Changing Guatemala's Decades-Old Culture Of Corruption
Guatemala signed peace accords in 1996 to end a decades-long civil war. But even though the fighting came to an end, institutional democratic reforms never took place.
The government consolidated power through corrupt relationships with organized crime and a lack of accountability over the next two decades.
“A very popular phrase is ‘hidden powers’,” says Adriana Beltrán, a Senior Associate for Citizen Security at the Washington Office on Latin America, and the author of a study of the same name. “Established institutions like the judicial sector, the police… they’ll use them to prevent any kind of conviction when it comes to human rights cases to protect in case of criminal wrongdoing.”
This parallel power structure means Guatemala’s political elite see no need to build a democratic country 17 years after the end of the conflict. But Beltrán says the 2010 appointment of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has brought to light some of the corruption and impunity seen in the Central American country.
“You’ve seen very notorious individuals that everybody in Guatemala knew were involved in organized crime, for the first time be apprehended, be arrested, some of them facing extradition,” Beltrán says. “I see this as a positive step.”
NPR’s Carrie Kahn reported in March that crime in Guatemala has fallen nearly 9 percent in the two years she's been in office:
Sitting in her top floor office, Paz says the country has a debt to pay to the victims of the armed conflict who have never seen justice. Paz has spent decades building cases against former military generals who practice a scorched earth policy during the armed conflict. Rios Montt is, by far, the biggest catch and the first former dictator ever tried for war crimes in a Latin American court.
She said that the fact that the trial was able to go forward despite years of legal maneuvers by the former general, is a true measure of how far democracy has advanced in Guatemala.
Beltrán says many prosecutors and judges also risk their lives to reform civil society in Guatemala. She says financial and political support to strengthen the country’s criminal justice system is key, along with making sure younger Guatemalans know their own history.
“One of the issues of the peace accord that was never implanted was the need to include in the curriculum mention of the conflict,” Beltrán says. “And that hasn’t happened.”
On what the security situation is presently like in Guatemala
In 2010 we started seeing some very positive steps that were encouraging. One had to do with the creation of an International Commission against Impunity. This is a UN-led body that was a proposal that was promoted by the civil society organizations, the human rights community to address the problems of impunity in the country. It was an entity that was established in 2008 that has, on the one hand, tried to investigate very high-level cases of the collusion between state officials and organized crime, but also tried to present proposals for the strengthening of both the judicial body, the attorney general’s office, and the police.
On how Guatemala’s situation compares to its Central American neighbors
Honduras, for example, has the highest homicide rate of any country globally. It’s, right now, according to the last figures, about 85 per 100,000. They experienced the wars of the 80s very differently. I would say in the case of El Salvador, the peace accords there that were signed in 1992, were able to advance a lot more than in the case of Guatemala. Then you have a bit of stronger institutionally in the country, particularly when it comes to the police. That said, you know, because of the security situation and now you have new threats, organized crime, you have, you know, the issue of the youth gangs, it has debilitated the institutions, and still we start now seeing more interfering of organized crime within the institutions.
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Adriana Beltrán, welcome to World Views.
ADRIANA BELTRÁN: Thank you.
GRILLOT: You’ve been doing a lot of work in Central America, I mean, you’re originally from Colombia, but you’ve spent a lot of time working in and studying issues regarding security and violence, and human rights, really, in Central America, particularly Guatemala. Could you give us a little update on what is the current security situation or human rights situation like in Guatemala? I mean, we don’t get very good reports, of course, here, so give us, kind of, an on the ground assessment of what it’s like there.
BELTRÁN: It’s a very interesting time in Guatemala. On the one hand I would say starting in 2010 we started seeing some very positive steps that were encouraging. One had to do with the creation of an International Commission against Impunity. This is a UN-led body that was a proposal that was promoted by the civil society organizations, the human rights community to address the problems of impunity in the country. It was an entity that was established in 2008 that has, on the one hand, tried to investigate very high-level cases of the collusion between state officials and organized crime, but also tried to present proposals for the strengthening of both the judicial body, the attorney general’s office, and the police, and through its work, one of the things that we saw in 2010 was the appointment of a very, very courageous leader as attorney general. It was a very contested process that, again, brought to light a lot of the corruption and impunity that you see in the country, but her appointment has been key on many levels. One, she has managed to push forward some of the key human rights cases that have been stalled since the end of the conflict in 1996, and has also gone after organized crime. So you’ve seen, you know, very notorious individuals that everybody in Guatemala, they knew were involved in organized crime, for the first time be apprehended, be arrested, some of them facing extradition. I see this as a positive step. Obviously, you know, many of the prosecutors and people involved are still facing death threats under very, very harsh security situations and you see setbacks in a lot of these processes, and that’s how you see the impunity at work in Guatemala.
GRILLOT: So, let’s just step back for a second. I want to get to this issue of corruption and organized crime and police reform, but just to go back one second to talk a little bit about the conflict in Guatemala, the conflict that ended in 1996 with the peace accords that you refer to. What was the ultimate cause of that conflict and how could we characterize that conflict, and what was the outcome in the sense of, you know, democratic governance and stability that is now playing out in some other fashion?
BELTRÁN: You know, to characterize isn’t a very general way, because, you could, you know, spend hours talking about the causes of the conflict. The root, essentially was a system that was extremely unequal, and we had huge swaths of the population that, you know, were very poor, did not have opportunities, you know, very huge concentration of huge swaths of land, so there was a lot of inequality and disparity, which eventually led to the formation of the guerrilla groups, and eventually led to the conflict. It was at a time, you know, where the U.S. was promoting a national security doctrine, it was during the Cold War, so there was a lot of push to fight any kind of left insurgency. What that led to, in the case of Guatemala, was one of the most atrocious conflicts that you’ve seen in the region. The U.N. Historical Clarification Commission, following the peace accords, you know, estimated that over 200,000 people were assassinated or disappeared. There were over 600 massacres. Ninety-two percent of the human rights violations were committed by the military or paramilitaries that worked for the military, and 3 percent of the guerillas. You know, the Historical Clarification Commission describes just horrible and atrocious violations committed, mostly against the indigenous population. At the end, you know, what they concluded was that the state and the military did, in fact, commit acts of genocide in four specific regions of the country.
GRILLOT: So, seventeen years ago, when these peace accords were signed and the conflict essentially came to an end, rather than beginning this process of institutionalizing democratic reform and processes, these groups, these various players that were engaged in the conflict then took power in some other way by developing criminal networks and corrupt relations with those in government and those are the institutions basically, that have emerged and have strengthened throughout those times since the end of the conflict?
BELTRÁN: I think in Guatemala, it’s a very popular or common phrase is called the hidden powers. What these essential are, are parallel powers, and what this essentially describes is what’s going on in Guatemala, like you describe the elites, and in certain, very influential sectors, established institutions the judicial sector, the police, and many of the bodies that were called for in the peace accords, but they built them in a way that they also have a lot of influence of who you are put in key in places that would essentially allow them to function to the degree that they want them to function, but, to their own benefit. So they’ll use them to prevent any kind of conviction when it comes to human rights cases or to protect in case of criminal wrongdoing, to ensure that the system operates for their benefit, but not for the benefit of the whole, and that’s what, you know, Guatemalans mean as parallel powers and the influence of very influential sectors that essentially have not seen a need for building a democratic country.
GRILLOT: So how does this situation compare to other countries in Central America? I mean, Guatemala is not the only country that has experienced a similar background, a similar history, so how does it fare in comparison to El Salvador, or maybe Honduras in the region?
BELTRÁN: The northern triangle of Central America, so what’s comprised of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras currently has some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Honduras, for example, has the highest homicide rate of any country globally. It’s, right now, according to the last figures, about 85 per 100,000. They experienced the wars of the 80s very differently. I would say in the case of El Salvador, the peace accords there that were signed in 1992, were able to advance a lot more than in the case of Guatemala. Then you have a bit of stronger institutionally in the country, particularly when it comes to the police. That said, you know, because of the security situation and now you have new threats, organized crime, you have, you know, the issue of the youth gangs, it has debilitated the institutions, and still we start now seeing more interfering of organized crime within the institutions. In the case of Honduras, there was a coup in 2009. The situation was also one of a lot of inequality. Unfortunately, one of the impacts of the coup was to debilitate even more of their infragile institutions. So what you have right now is extremely high levels of corruption and infiltration of organized crime in institutions. They’ve been trying to push, you know, police reform, security sector reforms, but, you know, these have not advanced, and I would say in large part because you have just a lot of infiltration, a lot of linkages between very powerful individuals and criminality.
GRILLOT: So, very quickly then, what is the solution here? What do we need to be looking to the international community, or to these own government themselves to be doing to address these serious problems with security and human rights violations?
BELTRÁN: On the part of the international community, there’s a significant amount of funding that is provided, not just by the United States government, but by other governments and multi-lateral institutions. I think it’s very key that the international community use both its financial and political support to push, very clearly, for reform agenda, and by that I mean focus on the strengthening of the institutions, on building, you know, effective, professional criminal justice institutions that police. Making sure that the focus of their assistance is geared in that direction. Support for civil society, because I think it’s key and they’ve played a remarkable role in trying to push many of these processes forward at great risk, and I think that’s where, not just international governments, but people can lend their support to let the governments know that there is international attention, that there is concern, and also support for very courageous individuals, even within the institutions. You have, you know, the attorney general that I mentioned, but you also have many prosecutors and judges that are willing to risk their lives for making, you know, good and professional decisions.
GRILLOT: What about generational change? I mean, is this going to change, I suppose, with the generations as you have some of these other people leave power and young people coming up?
BELTRÁN: I mean, that’s the hope of many. You know, one of the questions that I’ve often asked myself, particularly when it comes to the elite, is if a new generation, particularly given the concerns of organized crime and even threats that they face, will that lead them to support a more reformative agenda? Other changes, now, even within the police and military, because you have the old guard kind of leaving and how can you, you know, push reform processes to ensure that these new people that are emerging have a different vision of what their country ought to look like. But also, how do you build a civil society, and how do you get generations that, you know, in the case of Guatemala, didn’t necessarily experience the conflict, to understand their own history? You know, and that, in one of the setbacks or issues of the peace accords that was never implanted was the need to include in the curriculum mention of the conflict, and that hasn’t happened. So, often times, we are talking to younger Guatemalans, they don’t really know their own history.
GRILLOT: Well that would definitely be important for any kind of future change. Well Adriana Beltrán, thank you so much for joining us today.
BELTRÁN: Thank you for inviting me.
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