Guatemala’s New Strategy to Take Down Criminal Networks

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Guatemala’s Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz set out her department’s new strategies for dealing with organized crime, focusing on disrupting entire criminal networks rather than arresting their lower-ranking members.

In an interview with TV program Dialogo Libre, Paz said that there had been a major change in the way the Public Ministry, which she heads, goes after criminal groups. The idea is that investigations are strategically planned, with clear objectives, in order to hit the networks of organized crime rather than just catching lower-ranking members. “Now we don’t detain a person, but go after a structure,” explained Paz. Processing small-time members of criminal groups is a burden on the judicial system, she said, and these people are easily replaced by the organizations.

The Public Ministry now gathers all the evidence against a group before striking, and in this way has managed to carry out mass arrests of more than 100 gang members at a time, according to Paz.

The attorney general pointed to the limited resources of Guatemala’s prosecutors, saying that they were now focused on directing these towards the biggest networks and most serious crimes.

InSight Crime Analysis

The reforms appear to be having an effect — Guatemala’s justice system has made significant strides in efficiency since Paz took office. Several of the country’s most powerful drug lords have fallen, including Waldemar Lorenzana, Juan Ortiz and Walther Overdick, decimating the ranks of the family-run trafficking organizations which have traditionally controlled the country’s drug trade. Paz has also made inroads against the Zetas drug gang, quickly catching some 40 suspects in the massacre of 27 farm laborers in Peten last year.

As Paz pointed out to Dialogo Libre, the number of people sentenced shot up from less than 3,894 in 2010 to more than 5,300 the following year.

She has made inroads against impunity for crimes committed in the civil war, bringing charges against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for massacres carried out during the 1980s. Despite her effectiveness against organized crime, this digging up of civil war-era atrocities has made her enemies in the government of Otto Perez, who has himself been linked to such crimes.

The tactics described by Paz could hold lessons for other countries in the region, like Mexico, where police often arrest lower-ranking members of criminal groups such as lookouts or street-level drug dealers, rather than chipping away at the more difficult task of taking down entire criminal structures.

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