Above: Former Attorney General of Guatemala (and 2013 Nobel Peace Prize nominee) Claudia Paz y Paz meets then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Yesterday, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz was officially eliminated from the shortlist of candidates for appointment to the position of Attorney General of Guatemala. That means that she will no longer lead Guatemala’s Ministerio Publico, which is essentially the backbone of Guatemala’s legal justice system. The Public Ministry, akin to a federal prosecutor’s office but local and national in scope, is in charge of seeking justice by turning criminal cases into convictions through careful investigation, evidence-gathering, and legal argument. Why does the elimination of Paz y Paz as a candidate matter? Because no one has been more effective at solving high-level crimes and getting convictions on everything from femicides to drug trafficking than Paz y Paz and her team (see new post above for statistical evidence).
But first a story. In 2013 while I was conducting follow-up interviews with ex-gang members I first met in 2007, I asked *Diego, a local gatekeeper and small business owner from Ciudad Quetzal about the gang situation in that community. Ciudad Quetzal is a satellite town on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Residents of Guatemala City regard Ciudad Quetzal as a dangerous hotspot of gang activity. Extortion of homeowners, small businesses, and buses has been rampant in Ciudad Quetzal for years. Does the extortion continue? I wondered aloud. Diego, a well-educated pharmacist who lives and works in the community told me, “Yes, it continues. But it isn’t really the gangs who are behind it any more.” He explained that although the local youth gangs had developed the practice of extorting their neighbors for the so-called “war tax,” in recent years the extortion has been taken over by outsiders. Specifically, an organized criminal gang with ties to the military now oversees the extortion racket in Ciudad Quetzal, collecting the proceeds from the safety of Chimaltenango, about forty-five minutes away. To be sure, a former gang member is involved in the operation. In fact, this former leader of the local gang cell continues to collect the extortion fees. But, Diego informed me, it is an open secret that the former gang leader works for the shady Chimaltenango outfit. The local youth gangs have been effectively maneuvered out of an “enterprise” they themselves invented and established.
Of course I cannot confirm or otherwise “prove” the validity of my informant’s account, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of such a situation. In Guatemala and Honduras especially, there are numerous accounts of organized criminals carrying out major crimes in the guise of the gangs. In the case of extortion in particular I have heard multiple accounts of Guatemalans believing themselves to be extorted by gangs, only to find out later that those behind the extortion were not gang members at all, but members of local or regional units that extort under the guise of the gang. In one case in particular, a close friend told me how her entire family had had to leave their home abruptly and permanently after receiving multiple telephone calls from “la Mara Salvatrucha” asking for thousands of dollars in cash and providing intimate details about all family members and their daily routines. Not until more than a year later – after the family had pooled all of its resources to take out a mortgage on a small home in another part of the city – did the family learn from a very reliable source that the individuals who had tried to extort them were actually neighbors living just a few doors down the same street. Specifically, a mother and her adult son who possessed ties to organized crime had married into a local family that owned a neighborhood tienda (store). The newcomers had used their position at the store as well as their participation in a local prayer group in order to gain intimate details about the residents of that neighborhood. Their extortion calls always led with “Somos la maratrucha” when in fact, they had no connection at all to the gangs. Eventually, my friend told me, the newcomers had encountered problems with enemies from outside the community and had left the community for good – that is when my friend learned about the source of the extortion.
The point here is not that gangs are unfairly maligned, nor am I suggesting that gangs do not continue to engage in extortion. They do. But even when they are involved directly, they rarely if ever act without the help of outsiders whose social position can provide protection from arrest and prosecution. Thus, addressing gang violence effectively requires a lot more than hiring more police or making more arrests of gang members. These strategies will make little if any impact on gang violence. Instead, the legal system will need to invest considerable energy and resources into ferreting out connections between gang members and their local sponsor-protectors, and building cases that put an end to the cooperation that feeds and protects local extortion rackets, gang-led or otherwise. A well-funded and capable Ministerio Publico is absolutely essential to this task.
Guatemala’s Ministerio Public is far from perfect. But it would be difficult to imagine a more impressive track record than that amassed under the leadership of Attorney General Paz y Paz. In a country that has long struggled to carry criminal cases – including the most serious – to conviction, Paz y Paz and her team have managed to increase the conviction numbers from 2,884 in 2008 to 6,188 in 2013 (Paz y Paz took the helm in 2010). Some of her team’s most impressive accomplishments include arresting hitherto “untouchable” drug traffickers such as Horst Walther Overdick (los Zetas) and Juan Alberto López Ortíz (Cartel Sinaloa). Paz y Paz has also gained international acclaim for taking femicide – a serious problem in Guatemala – seriously by creating a join task force for crimes against women and by introducing a single office where abused women can get access to a prosecutor, a forensic specialist, a social worker and a psychologist all in one place. Perhaps the most widely discussed case though, was the trial of former president and military general Efraín Ríos Montt and one of his former associates, for “acts of genocide.” The case, which ended with a conviction of Ríos Montt but not his chief of intelligence, won widespread acclaim from human rights organizations and furious protest from Guatemala’s elite business sector (many of whom had supported the dirty war of Ríos Montt). Several days later, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the case on the basis of a procedural technicality.
Personally, I do not believe that the Ríos Montt case is the crown jewel of the Paz y Paz MP administration. It was impressive indeed, and even historic, that a former head of state would be compelled to stand trial within his own country for atrocious crimes, including massacres of whole villages, that took place under his watch and likely with his assent. But there were some weaknesses in the trial and in the design of the case brought by the Public Ministry in its prosecution that, I think, could have been avoided.
And yet, if a robust, evidence-based approach to solving major crimes is essential to developing public trust in the justice system, one can only lament the early dismissal of Paz y Paz and the refusal by the Postulation Commission to reappoint her on the basis of her acclaimed record as a litigator and an administrator. Indeed, according to Stephen Dudley, in his recently-released report Guatemala: The War of Paz y Paz the Attorney General has succeeded largely by creating systems within the Public Ministry that collaborate on the collection and organization of forensic evidence and by strengthening and resourcing these groups so that they can do their jobs effectively. “The emphasis on analysis says a lot about the way Paz y Paz approaches battling criminal groups,” Dudley writes. “To her, individual cases matter, of course, but fighting crime is about seeing patterns and being able to draw the larger picture.”
It is at least possible that a new Attorney General could carry forward some of the momentum achieved by Paz y Paz and her team – including a homicide rate that has been declining since 2009. But it is just as likely that the jockeying and leveraging that has gone into influencing the outcome of the selection committee will ultimately taint the outcome. Here’s hoping for the former outcome.