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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
Crime dominates Guatemala campaign
By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

A woman looks out of a bullet-shattered bus window in Guatemala City
Officials blame the violence on a culture of impunity
The leading candidates for Guatemala's elections in September have launched their campaigns against a backdrop of soaring murder rates.

Crime and punishment - or the lack of it - are high on the agenda.

"Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it," said Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, when he launched his most recent report earlier this year.

Official police figures for violent deaths would support his view: some 5,885 Guatemalans died by violence in 2006, 500 more than in 2005, and a 60% increase since 2003.

The 2006 murder rate is higher than the average number of Guatemalans killed each year as a result of political violence from 1960 to 1996, when 200,000 died in a civil war between left-wing guerrillas and the military.

Judicial weakness

"The cause is the dramatic increase in organised crime, which is taking over the country," says Frank LaRue, director of the Presidential Human Rights Commission.

Guatemala has the worst record for impunity in Latin America
Rachel Sieder,
University of London

"This is organically linked to the weakening of the justice system and ongoing impunity."

Guatemala has a single-digit conviction rate for murder.

A major part of the problem, observers say, is that the state body in charge of investigations, the Attorney General's Office, lacks resources, training and civilian accountability.

The case of 19-year-old law student Claudina Velasquez, found shot dead in August 2005, illustrates the obstacles.

Amnesty International supports the Velasquez family's view that the crime scene was not properly processed - no basic forensic tests were run on her clothing and no tests were performed on the primary suspects to establish whether or not they had fired a gun.

"What is more," says Claudina's father, Jorge, "samples from her fingernails were only taken during the official family wake."

The lack of progress on bringing retired General Efrain Rios Montt to trial is a daily reminder of Guatemala's endemic impunity.

Some 25 years after massacres of hundreds of highland Indians during his rule, Rios Montt has never faced trial.

In early May, he was officially inscribed as a candidate for the new Congress, which will give him immunity from any prosecution.

Spiralling violence

Impunity is one of the many factors behind the large number of women and girls getting killed.

Efrain Rios Montt (file image)
Rios Montt has never faced trial for killings during his rule

Recent figures from the Women's Committee of the Guatemalan Congress suggest things are getting worse.

More than 150 were killed in the first three months of this year, the committee says, an increase of 25% over the same period last year.

"Guatemala has the worst record for impunity in Latin America," says Rachel Sieder, senior lecturer in politics at London University.

"The reasons are many: the long-standing cover-up of gross violations of human rights by state actors; a weak, corrupt and ineffectual judiciary; and a profound lack of belief in the possibility of accountability on the part of civil society."

Like many others, Ms Sieder also points to the failure to reform the security forces as part of the peace process in the 1990s, and the continued involvement of the military and the highest echelons of government in organised crime.

In a report published in April, Amnesty International reiterated its view that "clandestine groups" were active in Guatemala.

These groups consist of criminal networks involving "the business sector, private security companies, common criminals, gang members and possibly ex and current members of the armed forces", says Amnesty.

In recent years, Guatemala's growing role as a transit point for large shipments of cocaine has given more economic clout to criminals.

Youth gangs

Another factor is the growth of the youth gangs, known as "maras".

Some estimates put their membership higher than that of the 19,000-strong police force.

Ramirez Velasco, a member of the Mara 18 gang
Some estimate that there are more gang members than police officers

The current government of President Oscar Berger has been widely criticized for not doing more to curb violence.

Frank LaRue disagrees: "This government has declared more new public policies on human rights than any of its predecessors," he says.

"But the state is financially weak. Guatemala has the lowest tax base of any country in Latin America except for Haiti."

The leading candidates for September's elections are offering different solutions.

Front-runner Alvaro Colom, of the centre-left National Unity of Hope Party, told the BBC he would address the social causes of crime, strengthen the Attorney General's Office, and give more funds to the Supreme Court.

Retired General Otto Perez Molina of the right-wing Patriotic Party has been attracting attention for his tough stance.

His main campaign slogan is "urge mano dura", or "A strong hand now!".

Programmes of head-on confrontation have not had much success in reducing the power of gangs in neighbouring El Salvador and Honduras.

Such promises do not impress Jorge Velasquez.

Despite months of pressuring the authorities to clarify the circumstances of his daughter's death, he has seen little, if any, progress.

"I have no hope in any of the presidential candidates," he says. "I am going to vote - but spoil my ballot."

Guatemala urged to act on murders
18 Jul 06 |  Americas
Guatemala's epidemic of killing
09 Jun 05 |  Americas
Country profile: Guatemala
16 Nov 04 |  Country profiles

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