Guatemala experienced over three decades of intermittent armed conflict starting in the 1960s. Among the main perpetrators of violence were illegal security forces and clandestine security structures (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad CIACS). When peace was made in 1996, the country was marked by violence, poverty and institutional weakness, fostering corruption and impunity. Commitments to strengthening justice and human rights institutions, fighting impunity for human rights violations and dismantling paramilitary groups were included in the 1996 Agreement on a Firm and Lasting Peace.
Due to the continued influence and threat of remaining CIACS, in 2002 a civil society proposal called for an international commission to investigate threats against the justice institutions responsible for investigating their crimes. After four years of intense political dialogue and continuous international pressure the Agreement to Establish the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) was signed by the Guatemalan government and the United Nations in 2006. CICIG was established in 2007 with a two-year mandate as an independent, international body to support state institutions and strengthen criminal justice and accountability for crimes committed by members of CIACS. It is set to end in September 2017, but the Guatemalan president has already suggested seeking approval from the national congress to renew the mandate for another 2 years as had been the practice established by his predecessors.
The agreement establishing CICIG stated two main objectives: to support, strengthen and assist state institutions responsible for the investigation and prosecution of crimes allegedly committed by CIACS or associated with them, and on the other hand to establish mechanisms and procedures for the protection of the right to life and to personal integrity, pursuant to international commitments with respect to the protection of fundamental rights.
CICIG was thus tasked with investigating and identifying existing CIACS structures, forms of operation and sources of financing, as well as assisting the state to dismantle CIACS and investigate and prosecute members for their crimes. In addition CICIG was tasked with making public policy and institutional reform recommendations to prevent the re-emergence of such groups to the Guatemalan government.
CICIG supported the Guatemalan government in various roles, ranging from providing technical support for specialized training courses to acting as a private prosecutor. Achievements include the creation of a witness protection programme, tightened gun controls, rules for court-ordered wiretaps and the freezing of assets, the creation of high-risk courts for especially dangerous defendants, investigations resulting in charges against top public officials for extrajudicial prosecutions, fraud, illicit association and homicide. Most notably, it has exposed the massive corruption scheme La Línea in 2015, leading to the resignation and arrest of president Otto Pérez Molina. According to a 2016 report, CICIG is supported by 66% of the Guatemalan society and is thus the most trusted institution in the country.
Political independence is crucial, so is political will:
The political and economic independence of CICIG has allowed for changes and reforms that national institutions struggled to implement. The political will by the national leadership was necessary for a politically independent and powerful CICIG; results would have been harder to achieve if CICIG did not engage at the higher level to channel political will, a task that would be a major role of the CICIG Commissioner. The political pressure by the international community could be considered equally as important in securing political buy in.
Trust-building can enhance marge de manoeuvre and effectiveness
An official agreement with the national government, like the one CICIG had with Guatemala, is vital in building local trust with key judicial institutions. Although the CICIG relied on the support of Guatemalan civil society groups working for human rights and justice to achieve effective outcomes, their partnership with the Public Prosecutor was fundamental. Skills and competences were transferred through trust-based forms of collaboration involving joint working groups, investigations and trial preparations. The support CICIG enjoyed from governmental and non-governmental agents enabled CICIG to work on a wide range of issues and effectively tackle challenges. This support laid the foundations for working relationships to become based on trust as senior state officials were being successfully prosecuted, and judicial actors and human rights defenders were becoming less threatened.
CICIG’s working strategy and political activism opened doors for others to succeed
CICIG’s achievements were highly influenced by the personal management of each commissioner, who would become extremely visible public figures. Political activism was critical to removing obstacles within a mandate lasting only 2 years, with no automatic guarantees of extension. CICIG’s working strategy had to carefully plan and prioritise investigations under these restrictions as well as ensure an enabling environment for the local judicial system. CICIG thus assumed high profile cases that would produce the most strategic impact in combating impunity and orientated their local capacity building strategy to meet this objective. These high profile cases primarily focused on influential State actors with ties to criminal organisations rather than focusing on crimes of the past, considered a fundamental part of the Peace Accords and the basis for the genesis of the CICIG. However, with the spotlight on the CICIG and its achievements many key human rights cases dealing with crimes of the past were significantly advanced. This included the sentencing of two former members of the military to 360 years in jail for the murder, rape and sexual enslavement of indigenous women (Sepur Zarco Case 2016) and arrest of several former military officers on charges of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity based on evidence uncovered at the military center in Cobán.
With the exposure of the corruption scheme La Línea and the resignation and arrest of a president, CICIG is generally considered a success story. Between 2008 and 2014, the level of impunity in the country decreased (Public Prosecutor’s Office, Work Reports 2008-2013; Annual Reports 2014-2015), and is likely to continue decreasing as a result of a more effective criminal justice system. In addition, the issue of impunity is no longer simply a priority issue for human rights NGOs, but is now of greater visible interest to the general public as citizens are becoming more proactive and vocal in demanding to tackle impunity and corruption and hold government officials responsible.
CICIG resolved numerous legal cases in cooperation with the public prosecutors. The most frequently cited achievements include the above-mentioned La Línea, as well as helping to reveal the mechanism behind targeted killings linked back to a former minister of the interior (Ibid.). Today, CICIG serves as a good practice example for tackling corruption and organised crime facilitated by weak state institutions.
Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, International Crisis Group, 2016.
Against the Odds, CICIG in Guatemala, Open Society Institute, 2016.