Guatemalans Fight For the Rule of Law

Amid rising crime, groups challenge military impunity

WHEN Karin Fleischmann Aguilar was killed by a street thug in a carjacking last year, the young woman's family wanted justice.

This being Guatemala, however, they seem unlikely to get it.

The person that Aguilar family members and several witnesses say committed the murder is a well-known Guatemalan criminal. Sources here say the alleged murderer is also part of a lucrative stolen-car ring with connections to a group of military officials.

Because of those connections, the sources say, the chief investigator in the Fleischmann case was killed and other judicial representatives have received death threats, as have key witnesses and members of the Aguilar family.

The two young women who were with Ms. Fleischmann when she died have left the country. So observers here fear the suspect will go free for lack of witnesses.

It's a common occurrence in this Central American country of about 10 million, which is struggling to develop a strong civilian government with a functioning judicial system, after 35 years of a guerrilla war and virtual military rule.

Robberies, carjackings, kidnappings, and murders are daily and worsening occurrences here. But in only a few cases are suspects arrested, tried, and imprisoned.

Last week, Guatemalan President Ramiro de Leon Carpio ordered military troops onto the streets to curb one of the worst crime waves in years. Two Americans were kidnapped and one killed in the violence.

The president had warned earlier in the week that he might use the army to reinforce efforts by Guatemala's corrupt and inefficient police force to combat violence.

But, wary of the reaction of the international community, which favors curbing the Army's role in internal security, he says the troops will play only a support role.

Nevertheless, many Guatemalans say the military is the only force capable of instilling fear in criminals.

''In Guatemala for all intents and purposes, there is no exercise of the law,'' says Ronalth Ochaeta Argueta, director of the Human Rights Office of Guatemala's Roman Catholic Church.

''Crimes are not investigated, and the judiciary does not respond, because very powerful groups have an important stake in assuring that the system they live by goes unchallenged.''

Actually that system - referred to simply as ''impunity'' for the powerful here - is being challenged on several fronts, and not just within Guatemala.

Recognizing the importance of the civilian justice system in determining the success of their countries' democratic transitions, Central American presidents are holding a summit in Honduras this week dedicated to the theme of public security and governability.

Guatemalan sources involved in planning say the meeting will address issues such as rising lawlessness affecting all the participating countries, but will also take up the role of the military in transitions to stronger civilian institutions.

Another important challenge to the status quo was creation last year of the United Nations Human Rights Verification Mission in Guatemala. MINUGUA, as the mission is known, was instrumental in achieving the demobilization of Guatemala's much- feared paramilitary militias earlier this year. Its respected quarterly reports are full of documented cases of politically motivated killings that never see even a cursory official investigation.

The third challenge are private human rights organizations that have set up shop here over recent years, often with foreign backing. Observers say international pressure, principally from the United States and Europe, is also bearing some fruit, at least in putting issues related to the civilian rule of law on the public agenda.

But any progress in giving the country a functioning public-safety and judicial system will depend largely on the outcome of continuing peace negotiations with Guatemala's guerrillas. Most observers expect a final peace accord to be signed in the next year or so.

A peace accord is the first step in giving Guatemala strong civilian institutions, like reliable police and an operating administration of justice, observers say, because it will strip the military of the three-decades-old excuse it has had to run the country and develop its economic networks virtually unchallenged

''The peace talks and eventual accord are crucial ... because they will determine the role and place of the military in a post-conflict Guatemala,'' says Manfredo Marroquin, project coordinator of the Myrna Mack Foundation. The foundation, named after a Guatemalan anthropologist killed by soldiers acting on official orders in 1991, is one of a number advocating change in the country's legal system.

Right now Guatemala's police don't have the manpower or resources to enforce the law, analysts say. The country has 12,000 police officers, Marroquin says, of which only 2,500 are actually working the streets on any given day. By comparison, Guatemala has more than 40,000 armed private police - guarding every business on some Guatemala City streets - and 50,000 soldiers.

The Guatemalan Army has said it is prepared to reduce its total manpower in the wake of a peace accord. On the other hand, military leaders insist they will not give up a role in ''internal security,'' including a hand in road construction and protection of the country's forests. But many observers here say that unless the scope of the Army's activities is reduced, any effort to subordinate the military to civilian authority will be futile.

''They basically want to continue what they're already doing,'' Marroquin says, ''but that would mean the Guatemalan state would not change.''

Earlier this month the US Embassy criticized as dangerous business-as-usual the reversal of convictions of three of four men earlier found guilty of the 1994 kidnapping of a US citizen here. In publicizing its criticism, the embassy noted that President de Leon Carpio had also expressed his ''disappointment'' at the ruling.

He knows about disappointment in these matters. Soon after he took office in 1993, his cousin, prominent political leader Jorge Carpio, was murdered in another unsolved case. The killing was widely seen as a message to the new president, previously the country's human rights ombudsman, not to mess with things as they are in Guatemala.

With De Leon Carpio leaving office in January, it will be up to his successor to see what he can do.

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