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Paz y Paz Sidelined in Guatemala Attorney General Vote

Guatemala’s Comisión de Postulación, a national selection committee, announced the six nominees for country’s next attorney general  last week, with the name of current attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz conspicuously absent from the list. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina will make his choice after interviewing the remaining candidates, and must announce a new attorney general by May 17.

Paz y Paz’s exclusion has generated outrage in Guatemala and abroad from human rights groups who say the snub was politically motivated. “We knew that the prosecutor [Paz y Paz] had many enemies, but we hoped the Commission would be independent,” said Helen Myrna Mack, of the Myrna Mack Foundation. “I think everybody was surprised and disappointed.  It shows the system lacks credibility, it means that there’s no autonomy.”

Diego Álvarez, the spokesman for the Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (Commission against Impunity in GuatemalaCICIG) said, “We are surprised that Paz y Paz is not on the list of six candidates, despite her excellent performance during her term, along with her classification in the process.”

After an intensive interview before the Comisión de Postulación, Paz y Paz’s score (69 out of 100, later amended to 73) placed her first among the 26 competing candidates.  The Commission reviewed each candidate’s work experience and credentials and asked the candidates generic questions, followed by a round of more personal, specific questioning. The candidates also completed a written law exam.

However, Paz y Paz’s true test was whether the 14 members of the Comisión de Postulación would cast their vote for her. Milton Argueta, the dean of the faculty of law at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, reported that he had received death threats prior to making his vote, and two text messages to his cell phone suggested that his wife would be murdered if he remained on the Commission, but he remained.

José Arturo Sierra, the president of the Corte Suprema Judicial (Supreme Court—CSJ), who presided over the Commission, said he was in favor of adding Paz y Paz’s name to the short-list of candidates, “but the others would not.” When asked if there had been some interference in the voting process, Sierra responded, “Possibly. In these events, there are always things like that, but it I cannot confirm or deny it.” In the end, only four of the 14 commission members supported Paz y Paz as a candidate (one dean was excused from voting due to ill health), and she did not go through to the final selection round.

Narcotraficantes, organized crime bosses, current and former politicians, the business elite and the Guatemalan military all had reason to fear a second term of Paz y Paz.  The Ministerio Público was closing in on criminal networks within Guatemala and Central America through its investigations. And with high-profile investigations of massacres by the military, including the 2013 trial of former president Efraín Rios Montt, Guatemala’s most powerful families were concerned enough to commission two independent reports to see how far they could be investigated.  

Paz y Paz was also seen as a supporter of community protestors by failing to end their protests at hydroelectric and mining projects across the country. La Puya, a community resistance group, has held up construction for over two years at the Tambor mine site near San José del Golfo, 23 miles from Guatemala City.  The hydroelectric plant at Chixoy faces similar protests.  Thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed at various times to these sites, yet the protests continue.

Critics claim that Paz y Paz did little against the everyday crime that pervades daily life in Guatemala during her term.  In 2012, her office achieved only 12 convictions for corruption, which increased to 149 convictions in 2013.  Meanwhile, Guatemala’s impunity rate dropped 23 percent over six years, and high profile cases against drug traffickers, ex-military and especially Ríos Montt garnered much praise internationally, but fatally weakened her domestic position.

In February, Paz y Paz saw her four-year term as attorney general cut to three-and-a-half years,  thanks to a Constitutional Court ruling that stated she was merely completing the four-year term of her predecessor, Conrado  Arnulfo Reyes Sagastume, the attorney general under former president Álvaro Colom.  Paz y Paz decided to fight for her position and seemed guaranteed a place among the final six candidates with her impressive performance in front of the Comisión de Postulación, but she and Judge Yazmín Barrios have faced harsh domestic criticism for having the temerity to prosecute Guatemala’s “untouchables.” Judge Barrios, who sentenced Ríos Montt, was suspended for a year and fined for her actions during the trial, a punishment that was subsequently modified earlier this week to an official warning upon appeal.  

Paz y Paz’s supporters have bemoaned the “pact of impunity” that will prevent Paz y Paz from carrying out a second term.  They also pointed out that of the six remaining candidates—Thelma Aldana, María Porras, Édgar Lemus, Ronny López, Eunice Mendizábal and Julio Clavería— only Lemus and López have sufficient criminal law experience and are not connected to the current government.

However, others applauded the decision to reject Paz y Paz’s candidacy. Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, the president of the Fundación contra el Terrorismo (Foundation Against Terrorism) said, “There are nine lawyers who believe in the rule of law, who believe in the sovereignty of Guatemala"—referring to the nine commission members that did not vote for Paz y Paz.

Whatever progress on the international front Guatemala made in the past few years—by being on the UN Security Council, by investigating, prosecuting and ultimately convicting a former president for crimes against humanity and genocide—have evaporated in the past six months.  Paz y Paz’s term was cut short, and she has now been airbrushed out of the legal community.  

The decision appears to indicate a return to the days of impunity that various factions within Guatemala have enjoyed for decades. It’s a tawdry ending to a term that promised an era of enlightenment in this Central American country—which now seems determined to remain blinkered to its recent history.  

*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, Human Rights

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