For decades, impunity has reined in Central America. Dictatorial rule, coups, murder, and genocide have, for the most part, gone unpunished. This month, however, events in Guatemala have suggested a potential turning of the tide. In the last three weeks, Guatemalan authorities have solved the potentially destabilizing Rosenberg case and arrested ex-President Alfonso Portillo for money laundering $70 million when he was in power. Meanwhile, in Honduras, the rule of law appears as in jeopardy as ever, as the Congress has rewarded de facto President Roberto Micheletti and pledged amnesty for all those involved in ousting President Manuel Zelaya. When it comes to the rule of law, Honduras lags as far behind as ever.
Since the Peace Accords brought Guatemala’s 36-year civil war to an end in 1996, Guatemalan activists and international observers have demanded justice for the state-sponsored genocide in the 1980s. For the most part, however—as in most of Latin America—justice has not come. Moreover, since the late 1990s, crime has spiraled out of control, perceptions of corruption are high, and the legal system has proved incapable of apprehending and prosecuting both common criminals and thieving politicians. Pervasive impunity partially explains the horrific practice of lynchings that plagues Guatemala. But the failing of the rule of law in the region also contributes to Guatemalans’ disenchantment with democracy (desencanto democrático).
Not only have Guatemalan voters lost faith in democratic government’s ability to bring economic development and alleviate massive poverty, but vast swaths of the citizenry have come to believe that the laws simply do not apply to the powerful. As the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) has shown, perceptions of corruption and insecurity negatively affect democratic values in Guatemala. Compared with other Latin American countries, it is unsurprising that Guatemala ranks low in popular preference for democracy as a form of government.
Since the Peace Accords, two international institutions in particular have worked to support the rule of law in Guatemala: for the first 10 years, the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), and now the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). This month, CICIG has emerged front-and-center in the battle against impunity. First, eight months after Rodrigo Rosenberg posthumously released a video accusing President Colóm and his wife of orchestrating his murder, CICIG’s extensive investigation revealed that Rosenberg had arranged to have himself killed, with the help of prominent Guatemalan businessmen. CICIG showed that Rosenberg’s murder-suicide had been a conspiracy aimed to destabilize Colóm’s rule.
Second, the apprehension of ex-President Portillo could send a strong signal that Guatemalan authorities will target even political elites. Portillo, who became president as the standard-bearer of Efraín Ríos Montt’s—who took power via a coup in the 1982 and led much of the state-sponsored genocide—FRG, oversaw an era of rampant corruption in Guatemalan politics. This week, after avoiding simultaneous raids at four different houses, authorities captured Portillo as he allegedly sought to flee to Belize (Portillo had twice in the past avoided attempts for his capture). He now faces the prospect of extradition to the U.S., where he faces federal charges of money laundering. Of course, Portillo’s conviction is far from being a fait accompli. His capture, however, augurs well for the rule of the law in Guatemala and will hopefully give confidence to CICIG to go after other high profile criminals.
Meanwhile, neighboring Honduras has settled down in recent months, but the rule of law remains as in jeopardy as ever. While Honduran history does not include state-sponsored genocide and sustained armed conflict, the country has been plagued by coups, corruption and crime. And, as in neighboring countries, powerful politicians have rarely been brought to justice.
This week, it has become clear that no one will face prosecution for ousting Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Earlier this month, the Honduran Supreme Court began proceedings against military officials responsible for removing President Zelaya from the country (not for removing Zelaya from power, deemed legal by the Court and the Congress). Predictably, the president of the pro-Micheletti Supreme Court, Jorge Rivera Avilez, dismissed these charges on Tuesday. And, while prosecutors said they would appeal the decision, Porfirio Lobo’s declaration last week that he would offer amnesty to all involved in the coup (in addition to safe passage out of the country for Manuel Zelaya) confirmed these suspicions. The Congress will approve this measure today, to coincide with Lobo’s inauguration.
To make matters worse, the Honduran Congress declared two weeks ago that it would grant Roberto Micheletti a congressional salary-for-life in honor of what they deemed his defense of Honduran democracy and sovereignty since June 28, 2009. This reward for Micheletti—which followed the Congress’s landslide vote rejecting Zelaya’s proposed reinstatement in December—has added insult to injury for defenders of the rule of law in Honduras. Granting this salary to Micheletti also indicates how out-of-touch the Honduran Congress remains with both most Honduran voters (the majority of which opposed Micheletti, even if they did not necessarily support Zelaya) and the rest of the world, which has resoundingly rejected Micheletti’s rule.
This has been a month of highs and lows for the rule of law in Central America. Guatemala, long one of the hemisphere’s darkest dens of impunity, has taken important steps in the right direction. Meanwhile, Honduran leaders have shown that, when it comes to justice, they are happy to flout internationally-accepted norms and continue to lag behind the rest of Latin America.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Guatemala and Honduras. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation.