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Steve Inskeep talks to Claudia Paz y Paz who scored convictions against organized crime and an infamous ex-general. Paz y Paz overhauled a prosecutor's office in a country better known for corruption.
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By Jeff Abbott, Waging Nonviolence | Report, Truthout.org
Late in the afternoon of September 4, after nearly 10 days of protests by a coalition of labor, indigenous rights groups and farmers, the indigenous peoples and campesinosof Guatemala won a rare victory. Under the pressure of massive mobilizations, the Guatemala legislature repealed Decree 19-2014, commonly referred to as the “Monsanto Law,” which would have given the transnational chemical and seed producer a foot hold into the country’s seed market.
“The law would have affected all indigenous people of Guatemala,” said Edgar René Cojtín Acetún of the indigenous municipality of the department of Sololá. “The law would have privatized the seed to benefit only the multinational corporations. If we didn’t do anything now, then our children and grandchildren would suffer the consequences.”
Originally passed on June 26, the Monsanto Law was written to protect the intellectual property rights of multinational companies in their investments within Guatemala. The law also allowed Monsanto an entrance into the Guatemalan seed market and set in place stiff penalties for any farmer that was caught selling seed to another farmer without the proper permits. The response was a massive mobilization of a coalition of labor, indigenous groups and campesinos.
For 10 days, the streets in front of the legislature of the capital Guatemala City were clogged with thousands of protesters demanding the repeal of the law. Demonstrators also gathered in the rural departments of Guatemala to protest the law and the congressmen who had voted in favor of the law.
The changes to the seed market would have heavily hit the campesinos of the department of Sololá, which is a major production area for seed corn for the rest of the country. On September 2, 25,000 to 30,000 people from the around the communities of the department of Sololá shut down the Inter-American Highway in protest of the Monsanto Law. Protesters set up blockades along the highway in three places and shut down all traffic for nearly nine hours.
“The communities are organized against any law that privatizes their seed,” said Griselda Pocop of the Association of Women Moving Sololá. “They are also demanding the respect of the traditions and of their livelihoods.”
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by Emi MacLean,Open Society Justice Initiative
Guatemala’s justice system was praised around the world last year for the prosecution of a former dictator for atrocities carried out against his own people. Efraín Ríos Montt was put on trial and convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, in a painful public examination of a brutal period in the country’s long armed conflict, during which tens of thousands of people were killed or “disappeared.”
What a difference a year makes.
The conviction of Ríos Montt has been followed by a severe backlash. Only days after the verdict, in a divided and controversial ruling, Guatemala’s constitutional court annulled the sentence and left the genocide trial in a state of uncertainty that continues until today.
The lead judge in the genocide trial, Yassmin Barrios, received international respect for presiding over the complex case. She was honored with an award from Michelle Obama, who cited her 18 years as judge in Guatemala, presiding over some of the country’s most high-profile cases, including massacres, political assassinations, and drug trafficking.
But in Guatemala, her career is in jeopardy. Early this year, the Guatemalan lawyers association sanctioned Judge Barrios for “ridiculing” the defense attorney during the trial. She appealed the specious ruling—believed to be only the second reprimand issued by the association in the past five years. The country’s constitutional court is now considering the case. (The Open Society Justice Initiative has joined eight other regional and international groups in calling for the lawyers association sanction to be rejected.)
Independent prosecutors have also been rebuked. In February, in a ruling relying on out-of-date transitional provisions of the decades-old constitution, the constitutional court ordered the premature end to the tenure of Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s celebrated attorney general. That Paz y Paz was responsible for successes in turning around a public prosecutors’ office known largely for turning a blind eye to serious crime was not enough to protect her from reprisal, and in fact may have played a large part in it.
Guatemala is now also in the midst of selecting the country’s entire slate of appellate and supreme court justices, a process that takes place every five years. Due to be resolved last month, the final selection of senior judges in Guatemala has been abruptly frozen after allegations of rampant corruption in the process were demonstrated unmistakably. Appeals court judge Claudia Escobar resigned and turned over an audiotape of a Guatemalan legislator seeking her support in a case implicating the vice president, in exchange for the legislator’s support in the nomination process. The leaked tape laid bare the crooked state of the judiciary in Guatemala. The constitutional court temporarily suspended all of the judicial nominations and is now considering how the process will proceed.
Amid all these judicial shenanigans, one of the strongest voices for reform has been the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-backed institution that was set up to fight organized crime and corruption in Guatemala. CICIG was the institution that Judge Escobar turned to with the tape of the legislator’s proposed tit-for-tat. Unfortunately, its current mandate will expire next year, unless renewed.
Recent events have shown that Guatemala’s justice system is still subject to powerful political and economic interests. An association of lawyers must not be permitted to admonish a judge, with legal consequences for her ability to practice. The impartiality of judicial actors must be respected, even if it means the delayed naming of a new slate of judges. As it is one of the best checks on malpractice, President Molina should renew the mandate of CICIG so it can work hand in hand with prosecutors and the interior ministry, beyond next year.
Some courageous judges, prosecutors and human rights defenders have demonstrated that genuine reform is possible. How the country deals with these current crises will determine whether there is still room in Guatemala for an independent judiciary, accountability, and a public reckoning with grave crimes.
The goals for the 2014 NISGUA speaking tour were much like those which have guided us during our 33 years as a human rights, solidarity organization: amplify Guatemalan voices and experiences, connect grassroots struggles across borders, inspire, educate and strengthen our partners in the US and Guatemala. This year's tour exceeded our expectations, and we have Víctor Caal Tzuy of the Association of Communities for Development, Defense of Territory and Natural Resources (ACODET) and the NISGUA grassroots base on both coasts to thank.
Víctor's message of cultural resistance, community organization and unity reached more than 1,000 people during more than 20 events and interviews. Spanish language radio spots helped our tour reach immigrant communities in Seattle, Portland and the Bay Area. The tour petition gathered nearly 700 signatures demanding respect for indigenous communities’ right to consultation and the cancellation of the Xalalá pre-construction studies.
You can read more at the NISQUA blog:
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