April 22, 2010
Senator Leahy's statement on Guatemala's next Attorney General
Just the Facts
By the end of this month, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom must choose a new Attorney General. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, made a brief statement to the Senate about the significance President Colom's decision will have for human rights and justice in Guatemala. "This may be among the most important decisions he makes this year, at a time when drug trafficking and other organized crimes, assassinations of human rights defenders, and other social and political activists, corruption, and impunity threaten the foundation of Guatemala's fragile democracy," Leahy told the Senate.
However, the sentences that stand out the most in Senator Leahy's comments were the following: "We are ready and willing to support an Attorney General who demonstrates the necessary professional qualifications and commitment. But absent those qualifications and commitment, as chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, I would find it difficult to justify spending more resources on a fruitless quest for justice reform in Guatemala."
For Fiscal Year 2010, Congress appropriated over $60 million to Guatemala for both military & police and economic & social aid. This amount provides support for various initiatives, including counternarcotics, drug demand reduction, gang violence, climate change, environmental protection, and justice reform, to name a few. $4 million of that amount also is set aside for a donation to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an international body set up by the United Nations in 2006 and charged with investigating and prosecuting serious crimes in Guatemala in light of concerns about corruption in Guatemala's police and justice system.
After interviewing almost 30 candidates for the Attorney General position, the nominating committee released the list of six finalists on Monday, of which President Colom must pick the next Attorney General. The current Attorney General, Amílcar Velásquez Zárate, was seeking reelection for another four year term. However, he was not included in the final list. The candidates who made the cut are:
- Byron Renato Durán (ex-attorney general)
- Édgar Lemus Orellana (lawyer)
- María Eugenia Morales de Sierra (ex-constituent)
- Julio César Rivera Clavería (ex-attorney general)
- Leopoldo Liu González (ex-attorney general for money laundering)
- Conrado Arnulfo Reyes Sagastume (lawyer)
According to the Prensa Latina, "five of those included on the list received in some way strong objections from various civil society organizations." Both the Pro Justice Movement (MPJ) and the CICIG agreed that many of the candidates "are not qualified to lead the institution responsible for the prosecution of crime due to pending lawsuits or irregularities in their professional performance," according to El Financiero.
Here is the full text of Senator Leahy's statement before the Senate:
Later this month, President Colom will select Guatemala's next Attorney General from a slate of six candidates. This may be among the most important decisions he makes this year, at a time when drug trafficking and other organized crimes, assassinations of human rights defenders, and other social and political activists, corruption, and impunity threaten the foundation of Guatemala's fragile democracy.
In the 3 three months of this year alone, at least five Guatemalan human rights defenders, social activists, and trade unionists have been murdered, including two members of the Resistance Front for the Defense of Natural Resources--its president, Evelinda Ramírez Reyes, and Octavio Roblero. Also killed were Juan Antonio Chea, a Mayan indigenous lawyer who worked with the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop and the National Reparations Program; Pedro Antonio Garcia of the Malacatan Municipal Workers Union; and Germán Antonio Curup, a member of a group opposed to the construction of a cement plant in San Juan Sacatepéquez. Mr. Curup was murdered in particularly brutal fashion--abducted on February 11, his body was dumped 2 days later, throat cut and showing signs of torture. This type of brutality is not unusual in Guatemala, nor is it unusual that no one has been arrested or punished for those crimes.
The 1996 Peace Accords were a historic milestone, ending three decades of civil war when government security forces and associated death squads and civil patrols targeted anyone who was considered subversive. Tens of thousands of rural Mayan villagers, students, lawyers, journalists, and other social and political activists were arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and killed. The URNG rebels were also guilty of atrocities. Almost no one has been punished for those crimes.
While the Peace Accords spelled out commitments by the government and goals for the country's future political, economic, and social development, progress has been disappointing. Implementation of many elements of the accords has been repeatedly delayed, and widespread debilitating poverty, impunity, and women's and indigenous peoples' rights remain urgent concerns. These are among the key issues the Peace Accords were designed to address, which were at the root of the conflict.
In the meantime, in the absence of a credible or effective justice system, corruption has flourished and violent crime has skyrocketed. There has also been a steady emigration of poor Guatemalans seeking jobs in the United States.
Effectively confronting these problems requires political will, which has too often been lacking in Guatemala. Secretary Clinton expressed the willingness of the United States to stand with the Guatemalan people during her visit there on March 5, and I hope the Guatemalan Government will seize this opportunity to develop ambitious and effective strategies to confront these challenges.
There is no better place to start than by appointing an Attorney General who has the integrity, experience, courage, and determination to show that justice can be a reality for all the people of Guatemala regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or economic status.
Investigating and prosecuting assassinations of human rights defenders, as well as some of the most notorious political crimes, should be a priority. The United States is helping through our donations to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, CICIG. The CICIG is doing an important job and should continue, but it is no substitute for an effective Ministry of Justice. We are ready and willing to support an Attorney General who demonstrates the necessary professional qualifications and commitment. But absent those qualifications and commitment, as chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, I would find it difficult to justify spending more resources on a fruitless quest for justice reform in Guatemala.
A related imperative is reforming Guatemala's police forces, which are undertrained, underpaid, underequipped, and infected with corruption. President Colom deserves great credit for appointing Helen Mack, a widely respected human rights defender, to develop a plan for police reform, and I look forward to her recommendations. An Attorney General whose integrity matches that of Helen Mack's would be a welcome step.
Guatemala has a troubled history and is facing immense challenges, both internally and along its borders, as it is rapidly becoming a favorite haven for Latin criminal organizations. Yet as the land of one of the most accomplished pre-Colombian civilizations in this hemisphere whose indigenous descendants enrich present-day Guatemala in countless ways, spectacular tropical forests and towering volcanoes, it is also a country with great potential. The United States is prepared to help tackle these challenges if Guatemalan Government officials in key positions merit our support. I urge President Colom to use the opportunity of selecting Guatemala's next Attorney General to send that message clearly.
By Abigail Poe
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