03.22.17

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Rule of Law in Guatemala

Mr. President, I want to call the Senate’s attention to the current situation in Guatemala, where upholding the rule of law has too often been the exception rather than the rule. 

For centuries, most Guatemalans had no access to justice.  This was exacerbated during – and in the years since – the civil war, when an estimated 200,000 people were killed or disappeared.  Most of them were innocent victims of the armed forces, and only a small number of the military officers and their accomplices who were responsible have been punished.  In fact, the armed forces and their benefactors have for the most part successfully avoided justice, by threatening prosecutors and witnesses and paying off judges. 

At the same time, Guatemala is experiencing the corrosive effects of drug gangs, smugglers, and organized crime.  Former President Perez Molina is under arrest, and other high ranking officials have been implicated in corruption.  Rampant gang violence and a lack of job opportunities have caused tens of thousands of Guatemalans, including unaccompanied minors, to seek safety and employment in the United States. 

Two individuals, Thelma Aldana, Guatemala’s Attorney General, and Ivan Velasquez, the head of CICIG, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, have been courageously investigating these high profile cases and working diligently to bring those responsible to justice.  Both are respected former judges – Aldana a Guatemalan and Velasquez a Colombian. 

The United States, with the support of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, has provided funding to both of their offices. 

It is difficult, dangerous work.  They have received anonymous threats in an attempt to intimidate them, and there is a concern that President Morales may oppose the renewal of Mr. Velasquez’s term of duty – which ends in September –or request the UN Secretary General to remove or replace Mr. Velasquez.

This would be of great concern, because no democracy can survive without the rule of law, and there can be no rule of law without independent investigators, prosecutors, and judges. 

In Guatemala, with its history of impunity, Thelma Aldana and Ivan Velasquez are making history by showing the Guatemalan people that justice is possible.  It is possible even in cases in which the perpetrators are high ranking government officials, members of their families, or others with wealth and power who have long evaded justice.

Guatemala needs our support to reduce poverty and malnutrition, improve education, combat crime, reform the police, and strengthen its economy and public institutions.  But none of that can be achieved or sustained without political will and a transparent, accountable justice system.  I know this from my own experience, first as a prosecutor, and more recently as the senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I have been here a long time, in fact longer than any other Senator.  I know Guatemala’s history and the daunting challenges it faces.  Its people deserve better, and they need leaders who respect the rule of law.

If Guatemala’s leaders support Thelma Aldana and Ivan Velasquez for as long they are willing to make the personal sacrifice and continue their important work, we will do our part by supporting the Alliance for Prosperity.  But if there are attempts to undermine or curtail the work of these two outstanding prosecutors, then Guatemala’s leaders should look elsewhere for support. 

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