WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
24 Jan 2007 | News

Guatemala Still Fights War Legacy

An Op-Ed written by Adriana Beltrán and published by the Miami Herald.

The end of 2006 marks the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Guatemalan peace accords. The 1996 accords brought an end to a 36 year civil war that left 200,000 dead or ''disappeared.'' While important aspects of the accords have been implemented, structures with links to the war years have made the pursuit of justice and accountability in Guatemala a near impossibility.

The good news is that the Guatemalan government has turned to the international community, and creative minds have come up with a new mechanism to kick-start the rule of law.

According to a recent U.N. study, violence costs Guatemala more than $2.3 billion a year, the equivalent of 7.3 percent of GDP. It is estimated that 5,000 people are murdered annually. With only about 1 percent of cases ending in conviction, the country has become, as a U.N. special rapporteur sadly described, “a good place in which to commit murder.''

Much of the violence can be attributed to illegal armed groups or ''clandestine groups.'' An unresolved legacy of the civil war, the clandestine groups are illicit structures that use violence to protect their political interests and illegal economic activities. For several years, they have plagued the country, terrorizing human-rights defenders, judges, witnesses, political leaders or anyone else who stands in their way. Even more troubling has been the ability of these mafias to infiltrate the state, thereby undermining the judicial system.

While the picture looks grim, a new ray of hope has appeared. A landmark agreement signed in December to establish a U.N.-backed commission to investigate the clandestine groups brings optimism that the wall of impunity could finally be torn down.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, will seek to determine the nature, structure and modus operandi of these groups as well as their links to government officials, illicit networks or other sectors. It will be headed by a U.N.-appointed commissioner and will include a team of prosecutors, forensic experts, and investigators familiar with human-rights, criminal and international law. With an initial life-span of two years, the commission will work with the local Public Prosecutor's Office and the police in building rock-solid cases to ensure that those involved with these networks finally face justice.

To ensure the successful dismantling of these mafias, the commission will be able to join a criminal proceeding as a ''private prosecutor,'' promote key reforms and aid the country in implementing effective institutional vetting processes. By working within the Guatemalan legal system, the CICIG could play a vital role in strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala.

Impunity and corruption

The CICIG is not a miracle drug that will automatically cure the cancer of widespread impunity. But if embraced by the Guatemalan government, private sector, civil society and others, this innovative approach could help rid the country of one of its most dangerous ills. The commission's success will depend on the will and commitment of Guatemalans to fight impunity and corruption. The first hurdle before the CICIG is ratification by the Guatemalan Congress.

This is new. While the United Nations has experience in helping countries carry out truth commissions, it has never tried a mechanism like this to aid nations in going after entrenched impunity in a post-conflict situation.

The world could use some new tools for fighting impunity. But Guatemala needs international support to make this work. The United States and the international community should support the commission, both politically and financially. If the Guatemalan Congress shows the courage to confront the clandestine groups, the international community must demonstrate its willingness to back it up. Effective governance and the rule of law will not be possible in Guatemala until these illicit networks are dismantled and their backers held accountable.