Fourteen years after Guatemala’s government signed a peace agreement with a coalition of guerrilla groups ending a 30-year civil war, the country finds itself once again in the grip of armed conflict, though one in which the battle lines are even murkier than before. While drug-related violence plaguing the border regions of Mexico has achieved a kind of grisly global renown in recent years, the even deadlier battle directly to the south has generated little comment on the international stage.
Central America’s most populous country, Guatemala has become the scene of a brutal power struggle involving Mexican cartels who have been pushed south by President Felipe Calderón’s militarised campaign against drug traffickers there, and Guatemala’s indigenous criminal groups, many of whom have their roots in a military intelligence apparatus set up with US aid during the country’s internal armed conflict.
After the peace accords, many Guatemalans hoped that their country was embarking on a brighter future. The preceding conflict had claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly poor, indigenous campesinos caught in the struggle between a militarily-weak leftist insurgency and the ruthless scorched-earth tactics of a national army, whose only military manoeuvre appeared to be the massacre.
But now, nearly 15 years later, more people die in Guatemala every year than did at the height of the civil war. While Mexico’s homicide rate has been estimated at 26 per 100,000 by the Latin American academic body Flacso Guatemala’s numbers a staggering 53 per 100,000.
What went so wrong? How did the promise of peace become transmuted into the rule of Guatemala by criminal monarchies whose brazen shootouts have become a fact of daily life?
Following the peace accords, President Álvaro Arzú of the Partido de Avanzada Nacional and his successor, Alfonso Portillo of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who presided over some of the country’s worst human rights abuses), implemented many key provisions of the peace accords half-heartedly, if at all. A civilian intelligence office mandated to combat organised crime was not established until 2007. By then, Guatemala’s clandestine criminal networks had spent a decade successfully inserting themselves into virtually every manifestation of the state. The national police force remains ineffectual and numerically small, currently numbering around 26,000 officers, while Guatemala’s private security sector has swelled to 120,000.
Meanwhile, the driving forces behind the syndicates that solidified in Guatemala during the civil war years as the country’s military elite were left to flourish more or less untouched. Indeed, during Portillo’s 2000-04 tenure as president, they became virtual contractors of the state.
In recent years, the situation has grown graver still. Guatemala’s 2007 electoral contest saw current President Álvaro Colom of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) party join battle against Otto Pérez Molina, a former general and leader of the Partido Patriota (PP), in one of the bloodiest ballots in the nation’s history. More than 50 candidates and party activists were slain.
Mexican drug cartels such as the Cartel de Sinaloa and Los Zetas have ,meanwhile, expanded their operations throughout vast swathes of the country, ranging from San Marcos along the western border with Mexico, to the northern jungles of El Petén, to the sweltering department of Zacapa in the nation’s east.
One ray of hope in this very bleak landscape has been the creation in 2007 of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body charged with investigation of clandestine organisations and exposing their relation to the Guatemalan state. Until June of this year, CICIG was under the direction of Carlos Castresana, a magistrate experienced at prosecuting drug-related cases in Mexico and investigating corruption in his native Spain.
Under Castresana’s leadership, CICIG was, for the first time, able to force a discussion about impunity and corruption at the highest levels of Guatemala’s political system into the public realm. In another first, a former president, Alfonso Portillo, was arrested and has been held in prison since January on charges of embezzling some $15m in state funds. He also faces extradition to the United States on money-laundering charges, after his trial in Guatemala concludes.
When Castresana resigned earlier this year, charging that the Colom government was undermining CICIG’s work, he was replaced by Francisco Dall’Anese Ruiz, the former attorney general of Costa Rica. Dall’Anese took the reins of an investigative body facing enormous pressures, where death threats against its staff, the murder of its witnesses and rocky relations with its nominal bosses at the UN’s department of political affairs have become occupational hazards.
But CICIG remains, however imperfect, the best hope that Guatemalans have in the fight against the corruption that is causing the future of their country – blessed with plentiful natural resources and an inventive, industrious population – to vanish amid the din of automatic weapons fire. It is vital that CICIG’s mandate, set to expire just as new presidential elections are held next fall, should be renewed if it is to succeed in this challenging mission. Ideally, its powers would be expanded to give it the ability to subpoena and indict suspects, as well as protect the lives of those Guatemalans who chose to cooperate.
Guatemala’s fragile civil society of honest officials, human rights groups and indigenous organisations desperately needs support. As the international community – and especially the United States – saw fit to pour money into the Guatemalan military machine that helped create the criminal oligarchy that now wields such power in the country, it is only just that they should now back the efforts of CICIG and honest Guatemalans in their struggle to bring this monster down.
Michael Deibert, a visiting fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University.