The rise of Guatemala's Attorney General Paz y Paz

A set of extraordinary circumstances brought Claudia Paz y Paz to Guatemala's attorney general's office. She spent most of her career demonizing the government, not trying to reform it.

By , InSight Crime

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    Guatemala's Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz talks during an interview in Guatemala City, Dec. 17, 2012.
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InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Steven Dudley's research here.

Since taking over in 2010, Guatemala's Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has waged a revolution from inside one of the country's most troubled institutions. She has submitted her name for another four-year term that would begin in May, but her enemies are strong and want to return to the status quo. The first part of this three-part investigation explores her unexpected nomination and her bold actions against transnational criminal organizations.  

In early 2011, drug traffickers like Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias "Juan Chamale," were still untouchable figures in Guatemala. Mr. Ortiz Lopez, or Chamale – a mustachioed cowboy turned evangelical preacher from the San Marcos province along the Mexican-Guatemalan border – understood this perfectly.

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As one of the key drug transporters for the largest criminal network in the hemisphere, Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, Chamale was known locally as a benefactor who could quickly become a dangerous enemy. He had taken the life of more than one leader in the area, Guatemalan authorities told InSight Crime. At the same time, he had contacts in the highest levels of government, including with the then-first lady's sister, Gloria Torres.

Ms. Torres and Chamale decided who would run for mayor in the various municipalities under his purview, a former high-level government investigator and two current prosecutors told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. Working closely with national congressional representatives, the two would also funnel money through public works contracts to Chamale's companies, who provided kickbacks to Torres, the authorities said.

However, it was a new era in law enforcement in Guatemala. And using new tools at their disposal, in particular telephone interception and surveillance equipment, the new attorney general, her small team, the police, and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had been tracking Chamale's movements for months as the US government prepared a request for his extradition.

They knew, for example, that Chamale liked to travel to Quetzaltenango to see a girlfriend. They knew he had tunnels at his ranch in the San Marcos province so he could escape if the authorities surprised him. They also knew that he had high-level contacts in the government, aside from Torres, who would tip him off when judicial authorities mounted an operation against him. (This was demonstrated by the fact that just an hour after the extradition request arrived, one of Chamale's sources informed him via phone, investigators told InSight Crime.)
 All of these factors came into play when the request for extradition arrived. The government laid a trap, filtering information that they were moving in to grab Chamale at his home in San Marcos. To reinforce the ruse, they sent security forces from the coast towards Chamale's ranch. At the same time, the police put 200 newly trained Special Forces policemen in tomato trucks and sent them towards Quetzaltenango. Trust was still thin with the unit, so no one told them where they were going. To add a layer of deception, they had them put on their anti-riot gear.

The ruse worked. Fearing a raid at his ranch, Chamale fled to Quetzaltenango, and authorities spotted him driving along the highway. The prosecutor on the scene readied the paperwork, called the Guatemala City office and headed in for the arrest. This was the kind of moment when things often fell apart in Guatemala. A phone call. A bribe. A threat. Chamale could use any or all of these tactics.

Instead, the prosecutor on the scene called again: "We have him," she said.

"Are you sure it's him?" the attorney general asked.

"Yes."

"How do you know?"

"You are Juan Ortiz Lopez, Chamale, right?" she asked her prisoner.

"Yes," they heard Chamale answer.

Back in Guatemala City, they laughed.

The capture of Chamale was the beginning of the revolution, the likes of which Guatemala has arguably not experienced since the early 1950s when a president named Jacobo Arbenz tried to nationalize land belonging to elites and multinational companies. Or since the nearly four-decades long war that followed after the United States government, working with economic powers and conservative parts of the military, overthrew President Arbenz in a 1954 coup.

Unlike those revolutions, however, this is one is led by a diminutive, soft-spoken former law professor, whose last name, Paz y Paz (Peace and Peace), connotes a softer approach. And unlike that first revolution, this one has the backing of the US government.

This is, in part, because it is more of an internal revolution that is centered on strengthening government institutions, not overturning them. And for the country's economic elites, many politicians, and more than a few former military officers, nothing could be more frightening.

Getting the Job

If it were not for a set of extraordinary circumstances, Claudia Paz y Paz would not be attorney general. For most of her career, it had never occurred to her to go for the post. She had always worked from the outside looking in, attempting to shift a corrupt, inept, and underfunded institution by criticizing it and molding its potential recruits rather than working with it. In fact, she had spent most of her career trying to figure out how to demonize rather than reform the government. It was, in a word, the enemy.

She had forged a career working for the fiercest critics of the government. In the early 1990s, Paz y Paz worked with a team of young lawyers reconstructing what had happened during the civil war, part of the labor of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office. Over 200,000 people had perished during the nearly four-decade long conflict. Part of the work the office did was to gather testimonies from all over the country focusing on indigenous areas in the northwest.

For her part, Ms. Paz y Paz collected victims' testimonies in various parts of the country, an experience that would mark her forever, influencing and arguably also clouding her political judgment in the years to come. Paz y Paz later got a doctorate in Spain, and taught criminal law at various universities. She then worked with the Inter-American Human Rights Court, and she ran a think tank, the Instituto de Estudios Comparados de Ciencias Penales. One of the institute's mandates is the "structural transformation of the justice system."

When the attorney general position opened in 2010, she gave her usual list of complaints about the process, particularly about the small number of female candidates. Her colleagues at the institute challenged her to enter the race.

"The women who can participate, don't," one of them told her. "So participate."

It was not an easy decision. Others who had worked with her in the past had been vilified by their friends and former colleagues after taking government posts. In Guatemala, they call it a "stain." However, the government of President Alvaro Colom was friendly territory, relatively speaking. In his earlier days, then-President Colom had started FONAPAZ, a program to help rural areas with economic development. Colom also owed his presidency to indigenous voters. He was the country's first head of state to win the office without winning Guatemala City. Paz y Paz also knew people, such as Interior Minister Carlos Menocal, who worked closely with the president.

But while Paz y Paz had the credentials and some backing inside the presidency, her status as an outsider to Guatemala's political and economic elites, and her background as a human rights lawyer made her seem a near impossible choice. What's more, the selection process for Guatemala's attorney general, like everything else in the country, is plagued by the undue and destructive influence of special interest groups. These interest groups include powerful economic elites, some of whom form part of the near monolithic business associations. Political and criminal interests also play key roles in the selection of the attorney general, often working in tandem with the economic interest groups.

The reason Paz y Paz had an opportunity to apply for the job at all was because the attorney general selected before her had been linked to criminal interests by a United Nations team of investigators working with the government. Known by its acronym CICIG (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala), the UN team's job was to help dismantle criminal organizations within the state, lower the rates of impunity, and train the police and the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry - MP) – Guatemala's Attorney General's Office – in criminal investigation. Faced with the CICIG's accusations, the Constitutional Court annulled the process and forced the attorney general to step down.

The embarrassing revelations came just months after Colom had nearly been toppled himself by another criminal case in which a rival had staged his own murder in order to implicate the executive. The extraordinary case included a dramatic video in which Rodrigo Rosenberg, the lawyer who set up his own assassination, says flatly into the camera: "If you are watching this video, it is because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom."

The president survived the political hurricane that followed, almost solely because the CICIG had triangulated Rosenberg's telephone calls, tracking both him and his assassins, and leaving no doubt about what had happened the day Rosenberg had been shot while riding his bicycle on a quiet Guatemala City street. Guatemalan investigators worked on the case, getting a valuable lesson in the political importance of forensic evidence along the way.

However, the events had weakened Colom, and he could not afford to bring in another wildcard from the criminal-political special interest groups to be his attorney general. Paz y Paz also benefited from an important change in the law in 2009. The selection process, once held behind closed doors, was literally pushed into public view. The commission met in a space in the Supreme Court where it did business like a town hall might: at a table with spectators, political operatives, and the press taking notes from a small gallery.

Lobbying, corruption, and politics were still part of the process, but the special interest groups had a harder time manipulating it. When Paz y Paz scored some of highest marks on her evaluation, the commission had little choice but to make her one of their six finalists, at which point it became Colom's decision. Still, the special interests were not worried.

"They thought of her like an ornament," Menocal, the then-Interior Minister and one of those lobbying for Paz y Paz, told InSight Crime regarding the commission's decision to make her a finalist. "'She doesn't represent a threat at all,' they told themselves."

Paz y Paz's detractors included the president's own party, UNE, and most of his cabinet, who, like other special interests, had miscalculated both the political moment and the president's own resolve.

At the end of her interview with the president, Colom told her: "You'll be hearing from me very soon."

Forty-five minutes later, she got the call. The revolution had begun.

The Zetas

Paz y Paz laid out her agenda: 1) institutional reform; 2) lower the murder rate, especially violence and abuse of women; 3) transitional justice for victims of the war. To help her on the first point, she brought in her own team – some of whom had worked with her at the institute – and cleaned out the top level of the MP. She added some special units, and she reconfigured others. Almost all of the 22 units got new leaders. Whoever she could not push from the MP – and there were many, mostly because she did not control the MP's ruling council, which was made up of three of the six finalists she had beaten to get the job – she isolated. Many of those she marginalized left of their own accord.

She then turned her attention to lowering homicides. In May 2011, two months after Chamale was captured, members of the Mexican criminal organization the Zetas began a historic rampage aimed at firming up their already tight grip on the northern part of Guatemala. They started with the kidnap and killing of three relatives of a rival. The next day, they intercepted and killed another rival and his two bodyguards. They then massacred 27 farmhands at a ranch and used their limbs to scrawl menacing messages to their intended target.

Just days later, the Zetas kidnapped a prosecutor in Coban – a city in the province of Alta Verapaz that had become the group's de facto headquarters in Guatemala – as he was going to pick up his son. The next day, parts of his body appeared in four different places in the city, including in front of the mayor's and the governor's offices. Next to one part of the corpse, the Zetas had left the MP a message: "Don't try to be like the gringos. This fight doesn't concern you."

The massacre and the assassination hit the MP hard. Guatemala is used to death. Its homicide rates are among the highest in the world. But it is not used to organized crime-led massacres, and the Zetas' particular brand of terror was already legendary. The entire Coban office resigned overnight, and in Guatemala City, the fear was palpable, two of Paz y Paz's closest aides told InSight Crime. Paz y Paz called a meeting.

Paz y Paz is not the type to give rousing speeches or take charge of a situation like a would-be general. Her round, gentle face and curly hair make her look a little like the naïve, hippy backpackers who still make their way through Guatemala. She is also very soft spoken and defers to others frequently in meetings. But in this instance, she did not need to convey urgency. The situation demanded it.

"If we don't send a message, the next one could be any one of us," she told her petrified staff.

The MP and the Interior Ministry then created what would become a staple during these moments: a "crisis table." These working groups included police and prosecutors who broke down into investigation and operational teams. They also leaned on the analysis unit. When Paz y Paz arrived, the unit had just 15 people who were isolated and seldom used. Under Paz y Paz, this unit has grown to 115 and is integral to both big and small cases. The emphasis on analysis says a lot about the way Paz y Paz approaches battling criminal groups. To her, individual cases matter, of course, but fighting crime is about seeing patterns and being able to draw the larger picture.

In the case of the Zetas, what they saw was a group that was as much about terror as drug trafficking. They would need to react with strength and set nearly the entire office toward that task. Like the Chamale case, telephone interceptions led to the leaders, and small teams of investigators started to track them, while others built the judicial case to get the arrest warrants in place.

One of the first put under surveillance was Hugo Alvaro Gomez Vasquez, alias "Comandante Bruja." Bruja is a hulking figure with a shaved head. He was one of the first former Guatemalan Special Forces, known as Kaibiles, to join the Zetas when they started recruiting Guatemalans in the mid-2000s. The Kaibil aura was especially unsettling for Guatemalans fighting crime. The group had participated in some of the most spectacular atrocities during the civil war, including the well-chronicled Dos Erres massacre in 1982, in which more than 200 men, women, and children were killed and dumped into wells and mass graves.

Despite this intimidating persona, when a prosecutor in the Baja Verapaz province spotted Bruja, he called his colleagues, and they mobilized with the requisite legal forms in hand. The police set up a roadblock, and once again, the Guatemala City team sat anxiously by the phone, this time as the prosecutor gave a play-by-play of the arrest. Within minutes, Bruja was in custody.

The Bruja capture was followed by dozens more, many of them top level Zetas of both Guatemalan and Mexican origin. Early on, they grabbed a mid-level accountant who gave them an even clearer picture of the organization's size, its nationalities, its finances, and its weaponry. In all, the MP arrested over 100 members of the Zetas, including one of its top Guatemalan operatives, Horst Walther Overdick, a previously untouchable figure in the mold of Chamale.

In earlier days, those cases might have died there. Judges are notoriously susceptible to bribes in Guatemala, and phone records obtained by InSight Crime show the Zetas tried to buy off at least one judge who had the power to temporarily release several suspects from a mass arrest. (In the conversation, the Zetas complained the judge had stolen some $2 million from them already.)

However, since 2009, Guatemala has been establishing special courts for what they call "high impact" cases (see law here - pdf). The courts have handled close to 30 cases per year. In the case of the Zetas, dozens have been prosecuted, all of them in the "high impact" courts – some for the murder of the prosecutor and others for the massacre of the farmhands. In at least two cases, Guatemalan prosecutors also worked with Mexican prosecutors to capture suspects.

Prosecutors say they are going to request these suspects' extraditions.

"We're sending a message that, 'You can't come here anymore and do that...'" a longtime Paz y Paz team member told InSight Crime.

Making international allies, saving her job

With the arrests of high-level drug suspects, Paz y Paz quickly established herself as a firm ally of the DEA. And these days the US government trusts Paz y Paz like few, if any, attorneys general in the region. In turn, she dedicates time, energy, and resources to a fight that is often outside of her official remit. The two sides are in near constant contact, and while she does occasionally say no, the cooperation has become a central part of what the MP does. Making herself indispensable to the DEA also made it harder for anyone to remove her for political reasons. The US, in other words, has become Paz y Paz's most important ally just as she has become theirs.

The irony is thick considering the attorney general's background in human rights. In addition to the US participation in the coup against Arbenz, the American government supported repressive military governments during the war and fomented a fierce counter-insurgency plan that impacted more than one of Paz y Paz's human rights colleagues along the way.

Paz y Paz is of leftist stock, and friends say she has her own strong opinions about what the Reagan administration wrought in Central America. In the case of Guatemala, that included open support for dictators like General Efrain Rios Montt, who led the scorched earth campaign in the highlands in the early 1980s, killing thousands and displacing thousands more. In some instances, the US was complicit in these atrocities. The US, for example, knew about the infamous Dos Erres massacre almost immediately after it happened in 1982, but kept it secret until 1998, ProPublica reported recently.

But Paz y Paz is too smart to directly address the twist of fate that has led the US and her into each other's arms. When asked, she says it was not her plan to go after the Zetas; the drug traffickers forced her hand.

"I was not after them. They were after us," she told InSight Crime.

She won more international allies after the dramatic murder of Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral, who was gunned down at dawn on July 9, 2011, as he made his way to the airport with a concert promoter and nightclub owner. Mr. Cabral was one of the most famous artists of his generation, and his assassination led to mourning throughout the region and an immediate outpouring into the streets of fans seeking to see where he'd been slain.

For Paz y Paz and her team, there was more at stake than just the murder of a musical icon. They were also worried about their future. Although Colom had installed her for the requisite four-year term, his presidency was coming to a close. The frontrunner in the elections was Otto Perez Molina, a former general who had headed up the feared intelligence services of the army during the war. There was a widespread belief that Mr. Perez Molina would try to remove Paz y Paz. The dramatic murder of Cabral, therefore, was an opportunity to secure their jobs.

"We prove ourselves and become a 'new MP,' or we are out in four months," one of her team members told her.

Paz y Paz and her team again mobilized all their resources and put to work many of their new tools and training. Cameras along Guatemala City's main avenues gave them incredible video footage, and the analysis team – which drew from experience in the Rosenberg case – discovered an important piece of evidence in those first few hours of studying the tape: one of the suspects was black.

Guatemala does not have a large black population and so the team began to comb through their databases and cross-reference old cases involving Guatemalans of color. Ballistics and fingerprint analyses from case files and the crime scene narrowed the suspect list. From that list they settled on one who was part of a known criminal group in the south of the country and put out an all-points-bulletin for his arrest.

They also got lucky. Two days after the assassination, a participant in the murder turned himself into the human rights ombudsman's office. In the old Guatemala, the prosecutors would have had nothing to offer him. But since the passage of the "Law Against Organized Crime" in 2006, the attorney general's office can trade lower sentences for valuable information. The so-called "efficient collaborator" is now a critical component of many big cases in Guatemala and something the Paz y Paz team has used extensively. The collaborator in the Cabral case led them to the vehicles, which led them to the perpetrators, one of whom they had already identified. In less than 72 hours, all four of the participants in Cabral's murder were in custody.

The case also led to unprecedented regional cooperation. The investigation extended to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Mexico. The target, as they found out, was not Cabral, but the one driving him to the airport that morning, a man named Henry Fariñas, a Nicaraguan who had allegedly stolen money from a Costa Rican named Alejandro Jimenez Gonzalez, alias "Palidejo." Mr. Fariñas was sent back to Nicaragua to face charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. Palidejo was captured in Colombia and deported to Guatemala, where he is in jail awaiting trial for murder. It was another drugs and organized crime victory for Paz y Paz, this time on a regional level.

As expected, Perez Molina was elected, but there was little he could do to rid himself of Paz y Paz. During the presidential campaign, the US had made a point of declaring Paz y Paz had its support. The ambassador met privately with Perez Molina and his running mate, Roxana Baldetti, to let the front-runner know how important the attorney general was to bilateral relations. The US also gave Paz y Paz a private meeting with Hillary Clinton during her visit to Guatemala, which resulted in a crucial photo-op. With US and regional backing, it was clear that in spite of his misgivings, the new president had to confirm her in her post. The revolution would continue.

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