Guatemala’s Crime-Fighting Prosecutor’s Job is Safe, For Now

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Against expectations, Guatemala’s President-elect Otto Perez has bowed to international pressure and promised not to dismiss the surprisingly effective Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. Still, both Perez and Paz will be walking tricky lines in the months to come.

Paz was sworn in as attorney general on December 9, 2010, and is widely recognized as having brought about real progress for the country’s justice system. As InSight Crime noted six months into her term, Paz had already delivered a string of major blows to organized crime, with disconcerting efficiency, in a country where crimes often linger unpunished for decades.

This included the arrest, within days of the crime, of several suspects in the murder of Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral, the arrest that same week of alleged members of the Overdick trafficking network, linked to Mexico’s Zetas gang, and the capture of some 40 people accused of links to the Zetas and their massacre of 27 farmworkers in the northern state of Peten in May.

More important arrests have followed. And as Plaza Publica says in a profile of the attorney general, Paz has managed, unlike her predecessors, to capture almost all the major national drug lords, including Waldemar Lorenzana and Juan Ortiz. Much of this success is due to Paz’s zeal and probity, as InSight Crime’s contacts in Guatemala have made clear.

However, during his campaign, Otto Perez Molina made clear he was not one of Paz’s supporters and hinted that he would remove her if he won the top office, thereby cutting short her four-year mandate. At the heart of his concern was his own past.

According to Plaza Publica, Paz has “succeeded like no one else” in breaking down the walls that have prevented justice being dealt out for the manifold atrocities committed during the country’s 40-year civil conflict. And though he has not faced charges of human rights abuses yet, as an army commander in Ixil, Quiche province in the 1980s, then Colonel Perez was on the front line during some of the worst abuses committed in the Guatelamalan civil war.

Perez is also connected to the case of the disappearance of Efrain Bamaca, a rebel fighter the army reported killed in combat in 1992. And despite direct pressure from Perez’s party to shut down the investigation, Paz’s office has refused to let it drop. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. government documents have emerged that suggest Bamaca was kept alive for some months before being killed, possibly on the orders of Perez, and that Perez himself may have picked him up in a helicopter the last time he was seen alive.

Paz’s clear position on these issues resulted in a dramatic showdown that played out like a parallel political campaign.

“We are going to be respectful of mandates … If [Paz] is doing her job and getting results, there is simply no reason to remove her,” Perez stated in July.

But other comments were more cryptic, saying that he would not get rid of Paz “while she continues to do the job as she is doing it now,” and he was widely expected to dismiss Paz at the first opportunity after he took office in January.

Concern began to mount about Paz’s position in recent weeks, with the opening of cases against various of her relatives, accused of fighting with the guerrillas. It seemed that the forces lined up against her might not wait until Perez took power to force her out. Francisco Dall’Anese Ruiz, head of United Nations anti-impunity body the CICIG, condemned the investigations, calling them “black campaigns, brazen attacks that they are making, to make her leave her post.”

But, on Tuesday, almost a year to the day since Paz took up her post, Perez declared that Paz would be allowed to stay.

“The prosecutor is not going to resign, and I am not going to dismiss her,” he told the press.

The incoming president even held a meeting with Paz, and came out announcing that not only would his government work together with the Public Ministry, which she heads, but that he would invest more than $11 million in the creation of a special Crime Investigative Police (PIC), giving in to Paz’s demands for more investigative officers.

What brought about this change of heart? Onlookers suggest it could have something to do with the recent visit of United States Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs·Maria Otero. Prensa Libre reports that, according to their diplomatic sources, Otero had the task of making it clear to Perez that Washington would not look kindly upon Paz’s dismissal. The U.S. ambassador, a representative of the United Nations Development Program and the CICIG, all lined up to declare their support, pushing Perez to backtrack.

Still, as a politician, Perez is in a difficult position. The former general knows Paz is popular in international circles. But he is wary of how her continued efforts to prosecute former military, including him, will affect morale in an institution he will use heavily to fight organized crime. As Prensa Libre notes, Paz’s departure could be a useful “gift” to bring in line any elements of the army who are not behind Perez.

The outcome may be that the top prosecutor is kept on a short leash. It remains to be seen how long Paz will be able to hang on to her job, and whether she will be able to continue being effective under a Perez administration. But, as CICIG head Dall’Anese Ruiz points out, “A prosecutor that is not being attacked by the bad guys isn’t a good prosecutor, and when they attack the prosecutor it is because she’s hitting the nail on the head.”

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