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Guatemala’S Next Attorney General

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy

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Mr. President, I want to speak briefly about a matter of urgent importance for the people of Guatemala and for U.S. relations with Guatemala.

Later this month, President Colom will select Guatemala's next Attorney General from a slate of six candidates. This may be among the most important decisions he makes this year, at a time when drug trafficking and other organized crimes, assassinations of human rights defenders, and other social and political activists, corruption, and impunity threaten the foundation of Guatemala's fragile democracy.

In the 3 three months of this year alone, at least five Guatemalan human rights defenders, social activists, and trade unionists have been murdered, including two members of the Resistance Front for the Defense of Natural Resources--its president, Evelinda Ramirez Reyes, and Octavio Roblero. Also killed were Juan Antonio Chea, a Mayan indigenous lawyer who worked with the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop and the National Reparations Program; Pedro Antonio Garcia of the Malacatan Municipal Workers Union; and German Antonio Curup, a member of a group opposed to the construction of a cement plant in San Juan Sacatepequez. Mr. Curup was murdered in particularly brutal fashion--abducted on February 11, his body was dumped 2 days later, throat cut and showing signs of torture. This type of brutality is not unusual in Guatemala, nor is it unusual that no one has been arrested or punished for those crimes.

The 1996 Peace Accords were a historic milestone, ending three decades of civil war when government security forces and associated death squads and civil patrols targeted anyone who was considered subversive. Tens of thousands of rural Mayan villagers, students, lawyers, journalists, and other social and political activists were arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and killed. The URNG rebels were also guilty of atrocities. Almost no one has been punished for those crimes.

While the Peace Accords spelled out commitments by the government and goals for the country's future political, economic, and social development, progress has been disappointing. Implementation of many elements of the accords has been repeatedly delayed, and widespread debilitating poverty, impunity, and women's and indigenous peoples' rights remain urgent concerns. These are among the key issues the Peace Accords were designed to address, which were at the root of the conflict.

In the meantime, in the absence of a credible or effective justice system, corruption has flourished and violent crime has skyrocketed. There has also been a steady emigration of poor Guatemalans seeking jobs in the United States.

Effectively confronting these problems requires political will, which has too often been lacking in Guatemala. Secretary Clinton expressed the willingness of the United States to stand with the Guatemalan people during her visit there on March 5, and I hope the Guatemalan Government will seize this opportunity to develop ambitious and effective strategies to confront these challenges.

There is no better place to start than by appointing an Attorney General who has the integrity, experience, courage, and determination to show that justice can be a reality for all the people of Guatemala regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or economic status.

Investigating and prosecuting assassinations of human rights defenders, as well as some of the most notorious political crimes, should be a priority. The United States is helping through our donations to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, CICIG. The CICIG is doing an important job and should continue, but it is no substitute for an effective Ministry of Justice. We are ready and willing to support an Attorney General who demonstrates the necessary professional qualifications and commitment. But absent those qualifications and commitment, as chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, I would find it difficult to justify spending more resources on a fruitless quest for justice reform in Guatemala.

A related imperative is reforming Guatemala's police forces, which are undertrained, underpaid, underequipped, and infected with corruption. President Colom deserves great credit for appointing Helen Mack, a widely respected human rights defender, to develop a plan for police reform, and I look forward to her recommendations. An Attorney General whose integrity matches that of Helen Mack's would be a welcome step.

Guatemala has a troubled history and is facing immense challenges, both internally and along its borders, as it is rapidly becoming a favorite haven for Latin criminal organizations. Yet as the land of one of the most accomplished pre-Colombian civilizations in this hemisphere whose indigenous descendants enrich present-day Guatemala in countless ways, spectacular tropical forests and towering volcanoes, it is also a country with great potential. The United States is prepared to help tackle these challenges if Guatemalan Government officials in key positions merit our support. I urge President Colom to use the opportunity of selecting Guatemala's next Attorney General to send that message clearly.