Guest Post: A “Guatemalan Spring”? — Not Yet.

Alicia Robinson, a student at Harvard Law School, contributes the following guest post:

Guatemala has long been beset by persistent poverty, corruption, and a culture of impunity – an Unholy Trinity that has afflicted much of Central and South America. Moreover, Guatemala has the misfortune of being geographically located at the center of major drug trafficking routes to the North American and European markets, where the unrelenting demand has allowed organized crime to strengthen its hold over the country’s institutions of governance. Yet as Mathieu Tromme’s recent post on this blog highlighted, there are some encouraging signs of change. Most notably, the recent uncovering of a massive tax fraud orechestrated at the highest levels of the executive branch triggered protests that forced the resignation of the vice president – a major victory against impunity in the country.

However, despite this success, and the broad popular support for more action against corruption and impunity, Mr. Tromme may be overly optimistic when he characterizes this this event and the surrounding protests as the inception of a “Guatemalan Spring” that will bring an end to the era of impunity in Guatemala. Corruption still very much riddles every corner of Guatemalan society and the toughest part of the battle lies ahead.

A genuine end to impunity in Guatemala will require not merely a few high-profile resignations in the aftermath of scandal and protests, but rather the establishment of transparent and independent mechanisms by which to systematically address the sources of corruption. In Guatemala, not only do these mechanisms not exist, but the reality is that organized crime and clandestine networks with roots in the civil war are still alive and well in the country. The fact that this round of corruption scandals has transcended class and racial groups does not mean that these factions will remain united on all future corruption issues. Finally, the regional nature of organized crime implies a need for a regional, not just national, approach.

In this particular instance, tax evasion was something that all Guatemalans could rally behind. The additional support from business elites (which may have been crucial in forcing the vice president’s resignation) may have been less an effort by these elites to distance themselves from association with corruption as it was a direct retaliation against the President’s party, the Partido Patriota. (This scandal caused their candidate of choice and frontrunner in the upcoming elections to resign as a result of his affiliation to the party). The country has not always been as united, however. For example, just last year, the country became extremely polarized over whether former head of state Rios Montt should be tried for the genocide allegedly committed during the civil war. Many believe that the annulment of the genocide conviction by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court was a result of manipulation of the judicial process by members of clandestine networks who feared being implicated.

Nonetheless, despite the need to temper our optimism about the prospects for rapid change in Guatemala, it is nonetheless encouraging to see an increasingly vocal anticorruption movement, not only in Guatemala, but elsewhere in Latin America as well. In Honduras, for example, major anti-government protests erupted after $300 million were misappropriated from the country’s Social Security Institute, pressuring the Honduran president to announce its intentions to create an “integrated system against impunity” last month. And in Chile, approval ratings for President Michelle Bachelet plummeted after her son was implicated in a real estate corruption scandal in April. In Brazil, throngs of people took to the streets last March and April demanding accountability for Brazil’s largest ever corruption scandal involving federal officers and senators.

Not only is there a rising transnational intolerance for corruption, but there is also a transnational nature to the source of this corruption. Organized crime knows no borders in Latin America, and therefore, neither should the approach to addressing it. The most recent social security scandal in Honduras has led many to call for the formation of a CICIG-like body (which both Mr. Tromme and Rick Messick have discussed in recent posts) to work alongside the justice system, implying that the CICIG may in fact represent a model that can be replicated throughout the region. Given the increasing popular pressure on Latin American governments and these governments’ increasing inability to successfully curtail organized crime, this may actually be a viable solution that would not have previously been seriously taken into consideration.

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