Guatemala becomes a model for crime investigation

A United Nations-backed crime investigation team, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, roots out corrupt police and politicians in what could be a model for the region.

By , Correspondent

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    Bystanders watch as crime investigators work at the scene of a bus attack in Guatemala City April 8.
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Guatemala may seem an unlikely home for a crime fighting and anticorruption model. After all, the country solves only 2 percent of the murders there.

But globe-trotting investigators – headed by a Spanish judge and lawyer who once opened a case against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet – are winning international recognition for the work they’ve done here.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) began work as an independent investigative body two years ago under an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government. Wielding unprecedented power for a nongovernmental group, CICIG has forced the removal of thousands of police officers, prompted the arrest of dozens of corrupt businessmen and officials, and solved some of the country’s most heinous crimes.

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Now, other poor countries are looking to duplicate CICIG’s success, with Honduras and El Salvador joining Guatemala this month in asking the United States for help in creating a regionwide body like CICIG.

“There is clearly increased demand from states around the world that are looking for the UN to help strengthen institutions and combat crime,” says Andrew Hudson, senior associate at Human Rights First, an advocacy group in New York. “CICIG has become a model because it is equipped with a unique set of tools. The key is that it’s embedded into the local context and it’s doing field-based investigations while also strengthening the Guatemalan institutions.”

Truth commissions and fact-finding missions have long been a part of the UN’s role. But CICIG is unique because it operates as an investigative unit within the government’s justice system. Yet, it is not beholden to the government or any other entity. It straddles both worlds.

Many Guatemalans viewed the group with skepticism when it was set up in late 2007. Although the commission was not granted the power to file charges (cases must be brought through the attorney general’s office), it is allowed to investigate, gather evidence, call for the removal of corrupt leaders, and propose changes to the law. Detractors called it an invasion of sovereignty.

But the commission has won many Guatemalans’ trust. It began by cleaning up notoriously corrupt institutions. With a $15 million annual budget, mostly from donor countries, it employs a staff or more than 100.

It forced the removal of more than 2,000 national police officers (some 15 percent of the force), 10 federal prosecutors, and a handful of judges.

“We have sent 130 people to jail ... former ministers, two chiefs of the national police, and a long list of businessmen and politicians. That’s never before happened,” says CICIG head Carlos Castresana, adding that each investigator has two bodyguards. “It was a process of cleaning the institutions. They are far from perfect, but they are at least functioning now.”

Despite CICIG’s success, impunity is still king in Guatemala. As of late April, only one of its arrests had made it to trial; 10 were pending.

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