La Cuadra believes that many of our foreign-born readers have interest in trying to understand the often Byzantine channels through which power runs in Guatemala. And we also know from our experiences living here that gaining insight on the Guatemalan political landscape is difficult, to say the least. Fortunately, we know Paul Goepfert, a writer and thinker who has been observing the often parallel worlds of political power in Central America for the past thirty years. What he says isn’t always flattering to those in power, but it is always thoughtful.
Presented below is an article by Mr. Goepfert that casts an investigative eye into the “parallel powers” (legal and illegal, overt and covert) which define the nature of the Guatemalan state. And, as the author recently pointed out to us, “as we move into another Presidential election cycle with three of the top four candidates being legally barred from running by the Constitution, it’s probably worth taking a look back over the past two years to gain some perspective on how things really work in this country.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Guatemalans go to the polls in November of 2011 to elect the next government. We hope that Paul sticks with us for the coming issues to help keep our readers informed.
On May 10 2009 a prominent Guatemalan attorney, Rodrigo Rosenberg, was gunned down in broad daylight while riding his bicycle down a busy, tree-lined boulevard in a wealthy residential district of Guatemala City. But this wasn’t just another killing in a homicide-plagued country. On May 11, 2009 Guatemalan television aired a pre-recorded video in which Mr. Rosenberg stated the following: “If you are viewing this video, it is because I have been assassinated by President Álvaro Colom.” Mr. Rosenberg then proceeded to accuse close associates of the President, including the President’s wife, Sandra Torres de Colom, of involvement not only in his murder but in the earlier murder of two of his clients, the prominent businessman Khahil Musa and his daughter Marjorie, purportedly over fears of revelations of corrupt drug-money laundering at the highest government levels in the semi-state bank, Banrural.
The immediate, explosive effect was the polarization of the nation into mass demonstrations in the capital for and against President Colom and his wife. The anti-Colom demonstrators, calling for his resignation, were mostly urban, educated professionals and university students, who had spontaneously organized themselves through the social networking systems of Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. The pro-Colom supporters were primarily rural people, bused in by the government from the countryside, areas where the Colom administration, through the offices of the First Lady, have spent significant state resources on direct aid programs, such as “Social Cohesion” and “My Family Progresses.” The Anti-Colom opposition has insisted that Torres de Colom has no constitutional mandate to be managing any government funds, and they have demanded a rendering of this spending to the congress. When the Colom administration refused, the opposition cried foul, claiming the Colom and his wife are using government funds to influence voters in support of Sandra de Colom’s expected presidential candidacy in 2012 — a candidacy that many Guatemalan jurists believe to be constitutionally prohibited in the first place. Meanwhile, the nation tottered over the abyss.
It would not be until January 12, 2010 when one man stepped forward to the microphone to cut the Gordian Knot of the case. That man was the head of the United Nations International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, (CICIG in its Spanish acronym), Dr. Carlos Castresana, Spanish judge and professor of international jurisprudence. With a plethora of forensic evidence, Dr. Castresana astonished an habitually incredulous nation by showing how Rosenberg had planned his own killing. A motive was not offered, but President Colom and his wife were off the hook.
The case brought CICIG to the attention of the entire country. In December of 2006 the Guatemalan government had signed an agreement with the Secretary General of the United Nations to allow the formation of this special commission against impunity in Guatemala. The Commission was solicited in order to investigate what in Guatemala are called “parallel powers,” clandestine criminal groups with tentacles into the security forces and the judicial system, linked to army counterinsurgent intelligence. These “parallel powers” had for years influenced the judicial system. The Commission’s job was not only to bust the “parallel powers” but also to crack its influence within the judicial system. Its mandate also included suggesting changes in existing laws or drafting new laws that might help eradicate the rampant criminality in the country. CICIG was unusual because it was mandated to work through the Attorney General’s staff in any prosecutorial case. As the The Journal of International Criminal Justice from Oxford University pointed out, this was a two-edged sword: on the one hand CICIG’s prosecutorial independence was limited by its partnership with a judicial system that it was mandated to reform, but on the other hand it was embedded in the system it needed to reform. But as Dr. Castresana has said in an interview with this writer, “None of the institutions here are completely corrupt. So it’s possible to find people in the police, in the prosecutor’s office, and in the judicial system who are ready to be converted into our partners.”
The average Guatemalan on the street, however, was not feeling the benefits. The only thing that the average citizen knew was that every day his or her life was ever more fatally precarious. Since the signing of the December 1996 Peace Accords, ending 36 years of internecine warfare between leftist guerrillas and the Guatemalan army, Guatemala had been descending into a maelstrom of civilian violence even surpassing, by many measures, the years of war.
The sociologist and one-time government peace negotiator Hector Rosada observed, “The peace is more violent than the war. The peace process never prepared us for the country we are now living in.”
Luis Linares of ASIES (The Association of Investigation and Social Studies) put it another way: “We are living in a psychosis. The citizen leaves home in the morning and doesn’t know if he will come home alive. This is a cost that we assume every day, but it is difficult to quantify.”
Nevertheless, some data do quantify this cost. From the year 2000 to the year 2009 homicides have risen from 2,904 per year to 6,451, yet in 2009 there were only 230 homicide prosecutions, or slightly more than 3.5 percent. In 2000 there were approximately 25.9 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants in Guatemala; in 2009 there were 48 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. By way of comparison, the rate in Costa Rica is four murders per 100,000 inhabitants.