Guatemala: “A dictatorship disguised as legality”

Guatemala Dictatorship

In Guatemala, the closure of El Periódico this week adds to the concern about the situation of its director, who has been in prison for ten months. “The newspaper tried to hold on, but the attack and the use of criminal law was brutal: they pressured and intimidated six of its lawyers so much, that they gave up their defense. They hanged El Periódico financially as a way of punishment and revenge,” he says. González, a practicing attorney in Guatemala. 

From Brussels, concern was also expressed about the closure of the prestigious newspaper and the importance of free, independent and pluralist media for democracy was recalled, even more so in an electoral context.

“We have worked for the last year still believing in justice in Guatemala. But we have verified that the institutions decide in a biased way, especially in the Justice sector. There is no longer the rule of law in Guatemala,” says Claudia González, who was a jurist of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala  (CICIG), the international body to support the investigation and criminal prosecution of clandestine security forces and apparatuses.

It should be remembered that, after the CICIG, which began its functions in 2006, uncovered corruption scandals that reached the highest levels, its mandate was terminated by the Guatemalan government in 2019.

Claudia González, defense attorney for judges prosecuted in Guatemala, in Brussels, on May 16, 2023.

“Historically, the European Union was one of the actors that financed the CICIG, which actively fought against corruption and organized crime. Its sudden withdrawal put the lives of many officials who worked there at risk. The consequence is that, today, Guatemala has more than one hundred exiled judges, because they are now criminalized for doing their job,” says González.

In his opinion, the international community should have kept the focus on the justice systems of the Central American country. “They owe a debt to human rights in my country,” underlines González, whose courage has just been awarded by the international organization Lawyers for Lawyers.

Candidates, elections, electoral observation

It is not the first time that a justice attorney knocks on the doors of European institutions looking for a more acute ear. In other words, in Brussels, there is no lack of knowledge of the seriousness of the institutional breakdown in Guatemala. Before Claudia González, Jordán Rodas, human rights attorney between August 2017 and August 2022, had exposed in the European Parliament the systematic persecution of justice operators in Guatemala.

A year later, his candidacy for the vice presidency of his country was disqualified, citing pending accounts with the courts. In this regard, in April, European diplomacy reminded the Guatemalan electoral authorities of their obligation to guarantee that “the registration of candidates is carried out with total transparency, impartiality and in accordance with the Constitution.”

However, this same week the first contingent of the hundred electoral experts who will accompany the entire process of the elections on June 25 and August 20 arrived in Guatemala. “It is very important that the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) not only arrive at the time of the election but that it analyze the incidents and problems that have occurred before, that it records how the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has been very subjective when withdrawing registrations. The MOE report will be a starting point to demand more transparency,” González notes.

Constantly deteriorating situation

Although the issue of corruption in Guatemalan state structures is not new -hence the CICIG mandate in the framework of the 1996 peace accords- progress was being made in transparency and in the fight against impunity. In the latter, Impunity Watch, a non-governmental organization based in The Hague, agrees.

“But four years ago, when the attorney general was handpicked, when new courts were not elected, when magistrates were selectively appointed to the Constitutional Court, when the justice system began to be used to hinder elections, “Everything has been getting worse. The persecution of officials has extended to the interior to deprive the indigenous communities of their property and their resources. And no opposition voice is allowed,” says González, who calls for greater international pressure. 

“The serious thing about allowing these circumstances is that tomorrow it will be much more difficult to reverse them. Guatemala is at a strategic point that has to do with migration and drug trafficking. The interests of the United States and Europe will also be affected. If not pay attention, the situation will reach unmanageable dimensions, “warns González. “We must admit it: we are facing a dictatorship disguised as legality,” he concludes.