Guatemala’s former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has won her fair share of acclaim and accolades. She was a 2013 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and a high-level US diplomat once named her one of the world’s five most powerful women in politics. She was even the subject of a documentary released in 2015.
Despite Paz y Paz’s renown, one could make the case that her role as a catalyst to the avalanche of corruption scandals that shook the political foundations of her native Guatemala has been altogether overlooked and under-appreciated.
The scandals, the first of which broke in April 2015, have landed former President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President Roxanna Baldetti in prison and facing down multiple charges of corruption. They have also put the national and international spotlight on Paz y Paz’s successor, Thelma Aldana, and her counterpart at the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), Iván Velásquez.
Paz y Paz, however, has mostly remained out of the limelight. When listening to her, one gets the impression she prefers it that way. But it would be a mistake to confuse her absence for insignificance, or her modesty for equivocation.
Paz y Paz upended the status quo of impunity in Guatemala perhaps more than any other public official in the last several decades. As attorney general, she focused on victims’ rights and prosecuted leaders of criminal organizations that had long availed themselves of the country’s notoriously weak and corrupt institutions. Her biggest case came in 2013, when the government successfully convicted former Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt of genocide charges stemming from the country’s decades-long civil war.
The backlash to the historic ruling was swift and decisive. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the decision just 10 days later, and within a year she was forced out as attorney general. Charges of mismanagement of public funds were later filed against her, but Paz y Paz had already left the country.
InSight Crime recently caught up with Paz y Paz to discuss her controversial tenure as attorney general, the recent corruption scandals, the evolution of the CICIG, and what the future holds for Guatemala’s anti-impunity campaign.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and translated from Spanish.)
What is your reaction to everything that has happened in Guatemala, corruption-wise, during the last year and a half? I can imagine it must be somewhat bittersweet.
No. I believe that for me, for any Guatemalan citizen, the justice system has made progress in what it has achieved by presenting the corruption cases that involve former high-level public officials and also exposing how these structures operated: by taking state funds and assaulting the state for personal enrichment.
Are you surprised by what happened with Pérez Molina and Baldetti?
There were many accusations, above all journalistic investigations that denounced his inexplicable enrichment, but I think none of us fully imagined the extent to which these illegal structures were operating.
Why do you think the corruption scandals were uncovered last year, and not before? What changed, in your opinion?
I think the strategy was much more proactive and had a defined agenda in terms of the investigation. That is, they did not wait for the cases to come to them, but instead they focused on investigating contraband, and illicit financing, and from there they traced the route the investigation would take. I believe that is what changed, and that enabled the investigations to advance much more.
What also changed was the capacity to investigate these kinds of cases. This capacity was very reduced in 2013, 2014, when the analysis unit in the Public Ministry [as the Attorney General’s Office is known in Guatemala] became much stronger. It went from having 10 people to having 140, including 40 auditors. That analysis unit merged with the financial analysts that the CICIG already had, and they worked together on cases, so that is the important change.
And from an outside perspective I imagine that, apart from that, they collected information from raids, computers, wire taps and witness testimonies, which has enabled these investigations to deepen even further.
What was the relationship like between the CICIG and the Public Ministry when you were Attorney General, and how do you think it has changed between then and now?
I think that the relationship has been strengthened, decisively in the Public Ministry. Perhaps during my time it was more institutional strengthening, which is why I was telling you that the analysis unit was assisted by the CICIG. We also worked together on the witness protection program and in the security department of the Public Ministry. Now, I believe they are more focused on cases.
The corruption scandal has touched a nerve in the Guatemalan population and the international community in a way the genocide conviction did not. Why do you think that is?
I think both cases are very important, in distinct ways. I think that with the genocide case, its biggest significance is that, finally, the doors of justice were opened to Guatemalan citizens, and these doors had been shut to them for three decades. I believe that a situation of extreme violence, such as that which occurred in various parts of the country during the 1980s, must be known, must be judged and those responsible must be punished so that these acts are not repeated in the country.
And, perhaps, one difference is that the discussion surrounding the genocide case was made by the groups who sympathized with the perpetrators, who delegitimized the case as vengeance and not as justice, in order to make the conversation an ideological one.
That did not happen in 2015 with the corruption case, perhaps because it hit close to home for a large portion of the population. The effects of the corruption were felt when they closed hospitals, when there was no gasoline for the police patrols. The weakness of the state due to illicit enrichment by government officials was felt strongly and the enrichment of some of those who are now in custody was very, very evident. There was a huge contrast between people that had yachts, planes, helicopters and mansions while there was no medicine in the hospitals. That is why people took to the streets, to demand the continuation of the CICIG or to demand that the president request that the CICIG continue in Guatemala. They were also demanding that corruption be confronted, that those responsible be brought to justice. Nonetheless, once again there are smear campaigns surrounding the case by those groups who sympathize with the perpetrators.
Right, and as I’m sure you know, [current Attorney General] Thelma Aldana recently said she was afraid, presumably as a result of these corruption cases. Did you ever feel your personal safety was in jeopardy as Attorney General? If so, where do you think the threats were coming from?
No, but in my case there was a very strong smear campaign against me, and criminal complaints filed against me.
What was that smear campaign like?
Well, during the genocide trial, they said that I or my family belonged to a leftist group, that I was a guerrilla, that my family were terrorists, etc. The arguments were not about how solid the evidence was presented during the trial, which were very, very strong, but rather personal attacks.
Ten days after Ríos Montt was convicted, the Constitutional Court overturned the decision. And now, more than three years later, he is still a free man. Prosecutors can’t even get a retrial. Why do you think that is?
The Constitutional Court’s ruling was without a doubt a political decision, rather than a judicial decision. I believe one problem with the decision is that the Constitutional Court only intervenes when all the other resources have been exhausted. That is, in this case the court’s sentence came first, but it had to wait for a ruling by an Appellate Court, and later the Supreme Court. Once these options were exhausted, the case could reach the Constitutional Court. In this case the Constitutional Court intervened directly on the trial, and it did not permit the ordinary process for determining whether there were errors in due process. There was a rush to annul the ruling.
Looking back, do you have any regrets about how you handled the case? There were rumblings at the time that you were pushing to hard for genocide, that perhaps you should have sought less controversial charges.
I completed my obligation as Attorney General by allowing the investigation to be a serious, objective investigation. When we had sufficient evidence, we ordered the arrest warrants, well in that case I remember he presented himself voluntarily in January 2012… What we could not have done as prosecutors was prevent a case, a solid investigation from reaching the courts.
Given what happened with Ríos Montt, do you foresee the Public Ministry facing similar resistance this time around in prosecuting Pérez Molina and Baldetti? Are there parallels between the two cases?
I look at it in a different manner. I think that the genocide trial and other important trials that were brought before the courts during my time as attorney general — that case but also others such as the one against approximately 100 members of the Zetas criminal organization and now the Facundo Cabral case — these are cases that have strengthened the Public Ministry as a judicial body. There are courageous officials, judges who have presented cases as important as the genocide case, and this strengthening permitted other cases to be presented that before were unthinkable.
And yet one of the most common criticisms made by anti-corruption activists is that the Public Ministry and the CICIG have yet to address the root of the problems in Guatemala: that the institutions remain corrupt, that the so-called “hidden powers” remain in place. Do you think Guatemala is making progress toward institutional reform, or will the system revert back to the status quo?
I believe that we have to be consistent with who is responsible for what. That is, we can’t ask the prosecutors, the Public Ministry, the attorney general or the CICIG to reform the state. They have a clear role to play, which is what they are doing in investigating cases involving clandestine or illegal structures and bringing these cases to trial so they can be judged.
But they cannot be responsible for institutional reform, that is the responsibility of the Guatemalan citizenry. The debate over constitutional reforms with respect to the election of judges and magistrates has been opened, which is a topic within the mandate of the CICIG, but other actors in the country must play a leading role on other issues.
In what sense is it the obligation of the Guatemalan population to reform the institutions?
In the sense that the CICIG and the Public Ministry cannot transform the state by themselves. They are a force, but there must be other forces within the country promoting these changes.
Did you think that Pérez Molina was going to renew the CICIG’s mandate last year? Are you surprised that he did, knowing what we know now?
I believe that it was against his will to do so, and that it was the scandals that brought him to ask for the renewal of the CICIG. He had clearly said that he would not renew it… But the events conspired against his will, which finally pushed him to make the request for the CICIG’s extension.
Until recently, you were part of a panel of experts investigating the 43 missing students case in Mexico. What was that like? Are there any parallels with what you experienced in Guatemala?
Well, I believe that the lesson that was learned is that a strong internal partner is necessary. In Guatemala, the CICIG found this in the Public Ministry. In a case as important as the missing 43 in Mexico, without that willingness from the state to receive international support, it is very difficult for a situation so complex to move forward. There has to be a certain level of willingness [by the state] in order to clear up these cases.
When you were Attorney General, did you feel you had the support of the state and of the CICIG?
Of the CICIG, of course, I always had the support of the CICIG. With respect to the state, what we had were teams with the National Civil Police, which worked hand in hand with the prosecutors, who continue to work together. So these teams, or “mirrors,” as they are called among police and prosecutors, I believe are an example of a relationship that is often broken in various countries on the continent, between investigative police and prosecutors within the Public Ministry.
Under what conditions did you leave Guatemala?
At the end of my time as attorney general, my family and I decided that it would be better to be outside the country for a while.
Do you think you will return to Guatemala one day?
Yes, of course. (laughs)