Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Colom’s Message to the UN

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The Guatemalan president has had a trying year. His country remains one of the murder capitals of Latin America, with an estimated 16 people killed every day. His national police are overstretched and often corrupt. And in May, he himself was (falsely) accused of murdering a prominent Guatemalan lawyer, in a crisis that came close to overturning his government.

Yet to hear President Álvaro Colom speak, you would think it had been smooth sailing all the way.

Colom, a gentle and reed-thin man in a sweater-vest, told reporters at the UN last week that “as president, I can express my satisfaction” with Guatemala’s fight against corruption in the government and the police force.

“I think we’re moving forward,” he added. “I wish it were faster, but I think it is moving forward.”

And in fact, the president’s attitude makes a great deal of sense. Since 2008, Guatemala has been working with the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG) to root out criminal groups that have infiltrated all levels of the government.

Since the CICIG started its work, a number of high-ranking military officials, as well as members of the national police, have been brought to trial on embezzlement and assault charges. The former defense minister, Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, has been charged with embezzlement. Most stunningly, the former president, Alfonso Portillo, was arrested last month in Izabal.

“We are overthrowing old taboos,” Colom told the press conference last week. In years gone by, it would have been unthinkable for the courts to go after members of Guatemala’s ruling classes.

And there is no question that Guatemala is making great strides, especially considering the country’s recent emergence from a 36-year civil war.

But great work remains to be done. Last month, just after Colom had been cleared of his murder rap, the CICIG’s director warned that “Guatemala will go down if the government does not act now” to strengthen the laws against corruption and impunity.

Carlos Castresana, speaking to Emisoras Unidas, complained of having his work hampered by Guatemala’s weak anti-impunity laws. He complained that Congress had failed to approve most of the reform laws that CICIG has proposed. Most importantly, Castrasana said, influence peddling—using one’s political connections to get favors—remains legal, opening the door to impunity for anyone with money and power.

What has been missing from Colom’s recent media encounters is some acknowledgement of the deep divisions within his country’s political class. This is not to say that he should imitate paranoid, populist leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and spend his time railing against his enemies. But it seems like a stretch to say, as the president did last week, that “our government has all the political support and all the political will to break with this cycle of impunity.”

The president may be feeling particularly powerful after his recent triumph over adversity. Let’s hope, as we watch this brave man, that another crisis does not come along to dampen his high spirits.

*Kate Prengel is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a journalist based at the United Nations.

Tags: Álvaro Colom, CICIG, UN
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