Crime and Impunity in Guatemala

Author: Ryan Lincoln

“Gang violence, drug trafficking, brutal killings of women, and attacks against human rights defenders and others who speak out against corruption and impunity have increased exponentially and threaten the very foundations of Guatemala’s fragile democracy.” – Senator Patrick Leahy, Floor of US Senate, 26 July 2008


Guatemala is still struggling to recover from a protracted civil war that devastated the country from 1962 to 1996. Unfortunately, organized crime, human rights violations, and drug trafficking continue to terrorize the population and remain virtually unchecked in a climate of impunity.

Recent History

The present situation in Guatemala can only be understood through the prism of the last six decades. In 1945, Juan José Arévalo took office as the Republics’s first truly democratically elected president. Under his philosophy of “Christian Socialism” and inspired by the US New Deal, Arévalo supported labor unions and implemented agrarian reform to improve the lives of the lower and middle classes both in urban and rural Guatemala. The Republic’s second president, Jacobo Arbenz Gúzman, continued these policies in efforts to assist the rural poor in particular. As a result of the cold war, however, such initiatives were labeled as communist by the US government. Suddenly Guatemala represented “the beachhead for Soviet expansion in the Western Hemisphere.” [1] As the government began seizing swaths of privately owned, unfarmed land (including land owned by US operated United Fruit Company) and redistributing it to peasants to farm, the CIA in 1952 initiated an operation codenamed PBSUCCESS. The operation funded and trained right-wing revolutionaries to overthrow the current government.

The coup d’état of 1954 installed a military leader as president. Over the next four decades Guatemala would have over twenty military dictators, guerilla leaders, or juntas. Civil war broke out in 1962, and fighting continued until the 1996 signing of the Peace Accords. The fighting claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 non-combatants2 devastated the economy, destroyed civilian faith in government, and terrorized the population.

Present Context

Although Guatemala has experienced over a decade of peaceful, democratic elections and transitions of power, the lingering effects of the civil war continue to undermine governance. The war had monopolized national resources leaving infrastructure, education and industry in shambles. The violence also severely limited foreign investment and tourism. The economy continues to struggle and this remains a primary motivation for both emigration to the US and gang amalgamation by disaffected youth. Guatemala is also a major transit point for South American illicit drugs on their way to North America. US Ambassador to Guatemala, Stephen McFarland estimated that 300 to 400 tons of cocaine passes through the country annually.[3] Corruption of politicians, police and government officials runs rampant, and organized crime has penetrated all public and private sectors. For example, in 2007 three Salvadoran Central American Parliament members were killed en route to Guatemala City. Eight days later, four police officers jailed in connection with the assassination were killed in their maximum-security prison cells. [4] Indiscriminate violent crime continues to ravish the population and goes virtually unchecked. 6,292 homicides were reported in 2008, but only 2 percent reached trial and only 146 cases were solved [5]. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that a mere twenty-five percent of Guatemalans are confident in the police; the percentage plummets to fifteen when respondents are asked to express confidence in the Constitutional Court.[6]

CICIG Mandate

With strong support from the international community, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was established in January 2008 through agreement between the United Nations and Guatemala. Originally set to expire at the end of 2009, the Guatemalan government extended the agreement with the UN through 2011. The CICIG is an independent body mandated to assist the government of Guatemala in investigating and dismantling violent criminal organizations. CICIG recognizes that criminal organizations, criminal activities and government corruption contribute significantly to impunity. [7] Specifically the mandate establishes CICIG to:

  1. investigate the illicit organizations (including their structures, activities, operations and sources of financing) that commit crimes eroding fundamental human rights.
  2. support the work of Guatemalan institutions, specifically investigation and prosecution services, and recommend new public policy mechanisms and procedures to eliminate illicit organizations and to protect human rights.
  3. provide technical assistance to judicial institutions to better fight organized crime even after the conclusion of CICIG’s mandate.

CICIG Challenges

“One Year Later,” a CICIG report, published in September 2008 and summarizing the activities of the commission’s first year, recognized some accomplishments, such as several “high impact” investigations, recommendations for legislative actions on weapons and ammunition, as well as legal and regulatory reforms, and efforts to strengthen state institutions. However, CICIG faces significant challenges in strengthening security, bolstering staff protection, facilitating international exchanges of information, and developing better witness protection.[8] The last challenge is most pointedly demonstrated in assassination of informants in the Salvadoran case mentioned above. Criminal organizations eliminate witnesses and informants even within maximum-security facilities. The lack of witness protection dramatically increases the resistance of would-be witnesses to participate with justice officials and CICIG, seriously undermining investigative capabilities.

CICIG Necessity

In 2008 coordinated murders of bus drivers in Guatemala City, provoked driver strikes, which shut down portions of the city. In summer 2009, a lawyer/businessman, Rodrigo Rosenberg, predicted his own murder and, in a posthumous video, accused the president and other officials, linking them to organized crime. These events highlight the necessity of CICIG and its objectives. CICIG responded to the public outcry in reaction to the lawyer’s murder and presidential implication and, in conjunction with the FBI, investigated the circumstances surrounding his death. CICIG’s investigation of the Rosenberg case released in February 2010 exonerated President Colom, implicating Rosenberg as mastermind of his own death. [9] Nonetheless, this incident highlights the political volatility of Guatemala and underscores the importance of CICIG’s work. Since his inauguration as CICIG Director Dr. Carlos Castresana has introduced several legal and infrastructure reforms, from increasing the number of prosecution investigators to increasing security for judges and inmates. Unfortunately, the legislature has taken little action. The legislature’s reluctance to tackle these issues is indicative of the influence of illegal networks and corruption throughout the government. CICIG needs to make inroads on these smaller issues like judicial staffing and protection, if it intends to successfully confront more severe and systemic problems. [10] Underlining the significance of CICIG’s role to Guatemala’s success, President Colom has stressed his commitment to CICIG and already indicated he will seek to extend its mandate for a second time beyond 2011. [11] The international community continues to monitor the successes and failures of CICIG, as this innovative partnership might provide a valuable blueprint for other post-conflict resolutions and judicial restorations.

  1. Harry Vanden and Gary Prevost, Politics of Latin America, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 257.
  2. “Guatemala: Memory of silence,” Report to the Commission for Historical Clarification, February 1999.
  3. Kevin Casa-Zamora, “’Guatemalistan’: How to prevent a failed state in our midst,” The Brookings Institute, 22 May 2009.
  4. Juan Carlos Llorca, “Four jailed cops killed in Guatemalan prison,” The Associated Press, 27 February 2007.
  5. Edward W. Littlefield, “A perfect storm of violence in Guatemala,” Spero News, 18 March 2009.
  6. “Barómetro Iberoamericano de Gobernabilidad 2008,” Report by Consorcio Iberoamericano de Investigaciones de Mercados y Asesoramiento, 2008.
  8. Ban Ki-moon, “The situation in Central America: progress in fashioning a region of peace, freedom, democracy and development,” Letter to UN General Assemby President, United Nations, 27 October 2008.
  9. “Los países latinoamericanos y caribeños felicitan a la Cicig por el caso Rosenberg,” Agencia EFE, 23 February 2010,
  10. “CICIG: Guatela is dying,” Barbara Schieber, The Guatemala Times, 15 February 2010,
  11. “Q&A: ‘It’s Not Easy to Fight Impunity,’” Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service, 19 February 2010,