Guatemala's new U.N-appointed anti-corruption commissioner faces huge task

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 6 August 2010 16:13 GMT

BOGOTA (TrustLaw) - Combating rampant corruption in the police force, securing high-profile convictions for graft and investigating shady links between security forces and drug gangs are just some of the mammoth tasks facing the new chief of Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity (CICIG).

Francisco Dall'Anese Ruiz, a Costa Rican, takes over as head of the independent U.N.-backed agency this month, replacing Carlos Castresana, who quit in June after accusing Guatemala’s attorney general of having ties to organised crime and blasting the government for failing its promise to reform the justice system.

Supporters of Dall'Anese Ruiz say he's chalked up an impressive track record in fighting corruption and organised crime, having led investigations against two former presidents during his tenure as attorney general in Costa Rica.

"He’s got the credentials to do a good job and make the CICIG work well. We are convinced this is a good appointment," said Mario Polanco, director of the rights organisation the Mutual Support Group (GAM) in Guatemala.

Set up at Guatemala's request in 2007, the commission has a special mandate to investigate corruption in the government and has the power to bring charges against government officials obstructing justice.

Acting like an independent international prosecutor while operating under Guatemalan law, the CICIG's work also involves investigating and dismantling organised crime networks and illegal security groups in the Central American nation.

For local rights groups, and indeed many Guatemalans, the well-regarded commission is a rare ray of hope.

“The commission has definitely achieved important results. It has brought crimes that were left in impunity to come to light and the perpetrators prosecuted,” Polanco told TrustLaw.

SUCCESSES

The commission has so far carried out investigations leading to the imprisonment of some 130 government officials, including former ministers, the arrests of Guatemala's drug czar and national police chief suspected of links with drug traffickers and a string of businessmen and politicians.

The body has also been responsible for the purge of nearly 2,000 police officers - some 15 percent of the force - over their links to organised crime and drug gangs.

The commission’s most high-profile role to date has been helping prosecutors build a case against former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo. Arrested in January, Portillo faces embezzlement and money laundering charges in Guatemala and in the United States.

“The commission’s greatest achievement is to show that the country’s system can work and can bring cases against powerful people who for decades thought they were untouchable,” Adriana Beltran, Guatemala analyst at the non-governmental organisation, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) told TrustLaw.

Despite the commission's success, impunity still reigns in a country where just 2 percent of crimes are solved.


This problem is exacerbated by the increasing presence of Mexican drug cartels spreading their tentacles across the country’s judiciary and police while using neighbouring Guatemala as a transshipment point for cocaine originating from
Colombia destined to the United States.

On top of that, Guatemala is still grappling with the legacy of its 36-year-old civil war. Fourteen years after the end of the conflict, many of the country’s illegal groups, some linked to drug gangs and organised crime, have yet to be dismantled.

POLITICAL WILL, REFORM AND OTHER CHALLENGES

One of the commissioner’s urgent tasks will be to persuade the Guatemalan government -- in a time of economic slowdown -- to increase its state budget for the police force and justice system, including the building of a high security prison.

Providing training to judges and prosecutors and professionalising the country's police, along with ensuring his investigation teams have sufficient bodyguards and armoured vehicles are other key priorities facing Dall'Anese Ruiz.

He will also have to push forward much needed judicial reform, rights groups say.

“A lot of pressure still needs to be placed on the government to carry out widespread legal reform. There are few watertight laws against corruption and embezzlement in Guatemala,” said Polanco.

“The position and office of the attorney general is very fragile and hasn’t been strengthened by the commission sufficiently,” he added.

Getting the government fully on board and ensuring it supports the commission’s work will perhaps be the most difficult challenge facing Dall'Anese Ruiz. For rights groups, the resignation of his predecessor was a clear message that the
government is not pulling its weight.

“There is little political will to combat corruption and impunity in a government that is bent on protecting its own interests and those government officials under the spotlight,” said Polanco.

Here are some facts about the Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity (CICIG):

* The United Nations and Guatemalan government signed an agreement to establish the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) on December 12, 2006 giving the body wide-ranging powers.

* The commission started work in January 2008, led by Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castresana. He later resigned in June 2010.

* In July 2009, the Guatemalan congress approved an extension of the commission’s mandate until September 4, 2011. Rights groups hope the government will extend the CICIG’s mandate for a second time.

* The CICIG employs more than 100 staff and has an annual budget of around $15 million, mostly coming from donor countries.  Since 2008, Canada has provided $6.5 million to the CICIG.

* The commission has played a leading role in dozens of high-profile criminal cases. In January, the commission concluded that the murder of prominent lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, who accused Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom  of his murder in a video broadcast after his death, was a case of suicide.

* Many rights group have hailed the commission as a model for others in the region struggling to curb corruption and impunity.

 

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