Prosecutorial Will Not Enough to Achieve Accountability for Grave Crimes in Guatemala

Nearing the end of a year of dramatic developments in accountability for grand corruption, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) presented its 8th annual report on November 13.  Commissioner Ivan Vélasquez noted CICIG’s recent accomplishments, but said these would not be sufficient to establish democratic governance rooted in the rule of law, unless the state undertakes major legislative reform and provides adequate funding for the justice system.

Prosecutors and the courts have the will to fight impunity, Vélasquez said, but currently lack the resources to do so. He noted that of the past seven years, the highest percentage of resolved homicide cases (11%) was in 2011. Yet even such low rates of criminal justice effectiveness are much greater than those for grave crimes committed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.

The attorney general currently has offices that cover around ten percent of the national territory, leaving much of the population with little access to justice. Only one special unit, created in 2005, oversees cases related to grave crimes committed during the civil war. This unit, which has only 14 investigators, is located in Guatemala City, although most of the crimes over which it has jurisdiction were committed in the countryside. According to a UN-backed truth commission established following the 1996 peace agreement, more than 200,000 people – most of them indigenous – were killed or subjected to enforced disappearance during the civil war. Nonetheless, impunity is still the rule when it comes to grave crimes committed during the conflict. So far, of thousands of criminal complaints made to the unit, less than one percent has led to a criminal sentence.  Commissioner Vélasquez attributed this less to problems of political will to investigate and prosecute the crimes than to insufficient technical capacities and financial resources available to the Attorney General’s Office.

In order to address the resource shortfall, in early November, CICIG proposed creating a special tax to fund the administration of justice. The Central Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF), the country’s powerful business lobby, has opposed the suggestion. Recently-elected President Jimmy Morales has so far avoided the question and refused to talk about new taxes before being sworn into office on January 14, 2016.

However, Morales has expressed support for the continuation of CICIG’s mandate until 2021. During the election campaign, he promised government transparency and committed to fighting corruption and impunity. His decisions on justice-sector financing could potentially improve technical capacities and ultimately reduce impunity for conflict-related crimes.  If that happens, thousands of victims who have waited for decades to see their tormenters held to account could have improved chances of seeing justice.