Thursday, February 9, 2012

Guatemala's New President Surprises Critics by Defending Justice

A UN-backed investigation unit, set up to combat impunity rates in Guatemala, is set to stay in the country until 2015, after President Otto Perez asked for its mandate to be extended until the end of his term.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was set up in 2006 as a body of some 180 international staff tasked with helping the domestic legal system to investigate and prosecute criminal organizations that operate within state institutions, known as the “hidden powers.” The Wall Street Journal describes the body “as a kind of shadow attorney general's office,” noting that “the arrangement is unique in Latin America, and experts say the results are as well.”

The CICIG has had success in handling sensitive and high-profile cases including the curious 2009 death of a lawyer who, the commission found, ordered a hit on himself in order to frame then-President Alvaro Colom. Another achievement was the 2010 removal of an attorney general accused of being involved in organized crime.

Its current mandate was set to expire in September 2013, but President Otto Perez, who began his four-year term in January, requested this week that it be extended for another two years. He praised the commission’s work, and said that it was necessary to build up Guatemala’s institutions so that, when the body left, the country would have the institutional strength to cope alone.

The WSJ notes that Perez’s support of the CICIG was a surprise to some experts. The president is a former general who has himself been accused of human rights abuses committed during the country’s civil war. It might have been expected that the president would wish to get rid of the commission. As the WSJ points out, the body’s successes:
had led many in Guatemala's political class to call for CICIG's ouster and even Mr. Colom said in an interview last year that Guatemala would soon be ready to move on without the group.
Another well-received move by the new president was his decision to retain attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz, who has been one of the strongest forces in breaking down the impunity enjoyed by those who committed war crimes.

InSight Crime has praise for the incoming president’s actions so far, commenting that;
While he has only been in office for three weeks, the president seems to be on track to continue many of the more effective security policies of his predecessor, Alvaro Colom, especially as they relate to strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala.
It highlights the fact that he has appointed a former CICIG liaison official as his new anti-drug minister, and has set up a series of special task forces against crimes such as femicide and kidnapping. In another sign of respect for the commission, Perez's interior minister has asked it to help vet staff in his ministry.

The president also expressed his support for Guatemala’s ratification of the statute of the International Criminal Court, which took place last week.

A Haverford professor consulted by the WSJ said that Perez’s actions could be related to his role in signing the peace accords that ended the war in 1996. "There seems to be a domestic project he wants to complete, a job he undertook as a negotiator and signer of the accords."

News Briefs
  • The conflict over the Falklands Islands (aka the Malvinas) is heating up, with Argentina’s defense minister declaring that the country would “put up” with British presence on the islands, but that if British armed forces land "in our territory we will defend ourselves." Meanwhile the UK government has declared that the Falkland Islands are British because they choose to be, and there will be no negotiations with Argentina over their sovereignty unless the islanders wish it, reports the WSJ. Tensions were raised further by an editorial glitch on tiny Falklands newspaper the Penguin News, which gave a photo of President Cristina Kirchner the file name “bitch.” The name was soon corrected, but the incident was widely reported in Argentine media. Buenos Aires daily La Nacion explaining that was a strong "anglo-saxon term ... signifying disrespect,"according to the Guardian. This follows Kirchner’s declaration that she would take the dispute over the islands to the UN.
  • Reuters reports on the plight of some 300 Haitians stuck in Peru’s Amazon, after Brazil closed off its border to undocumented migrants from that country. As noted on a previous post, Brazil said in January that it would legalize the situation of some 4,000 Haitians who had already crossed into the country, but would close its borders to others, and allow only 100 citizens from the island country in each month, after they had applied for work visas in Port-au-Prince. According to Reuters, the Haitians are mostly educated and in their 20s. They “sold all their belongings and paid big fees to unscrupulous travel agents to fly to Peru through Panama or Ecuador,” before finding the border closed. They have now taken refuge in a church in the Peruvian border town of Inapari. “‘We don't have money and we are so far from Haiti ... we just ask Brazil to let us in,’ said Joniel Clervil, 22, speaking in English he learned in university before the January 2010 disaster ended his studies.”
  • Meanwhile, back in Haiti, former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka “Baby Doc,” is “swank[ing] around the hotspots of Port-au-Prince … as if he were just another member of the capital’s thoughtless, partying elite,” according to an op-ed in the NYT. The newspaper joins a chorus of voices in the US media arguing that the ex-leader must be tried for crimes against humanity. Timemagazine notes that such a trial, dredging up memories of the 30,000 tortured and killed by the regime of Duvalier and his father “Papa Doc,” would be inconvenient for the “national re-branding campaign of President Michel Martelly.”
  • Haiti’s Prime Minister Garry Conille has been in Washington, appealing not for more aid but for better coordination among donors and faster distribution,reports the Miami Herald.
  • The New York Times reports on the demolition of La Ocho, a jail in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, which some residents say should never have been destroyed. According to Damien Cave, with the city safer than it has been in years, “the argument has become a proxy for this city’s larger struggle over identity, and how much of Tijuana’s sordid past should shape its future.”
  • Soldiers made a historic seizure of 15 tons of methamphetamine on the outskirts of Guadalajara, west Mexico. The Associated Press reports that the find is double the total amount of the drug seized in the country in 2009.InSight Crime has reported on a massive surge in production of the synthetic drug in Mexico, which it attributes to the fact that its production is more reliable and profitable than the business of growing coca or marijuana, while Mexican traffickers are being squeezed out of the US market by domestic growers.
  • Amnesty International has criticized the Panamanian government response to indigenous protests that blocked the Pan-American Highway, in which two civilians died. It called for an investigation into allegations of excessive use of force by police. Democratic congressman James McGovern has written to the US ambassador in Panama City to ask her to convey his concerns to the president over the incident, which took place during protests against hydroelectric projects in indigenous territories.
  • Peru is also in the grip of unrest over proposed large-scale development projects, and IPS reports on concerns from indigenous groups that there are shortcomings in a law mandating that locals must be consulted over projects on their land.
  • The Financial Times has a piece on how growing prosperity in Brazil’s favelas means that companies are now falling over themselves to offer services to their residents - the emerging new middle class.
  • The LA Times reports on problems faced by mentally ill undocumented migrants who are left to face court proceedings without proper legal representation.

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