Red flag? Guatemala reins in crusading top prosecutor

Guatemala's top court decided to cut short the mandate of Attorney General Paz y Paz. If she is removed, high-profile criminal prosecutions could be disrupted or even terminated.

Moises Castillo/AP
In this Dec. 17, 2012 photo, Guatemala's Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz talks during an interview in Guatemala City.

Guatemala has had an extraordinary string of incompetent, bungling attorney generals who had turned a near blind eye to rampant corruption.

So when Claudia Paz y Paz came to office at the end of 2010, hopes were muted. Paz y Paz, who is the nation’s first female attorney general, far surpassed those hopes. Civic and human rights advocates around the hemisphere have hailed the strides she’s made on fighting organized crime, political corruption, and human rights abuses.

Precisely because of those strides, a decision by the nation’s Constitutional Court to cut short Paz y Paz’s four-year mandate by nearly six months has triggered some alarm bells. If the decision is carried out, Paz y Paz would leave office in May – seven months early – and ongoing criminal investigations could be disrupted, perhaps even terminated. It’s not hard to see a dark hand behind the move.

After all, look back only a few years to see the sinister figure who became attorney general for 17 days in 2010, apparently with the support of top politicians.

Both the US State Department and the UN-organized Anti-Impunity Commission have issued statements on Paz y Paz’s possible early departure.

Here’s what an spokesperson at the State Department, who asked to remain unnamed, issued:

We have enjoyed unprecedented cooperation with Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz in Guatemala and are disappointed to learn the Constitutional Court has ruled that her term should end in May of this year. The U.S. government looks forward to continuing our excellent cooperation with her through the end of her term.

As attorney general, Paz y Paz has made incredible progress in combating corruption and organized crime, and prosecuting human rights violations in Guatemala. To make this type of substantial progress, Paz y Paz directly confronted some of the toughest issues, focusing on building a culture of lawfulness and strengthening domestic institutions, especially the Attorney General’s Office.

We will follow the upcoming attorney general nomination and selection process extremely closely. We are hopeful that, regardless if Paz y Paz decides to seek another term, whoever is selected as attorney general embodies the honesty, courage, independence, and commitment to fighting impunity that Paz y Paz has demonstrated.

For its part, CICIG, the UN anti-impunity commission, hailed Paz y Paz for her “unwavering  commitment” and said her actions have been “a historic contribution to Guatemalan justice.”

The commission voiced concern that turmoil around the Constitutional Court’s ruling could impede its own lawyers’ work in helping Guatemalan prosecutors “to identify, prosecute and dismantle criminal structures.”

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