Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Guatemala’s Corrupt Judges in the Crosshairs

In the latest sign that tolerance for corruption in Guatemala’s notoriously shady judicial system has reached a tipping point, the Guatemalan Public Ministry is moving forward with corruption investigations against 13 high-level judges on the recommendation of the United Nations-backed anti-impunity commission in the country.

According to elPeriodico, Guatemala’s Public Ministry has opened pre-trial investigations against 13 out of 18 judges that the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) accuses of making corrupt deals. The Commission has been named as an assistant prosecutor in nine of these cases.

In November, the CICIG released a 95-page report entitled "The Judges of Impunity," (.pdf), which accused the 18 judges of “creating spaces of impunity" for organized crime and corrupt officials, and laid out the evidence against each one. The allegations range from shielding suspected drug and human trafficking rings from prosecution to making questionable rulings in favor of disgraced ex-president Alfonso Portillo, who is currently awaiting extradition to the United States on money laundering and embezzlement charges.

The fact that the Public Ministry has backed the CICIG’s calls for investigation sends a powerful message to corrupt judicial officials in the country, signaling that the era of rampant impunity in the justice system is coming to an end. It is also a reaffirmation of the Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s commitment to strengthening Guatemala’s courts. Since assuming control of the Public Ministry in 2010, Paz y Paz has been widely praised as a dedicated champion against corruption, and is credited with revolutionizing the attorney general’s office in the Central American country.

But while the investigation of the 13 judges is a symbolic victory against impunity, the real test for prosecutors will be achieving convictions. The Supreme Court is still evaluating the Public Ministry’s petition to strip the accused of their legal immunity, and may yet decide against it. Even if the cases go to trial, the long-standing culture of corruption in the judiciary could be a major obstacle as well. Assuming that the judges hearing these cases are clean and impartial, they will likely face immense pressure to be lenient with their colleagues.

News Briefs
  • In recognition of the urgency that President Obama placed on immigration reform during his state of the union address last night, the Americas Society/Council of the Americas offers a fact sheet (.pdf) with helpful figures on immigration and its contribution to the U.S. economy. WOLA’s Border Fact Check blog takes on the oft-cited claim that undocumented immigration to the U.S. has “risen steadily since the 1980s,” noting that migrant apprehension statistics suggest that illegal border crossings have dropped to their lowest level since 1972. Meanwhile, analyst James Bosworth contends that “there was a lot about President Obama's speech that was positive for the US agenda in the hemisphere.”
  • Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), claims that it has released five civilian hostages -- - three Colombians and two Peruvians -- that had been held captive since January 18. El Pais reports that the government has yet to confirm the claim, and it appears that the guerrillas are still holding on to two Germans citizens in their custody, who they accuse of being spies.
  • A New York Times investigation looks at the success of a cash-for-guns program in Mexico City. While experts say there is no proven link between gun exchange programs and reducing gun violence, so far locals have turned in more than 3,500 weapons. The Times also offers a photo gallery depicting some of those who have participated in the program along with their weapons.
  • In an op-ed for elPeriodico, journalist Gustavo Berganza points out that Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina’s 70 percent approval rating is not so unusual considering he is a former general, and the military is persistently ranked as the most trustworthy government institution in the country by the Guatemalan public. Still, not everyone is happy with the Perez’s first year in office. Central American Politics highlights a recent statement released by a coalition of Guatemalan indigenous rights groups which criticizes the president for militarizing rural communities and ignoring the demands of indigenous social movements in the country.
  • Writing for El Faro, veteran Guatemalan human rights advocate Helen Mack shares her perspective of the trial against former dictator Rios Montt.
  • The U.S. government has imposed sanctions on a Venezuelan state-owned weapons company, Bloomberg reports. While the U.S. State Department has not specified the sanctions or the reason behind them, a press release on its website states that the decision was made because of “credible information indicating they had transferred to, or acquired from, Iran, North Korea, or Syria, equipment and technology.”
  • Reuters reports that while Cuban media quoted Fidel Castro as being optimistic about Hugo Chavez’s health last week, the official newspaper Granma has released a revised, toned-down version of his remarks. This has inevitably fueled speculation that Chavez’s health has taken a turn for the worse, though Venezuelan government officials maintain that he is making a slow recovery.
  • The Jamaica Gleaner reports that Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has announced a plan for the country’s second debts swap in three years, in order to meet the terms of an International Monetary Fund loan. According to the BBC, the government is already paying some 55 percent of its budget on paying the debt and 25 on wages, leaving little for social security or education programs.
  • The Associated Press reports that cash-strapped Caribbean countries are increasingly looking to draw foreign investment by selling citizenship to those willing to pay hefty fees.  The success that Dominica and St. Kitts & Nevis have had with their programs has caused Antigua & Barbuda and Grenada to consider starting similar initiatives, despite concern that the programs represent a security risk or could facilitate criminal activity.
  • A Chilean court has ordered the exhumation of the remains of poet Pablo Neruda, who died just twelve days after the 1973 military coup that placed Augusto Pinochet in power. While the leftist Nobel laureate is believed to have died of prostate cancer, his driver has claimed that he was poisoned by agents of the Pinochet regime.
  • In an op-ed for the L.A. Times, UC Santa Cruz history professor Dana Frank calls on the newly-appointed Secretary of State John Kerry to halt U.S. support for security initiatives in Honduras, arguing that it only ties the Obama administration closer to corruption and alleged abuses committed by the Lobo government.

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