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Carlos Castresana, head of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), resigned in June 2010, citing a lack of cooperation from the Guatemalan government and accusing newly appointed attorney general Conrado Reyes of having ties to organized crime. Reyes was subsequently replaced, but tensions between the CICIG and Guatemalan authorities continued, particularly after the government failed to promptly seek the extradition of former interior minister Carlos Vielmann from Spain, where he had been arrested for alleged abuses dating to 2006. Several high-level officials faced corruption charges during the year, including the chief of the national police, the interior minister, and former president Alfonso Portillo. Guatemala continued to face challenges related to food security, violent crime, and threats to civil society activists.
The Republic of Guatemala, which was established in 1839, has endured a history of dictatorship, foreign intervention, military coups, and guerrilla insurgencies.Civilian rule followed the 1985 elections, and a 36-year civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, ended with a 1996 peace agreement. The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrilla movement became a legal political group, and a truth commission began receiving complaints of rights violations committed during the conflict. However, voters in 1999 rejected a package of constitutional amendments that had been prepared in accordance with the peace plan. The general consensus was that the government had failed to implement substantive reforms, including ending military impunity, fully recognizing the rights of the Maya Indians, and reforming taxation to pay for health, education, and housing programs for the poor.
In 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled that retired general Efraín Ríos Montt—who had employed brutal tactics against the URNG as ruler of Guatemala in 1982 and 1983—could run for the presidency, and he was later chosen as the candidate of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party. However, he placed third in the first round, and Óscar Berger of the Grand National Alliance (GANA) went on to defeat Álvaro Colom of the National Unity for Hope (UNE) in the runoff vote.
The 2007 general elections were the bloodiest in Guatemala’s recent history, with more than 50 candidates, activists, and their relatives slain during the campaign period. This violence, some of which was not overtly political, was fueled by the drug trade, gang activity, and armed groups including rogue soldiers. The September vote was nevertheless regarded by international observers as largely free and fair. The UNE party captured 51 seats in Congress, followed by GANA with 37 seats, and former general Otto Pérez Molina’s Patriot Party with 29 seats. The FRG won just 14 seats, though the seat secured by Ríos Montt gave him immunity from prosecution; a Spanish court in 2006 had issued arrest warrants for eight former military leaders, including Ríos Montt, for crimes against humanity. In the presidential contest, Colom defeated Molina in a runoff vote in November, capturing 53 percent of the ballots amid a turnout of 45 percent.
After taking office, Colom made efforts to curb official corruption and impunity, including the dismissal of several senior officials in response to scandals, corruption charges, or policy ineffectiveness. In 2009, the mandate of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—tasked with investigating corruption, violence, and organized crime within Guatemalan public institutions, political parties, and civil society—was extended through September 2011. In January 2010, a CICIG investigation led by Commissioner Carlos Castresana found that Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg had arranged his own death in 2009 in an effort to incriminate Colom’s administration. Eight people were sentenced in July to between 38 and 48 years in prison for their involvement in the crime.
In May 2010, Attorney General Conrado Reyes—who had been appointed by Colom that same month—began removing prosecutors and investigators working with the CICIG, obstructing its ability to carry out investigations. In June, Castresana resigned in protest, citing insufficient support from Guatemalan officials and alleging that Reyes had connections to organized crime. While Reyes denied the accusations, the Constitutional Court removed him from office in June, due in part to the public outcry that resulted from Castresana’s resignation. The United Nations selected former Costa Rican attorney general Francisco Dall’Anese as the CICIG’s new commissioner. In August, President Colom asked the United Nations to extend the CICIG’s mandate for four more years and expand its scope to include the investigation of war crimes committed during Guatemala’s civil war.
However, the commission criticized the government again in October, after Spanish authorities arrested former interior minister Carlos Vielmann in connection with the deaths of seven inmates in a 2006 prison uprising. Guatemalan authorities failed to promptly file a request for his extradition, leading a Spanish judge to release him in November. He was rearrested the following month, and the case remained before the Spanish courts at year’s end.
Also in 2010, Guatemala continued to battle the threat of famine, particularly in rural areas. Severe malnourishment claimed the lives of at least 6,575 people during 2010 due to rising food prices, prolonged drought, and a decline in migrant remittances linked to the global economic downturn. In May 2010, Tropical Storm Agatha and the eruption of the Pacaya volcano further threatened food security in the country. Roughly 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and does not benefit from social security. Guatemala also performs poorly on inequality indicators, with some 63 percent of gross domestic product concentrated in the hands of 20 percent of the population. The country is a party to the Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States, and it joined Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program in 2008 to receive preferential rates on oil imports.
Guatemala is an electoral democracy. Despite intimidation and violence during the campaign period, the 2007 presidential and legislative elections were regarded by international observers as generally free and fair. The constitution stipulates a four-year presidential term and prohibits reelection. The unicameral Congress of the Republic, consisting of 158 members, is elected for four years. Elections take place within a highly fragmented and fluid multiparty system. Two notable traditional parties are the FRG and the National Advancement Party (PAN). Other parties include the URNG, formerly a guerrilla movement, and the UNE, led by current president Álvaro Colom. The GANA coalition, which had supported former president Óscar Berger, split into two factions in 2008.