Road to justice: A novel approach to fighting crime and impunity in post-conflict Guatemala

noviembre 29, 2011

The Guatemalan Congress votes in favour of a legal reform proposed by the International Commission Against Impunity. The Commission has proposed reforms including changes to the law on immunity and to laws on criminal procedures and organized crime. 2008. Photo/CICIG

UN-backed commission battling organized crime in Guatemala is providing a unique form of international assistance for nations confronted with surging crime and the legacy of armed conflict. Whereas other countries have turned to international tribunals to cope with serious crimes that their fragile justice systems are ill-equipped to handle, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is working closely with national authorities to prosecute such crimes through the country’s own courts.

The Story

Guatemala has struggled for years to dismantle clandestine security structures since three decades of armed conflict ended in 1996. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – an independent investigative body created in 2008 under an agreement between the United Nations and Guatemala – is breaking new ground in this fight.

Unlike an international tribunal, CICIG’s team of investigators and criminal justice experts is working directly with Guatemalan authorities to bring criminal groups to trial in the country’s courts. Working in partnership with police and prosecutors, the commission is investigating criminal groups that have long paralyzed the country’s justice system. After years of armed conflict, illegal groups that used to threaten and prevent courts from taking action in cases of human rights abuses have since evolved into organized criminal groups.

Based in Guatemala City, CICIG is currently investigating about 24 cases and is serving as a complementary prosecutor in partnership with Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office in several cases. The commission is staffed with about 150 international and Guatemalan professionals, most of whom are criminal justice experts.

In accordance with its mandate, the Commission has proposed a number of legislative changes to strengthen Guatemala’s crime-fighting laws and bolster the judiciary’s capacity to fight organized crime. According to CICIG, efforts to fight corruption in 2008 led to the expulsion of about 1,700 people, including 50 senior officials, from the police force. CICIG also has proposed to set up wiretapping procedures, improve witness protection, transfer highly sensitive cases to courts in Guatemala City, and establish a maximum security penitentiary for dangerous suspects.

This new UN-backed initiative to strengthen the rule of law in a post-conflict country by working directly within the national criminal justice system has shown encouraging results in Guatemala and serves as a potential model for other countries dealing with violent crime and lawlessness in the aftermath of war. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged Guatemalan authorities and civil society to support CICIG’s efforts to investigate and prosecute illegal armed groups in the Central American nation.

The Context

    * According to official government figures, Guatemala has one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world, coupled with very low conviction rates for serious crimes.  The UN Development Programme estimates that violence costs Guatemala the equivalent of 7.3 per cent of its gross domestic product per year. Some 88 per cent of cocaine entering the United States is believed to pass through Guatemala and its neighbouring Central American countries, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Formation of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala was in part prompted by threats and direct attacks on human rights workers.

    * The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was established in response to a request from Guatemalan authorities for assistance in the fight against illegal security forces after more than 30 years of armed conflict ended in 1996.

    * CICIG began its operations in January 2008 under an agreement between the United Nations Secretariat and the Government of Guatemala. The Commission is authorized to conduct independent investigations and help authorities bring representative cases to trial in national courts.  CICIG is also mandated to map clandestine criminal networks and recommend public policies to help eradicate organized crime.

    * CICIG’s 2-year mandate, which expires in September 2009, has been extended for two more years at the request of the Guatemalan government.

    * CICIG is funded entirely by voluntary contributions and has received donations totaling more than US$ 20 million, in addition to secondments of personnel from the international community.

    * The head of the commission, Carlos Castresana Fernández of Spain, was appointed to the post by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He has served as Public Prosecutor for the Supreme Court of Spain since 2005. Previously he worked for ten years in the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Corruption, where he investigated and prosecuted corruption cases and white-collar crimes before the National Court and other Spanish courts.

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