Claudia Paz y Paz
Claudia Paz y Paz

Frumpy. Frizzy hair. Not necessarily the two things you would immediately think when conjuring mental images of an attorney general who put the temor de Dios, the fear of God, into disgraced national leaders and deadly international criminals. Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey looks more like the aunt ready to take you to the science museum than someone who spent years wrestling with organized crime and centuries-old corruption networks in Guatemala, one of the most dangerous political systems in the world. Yet, for three-and-a-half years, that was her full-time occupation.

Recently, however, a perfect storm rose up against her. First, her term was cut short when President Otto Pérez Molina bent to pressure from business leaders who argued that, as she was named to replace the previous Attorney General Conrado Arnulfo Reyes Sagastume, she should not be allowed to sit a day longer than he would have, had he served his full tenure — a situation that was untenable once his own corruption was discovered shortly after being sworn into office. Pérez Molina then moved swiftly to begin the process of selecting a new attorney general. Paz y Paz likely saw her dismissal coming down the pike, so, not an easily dissuaded person, she resolved to fight back. Rather than retiring quietly, she put herself forward as a candidate to fill the job from which she had been fired and scored second highest on the test administered in front of the Comisión de Postulación, the selection committee tasked with selecting six finalists for the position, from which President Pérez Molina would select a successor.

Yet, when the votes came in, Claudia Paz y Paz finished well out of contention. To understand the profundity of her defeat, consider that the candidates who moved to the final round each received either eleven or thirteen votes from the fourteen member council. Paz y Paz received only four. Scoring well on the test does not guarantee a candidate the job, nor even a pass to the next round, but it is difficult to square Paz y Paz’s second highest score of 69 out of 100, when another candidate, Eunice Mendizábal scored only a 38 and yet was selected amongst the finalists. Perhaps this is because Mrs. Mendizábal is currently a vice minister within the Pérez Molina government.

By all objective measures, Paz y Paz had a very successful run in her truncated first term. Over three-and-a-half years, she repeatedly confronted the deep, dark and dangerous back alleys of corruption in Guatemala, and walked away with a stunning number of successes in a land better known for its impunity rates than successful convictions.

Thus, a natural question arises: Why was the former attorney general so thoroughly stiff-armed? Part of the answer is, clearly, just the run-of-the-mill corruption and cronyism that defines virtually all governments in this nation. As noted above, the Comisión de Postulación, a non-governmental organization made up of the deans of Guatemalan law schools plus the President of the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia, or the CSJ), the president of the the professional organization of Guatemalan Lawyers (Colegio de Abogados Notarios de Guatemala, or CANG) and the President of the CANG League of Honor. This Comisión was established by the 1996 Constitution as a means of depoliticizing the process of selecting the top law enforcement official for the nation, but this being Guatemala, it only brought corruption into a previously unsullied part of civil society.

Consider: Of the fourteen members on the nominating committee, thirteen were present at the meeting to select candidates for the Attorney General position in late April of 2014. Of those, ten are the deans of the extant Guatemalan law schools. That may seem reasonable until you note that, since 2002, the number of private universities with law schools has doubled, and it is not a stretch to assume that the rise of such institutions has at least as much to do with influencing the selection of the Attorney General as it does with any real effort to improve the standards of education in this country. Three of these universities (Universidad San Pablo, Universidad de Occidente and Universidad DaVinci) have never actually had a student graduate, while six more have graduated only 0.8% of the aggregate numbers of students at all universities in the country between 2002 and 2014. Such statistics do not fill average Guatemalans with a great deal of faith in their government.

But perhaps even more telling was an interview with the President of the Supreme Court after the vote on Mrs. Paz y Paz’s candidacy was shot down. The jurist, José Arturo Sierra, said,  “Personally, I was in favor of integrating her into the list but the others would not.”


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When pressed if there was outside interference of the vote, he said, “Possibly, in these events there will always be things like that, but it I cannot confirm or deny it.”

Yet, one member of the committee could, and did, confirm outside influence. In an “only in Guatemala” political story, Milton Argueta, the dean of the law school at the Universidad Francisco Marroquín and established member of the Guatemalan hegemony, received a text message that he then shared with the press. It read, “If you continue your work on the committee your wife will be raped or murdered.” This message was sent twice, in case the recipient misjudged the seriousness of the threat. It was clear that this message was intended as a warning about supporting Paz y Paz. Even if Argueta’s conscience told him that a vote for Paz y Paz would be a vote for the betterment of the country, such support would cost his family dearly. It remains unknown how many other members of the Comisión de Postulación were likewise threatened, but it is a fairly safe bet that the network of individuals who made the threat towards Argueta neither left much to chance, nor had much concern for whom they were threatening. In a nation of wealthy untouchables, the threat against Argueta was a tap on the shoulder for anyone who might consider bucking their will: “Not on this one, buddy. We’re not messing around.”

In all likelihood there was interference with the process. Will it be investigated? Possibly. Will anyone be punished? Probably not. Will Guatemalans be surprised by this latest political embarrassment? Not in the least. Threats and extortion are a part of life in Guatemala and extortionists make millions of quetzales a week, potentially billions a year, with similar threats to the citizenry with jobs and bank accounts. These figures are the author’s own, based off numbers provided by news magazine Crónica’s reporting on the extortion of bus drivers and Insight Crime’s work on documenting extortion in Central America. Most of these threats originate in the country’s penitentiaries, the ones that are meant to have towers that block cell phone signals. They are calls that trigger a criminal organization into action. They are, in one very important way, a symptom of the disease that Claudia Paz y Paz has been fighting for years.

The image of Supreme Court President José Arturo Sierra washing his hands of any responsibility in this horror show is hard to dismiss. “I did what I could guv, not my fault.”  Do not admit to anything, do not investigate anything, do not question anything. The decision has been made, and here is my plausible deniability. Guatemala, the conspiracy theorist’s paradise.

It is easy to get lost in the frustration that corruption and organized crime bring to the nation, but here we do have an opportunity to see the reality of politics in Guatemala by examining why Claudia Paz y Paz’s time in office so aroused the beasts. What did she do that would lead to an organized move to first remove her from office and then to bar the door to her return? In short, she did her job, and her job was to tear down the twin edifices of political corruption and organized crime that have become welded to the state.

Although Paz y Paz has faced harsh criticism, not least by the other candidates under consideration for the office of the attorney general, the process of investigating crime in Guatemala is not dissimilar to the rest of the Americas. Prosecutors, under the direction of the attorney general, press the investigations. Judges then try the cases that the prosecutors bring. Should the attorney general go after the kingpins of organized crime, or after the street runners? Should political corruption be attacked at its deepest roots, or should the attorney general be satisfied with a few scalps of poor fools who got caught without a seat when the music stops? Can an attorney general do both?

Impunity, measured by the number of reported crimes that go unsolved in Guatemala, dropped from 93% in 2007 to 70% in 2013. That is a serious change. What Paz y Paz can be criticized for is the pitiable number of convictions for corruption, only 12 in 2012 and 149 in 2013. Under the leadership of Paz y Paz, the Ministerio Publico tried hard to break through the wall of systemic corruption, but it is so entrenched in daily political life, that it will take more than one attorney’s general term to change the culture. Still, the attempts to address corruption were not taken lightly by many vested interests in the nation.

The tipping point for the Guatemalan power structure on the term of Claudia Paz y Paz was, undoubtedly, the trial and subsequent conviction of former president José Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide. During the trial the business elite in Guatemala were sufficiently concerned with the outcome to order two professional analyses of what might happen should the former president be convicted. The first, presented when it looked as if Ríos Montt would walk, gave the all clear. The second, however, suggested that if he was found guilty, others, especially those who sat on his advisory group, the State Council, could be indicted, too.

The Ríos Montt State Council reads like a Who’s Who of Guatemala. Famous politicians, military leaders, wealthy businessmen and journalists all have their pages. From Mauricio López Bonilla, the current Interior Minister to former president Jorge Serrano Elías, who fled to Panama when his attempt to cause an auto-coup collapsed under popular pressure in 1993. In the business sector, most of Guatemala’s banks were represented, as well as construction companies such as Cemento Progresso.

Guatemala’s business elite and the military have not always had a cozy relationship, both unsure of the other’s motives. Often the military has to play the part of the enforcer and risks a popular backlash, whereas the business elite remain concerned about military force leading to a return to dictatorship. The Ríos Montt trial, however, ensured a temporary united front and a determination to ensure that impunity, at least at the very top of the tree, returned.

Two days after his trial concluded, Ríos Montt was transferred to a military hospital, then house arrest. His conviction was overturned on procedural grounds and he is currently awaiting the restart of the trial, should it happen, in January 2015.

The backlash against those who dared to rock the boat took a few months to organize. In a March 19, 2014 ruling, the Supreme Court ordered Paz y Paz to vacate her office by May 19. Moreover, Jazzmín Barrios, the trial judge for Ríos Montt’s case, was suspended in April of this year for 12 months and fined for her actions during the proceedings. The punishment was changed to a formal warning on appeal, but again the message was clear: Don’t mess about with the old military or the business elite. The law is simply not allowed to touch Guatemala’s “untouchables.”

Taking on the establishment directly by going after Ríos Montt was impudence enough for many of the Guatemalan elite, but Attorney General Paz y Paz had other fish to fry, as well. Despite the united efforts of the Pérez Molina government and the business sector, complete with the sending of tens of thousands of troops and national police to various sites around the country, hydroelectric dams and mining projects remain on hold thanks to community protesters. Criminalizing the protesters or removing them, generally by force, is the preferred method of overcoming the protests; the fact that peaceful protests are still occurring around the country is irksome to business and military leaders alike. Those leaders note that it is in the bailiwick of the attorney general to pursue cases against the organizers of those community movements, and yet, to them, she seems reluctant to do so. To a group of influential individuals long accustomed to using the law as a sword against troublesome campesinos, while making sure that its intricacies are opaque enough to be a shield for themselves, such behavior is heresy. Possibly the most sobering thought about what will soon change in this nation is how those community organizations in places like La Puya will be dealt with in the near future, once a new attorney general has been emplaced. Their forecast is likely violent and bleak.

Of the six remaining candidates, many of their plans should they be selected, appear to focus on the day-to-day crime that blights the average Guatemalan on the street. That will likely play well with people legitimately worried about being mugged or carjacked, but it won’t get to the root of the problem. It will just be another four years of mano dura en las calles, y mano suave en las mansiones.

The reality being avoided here is that there are, in fact, intellectual authors to the crimes that plague this country. They come from organized criminal minds, narcos and corrupt politicians who are directing, from a distance, many of the tragedies that the average Guatemalan endures every day. Yet, what appears to be the message from this most recent example of misrule is simple: It is far easier, and safer, to investigate the people at the bottom than those up top. Catch the drug dealer (even when President Otto Pérez Molina tells anyone who will listen that the “War on Drugs” doesn’t work) and you keep your job as an investigator or prosecutor. Target the crime lord, the people in government whom they are bribing or the utterly untouchable narcos, and your work here is done, now don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out. Also, whatever you do, do not investigate events that transpired during the Civil War, nor the shadowy organizations that form the parallel power structure in this nation of dysfunction.

President Otto Pérez Molina cut short a trip to London to interview the six remaining candidates to be his next attorney general. He is rumored to have been a supporter of Paz y Paz’s work, to a point, but was wary of being placed in a position between his attorney general and his Vice President, Roxana Baldetti. Baldetti, a former journalist, claims that she made her tens of millions of dollars selling broccoli, but when El Periódico, a widely read national newspaper, highlighted her assets as being well out of step with her income as a then congresswoman, Baldetti moved to add beauty products, salons, and income from malls and construction to her portfolio. One might wonder if such a target would have been tempting to a crusading attorney general who seems to enjoy taking on Goliath.

Regardless of who serves as the next attorney general of Guatemala, an era of enlightenment in this nation has been cut short. The country’s recent history will again be confined to shadows that ensure powerful, dangerous men will remain free. The oligarchs who dropped bombs on their fellow citizens during the civil war are safe in their retirement. The narcos and the new generation of corrupt politicians and businessmen will continue on their way, having dodged a frumpy, frizzy-haired bullet, and the upshot of this latest legal farce is that Guatemala again appears to be living down to its reputation.

(Click here to buy the latest issue of La Cuadra Magazine, including a new story by Victor Ruiz, for your eBook reader, iPad, or other hand-held device.)

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