Internal conflict and signing of peace
Guatemala, as most Latin‐American nations, has experienced a very violent history. During the internal armed conflict that lasted from 1960 to 1996, over 200,000 people, mainly civilian and indigenous population, were killed or disappeared and another 50,000 were displaced. Guatemala’s civil war came to an end in 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords, supported by the international community.
In the wake of the conflict, a landmark inquiry into the human rights violations committed during those three decades was carried out. A UN-backed truth commission, the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), issued in February 2000 the report “Memory of Silence”. The report contained crucial findings on the human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict, and a series of key recommendations designed to deliver justice and reparation and to ensure that such violence could never again occur. The Commission concluded that the war took a disproportionate toll on indigenous communities and that over 90% of the violations—including more than 600 massacres—were committed by the State.
The report “Memory of Silence” also indicated that clandestine groups within state institutions, mainly the army, the police and the Ministry of the Interior, carried out counterinsurgent policies. As it is usually the case during a violent conflict, a parallel political economy took form through illegal economic activities by these clandestine groups. After the signing of peace these groups started turning into networks and organizations within or with close links to the state involved in different lines of illegal activity including kidnappings, narcotics trafficking, car theft, bank robbery, illegal transportation of migrants, arms trafficking, smuggling, and extortion.
Fifteen years later…
Almost a decade and a half has passed since the 1996 Peace Accords and Guatemala has not achieved satisfactory levels of human development and is still striving for the primacy of the rule of law. The Peace Accords laid out a blueprint for Guatemalan political, economic and social development, but to date the successive administrations have not been able to bring all sectors of society together towards their fulfillment. The power structures that emerged from the armed conflict have worked to undermine or limit the implementation of the Accords. To date, the original socioeconomic motives of the conflict remain only partially addressed.
The Guatemalan State faces great challenges to protect the fundamental human rights of its population beginning with the right to life as the country has one of the highest murder rates in the continent (49 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009) and an extremely high impunity rate (only 1.5% of crime reports presented to the Attorney’s General office reached sentencing in 2009). According to the latest National Survey on Living Conditions (ENCOVI 2006) 51% of the population lives below the poverty line and 15.2% live in extreme poverty in very vulnerable conditions.
Guatemala has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world with a Gini index of 53.6. Most of its population lacks access to income generating resources, faces inequitable ownership and distribution of land, and lives in a context of environmental degradation. These were some of the structural causes that originated the rising up of guerrilla organizations in the 1960’s.
These problems are compounded by international dynamics. Drug trafficking has become especially relevant in view of its sustained rise since the 1980’s. With an estimated cocaine trafficking flow from South to North America of US$38 billion in 2008, it generates greater revenues than any other form of transnational criminal activity in the world today. In addition to health and social consequences they bring about, drugs provide the economic clout for organized criminals to confront the State. Competition for these profits is typically violent, and the targets for this violence can easily shift from rival traffickers to officials and other members of the general public. This poses threats to governance and stability in Central America and particularly Guatemala through increased violence among criminals, toward state officials and the public, corruption, intimidation and loss of territorial control.
The Peace Accords stipulated the dismantling of all clandestine groups, but the democratically elected authorities have not been able to dissolve them entirely. Their continued operation has negatively affected the development of Guatemalan state institutions and is one of the main factors for corruption, impunity and inefficiency that characterize them. The intensification of the criminal organizations’ influence over national institutions coincided with the implementation of the ‘Washington Consensus’ agenda in Guatemala. In this context, several governmental enterprises and institutions were privatized further debilitating state agencies. Security sector institutions have been affected through the proliferation of private security firms that provide protection to those who can pay for it exacerbating social exclusion and inequality. These firms employ at least twice as many agents than the Police and the Army put together.
The impact of corruption combined with the limited capacities of state institutions contribute to maintaining Guatemalan democracy in a state of frailty. Within this context, prospects for the strengthening of the rule of law, the decline of impunity, the democratization of institutions, and the overall fostering of democratic governance still represent a challenge. Furthermore, organized crime, (especially related to narcotrafficking), is currently threatening Guatemalan governance. To take resolute action against transnational organized crime and its local operators, domestic institutions must be strengthened in the context of an international strategy aimed at addressing the entire trafficking flow. A recent effort in Guatemala has been the sanctioning of states of siege in Alta Verapaz and Petén departments for several months to regain control of the territory from the growing penetration of drug cartels. The effort has produced only limited results and the need to achieve a large-scale strategic approach to crime prevention and control becomes ever more evident.
Progress in justice and security
Some progress has been accomplished in the implementation of the Peace Agreements, which have fostered the creation of new institutions that have opened up spaces to advance indigenous peoples’ and women’s issues. Civil society organizations have begun participating more actively in issues of national interest. The media enjoys more freedom than in the time of the armed conflict. Formal elections for all levels of public administration are held periodically and are by and large respected, although illicit and politicized interests can still influence elections.
The acknowledgement by a critical mass of national actors of the incapacity of Guatemalan state institutions to deal with the severity of the violence and impunity problems led to the request by the Government of Guatemala to the United Nations for the creation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2007. Although much debate took place prior to its installment with regards to questions of national sovereignty in CICIG was approved by Congress.
During the first three years of its mandate, CICIG built on and developed a series of important relationships with the international community and several UN departments, programs and agencies, which proved vital to its operations. CICIG is participating as complementary Prosecutor in key cases designed to dismantle criminal groups in Guatemala: crimes related to narcotics trafficking, corruption of former military authorities, prosecution of ex-president Alfonso Portillo, as well as investigations of judges and prosecutors accused of corruption. An important number of suspects have been arrested and the processing of the cases in the judicial system has begun.
Among relevant achievements are the effective coordination attained between CICIG and national authorities in support to several notable judicial cases. Also, CICIG has drafted and partially achieved sanctioning of a legislative agenda for the strengthening of the institutional set-up and has produced proposals of legislation. It has contributed to the establishment of a high-security prison, and to training of Police and the General Prosecutor Office’s special forces. It has also cooperated effectively in drug confiscations with arrests of suspects. Furthermore, CICIG has played an important role in strengthening judicial institutions in Guatemala and has successfully denounced public officials who have obstructed its work.
The passing in 2008 of the Framework Law of the National Security Council, and the signing in 2009 by the three branches of Government and the Attorney General’s Office of the National Agreement for the Advancement of Security and Justice opened important prospects to advance towards better policies and coordination on security and justice issues among relevant actors. New institutions have been created as the National Security Council (which brings together the highest authorities on security matters to coordinate their actions), the creation of its technical secretariat and its oversight office. National institutions were also willing to collaborate with the international community through the implementation of the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur for the independence of judges for a more open and accountable process of selection and election of the Magistrates to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Justice. CICIG was closely engaged in this process, and although the results were not entirely positive, the fact that the general public’s awareness was raised about the importance of social accounting, represents a great advance in matters of justice in Guatemala.
Efforts are being made to include all sectors of society, including political parties, in fostering processes of greater transparency and participation. The fact that the Framework Law is now part of the national legislation, and that the National Agreement for the Advancement of Security and Justice is now a state-wide pact, represent workable bases for greater sustainability of the security and justice agenda in the country.
Transitional justice as an important state-building tool
Other positive developments with regards to the transitional justice process need to be pinpointed. In July 2011, trials began in Guatemala City against four former army members of the Kaibiles Special Forces accused of carrying out a massacre of civilians in the village of “Dos Erres” in 1982. This is one of the most violent episodes in Guatemala's 36-year civil conflict. Hundreds of villagers were shot or bludgeoned to death and their bodies thrown down a well. In August 2011, a court found the three soldiers and a lieutenant guilty of the massacre. They were sentenced to over 6,000 years each in prison, of which they are expected to serve the legal maximum of 50 years. This historic ruling is one of a growing number of cases where former members of the military are put on trial for crimes committed during the civil war. It represents one more step forward to providing justice to the thousands of victims of the atrocities committed in Guatemala’s armed conflict.
In 1998, three members of the military were convicted for the murder of three people during the 1982 massacre of 177 people in Río Negro, and the following year they were each sentenced to 50 years in prison. In December 2009, a former army colonel and three former commissioners were sentenced to 53 years in prison for the 1981 forced disappearance of six people in El Jute, which was the first time that a high-ranking military officer was convicted of crimes committed during the civil war.
Also, the election of Ms. Claudia Paz y Paz as Attorney General and Head of the Public Prosecutor’s Office has been a welcome event by civil society, human rights organizations and the international community. She is the first woman elected to the post and has established as her priorities to support crime victims and combatting organized crime. Under Ms. Paz y Paz guidance, the Public Ministry, through the prosecution of human rights, and in close collaboration with the Office of Human Rights and civil society, is engaging in important research on forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions committed during the internal armed conflict as part of judicial proceedings, in which it seeks the application of justice on human rights violations.
Setting a new course…
Guatemalan authorities and civil society, accompanied by the international community, have set together a course that marks a new direction in matters of justice and security, with a special emphasis on transitional justice. The consolidation of the rule of law in Guatemala lies in the State’s ability to overcome the culture of impunity that has impeded the punishment of those responsible for past and present crimes. In this context, the National Agreement for the Advancement of Security and Justice constitutes a key tool to guide strategic action, clearly outlining the responsibilities of each of the institutions involved, funding needs and implementation deadlines.
UNDP’s support to reconciliation and transitional justice
Within this evolving context, UNDP Guatemala launched the Transitional Justice Programme (PAJUST) with the aim of strengthening coordination mechanisms between State and civil society to implement the mutually connected transitional justice mechanisms (criminal justice, truth-seeking, reparations, and institutional reform). With contributions totaling approximately US$25 million, PAJUST is supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), Denmark, the Netherlands, the Catalan Agency for Development Cooperation (ACCD), and the Basque Agency for Development Cooperation.
The programme collaborates with six main implementing partners, of which three State institutions –the Peace Secretariat (SEPAZ), the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the Ministry of Culture / Project for the Recuperation of the Historic Archives of the National Police (PRAHPN)-, two civil society organizations –the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) and the International Institute for Learning on Social Reconciliation- and the UNDP project “Civil Society Participation” (PASOC). UNDP’s role is to provide all the necessary articulation between all the programme components and the substantive outputs, by fostering close cooperation and coordination among State institutions and over twenty civil society organizations, in order to ensure the continued relevance of the investigation of paradigmatic cases of past human rights abuses, as well as the necessary psychosocial support to the victims and survivors of human rights violations.
To this date, the achievements of PAJUST include, among others, the support given to the prosecution and sentencing of persons found guilty of serious human rights violations during the internal armed conflict, and the public access to key internal files of security institutions operating during the armed conflict, which contributes to establishing the truth and creating an accurate and comprehensive historical record.