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U.N. anti-crime plan up for vote in Guatemala

A proposed panel to aid the justice system goes to Congress. Rightists say it would violate the country's sovereignty.

July 29, 2007|Alex Renderos and Hector Tobar | Special to The Times

SAN SALVADOR — The fate of a U.N.-backed initiative to fight organized crime hangs in the balance in Guatemala, where legislators will decide this week whether to scrap a plan to create an international team of investigators to aid the country's beleaguered criminal justice system.

The government of President Oscar Berger reached an agreement with United Nations officials in December to create the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala to investigate the extent to which criminal groups have subverted the justice system.

But this month, a key congressional committee voted against allowing the commission, known by its Spanish initials, CICIG, to operate on Guatemalan soil. Rightists and other critics have said the commission would violate Guatemala's sovereignty. The full Congress is scheduled to take up the matter Wednesday.

Rights groups, diplomats and several leading Guatemalan politicians say that if the U.N. commission is killed, it would be a defeat for the rule of law in Guatemala. Organized crime groups, many of them with links to the country's elite, are widely believed to have bought influence within the judiciary, police and several members of Congress.

In recent years, Guatemala has been ravaged by a series of spectacular and brazen crimes. In February, three Salvadoran legislators were killed near Guatemala City, apparently by officers with an elite police unit working on behalf of drug traffickers. Four police officers were arrested, but they were slain days later in a maximum-security prison.

"If the CICIG is not approved, violence will increase," said one European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It would send a message to the international community that Guatemala is a country where impunity prevails."

The Bush administration has backed the plan, which provides for sanctions against Guatemalan police and judicial officials who refuse to cooperate with the international investigators.

But leaders of the rightist Guatemalan Republican Front bristle at the notion of foreign investigators entering their country.

"The CICIG violates the constitution and I, as a Guatemalan, am against it," said Carolina de Regio, an advisor to the party. "I can be in my home, raising my children and fighting to make my home better or worse, but in the end it's my home, it's my sovereignty.... For a foreigner to come a tell me, 'You did this or that wrong,' and then prosecute me for it, is wrong."

The party's deputies pushed the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee to vote against the commission.

The committee vote on July 18 was a defeat for Alvaro Colom, the front-runner in the campaign for Guatemala's Sept. 9 presidential election. Colom has backed the commission, but two members of his National Unity for Hope party were among the 13 lawmakers who voted against it.

"We've made it clear that we want to strengthen the rule of law, and guarantee accountability and justice in the country," Colom said after the vote. "If the deputies voted that way, they did it on their own initiative."

The two legislators said they believed the commission would violate Guatemalan sovereignty.

But for Claudia Samayoa of the Convergence of Human Rights of Guatemala, such arguments are specious.

"This is an international agreement being sought by the Guatemalan state," Samayoa said. "It's not something that's being forced upon us by an invading army."

In 2004, Guatemala's Supreme Court ruled that a proposal to create a similar international commission to investigate crime was constitutional, she added. That proposal eventually died in Congress, and crime has since increased dramatically.

Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, said that if the new proposal is voted down, "there is no telling when we will ever see justice and accountability in Guatemala."

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Renderos reported from San Salvador and Times staff writer Tobar reported from Mexico City.

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