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June 17th 2010 | GUATEMALA CITY
From The Economist print edition
From The Economist print edition
The UN's prosecutor resigns, taking an enemy with him
ASH still smears the pavements of Guatemala City, three weeks after nearby Mount Pacaya blew its top. On June 7th the city was shaken by a second explosion, this time of the political sort: the resignation of Carlos Castresana, a Spanish prosecutor who heads the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a body set up in 2007 by the UN and Guatemala’s government to investigate organised crime and its links to the state. In a brief statement, Mr Castresana blamed the government for failing to support his effort to root out the mafias that have long penetrated its ranks.
His departure came as a shock. It followed a string of successes. In January CICIG secured the arrest of Alfonso Portillo, a former president charged with embezzling $15.7m, as he tried to flee the country. In the same month it cracked the stranger-than-fiction case of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer who, the commission found, had arranged his own murder in a bid to frame the president, Álvaro Colom. In all, CICIG has forced out some 2,000 police officers, ten prosecutors and, in its first year, an attorney-general.
The trigger for Mr Castresana’s resignation was the naming on May 25th of a new attorney-general, Conrado Reyes, whom CICIG had publicly accused of having ties to drug-traffickers and illegal-adoption rings. Once in office, Mr Reyes sacked more than 20 officials and demanded to oversee all wiretaps. Fearing a slow death of CICIG, Mr Castresana sacrificed himself instead. It worked: his resignation generated enough fuss to force the Constitutional Court to annul Mr Reyes’s appointment.
Whoever replaces Mr Castresana can expect plenty of opposition. In a final press conference on June 14th, he presented evidence that various criminal factions had joined together since January to fight CICIG with a campaign of smears and intimidation. In one wiretapped phone call, two suspected criminals discussed cooking up a rumour that Mr Castresana was having an affair with a colleague. He also said that two suspects in the Rosenberg case bribed the officials that choose the attorney general with designer suits and ties, in order to secure Mr Reyes’s nomination.
Mr Castresana also accused the government of failing to boost the powers and resources of the justice system—a witness-protection programme now exists in name only, after the government stopped funding safe houses, for instance. And no one can explain why the president keeps appointing senior officials who later turn out to have criminal links.
The government counters that it has no money (central-government spending is the lowest as a share of GDP in Latin America) and that it is politically hamstrung, now that Mr Colom’s party holds barely a fifth of the seats in the legislature. Many appointments, including Mr Reyes’s, are partly in the hands of (allegedly crooked) independent commissions.
As Mexico and Colombia crack down on them, drug gangs are finding refuge in Guatemala. In the jungle state of Petén, the Zetas, a Mexican drug-trafficking group, have hung up signs recruiting soldiers. A report from America’s state department says that “entire regions of Guatemala are now essentially under [their] control.” The country’s lawlessness exposes it to the appeal of a strongman. Otto Pérez Molina, a former general who promises an “iron fist” against crime, leads the opinion polls for the next presidential election in September 2011. Much-needed change is unlikely to come from the left: the candidate most likely to run for Mr Colom’s party is Sandra Torres, his wife.