The campaign against the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Commissioner Iván Velásquez, which we analyzed in a previous post, remains at a tense standstill. While CICIG’s mandate does not allow it to investigate cases related to Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, it has played a fundamental role in strengthening the country’s justice system, empowering judicial operators, and building the capacity of the Attorney General’s Office. It has expanded prosecutorial capacity in corruption and organized crime cases, as well as in grave crimes cases in Guatemala’s domestic courts, from the genocide case against former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, to the CREOMPAZ and Molina Theissen cases, which are currently awaiting trial. Today, we explore the possible consequences of the anti-CICIG campaign for the prosecution of grave crimes cases in Guatemala.
What is CICIG?
UN-brokered peace accords ended a 36-year internal armed conflict when they were signed in 1996, but illegal groups and clandestine security structures persisted. This prompted civil society organizations to lobby for the creation of an international body that could help the country combat criminality, organized crime, and corruption. Spurred by a series of high-profile incidents, in 2007, the Guatemalan congress approved the creation of CICIG, a UN-backed body whose purpose is to strengthen the legal system’s capacity to combat illegal groups and clandestine security structures.
CICIG has the power to bring criminal charges as a complementary prosecutor in Guatemalan courts, to propose public policies, including judicial and institutional reforms, and to request disciplinary procedures against any public official who does not cooperate with or who obstructs its work. CICIG can also propose legislative reforms designed to strengthen the capacity of the legal system to combat organized crime. CICIG works closely with the Attorney General’s Office, helping to strengthen its overall capacity and support targeted investigations.
Under the leadership of Velásquez, a veteran prosecutor from Colombia, CICIG gained new momentum in its investigative work. Under previous commissioners, CICIG’s emphasis was on spurring systemic reforms and strengthening the capacity of the Attorney General’s Office through trainings in the use of surveillance technology and other scientific techniques. An empowered Attorney General’s Office worked side-by-side with CICIG on combating organized crime. The results over the past two years are well known. A 2015 investigation into a multi-million-dollar customs fraud ring led to the arrest of some 200 people and brought down the Pérez Molina government. A series of other high-profile cases have, in the words of Guatemalan analyst Héctor Rosada, “struck at the heart” of Guatemala’s system of organized crime and impunity. (For further background and analysis on CICIG, see the 2016 Justice Initiative report, Against the Odds: CICIG in Guatemala.)
Grave Crimes Cases
CICIG has been important for the prosecution of grave crimes cases in Guatemala in at least three ways, even though such crimes are not part of its core mandate. First, CICIG helped to establish new procedures for the election of magistrates and the Attorney General, which strengthened the independence of the justice system and the rule of law. This facilitated the selection of two independent and highly competent attorneys general: Claudia Paz y Paz, who held that post from 2010 until May 2014, and her successor Thelma Aldana. Both have dedicated themselves to combating impunity for serious crimes, including cases of human rights violations connected to the internal armed conflict.
Second, CICIG has strengthened the Attorney General’s Office’s independence and capacity to conduct complex investigations. For example, CICIG helped the Attorney General’s Office to establish and prioritize strategies to strengthen investigations and criminal prosecutions. CICIG has conducted joint investigations and criminal prosecutions with the Attorney General’s Office’s Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Bureau (FECI). In the course of this joint work on complex crimes linked to illegal security groups, CICIG has transferred expertise to government prosecutors. CICIG also worked with the Attorney General’s Office to build effective victim and witness protection programs. This has been particularly important in human rights cases, where victims remain fearful of speaking out about the abuses that occurred against them and their family members.
Other institutional strengthening mechanisms include the development of specialized units within the Attorney General’s Office to focus on specific types of crimes. The Human Rights Violations Unit is divided into seven sub-units, with one unit dedicated to crimes related to the internal armed conflict; others address violations against human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists. Other reforms included the creation of an Analysis Unit within the Attorney General’s Office to assist with complex investigations; the creation of a police force specializing in criminal investigation; the strengthening of the Special Investigation Methods Unit, composed of government prosecutors and National Police staff; and the creation of a Police Information Platform.
This institutional strengthening has helped professionalize the Attorney General’s Office and provide it with new tools and capacity to conduct more solid investigations that began to close in on key networks of corruption and impunity. This has been evident in the evolution of investigations into grave crimes cases in Guatemala. Previously, it was primarily human rights organizations and victims’ organizations that investigated grave crimes. Today, the Attorney General’s Office is taking a leading role in initiating and investigating these cases. The arrests of 18 retired senior military officials carried out on January 6, 2016 in relation to the CREOMPAZ and Molina Theissen cases is a key example of this. Among those arrested and currently awaiting trial are individuals who have been implicated in organized crime networks. These include retired army general Manuel Callejas y Callejas, who El Periódico referred to as the “kingpin of kingpins” for his alleged involvement in the Moreno Network and the “Cofradía” organized crime syndicate. Edgar Justino Ovalle, who was elected to congress with the National Convergence Front (FCN) and was Morales’s closest advisor, went into hiding earlier this year after the Supreme Court of Justice lifted his immunity so that he could be investigated in relation to the CREOMPAZ case. Ovalle remains a fugitive.
Third, CICIG proposed the creation of a centralized system of high-risk courts to adjudicate especially sensitive cases related to organized crime and corruption, in order to provide greater safety for magistrates as well as witnesses and the lawyers litigating these cases. These high-risk courts are located in Guatemala City, but have jurisdiction over the entire country. Since their creation in 2009, the courts have heard complex cases of organized crime, corruption, and serious violations of human rights. With greater security, judges have more space to assert their independence, and have done so in a series of high-profile organized crime and grave crimes cases. In turn, this has generated a new sense of citizen confidence in legal institutions and the rule of law.
A high-risk court heard the first and only domestic prosecution of a former head of state for genocide. In 2013, High Risk Court A, presided over by Judge Yassmín Barrios, found Efrain Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. (A highly contested Constitutional Court ruling later vacated his conviction.) Other high-profile human rights cases have similarly been adjudicated in the high-risk courts, including the Spanish Embassy massacre case, which resulted in the conviction of a former chief of police, and the Sepur Zarco sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery case, in which two military officials were convicted in 2016.
The high-risk courts currently have several cases before them. These include the case of mass enforced disappearance known as CREOMPAZ, in which eight senior military officials are awaiting trial for the enforced disappearance of 565 individuals between 1981 and 1988. They also include the Molina Theissen case, in which five senior military officials await trial for the illegal detention, torture, and sexual violation of Emma Molina Theissen, and the enforced disappearance of her 14-year-old brother Marco Antonio, in 1981. Two cases against Ríos Montt are in the high-risk court system, including the Maya Ixil genocide retrial and the 1982 massacre of 200 peasants at Las Dos Erres. Former Special Forces soldier (kaibil) Santos López Alonso, who was deported to Guatemala from the United States last August, is also awaiting start of his trial in the Dos Erres massacre. Delays in moving from the intermediate phase to the trial phase have frustrated families of the victims and government prosecutors, suggesting that reforms have not fully eradicated the systemic impunity that has obstructed justice in grave crimes cases for so many decades.
Rampant structural impunity in Guatemala long prevented justice for grave crimes. By assisting Guatemala to address structural problems in the justice sector, CICIG has enabled progress on justice for grave crimes 30 years after the signing of the peace accords, though clearly much remains to be done. These cases have also underscored the extent to which alleged perpetrators of grave crimes are involved in corruption and state capture. The high stakes help explain the drama now unfolding in Guatemala’s courts and on its streets and plazas. CICIG’s ability to continue its work may well determine whether grave crimes trials continue.