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Guatemala’s Attorney General Faces Legal Fight to Stay in Office

Last week’s decision by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) to reduce Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s term in office has been met by a wave of criticism and legal challenges.

The internationally-recognized Paz y Paz, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, is credited with improving the investigative work of the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry) and reducing the rate of impunity in Guatemala from 95 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in 2013 (measured by the amount of cases that end in a prosecution, not necessarily a conviction).  Paz y Paz also created Guatemala’s Cortes de Alta Riesgo (High Risk Courts), permitting vetted judges with international training to receive certain protections and resources so they can preside over difficult cases.

On February 5, however, the CC ruled that Paz y Paz must step down by May 2014, though her term would not have ended until this December. The court justified the decision by claiming that Paz y Paz’s term officially began in May 2010, when former Attorney General Arnulfo Conrado Reyes Sagastume was removed from office due to irregularities in his selection process. Paz y Paz took his place in December 2010.

Supporters of Paz y Paz claim that the CC’s decision—initiated by the prominent lawyer and businessman Ricardo Sagastume Morales , who is a member of the right-wing Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN)—is in itself illegal, based on transitional guidelines handed down in 1993. Article 251 of Guatemala’s Constitution clearly states that the attorney general’s term will last four years and that the attorney general can only be removed from office by the president for “duly established cause.”

Furthermore, Guatemala’s Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice) had already concluded in two non-binding opinions that Paz y Paz’ four-year term started on December 10, 2010.  However, the seven judges involved in the opinions were removed on October 22, 2013 and their opinions were not published.

Meanwhile, Paz y Paz is planning to appeal the CC’s decision.  “I mean, I’m not replacing a term which came into force, because you cannot replace something that never existed,” she said. “What we are talking about is the rule of law and the authority of the Constitution. The Constitution is very clear in stating that the Attorney General’s term is four years. Here… we respect the Constitution and the rule of law in Guatemala.”

The CC briefly responded by commenting on the Attorney General’s media statements and asserting that its ruling was neither obscure, ambiguous nor contradictory.

Guatemala’s Congress is already considering Paz y Paz’s successor, and whoever Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina chooses to be the next attorney general could well define his presidency, at least in the eyes of foreigners. 

However, the decision is not entirely his—each university in Guatemala gets to send a representative to elect the candidates for attorney general and other magistrates, and representatives from specialist parties and from the Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala (Guatemalan College of Lawyers and Notaries) will also be present. Meanwhile, interest groups from the Guatemalan elite, political parties, organized crime and other groups have allegedly attempted to form shell schools to influence the candidate selection process. 

The likelihood is that Guatemala’s next attorney general will be a less dynamic, less controversial pick than the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize candidate and Forbes nominee of one of six women changing the world, Paz y Paz.

And what of the future?  Rewriting a four-year term to less than three-and-a-half years is extreme, even by local standards.  Paz y Paz could put her name forward to be one of the six attorney general candidates that the president considers.

However, given the alarming speed of the decision made against her, perhaps she does not care for the fight.  Even if Paz y Paz chooses to do battle, she may well find the cards stacked against her.

*Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Guatemala, Claudia Paz y Paz

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