Weaknesses within Guatemala’s judicial system continue to hamper the fight against impunity, according to a new United Nations report which points to a lack of independence among some judges as one of the key problems.
“Some judges appear to be subject to external influence to the detriment of justice,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in his report on the activities of the independent body set up with UN help to investigate the activities of illegal armed groups in Guatemala.
The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, seeks to bolster the rule of law and is permitted by its mandate to conduct independent investigations and help authorities bring representative cases to trial in national courts.
Mr. Ban noted that the Commission has made significant progress in key areas, including criminal prosecutions and investigations, as well as in obtaining the approval of important legal reforms.
“Most importantly, the Commission contributed to raising awareness among the Guatemalan population of the need to end impunity,” he stated.
However, efforts to combat impunity have been made more difficult by problems within the judicial system, he added. By way of example, he highlighted an incident in June in which a judge ordered the release of four suspected members of the “Zetas,” the armed branch of a Mexican cartel, on low bail and dismissed 10 of 12 charges filed against them.
In another case, a judge had turned down, without proper justification, the Commission’s request to enter the case against former President Alfonso Portillo as complementary prosecutor, a decision that was overturned.
“To date, the Commission has requested the removal of immunities of one judge so that she may be tried as a private citizen for obstruction of justice and other crimes,” said Mr. Ban.
Earlier this month the Secretary-General and an independent UN human rights expert voiced concern over the manner of the recent election of judges to the country’s Supreme Court, saying the process was rushed and lacked transparency and objectivity.
In his report, Mr. Ban said the Commission has insisted on the urgent need to create specialized courts located in the capital, Guatemala City, to hear “high-impact” cases, as such courts “help provide greater security for judges and ensure impartial decisions.
“The need for such courts has been made evident in several cases that were transferred repeatedly between regional courts and the capital due to the refusal of regional courts to hear the cases,” he stated.
“Security and intimidation of judges plays a factor in such circumstances, as criminal networks are better able to exploit weaknesses in the judicial system outside Guatemala City.”
The Secretary-General noted that challenges remain for the implementation of the specialized courts, and also cited the urgent need to create maximum security judicial and penitentiary facilities.
Over the next year, the Commission will be focusing on cases related to clandestine security apparatuses, aiming – in coordination with national law enforcement authorities – to demonstrate that these groups “can be successfully dismantled.”
CICIG was established under an agreement signed between Guatemala and the UN in December 2006, and is headed by Carlos Castresana of Spain.