Asset seizure laws can be an excellent way to attack the economic power base of organized crime groups, but in Guatemala — and other countries in the region — a number of bureaucratic challenges have made implementation difficult.
In the three years Guatemala’s Asset Seizures Court of First Instance has operated, it has handed down about 40 sentences per year, leading to the seizure of around $3.2 million in assets, reported La Hora.
According to Asset Seizures judge Marco Antonio Villeda, the 2010 law (pdf) allowing authorities to seize properties bought with illicit funds is an important complement to attempts to prosecute criminal leaders.
However, while the Public Ministry (MP – Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office) — which directs asset seizure cases — has wide-ranging investigative powers, proving beyond reasonable doubt a property’s origins is a slow and difficult process, Villeda stated. This is particularly true when transnational transactions are involved.
Guatemalan experts say it can take years to complete an asset seizure case. As an example, seven properties belonging to one of Guatemala’s major drug clans, the Lorenzanas, were frozen in 2012, but the MP has yet to request their seizure.
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Informing the subject in question of an asset seizure hearing can also take a long time if they are being held in prison outside Guatemala, Villeda said.
Finally, there are problems regarding what to do with the properties after they are seized. Many people are skeptical about acquiring a narco-linked property or do not meet the qualifications to do so. The properties also often deteriorate over the course of the lengthy seizure process.
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As noted by Villeda, property seizure laws can be a huge boon in helping officials target criminal structures. They can also serve to shed light on the scale and scope of criminal operations.
However, many Latin American countries still lack this legislation, and even for countries that do have seizure laws, they are a relatively new legal tool that has proved difficult to implement. In Mexico, just 29 asset seizure trials took place between the 2009 implementation of the Federal Forfeiture Law and 2013. Honduras passed a similar law in 2010 (pdf), but all asset transfer orders filed since that year were still pending as of last year. Colombia’s property seizure law reaches back to 2002 (pdf), but its effectiveness has been hampered by slow judicial processes.
Bureaucratic flaws are just one challenge. Others include the potential misuse of the law to attack political opponents, the deep-seated corruption in many of the region’s judicial systems, and the temptations surrounding these luxury goods. Following one major scandal, Colombia’s National Narcotics Directorate (DNE) — formerly responsible for managing seized properties — is being dissolved after billions of dollars in narco assets “disappeared.”