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Justice And Police Reform In Guatemala

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy

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Mr. President, I want to speak briefly on a subject that I have discussed before concerning Guatemala's struggling justice system.

In a country facing a growing threat from Mexican drug cartels and other criminal organizations that have infiltrated every facet of society, a police force that is notoriously corrupt and ineffective at investigating crime, a military hierarchy that continues to obstruct justice, and a conviction rate in the courts of 2 percent, the situation could hardly be grimmer.

Violent crime and smuggling have skyrocketed, impunity is the norm, and reports indicate that many people in Guatemala feel less safe today than even during the 30-year internal armed conflict. There are credible reports of police collusion with the drug cartels, and threats and assassinations of indigenous activists who have petitioned for land reform. And a decade and a half after the signing of the Peace Accords, the military hierarchy, current and former, uses threats and intimidation of victims, witnesses, judges and prosecutors to avoid accountability for past crimes against humanity.

I and others were encouraged last year when President Colom appointed respected human rights activist Helen Mack to assess the weaknesses of the police and to recommend reforms. Ms. Mack has widespread credibility and could be relied on to conduct a fair, thorough review.

But any recommendations for reform are only as good as the funding and political will to implement them, which is too often lacking in Guatemala. Presidential elections are scheduled for September. Unless the current government or its successor is prepared to carry the police reform process forward, not only will a critical opportunity have been missed but the security challenges facing Guatemala will worsen further.

Helen Mack accepted her assignment knowing it would be dangerous. Her sister Myrna, an anthropologist who had documented the horrific abuses of Mayan peasants by the Guatemalan army, was assassinated by the army in 1990. Helen also knew that trying to reform the police would ultimately be a wasted exercise if her recommendations end up collecting dust on a shelf. Yet she has persevered, and it is for the good of all Guatemalans.

Other victims of torture, disappearance, and murder during the internal armed conflict are still waiting for justice. When successive governments failed to hold the military accountable, some victims or their families turned to the courts, only to be stymied at every turn. The courts have issued contradictory rulings, reversed themselves and each other, and cases have dragged on for years. It makes a mockery of justice and of officials who are responsible for upholding the rule of law.

No democracy can survive without a functioning justice system, including a professional, trusted, well financed police force. The effectiveness of the police in preventing and controlling crime depends on the relationship between the police and the public. If the police force is to regain the confidence and trust of Guatemalans, particularly Guatemala's indigenous population which has traditionally been the target of discrimination and abuse, a concerted and unwavering effort must be made to ensure the professionalism, transparency and accountability of the police. It should be a priority.

Ms. Mack's courageous efforts, and the efforts of others who have risked their lives in support of justice and a better life for the millions of Guatemalans living in poverty, deserve the unequivocal support of the Guatemalan Government and the Government of the United States.