.
In November, the Federation of Forensic Anthropologists (FAFG) successfully identified two of the estimated 40,000-45,000 people that were forcibly disappeared during the country’s 36-year internal conflict. The use of DNA evidence is still in its infancy, although the success of FAFG is a boost to the fledgling Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses (National Institute of Forensic Sciences, or INACIF).
“We have had more arrests in the last three months than the previous three decades,” said Fredy Pecerrelli, executive director of FAFG at a press conference to announce the identifications of Amancio Samuel Villatoro and Sergio Linares. “I think what feels most incredible is that it’s only the beginning.”
This cause for optimism was tempered by last week’s announcement of a denuncia against over 50 alleged terrorists by the Movimiento por la Dignificación de Militares y Especialistas del Ejército de Guatemala. A representative of the group, Theodore Michael Plocharski Rehbach, called on the Ministerio Público to investigate the deaths of a number of his “friends and acquaintances.”
Those killed included John Gordon Mein, the US ambassador to Guatemala in 1968, Colonels John D. Webber and Ernest Munro, murdered in the same year. As well as Count Karl Von Spreti the German ambassador to Guatemala and Edmundo Meneses Cantarero, the Nicaraguan ambassador to Guatemala. Mein was the first American ambassador to be assassinated while in office. He was forced from his car, kidnapped and shot by members of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (Rebel Armed Forces, or FAR). The same group was responsible for the deaths of Webber and Munro in a drive-by shooting.
A denuncia, which is required by law to open an investigation, named high-profile Guatemalans and foreigners, many with ties to the media and human rights organizations. They included Sandra Torres: former wife of outgoing President Alvaro Colom, who is accused of being a guerilla collaborator. Two respected journalists, Marielos Monzón and Iduvina Hernández—and in Hernández' case, a human rights activist—were also named.
Joining them on the list is Jean-Marie Simon, an American lawyer and teacher who documented many of the State’s abuses during the 1980s in her work for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. She is joined by Jennifer K. Harbury, also a lawyer and human rights activist whose husband Efraín Bámaca Velásquez was killed extrajudicially in 1993.
“I am not a criminal, I have nothing to hide and I think our duty is to strengthen the justice system,” Hernández told reporters. "We must not accept or tolerate this wave of political persecution aimed by the real criminals responsible for genocide, forced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, and exile."
Reaction to the denuncia has seen many on the list point out they were not alive or were in school at the time of the killings. In addition, six people named in the denuncia are believed to have died.
The work of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has been lauded in many quarters in addition to concern that she would not be able to see out her four-year term as public prosectuor. President-elect Otto Pérez Molina has confirmed that her position is not in danger despite the electoral shift from the Center-Left to the Right.
However, also named in the denuncia are Juan José Hurtado Paz y Paz and Laura Hurtado Paz y Paz, both cousins of Claudia. Enrique Paz y Paz, Claudia’s father, was the leader of FAR, leading some onlookers to believe the denuncia is an attack on his daughter’s credibility.
This denuncia is mirrored by a similar one in November by Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, whose father was minister of the interior under former President Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983). “Yes it is a political issue. It is against the Attorney General, for the love of God, I'm aiming for her,” Méndez Ruiz admitted to El Periodico, a national newspaper.
Both of the denuncias could be seen as an attempt to help investigations into the deaths or as stalling tactics to ensure less time is spent on investigating former soldiers. Independent reports on the Civil War suggested that the State was responsible for between 92 and 93 percent of the over 200,000 deaths.
Lawyers for ex-General Héctor Mario López Fuentes and former President Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores (1983-1986) have employed similar stalling tactics. Leaks allowed Mejía Victores to avoid capture in October when police simultaneously entered four addresses registered to him. He eventually gave himself up, was admitted to Guatemala City’s Military Hospital, and is currently seeking house arrest.
INACIF, like many governmental institutions, is hampered by a lack of funds. With Pérez Molina’s claims that his presidency will see the State spending “55-60 percent of its time on improving security,” this could change—with more emphasis and money placed in the laboratory’s work. That would certainly help but the biggest problem INACIF faces is its small profile in the criminal system. The use of DNA, ballistics and other forensic science techniques is still relatively rare in trials. Prosecutors and the police need to learn how to use the information, maintain crime scenes, and ultimately trust an institute that has only been in existence since July 2007.
At the end of 2011, the Guatemalan judicial system finds itself at a crossroads. However, it is backed by a tenacious Attorney General and with public opinion on its side that is sick of the daily violence—highlighted by the murder rate that remains constant at around 25 per day.
With a new president being inaugurated next month and an organized crime firmly entrenched and in control of a large percentage of the country and efforts to discredit its investigations, justice in Guatemala may not be blind but remains blinkered.
Nic Wirtz is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. A freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years, his work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost and he edits the website Vozz.