democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Threats to the rule of law in Guatemala are getting serious

The removal of an independent prosecutor who pursued government corruption is the latest in a series of attacks on accountability

Sanne Weber Marlies Stappers
8 August 2021, 12.01am
A Maya woman at a protest in Guatemala City
Guatebrian / Alamy Stock Photo

This year, which marks the 25th anniversary of the peace accords that ended decades of civil war in Guatemala, should have been a cause for celebration. Instead, the country is roiled by protests – the largest and most widespread since 2015 – as tens of thousands demand accountability from their government.

Guatemala’s attempts to prosecute corruption and combat impunity may be at risk after the dismissal of a respected prosecutor who was investigating allegations against several government officials, including the president, Alejandro Giammattei. The sacking on 23 July of Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), is seen as yet another attempt to undermine the fight for rule of law in Guatemala. The US, which has championed Sandoval’s work, has expressed concern at his removal. Europe must now follow suit.

In the past few decades, international support for Guatemala and its civil society organisations has empowered the country’s human rights movement. There has been a strong push for justice by survivors of the 1960-1996 armed conflict, during which many atrocities were committed. Human rights organisations and survivors have served as a powerful coalition for truth and justice.

After the breakthrough came the backlash

An example of the crucial role played by such coalitions is the Ixil genocide case against Guatemala’s former dictator, Ríos Montt. Soon after Montt came to power through a coup in 1982, the army and paramilitary forces launched a ‘scorched earth’ operation against the country’s Ixil Maya population, annihilating more than 600 villages. Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013 but the judgment was annulled just days after the verdict, which only serves to show the challenges of ending impunity in Guatemala.

The Diario Militar (“death squad diary”) lawsuit may prove to be another test. The military intelligence dossier, which was discovered by chance in 1999, documents the abductions, torture, disappearances and executions of 183 people during the armed conflict. It provides essential evidence about military and police terror against union leaders and student movement organisers. Decades of struggle by the victims’ families seemed to have paid off when 12 retired military officers were recently arrested and a judge ordered a trial.

But after the breakthrough came the backlash. The right-wing political party VALOR, led by the former dictator’s daughter, Zury Ríos, has proposed a law that would grant amnesty to 50 military officers convicted of human rights violations during the armed conflict, and prevent investigation and prosecution of new cases.

Justice on shaky ground

Although Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has not approved other amnesty laws in the past, its position on the latest proposal is unclear. There are concerns about the Constitutional Court’s independence now that the country’s legislature refused to swear in Judge Gloria Porras for another five-year-term as a magistrate. Porras, an independent judge who is known for her defence of human rights, had served as president of the Constitutional Court, since 2020.

Other judges have faced similar issues. The judge on the Diario Militar case recently joined with other prominent legal figures to denounce the threats posed by criminal and administrative complaints against them. International human rights organisations have expressed alarm at the attempts to intimidate human rights defenders, serving and former prosecutors, judges, magistrates and defense lawyers. These threats come from military and economic elites, who are closely connected to those who orchestrated and implemented the counterinsurgency during the armed conflict.

This shows the connection between past impunity and present-day crime and corruption. Even though the law requires the Public Prosecutor’s Office to act within 20 days of a complaint being filed, most of them have not been investigated. International concern has been expressed about a “pattern” in which the Public Prosecutor's Office keeps even manifestly unfounded complaints open indefinitely.

The co-optation of the Public Prosecutor’s Office has become even clearer with Attorney General Consuelo Porras’s dismissal of Sandoval, the prosecutor described by the US State Department as an “anti-corruption champion”. Sandoval’s sacking has led the US to suspend its collaboration with Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office.

With the independence of the Constitutional Court and the Public Prosecutor’s Office in doubt, Guatemala seems ever more prone to becoming a kleptocracy, beset by impunity and human rights violations. In addition, the new so-called ‘NGO law’ threatens freedom of association and expression, greatly weakening NGOs’ ability to play the watchdog role crucial to upholding democracy and human rights.

Massive protests need international support

These worrying developments have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which threatens to overwhelm the country’s weak healthcare system. The people are desperate and frustrated, as is obvious from the thousands who took to the streets demanding President Giammattei’s resignation for his inept handling of the pandemic. On 29 July, an unprecedented national strike repeated the call for Giammattei and his attorney general to go. The people clearly hope to repeat their 2015 achievement, when waves of massive anti-corruption demonstrations brought about the downfall of President Otto Pérez Molina. But for this, they need international support.

Although Guatemala is not generally the focus of international attention, it has recently made headlines. The US has been taking an interest, with Vice-President Kamala Harris meeting several exiled former Guatemalan prosecutors and judges before visiting the country in June. Harris has announced US support for economic investment in the wider region, as well as anti-corruption measures and humanitarian relief assistance in Guatemala.

Unlike the US, Europe has remained quiet about recent developments in Guatemala. But it needs to take urgent action. Guatemala’s ineffective judicial system means there is little to hold back drug trafficking networks, which have a hold on Central America and Mexico, and are increasingly targeting Europe. Crime and corruption mean that migrants continue to flee the country. It is time Europe spoke up about rule of law, the fight against impunity and the struggle for human rights and justice. Europe has long supported this struggle and it must continue to do so.

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