GUATEMALA CITY — For a 17-day period that ended last month, Guatemala seemed to be falling under the direct control of suspected mobsters. A lawyer leading a posse of unsavory characters became the attorney general and started dismantling the state's legal apparatus.
Central America's most populous country teetered on the edge of "going narco."
A rugged coffee-growing nation of 13.5 million people, some 40 percent of them disenfranchised Mayan Indians, Guatemala has largely been off the world's radar screen. But as U.S. anti-narcotics aid poured into Mexico and Colombia, bad guys flooded the region in between.
Guatemala became a prime destination. Its democracy is fragile, and while institutions of state appear to function, corruption is rampant.
Narcotics are pervasive. Some 275 to 385 tons of South American cocaine transits Guatemala each year, almost enough to satisfy all U.S. demand, according to a March estimate by the State Department.
Syndicates from neighboring Mexico brought violence to the steps of power — literally. Cartel enforcers demanding an end to a crackdown on organized crime dumped four decapitated human heads on the steps of Congress and other downtown Guatemala City sites on June 10.
Drug gangs operate largely unhindered. As many as seven of Guatemala's 22 provinces may not be under government control, making it "one of the world's most dangerous countries," according to a report June 22 by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization.
Impunity is the rule. A weak judicial system keeps most of Guatemala's corrupt politicians, hired assassins, arms traffickers and drug dealers out of prison. It got so bad that the United Nations set up a special commission in 2006 to help Guatemala dismantle its vast clandestine networks of organized crime, and by doing so give Guatemalans hope for justice.
It remains a distant goal. Even though President Alvaro Colom's administration has sacked more than 2,000 police officers from the national force, corruption corrodes the pillars of state. The last two national police chiefs are in jail on narcotics charges. Two former interior ministers are fugitives.
Leading the U.N.'s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala was Carlos Castresana, a hard-charging and outspoken former Spanish judge. At high personal cost, he yanked Guatemala back from the precipice last month in an extraordinary chain of events.
A starting point for the drama occurred at noon on May 25 when Colom administered the oath of office as attorney general to Conrado Reyes, a lawyer.
At the time, few suspected that Reyes might be fronting for criminal interests. After all, he'd come out on top in a selection process of 29 candidates led by the deans of the nation's nine law schools, the chief of its Supreme Court and two other top legal officials.
Scratch a little further, though, and there's more evidence of Guatemala's pervasive corruption. Legal reforms earlier this decade gave the deans of law schools an outsized role in selecting judges, magistrates and the attorney general, so the academic posts go to those who are backed by deep pockets and sometimes have shady backgrounds.
At the only national university, San Carlos, lobbying for the post of dean of the law school is intense, said Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan vice president who coordinates a truth commission that's looking into Honduras' 2009 removal of its president.
"They spend buckets of money in parties, in gifts and in T-shirts. It's like a political campaign," Stein said.
When the selection committee met to mull over the six finalists for attorney general, it gathered for only 15 minutes, a sign of an under-the-table agreement.
Still, no one thought that Reyes would be so blatant as to take a suspected mobster to his swearing-in.
To the surprise of attendees, standing nearby was Juan Roberto Garrido Perez, a former army captain whose U.S. visa had been revoked because of suspicions of links to narcotics trafficking.
Garrido's shady connections are said to go beyond drugs. Castresana later would accuse Garrido of links to alien smuggling, the murder of a human rights activist's son and a 2006 heist of $9 million at the Guatemala City airport, where Garrido was then the security chief. During the heist, security cameras went on the blink.
Once sworn in as attorney general, Reyes seized personal control of ongoing criminal investigations and the most sensitive bureau of the Public Ministry, the Special Methods Unit, which handles wiretaps of major drug traffickers, corrupt army officers, tycoons and politicians.
"He went in there in a terrible hurry to do a housecleaning," said Raquel Zelaya, a former finance minister and a signer of historic peace accords in 1996 that ended a 36-year guerrilla war.
Reyes never gave Garrido a formal position but entrusted him as his roving right-hand man. Also brought in were three other former army officers with shady backgrounds, a former prosecutor who'd been removed for obstructing a criminal case and a man who ran an illegal baby adoption ring.
All appeared connected to Carlos Quintanilla, a former chief of security for Colom who melted out of sight when his unit was found in September 2008 to have planted microphones and cameras around the presidential palace.
"There were two microphones in the office of the president, one in the first lady's office, one in the vice president's office and one final one in the private office of the president," said Fernando Barillas, a presidential spokesman.
Rumors of deep ties to drug cartels now swirl around Quintanilla.
Within days of Reyes' takeover, more than a dozen seasoned prosecutors who'd been handling sensitive cases involving political murders, corruption and drug trafficking were swept out of their jobs, imperiling cases such as a pending trial of former President Alfonso Portillo (2000-04) on charges of embezzling $15.7 million.
Asked why he sacked the prosecutors, Reyes told reporters: "They weren't doing anything."
European, Canadian and U.S. diplomats grew alarmed. The United Nations had put a lot of stock in the anti-impunity commission, much as it had in war crimes tribunals set up in Rwanda, East Timor, Cambodia, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia.
Staffed by about 170 experts from 20 or so nations, the commission has subpoena power and has a mandate to help the nation's Public Ministry, which prosecutes criminals. Using wiretaps and other evidence-gathering techniques, the commission sought to help prosecutors bring down some big fish, and momentum was building.
With key prosecutors gone, and suspected mafiosos calling the shots, however, Castresana saw his work coming undone. In desperation, he resigned June 7, issuing a broadside against Reyes.
"He is not the prosecutor that Guatemala deserves. He has ties with illicit organizations. His election was arranged by law firms that defend drug traffickers," Castresana said at a news conference.
Foreign governments leaned heavily on Guatemala, and its Constitutional Court felt compelled to act. On June 11, it annulled Reyes' selection as attorney general.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named a renowned Costa Rican corruption buster, Francisco Dall'Anese, to replace Castresana as the head of the U.N.-backed impunity commission, whose mandate expires next year.
Guatemala's fragile democracy survived the ordeal, but it's still on a tightrope, advocates for democracy and human rights say. Violence is higher now than at any time during the country's lengthy civil war, which left 200,000 people dead from 1960 to 1996.
As homicides soar, killers walk free. Of the 6,451 people who were slain in Guatemala last year, trials were conducted and prison sentences handed down in only 230 cases, according to the U.N. impunity commission. That means 96 percent of the killers got away with their crimes.
"Guatemala is at an inflection point," said Helen Mack, the head of the Myrna Mack Foundation, named for her anthropologist sister, who was slain by an army death squad in 1990.
Unless a variety of social forces act urgently to protect the rule of law, she said, "we will lose the state."
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