democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Rule of law is being dismantled in Central America and Europe must act

A culture of impunity in Central American countries like Guatemala is turning the region into a hotbed of crime. It’s time for Europe to act

Marlies Stappers
1 February 2022, 12.00am
A group of demonstrators outside the Constitutional Court of Guatemala in January 2019
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The European Union has a history of supporting the rule of law in Central American countries such as Guatemala, and it needs to step up its efforts now.

The EU played an important role in peace negotiations 25 years ago, which helped end nearly four decades of civil war in Guatemala. And it supported the transitional justice process that followed, with the establishment of a truth commission and the prosecution of human rights violations perpetrated during the conflict.

In 2006, Europe helped set up the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which proved to be a successful mechanism against corruption. The CICIG also strengthened judicial investigations, providing financial, technical and political support to judges, investigators and prosecutors, as well as to civil society.

But CICIG was shut down in September 2019 and all the progress Guatemala had made is being undone. The country’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, and his coalition (referred to in Guatemala as the ‘corrupt pact’) is removing constitutional court judges and anti-corruption prosecutors.

Judges and prosecutors have been sacked and forced to flee the country, including former public prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, constitutional court judge Gloria Porras, former public prosecutor Thelma Aldana, and anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, to name just a few.

At the start of this year, judge Erika Aifán, who has been dubbed an “icon of the struggle against corruption in Guatemala”, faced threats to her work on major criminal cases. According to two successive statements released in January, the office of Guatemala’s attorney general has submitted two requests to cancel Aifan’s immunity from arrest and prosecution. Aifan is alleged to have abused her authority by taking on cases without obtaining approval from the country’s Supreme Court. She has denied the allegations and said she is being “criminalised” for her previous work. What happens to Aifan now could set a precedent for the persecution of Guatemala’s remaining independent judges.

For Guatemala, where my organisation, Impunity Watch, has been working since 2004 to support redress after the civil war, the attacks on courageous judges and anti-corruption prosecutors imperil the rule of law. These sackings and threats are meant to protect senior politicians, military personnel involved in human rights violations during the war, and economic elites with links to organised crime and corruption. The country’s attorney general, Consuelo Porras, has played a key role in hollowing out Guatemala’s judicial efforts to combat impunity by falsely accusing prosecutors of ‘abuses’ without spelling out specifics.

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The Guatemalan people are defenceless and without any hope or expectation of rule of law. Unfortunately, many of Guatemala’s neighbours have been heading down a similar path, as the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights lobby group, recently said. A culture of impunity, corruption and violence now prevails across the region, exhibited in actions ranging from the jailing of opposition leaders ahead of Nicaragua’s November presidential election, to the infiltration of the government of Honduras by drug-trafficking gangs, and the removal of judges in El Salvador to clear the way for the president to run for a second term.

The spillover effects of this are being felt in Europe, fast becoming a market for drugs from Central America. Millions of euros’ worth of cocaine are currently being shipped into Antwerp and Rotterdam each week from Honduras and Guatemala.

The situation will worsen if organised crime in Central America feels even more empowered to act with impunity as a result of the systematic attempt to derail corruption cases and intimidate crusading judges and prosecutors. Crime networks could well be in a position to export violence and instability to Europe’s shores.

What Europe can do

Europe has largely remained silent about the situation. The EU and its members’ political interest in Central America has been dwindling for some time. Where once Europe was engaged – not least, in setting up CICIG – it now seems to prefer silent diplomacy, with limited success so far.

However, there is much that Europe can, and should, do to support the rule of law in Central America and protect human rights.

It can support independent judges and lawyers, as well as strategies to strengthen judicial systems. This would mean increased political and financial support for civil society organisations that monitor and fight corruption and impunity. Independent institutions, such as the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office in Guatemala, also need support. Europe should also send observer groups ahead of and during key elections, such as the May vote for Guatemala’s public prosecutor and the human rights ombudsman, as well as the country’s general elections in 2023.

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Europe can also offer protection to judges and prosecutors facing threats. This would mean outspoken and visible support for those fighting corruption and impunity. It would also mean calling for conditions that ensure anti-corruption investigators are safe to go about their work in their own countries. In Guatemala, judges in the High Risk Courts, prosecutors in the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity and in the Special Prosecutor's Office on Human Rights would benefit from international support.

And finally, Europe can follow the example of the US and impose sanctions on Central American individuals linked to serious crime and corruption. The bloc could also halt cooperation with corrupt institutions such as the Office of the Public Prosecutor of Guatemala. A better-articulated response from the EU must be matched internationally by coordinating with the US and the UN.

It is not too late to act and protect the rule of law in Central America. Europe must not stand by, as it did in Afghanistan, and watch as countries in Central America become hotbeds of crime.

Acting now will serve Europe’s interests in the long run. A democratic Central America that upholds the rule of law and human rights could be a crucial player in the fast-changing geopolitical arena. China and Russia are gaining influence in the region by striking key economic, diplomatic and military deals. Europe must move nimbly and use the right tools to support economic growth, democracy and political stability in Central America.

The dangers of European inaction are profound. Late last year, Thelma Aldana, a Guatemalan public prosecutor who fled into exile after working closely with CICIG to try and impeach former president Jimmy Morales, attended a meeting with European politicians organised by Impunity Watch. She spelt out the high stakes of inaction: “Undermining the fight against impunity in Central America is becoming contagious. If we do nothing, progress will be undone, peace processes will be dismantled and the entire region will be lost.”

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