Guatemala’s Fragile Progress

Protesting in June in Guatemala City against corruption involving the former president Otto Pérez Molina. Esteban Biba/European Pressphoto Agency
Protesting in June in Guatemala City against corruption involving the former president Otto Pérez Molina. Esteban Biba/European Pressphoto Agency

At first glance, Guatemala’s recent steps to root out organized crime look impressive: Working with the United Nations, the country’s attorney general has dismantled a major criminal network tied to the political party led by the former president Otto Pérez Molina, who now sits in jail — along with his vice president and some 200 other disgraced cabinet ministers, congressmen, civil servants, businessmen, bankers, lawyers and judges.

But looks can be deceiving. Guatemala still faces formidable resistance to change from organized crime, powerful business executives, and corrupt judges and politicians. Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, are reluctant to participate in transforming a political system that they don’t yet trust.

The cost of failure in Guatemala would be enormous. Not only would democracy in that country be imperiled, but the prospects for reform across the region would suffer a dire setback.

In the last 18 months, Guatemala has done more than just arrest a few high-profile figures. Congress has approved reforms enhancing transparency in political and campaign financing and the allocation of government contracts; other measures aim to professionalize the civil service and the judicial system. A decade of work building a professional and powerful attorney general’s office is paying off. Former prosecutors now run the Ministry of the Interior and administer the tax collection office.

These victories, however, are only the opening battle in a war against a formidable adversary: organized crime. These criminal syndicates’ origins stretch back half a century to Guatemala’s decades-long, genocidal civil war, in which military officers and their elite allies plundered the country to maximize the economic gains of war and establish a framework that would perpetually feed their greed.

Getting at the root of organized crime means going deeper than a few corrupt officials, something Mr. Pérez Molina emphasized to me in an interview from jail last year. He knew what he was talking about. The heads have been removed, but as with the mythological Hydra, another generation of criminals is already emerging to claim leadership, and several equally large criminal rings continue to operate unimpeded.

Meanwhile, the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and its partners in government and civil society are at a tactical disadvantage. Much of their initial success was built on the element of surprise. No one expected such a forceful assault on corruption. But organized crime won’t make the same mistake twice. Its leaders have publicly threatened the lives and reputations of the attorney general, the presiding judge in the corruption trials, the United Nations commissioner in charge and his chief political officer, aiming to strip them of the will and credibility to do their jobs.

These aren’t idle threats: It is widely believed that the murder in July of Byron Lima Oliva, the country’s most infamous inmate and the kingpin of a criminal network within the penitentiary system, was connected to his apparent willingness to reveal the source of threats against the attorney general, Thelma Aldana.

The United Nations commission and its partners must do more than stand their ground. So far, they have concentrated on a political purge in the capital, Guatemala City. To consolidate their gains, they must expand into Guatemala’s countryside, where the same criminal networks hold local politics hostage. But at present, the underfinanced attorney general has offices in only 10 percent of the country’s 338 mostly rural municipalities.

And there’s an even more fundamental challenge: It’s one thing to root out corruption; it’s another to create the functioning democratic and civil society that can inoculate a country against the disease. Guatemala is moving in the right direction, with growing numbers of citizens coming to understand that a democratic, equitable and just society is finally within reach. But to many, the government still seems incapable of decisive action; honest, enterprising Guatemalans don’t dare sign a government contract, and democracy activists hesitate to enter formal politics.

Failure could occur in any number of places. Political pressure and fear could force crusaders in government to resign. The United Nations may decide its job is finished and move resources elsewhere. American support could likewise dry up. Any stumble could lead to disaster, giving the momentum back to organized crime and crushing the public’s faith in peaceful change.

What happens in Guatemala matters far beyond its borders. The country is a test case in a region-wide battle against corruption. Reformers elsewhere are watching closely; if organized crime wins out, the illicit forces that govern much of Latin America will be buoyed. But if democracy succeeds, the region’s citizens will gain confidence, inspiration and know-how that can fuel their struggles to build the rule of law.

The United States government understands the stakes, and has vigorously supported the United Nations commission and the attorney general’s office. Their opponents, who accuse the United States of neocolonialism when it suits them, are hoping for a victory by Donald J. Trump in the fall, which may well lead to a cutoff in funds for the reformers.

But this support has also earned the United States crucial new allies. Liberal Guatemalans, even longtime die-hard opponents of American interventionism, have praised recent American efforts. After nearly a century of backing regimes notorious for oppression and violence, the United States is seen, finally, as being on the right side in Central America.

Like the reformers in Guatemala City, the United States can’t back down. Guatemalan organized crime is a major driver in the illicit flow of drugs, weapons and people northward. A partnership based on trust and good will among democratic neighbors stands a far better chance of keeping all of us much safer.

Anita Isaacs is a professor of political science at Haverford College.

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