The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, better known by its Spanish initials CICIG, has now been operating for a year. It was created following an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government, charged with investigating clandestine organisations and collaborating with the state in prosecuting their members, suggesting ways in which Guatemalan law might be improved to help the fight against them and generally contributing to strengthening the rule of law. On 22 September it issued a report of its achievements in its first year and the challenges it faces in its remaining year.
Most press attention has focussed on a packet of proposed legal reforms which the director of CICIG, Carlos Castresaña, handed to the leader of the governing party’s congressmen. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the controversy attendant on setting up CICIG in the first place. Many consider that it is just a group of interfering foreigners given carte blanche to poke their noses into the Guatemalan legal system. However an appeal to the Constitutional Court permitted its operation with some changes to its original set up. Now the sight of a foreigner striding in with a sheaf of potential new laws has reignited the debate: shouldn’t Guatemalans be allowed to sort out their own problems, or are they not able to do it without the assistance of CICIG to boost political will to do so. The comments on elPeriodico’s article linked above illustrate the point.
As to the laws themselves they address arms, the use of the amparo and the penal process.
In a country which seems awash with arms – how well do I remember thinking things had gone too far when I saw a Coca Cola lorry travelling along a dirt road in the Peten with a guard with pump action shotgun sitting atop the crates – and an inadequate register of arms, pervasive private security and rampant crime committed with guns Something Needs To Be Done. Between the first of January and 6 October this year figures show that there were 3,621 murders, 3,298 perpetrated with firearms.
The proposed Law of Arms and Munitions seeks to tighten up the law in this respect, covering ballistic testing, registering all arms coming into the country and regulating import, export and brokering. However, given the enormous numbers of illegal arms circulating one wonders how effective it might be – but then doing nothing is guaranteed to make no difference. Much like the ongoing efforts to create an International Arms Trade Treaty to control the trade in small arms – which kill far more people than armaments whose trade is controlled – we have to start somewhere.
The abusive use of the amparo is a well known technique for bogging down trials into a legal quagmire of impunity. There is very clearly a need to reform this, and the CICIG has some proposals to achieve that whilst not undermining the original intention of the amparo, to protect constitutional rights.
Witness protection is also described as “inadequate” by CICIG, something we have to agree with, given that the accompaniment programme in which we participate is intended to allow witnesses to be able to give testimony in less fear. There is clearly a general problem with subornation, initmidation and attacks of those involved in criminal proceedings from those administering it to those subject to it or drawn into it as witnesses. The most notorious failure of recent years was the murder of the accused in the killing of three Salvadoran congressmen and their driver whilst they were behind several locked doors in a high security prison. The challenges of protecting those who have valuable information cannot be overstated. The CICIG has only considered the problems faced by witnesses so far, and proposes changes to the penal code so witnesses can give evidence by video and that there should be the possibility of changing identity for those severely at risk.
Less attention has been given to other activities the commission has been carrying out which were no less controversial at the time, specifically that it would get involved in its own investigations. The report describes what it has been doing.
The Commission is at pains to point out that the majority of cases it is investigating are being followed in coordination with the Ministerio Público, perhaps being aware of potential controversy. It has even formed a special CICIG-police unit with 30 officers seconded from their regular duties, so they can "learn on the job". It is following up cases grouped under the headings of femicide, the wave of bus conductor killings, people trafficking and attacks on human rights defenders and trades unionists. It is interesting to note that it has set up ad hoc arrangements to get witnesses out of the country should it be necessary. It also reports that it has used its power to report obstructive behaviour by Ministerio Público staff so they can be disciplined.
A large part of the report describes what the Commission has been doing to get itself established in purely practical terms such as personnel and offices. I get the impression from the report that it has hardly got going yet. Given that it has only a two year mandate I wonder whether it will have enough time to see its proposed reforms through congress or its cases through the courts. CICIG’s own measure of its success is that it should respond to the interests of the Guatemalan citizen, but I worry that it will be prevented from making that response by its own limited life.