Guatemala State Corruption Highlighted by Property Theft Ring

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Authorities in Guatemala have arrested 17 people allegedly involved in a network that stole property by falsifying documents with the help of corrupt government employees, highlighting systemic corruption and the state’s inability to protect the basic rights of its citizens.

Public Ministry officials have received 1,000 reports of property theft linked to the network since it began operating in 2000, reported Prensa Libre. The trial has begun for the arrested suspects — among them 14 lawyers — but authorities believe the group could total up to 47 members.

Officials said the structure, which operated mainly in Guatemala City, Sacatepequez and Izabal, consisted of lawyers, front men, intermediaries and public sector employees.

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The majority of victims were elderly Guatemalans residing in the United States, reported La Hora. Using their connections, members of the network got information about the owners of properties found vacant, and then falsified their signatures on sales contracts that were notarized by corrupt public officials. The group used a company belonging to the network’s leader to launder money obtained through the sale of the stolen properties and has also been connected to four murder cases.

One of the lawyers arrested — Rodolfo Lazaro Padilla — was the defense attorney for the son of a former Supreme Court president investigated for the disappearance of his wife.

InSight Crime Analysis

Property theft is a rising problem in Guatemala, where 1,400 cases have been documented this year and the crime has been linked to 114 murders. Despite the establishment of a General Property Registry in 2011, the country continues to lack effective controls to combat the problem.

The makeup of this network demonstrates how corrupt state employees are essential to such crime and allow Guatemalan criminal groups to act with impunity. In another high-profile case of official corruption earlier this year, the country’s head of passports was arrested on human smuggling charges.

While the arrests, coupled with the dismantling of a money laundering network earlier this week, are positive moves against such paper-based crime, the fact the network existed for so many years before it was dismantled should be a source of concern.

The trend is not limited to Guatemala — similar cases have been documented in Colombia, where various officials have been tied to the illegal stripping of land titles from peasants by criminal groups, particularly in Uraba, Antioquia.

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