‘Smear Campaign’ in Guatemala Aims to Discredit Reformers

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Political intrigue in Guatemala is threatening to stall efforts at police and judicial reform, as some of the country’s most important reformists have been sucked into what has been labeled a shadowy misinformation campaign.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comision Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), a body set up by the United Nations to investigate corruption within the government, is at the center of the scandal. The Commission’s current director, Francisco Dall’Anese, pictured above, has complained there is an ongoing campaign to discredit the CICIG’s efforts to successfully prosecute army, police and political officials accused of misconduct.

This includes misinformation, reportedly disseminated through the media, about the CICIG’s handling of several key corruption cases, Dall’Anese has said. On February 16, he complained that the smear campaign against the CICIG was being led by a Washington D.C. lobbyist, Robert Gelbard, who, according to Dall’Anese, is discrediting the CICIG’s efforts to key international contacts in D.C. and New York. Gelbard was allegedly hired by a shadowy group of powerful business interests in the country, who may have an interest in subverting the CICIG’s work, reports El Periodico,

Now, rumors spread by shadow powers are attempting to blacken the name of the country’s police reform commissioner, Helen Mack.

Human rights organization Pro Justice Movement (Movimiento Pro Justicia) told InSight that in closed door meetings and in media editorials, Mack has been named an instigator of the negative campaign against the CICIG. But this in itself is another attempt to smear the image of Guatemala’s most prominent human rights activist, to discredit her work and create rifts between organizations that should be working together, critics have said. 

“What we want to make clear is whatever criticisms Helen has made against the Commission, whether in formal or informal meetings, do not form part of any kind of smear campaign or a campaign to discredit the Commission,” the director of Pro Justice Movement, Carmen Ibarra Moran, told InSight.

As a press release distributed by the NGO warned, the negative rumor-mongering could “seriously affect important processes like police reform. We should not be too gullible or naive, because the criminal networks often take advantage of moments of vulnerability to grow, consolidate and expand.”

Mack is heading several key efforts to reform Guatelama’s notoriously corrupt police force, including rooting out internal corruption, and pushing for increased training for homicide detectives and other special agents. Notably, she has recently come under fire for attempting to block the purchase of high-power Galil rifles for the police force, arguing that arming the police with weapons meant for warfare does little to improve the institution’s credibility, or promote the idea of community policing.

Guatemala is struggling to combat the growth of criminal gangs like the Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13) and Barrio 18, as well as powerful contraband families like the Lorenzanas, the Mendozas and the Leones.

That the shadowy smear campaign against the CICIG has now implicated figures like Mack suggests that powerful interests in Guatemala remain intent on stalling serious reforms. The CICIG has already headed key investigations like the case against Alejandro Giammattei, a noted politician who, while serving as head of Guatemala’s prison system in 2006, allowed the extrajudicial killing of seven prisoners. That the Commission’s efforts has resulted in investigations and arrests of powerfully connected people in Guatemala is a key achievement, in a country where impunity is rampant. The current alleged misinformation campaign about the CICIG’s impartiality and effectivity, disseminated though the media and in the back rooms of power, could have the affect of stalling and misdirecting current criminal investigations handled by the Commission. And if the infighting and bickering grows to include Mack, this could potentially hurt her own efforts to promote police reform. 

Helen Mack was one of the first activists in recent Guatemalan history to push through a case which resulted in the trial and conviction of a corrupt military operative. Her sister, Myrna Mack, a noted anthropologist, was murdered in 1990 in a political killing made to look like a robbery. Helen Mack pushed through with the subsequent investigation, which at one point saw 12 judges resign because of death threats, but ultimately resulted in the rare conviction of an army sergeant in 1993. The case made Mack one of the most admired human rights activists in the country. 

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