Culture Of Impunity

For a few months at least, it seemed that Helen Mack's long quest for justice might finally succeed. In 1990, a Guatemalan Army sergeant brutally stabbed her sister Myrna to death in front of her Guatemala City apartment. In October 2002, a panel of judges finally convicted a retired Guatemalan military officer of ordering the slaying. It was a hard-won victory for Mack, who had spent more than a decade pursuing her sister's killers. Mack's sister had been murdered for attempting to expose the extent of government involvement in atrocities committed during the country's 36-year civil war, which officially ended in 1996. Many believed the conviction of Col. Juan Valencia Osorio--the first high-ranking officer ever to be found guilty of a political crime--might herald a new era in Guatemala's efforts to come to grips with its brutal past. Such hopes died last May when an appeals court overturned the decision, making Osorio, once again, a free man. "I proved that they were responsible for my sister's murder," Mack bitterly recalled recently. "The message was that they are above the law."

So it goes in Guatemala, which seems unable to confront its repressive past and join its neighbors in embracing democracy and economic reform. El Salvador started down a path of national reconciliation and reform a decade ago. Nicaragua launched a major battle against corruption last year. Yet Guatemala, Central America's largest nation, remains mired in poverty and tormented by lawlessness and a culture of impunity. Sadly, few expect things to change after Guatemala's presidential elections, which began with a first round of voting last Sunday.

Pro-business candidate Oscar Berger and leftist Alvaro Colom were widely expected to finish in the top two slots. Berger is a former Guatemala City mayor with close ties to the media. Colom, an ordained Mayan minister who ran a distant third in the 1999 presidential elections, has the support of much of the human-rights community. But it is candidate Efrain Rios Montt, the former military dictator, who epitomizes the country's woes. Human-rights groups have accused the notorious general of genocide because thousands of peasants were slaughtered after a 1982 coup d'etat brought him to power. Rios Montt wasn't even eligible for the presidency until the Supreme Court effectively gutted a law last summer banning the candidacy of anyone involved in a former coup.

Just days after that decision, in what has become known as "Black Thursday," some 5,000 surly supporters of Rios Montt and the Guatemalan Republican Front ruling party rioted in the capital, attacking human-rights workers and journalists. Meanwhile, ex-paramilitary groups demanding payment for their military services during the civil war have been implicated in recent violence. The so-called ex-Pacs blocked a major highway leading to Mexico last week. Earlier in the month, they kidnapped four Guatemalan journalists, beat them and released them only after the government had paid their ransom.

The next president, who will be chosen in a Dec. 27 runoff, will face the crucial task of tackling what human-rights organizations have called Guatemala's "corporate mafia." There are indications that organized-crime rings with close ties to the military are stealing government money. Earlier this year investigators discovered that millions of dollars had been skimmed from the country's social-security system.

Drug trafficking is another major problem. Guatemala is a prime conduit for cocaine from Colombia. Earlier this year the U.S. temporarily decertified Guatemala as a partner in the global drug fight after several military officers were implicated in cocaine sales. What's more, a grand jury in Miami is investigating President Alfonso Portillo and his inner circle on suspicion of money laundering. So far nothing illegal has been uncovered, and Portillo has professed his innocence. Yet observers agree that any new president will come under pressure not to pursue drug cases. "The justice system here is incapable of finding a solution to organized crime because a lot of the criminals are inside the government," claims Alejandro Rodriguez, a political analyst in Guatemala City.

The U.N. mission to implement the 1996 peace accords--which prescribe, among other things, prosecution of past human-rights abuses--has been extended into an unprecedented 10th year. The United Nations has also proposed the establishment of an investigative body that would have unprecedented powers to arrest and even prosecute current government officials for crimes. Martha Doggett, political officer at the U.N. Guatemala desk and chief of the project, calls the plan "interventionist," adding: "It's not enough just to investigate. We need to be involved in every aspect of the justice chain." Guatemala's foreign minister, Edgar Gutierrez, supports the move. "We trusted in the reform of the justice system," he told NEWSWEEK, "but this didn't happen. So we have turned to this emergency mechanism." For the relatives of Guatemala's victims, it may be the only way to clean up a dirty country.