Guatemala Arrests Show Something is Working

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With a recent series of high profile arrests, Guatemala‘s authorities, under the leadership of a new attorney general, are beginning to show their teeth. But while initial results have been positive, treacherous times await.

Just three days after the murder of Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral, who was shot dead on July 9 while driving to Guatemala City airport, the government announced it had arrested three suspects.

Cabral was being driven by a business associate, Nicaraguan night club owner Henry Fariñas, who was badly injured in the attack. Authorities say Fariñas was the target of the multiple gunmen, who had been tracking him since the previous day.

The three suspects were part of a Guatemalan criminal network, but authorities said that they had been contracted by a group based in another Central American nation. Fariñas owns strip clubs in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

This swift action is stunning for a country that has grown accustomed to high levels of crime which normally go unresolved and unpunished. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz said the government had analyzed and processed information from security cameras, fingerprints, and old case files that connected the group to a car theft ring that doubles as an assassin network.

The Public Ministry and police said they had worked closely with the United Nations’ Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad in Guatemala – CICIG).

Perhaps to dispel any doubts about their quick judgement, the Government Ministry posted a detailed and chilling blow-by-blow account of the crime (See slideshow below, with InSight Crime’s narration).

The arrests came just hours after another operation, less celebrated but equally stunning, which resulted in the arrest of several members of an organized criminal group which operates in close association with Mexican drug gang the Zetas.

Kevin Saul Overdick, who one newspaper identified as the son of kingpin Walter Overdick, was taken into custody along with five other alleged members of Overdick group, one of the most powerful Guatemalan criminal enterprises. They were preparing for what authorities called a “narco-fiesta” of horse races, cockfights and beer in the northern municipality of Ixcan, close to the Mexican border.

As InSight Crime details in a report to be released in the coming weeks, Overdick’s organization provides logistical support and financial infrastructure for the Zetas. It also moves tons of cocaine through the eastern and northern part of the country on its way to the United States.

On Sunday, authorities captured five members of a different branch of the Overdick organization, including its leader Amner Millan Quijada, also in Ixcan. Millan Quijada runs a logistics group based in Coban that locals refer to as the “Chulamicos.”

This success follows more than 40 arrests connected to the Zetas’ brutal massacre of 27 farmworkers in May and murder of a Coban prosecutor days later, and the capture of three suspects in the unrelated murder of two mayoral candidates on the outskirts of the city. With these operations, the government has shown itself both capable and willing to take action.

This turnaround follows the inauguration of Claudia Paz y Paz as attorney general in December 2010. International and local analysts told InSight Crime that Paz y Paz is working hard to change the culture of an institution whose failures lie at the heart of the country’s near 98 percent impunity rate.

The new attorney general has the right resume. She is a doctorate in human rights and criminal law. She worked with the storied human rights section of the archbishop’s office in the early 1990s, which later produced a damning report about the country’s war, placing most of the blame on the military for countless abuses and extrajudicial executions.

She also worked on the famous “Dos Erres” case, in which over 250 people were massacred by special forces from the Guatemalan army in 1982 (click here for pdf version of summary and resolution of case). The Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the state for the massacre in 2009.

But whether Paz y Paz’s resolve, and the recent encouraging results, will translate into profound changes for the country remains to be seen, and may not depend wholly on her.

The Alvaro Colom administration has put other capable and powerful personalities in important positions, only to let them drown in the political cesspool that surrounds them — most notably Helen Mack, the combative founder of the Myrna Mack Foundation.

Named after her slain sister, the foundation did more to break the invisible but formidable wall of impunity protecting the military and its operatives than any other Guatemalan non-governmental organization in the last 20 years. But since being called on to run the police reform commission, Mack has been frustrated, isolated and largely ineffective.

Colom is also enmeshed in a political struggle that may subsume all reform efforts. His ex-wife, Sandra Torres, who divorced him to be eligible to run for president, is now facing the possibility that the courts will block her candidacy for the September 11 elections.

Torres is already lagging in the polls behind a former military officer, Otto Perez Molina, whose possible connections to human rights abuses during the war and current political connections make it clear that he would remove Paz y Paz as soon as he took office.

But no matter what happens to the current attorney general, in her short time in office Paz y Paz has shown Guatemalans that change is possible, and that there are dedicated and determined officials in the Public Ministry. In other words, she has been a ray of light in a dark situation.

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