Pubdate: Thu, 08 Jul 2010
Source: Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus,GA)
Copyright: 2010 Ledger-Enquirer
Author: Tim Johnson, McClatchy Newspapers


GUATEMALA CITY =AD For a 17-day period that ended
last month, Guatemala seemed to be falling under
the direct control of suspected mobsters. A
lawyer leading a posse of unsavory characters
became the attorney general and started
dismantling the state's legal apparatus.

Central America's most populous country teetered on the edge of "going

A rugged coffee-growing nation of 13.5 million
people, some 40 percent of them disenfranchised
Mayan Indians, Guatemala has largely been off the
world's radar screen. But as U.S. anti-narcotics
aid poured into Mexico and Colombia, bad guys flooded the region in between.

Guatemala became a prime destination. Its
democracy is fragile, and while institutions of
state appear to function, corruption is rampant.

Narcotics are pervasive. Some 275 to 385 tons of
South American cocaine transits Guatemala each
year, almost enough to satisfy all U.S. demand,
according to a March estimate by the State Department.

Syndicates from neighboring Mexico brought
violence to the steps of power =AD literally.
Cartel enforcers demanding an end to a crackdown
on organized crime dumped four decapitated human
heads on the steps of Congress and other downtown
Guatemala City sites on June 10.

Drug gangs operate largely unhindered. As many as
seven of Guatemala's 22 provinces may not be
under government control, making it "one of the
world's most dangerous countries," according to a
report June 22 by the International Crisis Group,
a Brussels-based organization.

Impunity is the rule. A weak judicial system
keeps most of Guatemala's corrupt politicians,
hired assassins, arms traffickers and drug
dealers out of prison. It got so bad that the
United Nations set up a special commission in
2006 to help Guatemala dismantle its vast
clandestine networks of organized crime, and by
doing so give Guatemalans hope for justice.

It remains a distant goal. Even though President
Alvaro Colom's administration has sacked more
than 2,000 police officers from the national
force, corruption corrodes the pillars of state.
The last two national police chiefs are in jail
on narcotics charges. Two former interior ministers are fugitives.

Leading the U.N.'s International Commission
Against Impunity in Guatemala was Carlos
Castresana, a hard-charging and outspoken former
Spanish judge. At high personal cost, he yanked
Guatemala back from the precipice last month in
an extraordinary chain of events.

A starting point for the drama occurred at noon
on May 25 when Colom administered the oath of
office as attorney general to Conrado Reyes, a lawyer.

At the time, few suspected that Reyes might be
fronting for criminal interests. After all, he'd
come out on top in a selection process of 29
candidates led by the deans of the nation's nine
law schools, the chief of its Supreme Court and two other top legal

Scratch a little further, though, and there's
more evidence of Guatemala's pervasive
corruption. Legal reforms earlier this decade
gave the deans of law schools an outsized role in
selecting judges, magistrates and the attorney
general, so the academic posts go to those who
are backed by deep pockets and sometimes have shady backgrounds.

At the only national university, San Carlos,
lobbying for the post of dean of the law school
is intense, said Eduardo Stein, a former
Guatemalan vice president who coordinates a truth
commission that's looking into Honduras' 2009 removal of its president.

"They spend buckets of money in parties, in gifts
and in T-shirts. It's like a political campaign," Stein said.

When the selection committee met to mull over the
six finalists for attorney general, it gathered
for only 15 minutes, a sign of an under-the-table agreement.

Still, no one thought that Reyes would be so
blatant as to take a suspected mobster to his swearing-in.

To the surprise of attendees, standing nearby was
Juan Roberto Garrido Perez, a former army captain
whose U.S. visa had been revoked because of
suspicions of links to narcotics trafficking.

Garrido's shady connections are said to go beyond
drugs. Castresana later would accuse Garrido of
links to alien smuggling, the murder of a human
rights activist's son and a 2006 heist of $9
million at the Guatemala City airport, where
Garrido was then the security chief. During the
heist, security cameras went on the blink.

Once sworn in as attorney general, Reyes seized
personal control of ongoing criminal
investigations and the most sensitive bureau of
the Public Ministry, the Special Methods Unit,
which handles wiretaps of major drug traffickers,
corrupt army officers, tycoons and politicians.

"He went in there in a terrible hurry to do a
housecleaning," said Raquel Zelaya, a former
finance minister and a signer of historic peace
accords in 1996 that ended a 36-year guerrilla war.

Reyes never gave Garrido a formal position but
entrusted him as his roving right-hand man. Also
brought in were three other former army officers
with shady backgrounds, a former prosecutor who'd
been removed for obstructing a criminal case and
a man who ran an illegal baby adoption ring.

All appeared connected to Carlos Quintanilla, a
former chief of security for Colom who melted out
of sight when his unit was found in September
2008 to have planted microphones and cameras around the presidential palace.

"There were two microphones in the office of the
president, one in the first lady's office, one in
the vice president's office and one final one in
the private office of the president," said
Fernando Barillas, a presidential spokesman.

Rumors of deep ties to drug cartels now swirl around Quintanilla.

Within days of Reyes' takeover, more than a dozen
seasoned prosecutors who'd been handling
sensitive cases involving political murders,
corruption and drug trafficking were swept out of
their jobs, imperiling cases such as a pending
trial of former President Alfonso Portillo
(2000-04) on charges of embezzling $15.7 million.

Asked why he sacked the prosecutors, Reyes told
reporters: "They weren't doing anything."

European, Canadian and U.S. diplomats grew
alarmed. The United Nations had put a lot of
stock in the anti-impunity commission, much as it
had in war crimes tribunals set up in Rwanda,
East Timor, Cambodia, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia.

Staffed by about 170 experts from 20 or so
nations, the commission has subpoena power and
has a mandate to help the nation's Public
Ministry, which prosecutes criminals. Using
wiretaps and other evidence-gathering techniques,
the commission sought to help prosecutors bring
down some big fish, and momentum was building.

With key prosecutors gone, and suspected mafiosos
calling the shots, however, Castresana saw his
work coming undone. In desperation, he resigned
June 7, issuing a broadside against Reyes.

"He is not the prosecutor that Guatemala
deserves. He has ties with illicit organizations.
His election was arranged by law firms that
defend drug traffickers," Castresana said at a news conference.

Foreign governments leaned heavily on Guatemala,
and its Constitutional Court felt compelled to
act. On June 11, it annulled Reyes' selection as attorney general.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named a
renowned Costa Rican corruption buster, Francisco
Dall'Anese, to replace Castresana as the head of
the U.N.-backed impunity commission, whose mandate expires next year.

Guatemala's fragile democracy survived the
ordeal, but it's still on a tightrope, advocates
for democracy and human rights say. Violence is
higher now than at any time during the country's
lengthy civil war, which left 200,000 people dead from 1960 to 1996.

As homicides soar, killers walk free. Of the
6,451 people who were slain in Guatemala last
year, trials were conducted and prison sentences
handed down in only 230 cases, according to the
U.N. impunity commission. That means 96 percent
of the killers got away with their crimes.

"Guatemala is at an inflection point," said Helen
Mack, the head of the Myrna Mack Foundation,
named for her anthropologist sister, who was
slain by an army death squad in 1990.

Unless a variety of social forces act urgently to
protect the rule of law, she said, "we will lose the state."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart