Friday, September 07, 2007

Resurrecting Terror in Guatemala

Guatemalan Presidential Election on Sunday

• More than a decade after the signing of the Peace Accords that ended 30 years of brutal conflict costing 200,000 lives, violence and shabby politics still walk hand-in-hand in Guatemala.

• Guatemala has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the Western Hemisphere. Furthermore, in the wake of President Bush’s visit to the country in May, a new interest in large-scale ethanol production was ignited which is likely to lead to an even greater degree of the concentration of wealth. Nevertheless, the main issue at hand in the upcoming election is neither poverty alleviation nor securing proper energy resources, but the mounting toll of recently alleged politically-motivated assassinations of more than 80 Guatemalans.

• The two main parties continue to point fingers at each other, but none of their epidermal solutions go to the root of the problem.

Guatemala: A Nation on the Ropes
September brings with it the annual commemoration of 9/11 in the United States. Although the date represents a landmark moment, which at the same time serves as a trigger for a random discussion of terrorism, far fewer commentators in this country have noted that two days earlier another important event in the modern history of terrorism occurs—the first round of the Guatemalan general elections.

At almost 13 million people, and the most populous Central American nation, Guatemala is strategically positioned in the heart of the Western Hemisphere, with access to both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and with a long and bitter history of unremitting violence and human rights abuses, Guatemala will hold its general elections in just a few days. The president, national legislators and mayors will be facing the electorate; no governors, senators, or state representatives are running as Guatemala has neither an upper house nor a state legislature, and governors are appointed by the president. That said, the explosive fact on the docket is that more than 80 Guatemalans, half of them political candidates or their supporters, have been assassinated since the injunction of the electoral campaign.

A Deadly Tool
As Jorge Rodriguez, lawyer and former coordinator of the Justice Pastoral, observed, “it is a trend that, in Guatemala, the violence level increases during the electoral periods.” Perhaps the main reason behind these grim mathematics is that after persuading the combatants to lay down their weapons, the 1996 Acuerdos de Paz Firme y Duradera (Peace Accords) were supposed to mark not only the end of 30 years of fratricidal bloodshed and ongoing civil conflict, but also the closing down of an industry that, until then, had been providing a blood-soaked living for both leftist rebel death squad forces, and the violence-prone armed forces.

It should not be forgotten that, although the international community had been pressing for the end of the war between the militia and leftist forces at least since 1992, the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996 caught many Guatemalans by surprise. In December of that year, senior rebel officials and the armed forces met with the Arzú administration after months of secret talks and United Nations mediation, and what turned out to be a shaky peace was declared. However, the low-rank fighters largely had been left in the dark about the whole process. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the culture of using violence for one’s livelihood developed as a prime result of the lack of re-training opportunities and the resultant high rates of unemployment. This came as a result of decades of civil war, with the country not seeing the end of the road when it came to violence. It makes eminent sense that trained fighters, suddenly unemployed with neither the necessary skills to be competitive in an already saturated formal job sector, nor in the least bit interested in a proposed land-gun exchange, would try to find new and darker markets for their talents. In addition to the classic strategy of working as mercenaries—increasingly under the command of Mexican drug lords looking for a calmer place to manage their operations, rather than in their own turbulent nation—Guatemalan former combatants also found another niche. This was recruiting from the streets an army of gunslingers among the fearless and hopeless of the forgotten youth from poor rural areas to urban slums. This can help to explain the rapid increase in organized crime in urban areas, and its emulation by the maras—a more sophisticated version of urban youth gangs.

Election Time
In this context, the general elections have presented themselves as a unique opportunity for those in the business of violence to profit. In a country that lacks a democratic experience, electoral events could generate a topical demand for those experienced in using violence to induce political instability, in order to achieve the desired results at the polls. Guatemala may be experiencing a novel era of 12 years without a military coup, but the 2007 election is already stained by a surge in violence.

Widespread Violence aimed against urban transportation
The assassination of more than 40 drivers in urban transportation services—many of which were not even followed by robbery—has generated great fear among that sector as well as apprehension among various segments of the political class.

In a recent article [June 29, 2007], Prensa Libre reports that Mario Taracena, a representative from one of the main political parties—the moderate leftist National Unity Hope (UNE)—delivered a denouncement to the Ministry of Governance, Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte, in which he accused Mark Klugmann, an experienced American political campaign advisor, of inciting violence on behalf of UNE’s main rival, the rightist Patriotic Party (PP). According to Taracena, Klugmann, who previously had worked on the campaigns of political figures such as Ronald Reagan (U.S.) and Porfírio Pepe Lobo Sosa (Honduras), was behind a campaign strategy aimed at creating political instability in the country, through harassment of urban transportation drivers, in order to generate chaos in the streets. Many in Central America believe that a similar strategy was used in the 2005 presidential election in Honduras. Klugmann’s reply to his critics was laconic: “What I do as a professional advisor has nothing to do with what an unbalanced representative says,” and added “three Guatemalan political parties contacted me and in one case we reached an agreement, but it was for surveys and public opinion research.” Whether Klugmann is working for the PP or not is at the moment unknown, but as pointed out in Prensa Libre’s article, Pepe Lobo’s old puño duro (strong first) slogan does bear some similarity to the new mano dura (strong hand) slogan of PP’s Presidential candidate, General Otto Pérez Molina.

The UNE and PP parties have used the media to debate one another, turning up the heat on the election. When it came to the drivers, while UNE’s Álvaro Colom seconded Taracena’s claim in saying that “the drivers’ deaths fulfill an electoral campaign that aims to benefit a certain candidate,” General Pérez Molina’s taut answer was that the PP was “willing to submit itself to any investigation because we don’t have any connection with the killings, as the UNE has so irresponsibly denounced.” It is true that so far the Public Ministry has not found any evidence linking the drivers’ deaths to the PP. However, Honduran legal assessor and wingman of President Manuel Zelaya, Enrique Flores, raised a telling point: Whoever is actually behind the attacks, “…one political party seems to be taking advantage of the violence out of political motivations, manipulating the facts in order to inspire fear in the population and both better gain votes and manipulate the public opinion.” With these words Flores, who is said to favor Colom, seems to be indicating that the PP, whose “strong hand” slogan is presented as a “zero tolerance” solution to the country’s increasing problem of violence, thereby links itself to that strategy.

Targeted Violence: Death of 40 political candidates and supporters
If it were the murder of the drivers alone that made violence the hot topic of the first half of the electoral campaign, politicians themselves weren’t left out of the deadly loop for long. The Public Ministry recently released figures indicating that more than 40 political candidates and campaign workers have been gunned down since the beginning of the electoral campaign.

As Juan Luis Florido, general inspector of the Public Ministry pointed out, it is unlikely that all the murders had a political motivation. For instance, the death of Edwin Saúl Martínez, a mayoral pre-candidate for Jalpatagua, seems to have been connected with narcotraffic activities, and the murder of Clara Luz López, candidate for the concejal of Casillas, appears to have been a crime of passion.

Furthermore, Colom again pointed a finger at the PP, in general, and General Pérez Molina, more specifically, as being responsible for at least several of the deaths. During a meeting with the foreign press on August 29th, Colom claimed that at least 14 of the 18 murders related to his party were committed by “members of the mobs … associated with the Military Intelligence. They (PP) have the support of old chiefs of the Military Intelligence … the people responsible for the black campaign against me.”

During the civil war the army’s Military Intelligence allegedly was one of the prime architects responsible for kidnappings, torture and killings, and Otto Pérez Molina, before being elevated to the status of general, is suspected of being involved with such activities as a member of its staff. General Pérez Molina’s answer was to menace Colom with legal reprimands. In his opinion “This is an open black campaign against me and against the PP, because the UNE is desperate now that they have realized that they are going to lose the elections.”

Coming from a militant or gang background the suspicion that political parties were hiring hit men in order to intimidate both prospective voters as well as targeting candidates has been enough to establish quite a chaotic situation with less than a week to go before the election. The members of the Electoral Supreme Court were unanimous in demanding that the parties’ maintain a campaign free of violence and verbal attacks, but its president, Óscar Bolaños, went even farther. In the last meeting with the political parties electoral observers on Wednesday, he stated: “I don’t see an atmosphere for elections. In a democratic system we all should be aware that this isn’t a matter of winning or losing, but of having a vision of what is the best for Guatemala.” Just three days after Bolaños’ appeal, two more political figures were killed.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Thomaz Alvares de Azevedo e Almeida
September 5th, 2007

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Art of Political Prosecution

Team Chertoff and the Art of Political Prosecution

by Scott Horton

Current and former Justice Department officials I have interviewed have consistently identified Michael Chertoff, his successor Alice Fisher and his protégé Noel Hillman, as figures with a strong interest in political prosecutions. Each apparently took an interest in the Siegelman case for all the wrong reasons, I am told, and each had regular communications with the White House throughout this period.

But the Siegelman case was only one of many cases with political overtones which were closely dogged by loyal Republican Party activists at the top of the criminal process at Justice. Today the Los Angeles Times is offering more evidence linking Chertoff to political vendettas using the prosecutorial resources of the Department of Justice. David Savage and Tom Hamburger report:

Shortly after President Bush took office in 2001, Michael Chertoff, then head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, met with the conservative group Judicial Watch. It wanted criminal charges brought against Hillary Rodham Clinton in connection with a lavish fundraising event in Los Angeles the year before.

“Chertoff personally assured us he would pursue it,” the group’s president, Tom Fitton, said recently, recalling the meeting with several top Justice officials. “They said they weren’t afraid of taking on the Clintons.” Justice did not pursue a case against the senator from New York, but instead went after one of her fundraisers, David Rosen, who eventually was acquitted.

Now Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales has announced his resignation, brought down in part by allegations that he let politics influence Justice Department decisions. And Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is a prominent candidate to succeed him. Justice Department officials say pressure from Judicial Watch — which made its name by suing the Clintons in the 1990s — played no role in the decision to prosecute Rosen. Chertoff will not discuss the case. But it seems to be an early example of department actions under Bush that critics say were tinged with partisanship.

The key to Chertoff’s politicization of the prosecutorial service lay in placing a key political protégé in a key position: Noel Hillman was put in charge of the Public Integrity Section, the Justice Department’s division responsible for investigating and prosecuting public officials.

When Chertoff took over the criminal division, one of his first targets for change was the Public Integrity Section. This unit, established after the Watergate scandal, handled corruption cases involving public officials and others with political ties. It had a reputation as nonpartisan, professional and cautious.

Chertoff demoted career prosecutor Lee J. Radek, who had headed the section for many years, and eventually brought in a New Jersey protege, Noel L. Hillman. “There is a new sheriff in town,” Hillman told a lawyers’ group shortly after taking over…

Others… said they were concerned that the unit’s traditional insulation from partisan pressures had become frayed under Chertoff and Hillman. Hillman raised eyebrows by seeking — and eventually getting — a White House appointment to a federal judgeship. According to one veteran prosecutor, there was “a new intensity of interest among top officials like Chertoff in what cases were pursued or not pursued.” The prosecutor requested anonymity because he remains in government service and is not authorized to speak to reporters.

Noel Hillman took an extraordinary and aggressive role in pushing the Siegelman case forward around the same time that, according to an affidavit submitted by a Republican campaign attorney, Jill Simpson, Karl Rove was speaking with senior Alabama G.O.P. figures about using the Justice Department to “get rid of” Siegelman. Hillman then proceeded to apply for and obtain a judicial appointment—to the U.S. District Court in New Jersey. He acknowledges spending several months in discussions with the White House about his judicial appointment. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to think of other topics that might have figured in these discussions, conducted with the man who was handling the Abramoff case, as well as the Siegelman prosecution.

Hillman was touted throughout this period as the “Abramoff prosecutor,” though that’s a title that requires quite a bit of qualification. Indeed, the Public Integrity Section did go after JackAbramoff, Michael Scanlon and a number of other key figures. But a study of the way their investigation trailed off in Alabama raises strong suspicions. Evidence pointed to the funneling of millions of dollars in Mississippi Choctaw Indian money into the campaign of Don Siegelman’s adversary, Bob Riley. The project involved a significant number of Riley’s Congressional and campaign staff, many of whom had direct links to Abramoff. However, instead of looking into these connections, Hillman began to channel his investigative and prosecutorial resources into an amazing quest to “get Siegelman.” And that assured that the Alabama leads of the Abramoff case were dropped and went dead. In fact they seem to have been dropped right about the time that President Bush decided to have a secret meeting with judicial candidate Hillman.

Considering these facts, it’s little wonder that the White House dropped Hillman’s nomination to the Third Circuit just as the U.S. attorneys scandal surfaced.

The Los Angeles Times report concerning the highly political vendetta prosecution of Rosen greatly strengthens the accusations made by a Michigan attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, in a case with strong parallels and similar political circumstances. It also casts a strong light on the mindset and working relationships within Justice at the time the chase after Alabama Governor Siegelman began.