24 February 2009

Press Conference on International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala

24 February 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


“We are not to replace Guatemala’s democratic institutions, but to help build a democracy with the rule of law,” Carlos Castresana Fernandez, Head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon on the Commission’s aims and achievements since becoming operational early last year. 

The law should be applied -- and applied equally to the rich and poor, the strong and the weak, he said.  Citizens should be able to resolve their disputes in court, without having to resort to violence, as was too often the case in Guatemala.  It was not enough just to have democratic institutions.  Those bodies, like the rest of society, needed to be subjected to the principle of legality.

Tasked with investigating the presence and activities of illegal armed groups in Guatemala, CICIG was established under an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan Government, which came into effect on 4 September 2007.  An independent body, the Commission conducts its own investigations and helps local institutions.  One of its tasks is to recommend public policies and legal or institutional measures for eradicating illegal armed groups and preventing their re-emergence.  The Commission’s funding comes from financial contributions from numerous donors, including the European Commission, Canada and the United States.  The Commission also has civil servants seconded from several Latin American countries, including Mexico, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia. 

Providing the context for the Commission’s establishment, Mr. Castresana recalled that more than three decades of conflict in Guatemala had ended with the signing of peace accords in December of 1996, but illegal groups and clandestine organizations had continued to operate with impunity throughout the country.  With concern mounting over their activities, the Government had asked for assistance from the international community.  A country that had emerged from a long history, where the State had been the main violator of human rights against its own citizens, was now “in a precarious democracy, with weak institutions”.  The State now respected its main duty to protect the human rights of its citizens, but was unable to guarantee them.  The rate of impunity in Guatemala amounted to some 98 per cent, with only 2 out of every 100 cases actually going to court.

A year and a half into its two-year mandate, the Commission had conducted numerous investigations and “drawn up a map” of illegal security structures in the country, he said.  Attempts had been made to identify the leaders of those groups, and criminal action was now being taken against the main offenders.  The Commission’s multidisciplinary team of international experts had built a relationship with its Guatemalan peers and the police.

The Commission currently had about 20 ongoing investigations and had proceeded to criminal prosecution in four cases, he continued.  One of those involved the massacre of 12 persons and related to the rivalry between organized groups; another case dealt with police corruption and concerned groups that kidnapped children.

Describing the efforts to combat corruption, which had “spread like an oil spill” all over the country, he said that some 1,700 individuals had been expelled from the police force in 2008, including 50 police commissioners and the deputy director of the national police.  The Commission had also informed the President that it could not get cooperation from the Attorney General, who had subsequently resigned.  Since then, 10 of the main public prosecutors had been invited to leave, and CICIG had been able to establish very effective cooperation with the courts.  The Commission had also set up its own prosecutor’s office and launched a proposal for legislative reforms of Guatemala’s Congress.  Its other initiatives included witness protection measures and new mechanisms for collaboration with witnesses.  A maximum security prison was being established for the most dangerous offenders.

He also emphasized the need to introduce high-impact courts for cases involving transnational criminals.  Justice in Guatemala was threatened by corruption and the presence of regional criminal groups.  It was important to ensure security for the witnesses, the judges and the defendants, and the Commission was asking that particularly dangerous cases involving regional gangs be dealt with by the courts that benefited from the required level of protection and were able to issue their sentences with independence and impartiality.

Responding to several questions regarding those courts, he said that the Commission’s mandate did not refer to international justice, but the spirit behind setting up the Commission had been to ensure that Guatemalan courts were functional and that the people had the protection -- ensured by the Constitution –- of the police, the penitentiary system and justice structures.  The Supreme Court of the country had recently agreed on the establishment of the courts, which, while based in the capital, would have competence throughout the country, including the border areas, where the presence of criminal gangs was more pronounced, due to the contraband of drugs.

The Commission was asking donors to support the courts, he said, adding his hope that those institutions would start functioning within a few months.   Guatemala could not wait any longer.

Asked if the Commission’s mandate would be extended, he said that the agreement envisioned the possibility of an extension of up to two years, but that was not up to CICIG to decide.  Such a decision could be taken by the United Nations, the Government of Guatemala and the Parliament, with support from the donors.  The Commission had made significant progress during its first year, having ensured that the police and the Justice Ministry were functional and able to carry out investigations.  Now, it was handling important cases, including those relating to kidnappings and massacres by organized groups.  The difficulties were enormous, but they could be overcome.

Unfortunately, he added, clandestine criminal structures were evident in all State institutions, including the executive, legislative and judiciary branches, as well as businesses and civil society.  There were also accomplices to illegal groups in the media, private enterprises and among politicians.  The Commission was trying to address that challenge.  It was also seeking to ensure that the country’s courts were able to do their work.

In that connection, he emphasized that there was not enough physical or legal protection for the courts and people in Guatemala, who were willing to do their job.  In 2005 to 2007, 1,960 women had been murdered, but only 40 people had been sentenced, and some 1,120 cases had not even gone to court.  With impunity, people were tempted to take the law into their own hands.  The Commission wanted to stop “the law of the jungle” from prevailing.

Asked if the experience of the Commission could be replicated in other countries, he said that there was interest in its activities.  The United Nations had never done anything like it before.  At the same time, CICIG was bringing to Guatemala best practices that had proven effective elsewhere.  For instance, it was introducing witness protection programmes that had worked in Colombia and investigation techniques that had been used in anti-mafia investigations in Italy.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.