Guatemala: progress made on justice system, says head of UN-backed probe

Carlos Castresana, head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala

24 February 2009 – Despite strides made in dismantling organized criminal networks in Guatemala, substantial work is still necessary to consolidate the rule of law in the Central American nation, the head of a United Nations-backed commission investigating the presence and activities of these groups said today.

Since the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, officially began its work in January of last year, “we have made significant progress,” Commissioner Carlos Castresana told reporters in New York.

The Commission seeks to bolster the rule of law in Guatemala and is permitted by its mandate to conduct independent investigations and help authorities bring representative cases to trial in national courts. It differs in that regard from international tribunals and is thus an “innovative” effort, Castresana said.

After more than three decades of armed conflict came to an end in 1996, illegal security organizations which used to prevent the courts from acting in cases of human rights abuses “have basically been reduced to organized crime” groups, Mr. Castresana said.

Last year saw the expulsion of 1,700 people – including 50 senior officials – from the police force, within which there is “a lot of endemic dysfunction and corruption is rife.”

Further, he said the CICIG took their case to the Guatemalan president when the Attorney General refused to cooperate with the Commission, which ultimately resulted in the resignation of the Attorney General and the invitation of 10 of the country’s main public prosecutors to leave their positions.

“We’ve built up a relationship of trust with our Guatemalan peers,” he said, noting that plans to step up witness protection programmes and create a maximum security prison to house the most dangerous offenders are also underway.

However, “there is still 98 per cent impunity in Guatemala, unfortunately,” said the Commissioner of the CICIG, which was established under an agreement signed between Guatemala and the UN in December 2006.

Dealing with trans-national criminals including drug traffickers will require “high-impact” courts in Guatemala City, he stressed, since it courts in the country’s interior lack the legal and security protections necessary to try the most sensitive cases. Trying such offenders will also require physical protection “because the environment is very hostile.” The Guatemala City-based CICIG is currently investigating 20 “high impact” cases, and is a complementary prosecutor, along with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, in four of them.

Mr. Castresana paid tribute to the governments in the country for their bravery in recognizing the seriousness of the threat to security posed by the presence of regional organized criminal groups

He also thanked the international community for their generosity “which is gradually helping Guatemala clean things up with the contribution of prosecutors in Guatemala who are now able to do their jobs, something they were unable to do alone.”

The ultimate goal, the CICIG chief said, is not to replace the nation’s democratic institutions, but rather to help build a democracy where the rule of law is entrenched where “citizens have a referee who can resolve their disputes” without resorting to violence.

The CICIG, which has a two-year mandate, is funded entirely by voluntary contributions from the international community, receiving over $20 million in donations or secondments of personnel through the end of last year.

Based in the capital Guatemala City, it currently has approximately 150 international Guatemalan national staff, most of whom are criminal justice experts with experience in organized crime.


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