In this article, Guatemalan activist Helen Mack discusses the potential reorganization of criminal networks within the government, comments on the role of the private sector and the public to combat corruption, and explains the active role of the US Embassy.

Founder of the Myrna Mack Foundation, Helen Mack Chang is a leader in the fight for human rights. During Álvaro Colom’s administration, Mack was commissioned to work on police reform and was one of the principal proponents of the creation of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). Since the assassination of her sister Myrna in 1990, Mack has dedicated herself to the fight against impunity and to bringing justice to illegal apparatuses embedded within the government. Mack is also a lucid observer and well-informed on the country’s current affairs.

This article was originally published by Plaza Pública and was translated, edited for length and clarity, and published with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

This interview touches on what has happened in Guatemala since last year, when CICIG and Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office uncovered numerous corruption schemes within the government, including several allegedly run by then-President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President, Roxana Baldetti. 

Now a year and a half after the first blows to the criminal networks, are we seeing a reaction from these structures?

We have to remember that, in 2014, with the elections of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals magistrates, the actions of the criminal structures were very evident. We saw judges giving interviews and engaging with shady characters. Then we saw how the group formed by [interim President] Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre and [the head of the Constitutional Court] Roberto Molina Barreto made decisions that favored Otto Pérez Molina when we were already in crisis. If we look at the government in that light, it has not yet been purged. The conformation of the Supreme Court with the election of Patricia Valdéz will become evident when corruption cases like those of the “Cooptación del Estado,” “Pisa,” and “La Línea” come to court. Not a single institution, not even the Attorney General’s Office, has managed to purge itself. And now we see the struggle in congress. This is the counterattack. 

So you are saying that, despite the captures, the networks are still there.

That’s right. CICIG Commissioner Iván Velázquez said that we still haven’t arrived at the point of no return. The structures are reconstituting themselves and the system is the same, as are the characters. They have stripped away the visible faces, but the shady characters, which are the ones working behind the scenes, are still operating. This gray zone makes it difficult to completely purge the state of corruption. 

“Corruption does not have an ideology(…)it has transcended all sectors, from the unions to the presidency.”

What kind of shady characters are you referring to?

Walter Villatoro, for example [the tenth Criminal Judge of the First Rank whose controversial rulings favored individuals like Byron Lima and Arnoldo Medrano]. He made assertions that he was using his judicial independence, but he is someone who has done more bad than good. He is a shady character. We’ve also seen various deputies committing abuses of power to pressure public offices. We saw this with the governor of Verapaces. We saw this with the President of the Health Commission, who gave summons to all of the directors in the Ministry of Health, and for what? It’s a form of blackmail. The old political elite have not left.

Rarely have we seen the US Embassy so active and opinionated in Guatemala’s national politics. What is your opinion on this? What strings are they trying to pull?

We are in their sphere of influence. The entire continent is. We saw this throughout the civil war and during the Cold War, where the United States had an influential role. From there a political-military-economic alliance emerged, what we now call illegal political-economic networks. Instead of eliminating the causes of armed conflict, which were economic, social and cultural exclusion, these networks protected their own interests. This has now caused a national security dilemma for the United States via the issue of immigration. Now there is an unaccompanied minors crisis which has prompted an aid package to reduce the impact and prevent these migrants from going north. This is where the Alliance for Prosperity comes from. It’s not unusual that they use their political power. The United States has an agenda that coincides with ours, but they operate with self-interest. We Guatemalans must do our part. This is why it’s important that citizens continue to be politically active.

What is your vision?

Here is the paradox. Most of the government’s trade is with the United States, a country that is requiring Guatemalan authorities to meet international standards that, because of the impunity, they cannot meet. They need the United States but at the same time they do not want to discontinue the benefits they received from the previous governmental model. They need legal certainty for successful business but they have not achieved this because they rely on government weakness for their personal benefit. These are the contradictions they face, they don’t know what to do and they still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer. 

More than one analyst has suggested that the CICIG functions in the interests of the United States. Do you agree?

No. What is happening here is that there are agendas that coincide. The CICIG emerged from a human rights initiative when the criminal networks prospered. Veláquez had experience with the “para-politics” case in Colombia that lends a deeper understanding of the networks that we’re seeing in Guatemala. I want to give an example: When Otto Pérez Molina was already in crisis and when he stepped down from the presidential podium, the next person up was the US ambassador. [Mack is referring to the press conference on June 2, 2015, held a month after the resignation of Roxana Baldetti, in which Otto Pérez Molina and Todd Robinson announced that the United States would conduct polygraph tests on the certain government employees]. That’s when I thought: this is where they’re going to test the CICIG, because this is the US ambassador supporting Otto Pérez Molina. And the result? The Commissioner and the Attorney General’s Office linked the case to Pérez Molina. There was enough evidence to implicate him. This shows the independence the CICIG has when it comes to the United States.

How do you view the debate on national sovereignty in light of statements and tweets made by Ambassador Todd Robinson?

They are following their own agenda. Every country has their own political agenda and we are part of their sphere of influence. Today, their agenda coincides with ours, even though it’s not always like that. They have their own interests. We Guatemalans have to look out for our own interests.

Last year, one of the important events were protests in the squares. Were they a destabilizing element? And why did the protests end so quickly?

I think everyone saw the powerful corruption within the Patriotic Party. Vice President Baldetti tried to defend the party with arguments that were regarded with contempt by Guatemalans. Their rejection drew them to the squares and was decisive. And why is political mobilization so difficult now? Because corruption does not have an ideology, and the way in which it is being investigated, we can see that corruption has transcended all sectors, from the unions to the presidency. We saw how people allegedly from the left and in favor of the working class were part of the corruption. When it touches so many sectors, people begin to become fearful. Last year, the [business association] CACIF was encouraging demonstrations but now their interests have been impacted and many of their organizations have shied away from encouraging protests.

How do you think this conflict of interests will play out?

If Guatemalans fight for our own interests, there will still be a place for the North American agenda. We Guatemalans have our own agenda and we have to fight for it. 

Could we return to the past, and see a structure like the Patriotic Party ruling the country again?

As it is panning out, yes, because this reaction or this counterattack by the illegal political-economic networks is strong. But if blatant corruption continues and there continue to be investigations like that of Vice President [Jafeth Caberera], who cannot clarify the situation regarding his home, there will come a time when the people will take to the streets. 

*This article was originally published by Plaza Pública and was translated, edited for length and clarity, and published with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.