2013: A democratic setback in Guatemala

Insecurity, social unrest and lack of legal security have been the hallmark of 2013 for Guatemala.

Guatemalan army troops parade during the
The Guatemalan military, now in charge of ports and borders, has a long history of corruption, writes Mike Allison [AFP]

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina was recently named The Latin Trade’s Leader of the Year for 2013 in recognition “for reshaping Guatemala’s foreign trade and investment outlook, effectively implementing changes to position the country as an attractive destination for investment in Latin America”. The World Bank’s annual Doing Business report also recognised Guatemala as one of the world’s top business regulation reformers for 2012-13 because of its success in reducing  obstacles to start a business, improving the way construction permits are distributed, and simplifying its tax system.

It is unfortunate that the international community chose to celebrate Molina and Guatemala with such recognition during a year in which there have been so many setbacks for democracy. I do hope that Molina and the Guatemalan government and business community will one day earn these rewards, but 2013 was not their year.

What freedom of press?

Guatemala has been among the world’s most violent countries in which to practise journalism for quite some time and 2013 was no different. Public officials, business leaders, drug traffickers, and members of organised crime frequently threaten journalists. Four journalists have been killed this year. El Periodico‘s website was targeted by several cyber-attacks and its president, Jose Ruben Zamora Marroquin and his reporters were threatened [Sp] following investigations into government corruption.

One investigation questioned Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s purchases of multi-million dollar homes and other luxury goods with unexplained wealth. The attacks recently escalated when Baldetti lodged a legal complaint alleging that Zamora had committed violence against women [Sp] because of his newspaper’s coverage of her. A judge attacked the entire press when she ordered Zamora not to “disturb or intimidate” [Sp] the vice president.

Guatemala, according to the UN, is among the worst five countries in the world when it comes to crimes committed against journalists over the past 20 years. Even more troubling is that 2013 has been the worst [Sp] year for freedom of the press in Guatemala, according to a recent report from CERIGUA. The increasing attacks upon media freedom make it an odd moment to recognise Molina and an improved business climate, unless one does not care about freedom of speech.

The criminalisation of social protest has worsened with government officials and businessmen characterising campaigns on behalf of human rights, land reform, labour rights, indigenous rights, and other struggles against injustice, as terrorism. The Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit in Guatemala recorded 568 attacks against human rights defenders during the first eight months of 2013, compared to 305 in 2012. Twenty-two human rights defenders have been killed so far this year. 

The Guatemalan military has a long history of corruption when it comes to the country’s ports and borders. To now officially put the military is charge of the customs should be troubling for the Guatemalan people and for international investors.

The offices of the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences (AVANSCO) were burglarised in January 2013, shortly before it was scheduled to publish a report related to its work on the dark history of the country’s police. The Central American Institute for Social Democracy Studies and the private office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, were burglarised in July during which documents and computers were stolen.

Increasing violence

According to IFEX [Sp], the number of violations of freedom of expression in Guatemala increased from 19 in 2010 to nearly 50 through September. Guatemala is generally considered among the most dangerous countries in the world to be a trade unionist, with at least 58 killed in the last five years. The violence has threatened to derail Guatemala’s trade relations with Europe and the United States. The US Trade Representative Michael Froman recently warned that should Guatemala not implement certain reforms within the next six months, the US government might consider reactivating an arbitration panel to force the Guatemalan government to protect workers’ rights. Freedoms of assembly, expression, and association have come under attack while the current government has done little to investigate and to prosecute these crimes.

While Guatemala’s criminal justice system has improved since the arrival of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2007, and the appointment of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz in 2010, it remains one of the weakest in the Western Hemisphere. Authorities estimate that impunity has fallen from over 90 percent to approximately 70 percent in the last six years. Even so, most crimes still go unpunished and police, lawyers [Sp] and court officers are frequently among the victims.

Much of the justice system’s improvement, however, was overshadowed by the Constitutional Court’s questionable decision to annul the guilty verdict of the country’s former dictator. Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity before the Constitutional Court threw out the verdict and sent the trial and the legal system into chaos. An international delegation of lawyers voiced concerns that the court’s ruling had made more uncertain the role of the judiciary which is not good for investors. Legal certainty is something that investors seek and the tortured decision by the Constitutional Court provided the opposite. It does not look like the trial will resume until January 2015 and even that is uncertain.

During the Montt trial, one witness accused Molina of participating in genocide and crimes against humanity when he served as a major in Nebaj at the height of the violence. However, the former soldier’s testimony does not appear to have weighed heavily on the minds of those who awarded the president the honour of leader of the year.

In July, Molina announced a two-year moratorium on mining concessions. The decision angered the business community as the announcement came just one month after a relatively successful Guatemala Investment Summit. Grassroots activists were also unsatisfied as they were sceptical of the president’s motivations and frustrated with the physical and environmental violence surrounding ongoing mining operations in the country.

The never-ending story of corruption? 

The international recognition also came after the president “had” to send in the army to secure five of the country’s customs houses because of corruption and fraud. The militarisation of the customs houses followed a state of siege in communities surrounding the El Escobal mining project, in May. While tackling corruption and resolving land and natural resource conflicts should be priorities for Molina, his reliance on the military, once again, to be at the forefront of the struggle only serves to further undermine democracy and the rule of law. While the war is over and today’s military is not the one of yesterday, there is little evidence that it is an institution [Sp] committed to democracy, respectful of human rights, and willing to submit itself to civilian oversight. The Guatemalan military has a long history of corruption when it comes to the country’s ports and borders. To now officially put the military in charge of the customs should be troubling for the Guatemalan people and for international investors.

Finally, the president of the Bank of Guatemala recently warned that the Confidence Index of Guatemala had plummeted [Sp] from 80 to 36 percent in 2013 due to fears surrounding insecurity, social unrest and the lack of legal certainty for investors. What does the international community see that Guatemalans do not?

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.