For many years Guatemala was a beacon of hope in global efforts to fight corruption. Not because it was the most successful, but because it was innovative and because of the dynamism of its citizens in taking on the fight. That was then. Now hope is fleeing Guatemala.
My theory of change is this. Change happens when people make it happen. That is what we saw in Guatemala – bravery, strategic thinking and commitment. So many people were involved, civil servants, human rights organizations, researchers, victims, judges, lawyers and elected officials. It was a battle whose results were hard fought, reaping concrete results. A former dictator was forced to confront the victims of the terror he brought upon indigenous communities. He was convicted. A sitting President and Vice-President were brought down and held accountable for corrupt acts, as were many others.
While corrupt elites were caught off balance as their political leaders began to fall, they have rallied with great effectiveness. They have returned the courts to their control and are jailing or chasing from the country whose who threaten their ability to do business as they please.
Today begins the trial of former anti-corruption prosecutor Virginia Laparra Rivas who has been held in pre-trial detention because she did her job. A UN Special Rapporteur called the criminalization of Laparra Rivas as “an attack on the rule of law.” Amnesty International lists her as a prisoner of consciences.
Then there is judge Miguel Angel Gálvez, who presided over high risk courts, handling cases involving drug trafficking, human right violations and money laundering. Reportedly based on the presentation of 8,000 pieces of evidence, he ordered the trial of 9 retired military and police officials charge with forced disappearance, homicide, illegal detention, and torture. Criminal charges have now been brought against Gálvez for pursuing justice for the victims.
The anti-corruption battle has many victims, and not the corrupt officials held accountable for their acts, but those whose job it is to prosecute corruption, those who have been the hope of a better future for Guatemala. With the justice system being unfairly used against them, they reach a point in their work where their only options are jail or exile.
I recently saw some of Guatemala’s hope at a gathering in the US. More than 20 former Guatemalan officials, all of whom had been integral actors in anti-corruption prosecutions, who had been forced to flee because of their work. These are not the faint of heart. They have dedicated their lives to this work and been chased from their homes by serious threats, attempts on their lives or false legal charges brought against them.
The pain in that room was palpable, and the guilt. They each reached a point where their personal calculus was a choice between death, jail or exile. They know that a handful of their colleagues remain, trying to carry on the work. Others are unjustly jailed. They have survivors’ guilt, the guilt of uprooting their families and the daily struggle of figuring out how to support their families while living in exile.
We know what hope looks like. It looks like this room full of “formers” prosecutors, judges and activists. It looks like Laparra Rivas and Gálvez. Guatemalans, and those in the international community working to fight corruption and impunity, need to do their utmost to support support these brave individuals while they valiantly do their jobs, when they are persecuted and jailed, and when the decide that exile is the only option. This is how you feed hope. Once hope has fled, it is very hard to get back.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson