Latin America is undergoing a number of different developments as some countries are experiencing deterioration of democracy, drug trafficking and insecurity, while others are developing in more democratic ways and maintaining a stable system of government.

But there are also countries whose objective situation is appalling but fight against the pathologies that affect them. Guatemala is one such country.

Guatemala has been submerged in a state of chaos, anarchy, and insecurity for a long time. The political class is corrupt and drug trafficking is rampant. Still the country surprised everyone when its population and its public institutions forced its president to resign last September in light of a corruption scandal.

It was the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Guatemala’s State prosecutors who after gathering information accused a number of politicians in the administration of president Otto Perez Molina of establishing a corruption ring within the Tax and Customs Administration. This network enabled “imported” merchandise and products to be sold in the country with very low custom duties. All that was needed was the payment of bribes. This ring was called “La Linea” (the telephone line”) because there was a number that any foreign company could call if it wished to benefit from “reduced” custom duties.

The Guatemalan police arrested a good number of officers in the Perez Molina Administration. It finally became evident, after the interception of phone conversations, that the President, himself, along with his vice-president masterminded the operation.  The Vice-President, Roxana Baldetti was arrested almost like a common criminal while the president resigned.

As a transition government was installed, an election took place and a new president, Jerry Morales, a former comedian, was elected. Mr. Morales will take the reins of the presidency on January 14th.

The “La Linea” case sparked a set of events that prompted a kind of momentum in the struggle of the Guatemalan people against public corruption and impunity.

First, 14 former high military officers were arrested over human rights violations committed during the long Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996) that left more than 250,000 people dead. Among those arrested were Luis Gordillo Martinez, a former member of a military Junta; Manuel Lucas Garcia (brother of a former president) and Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, a former chief of military intelligence.

Callejas was also one of the founders along with General Francisco Ortega Menaldo in the 1970’s of a military mafia called “La Cofradia” (The Fraternity). That group was involved in smuggling and other illicit activities. It happened to be and not by coincidence, that Garcia Menaldo worked closely with Vice President Baldetti while the “Cofradia” members were incorporated in the Perez Molina government. It is reasonable to assume that Perez Molina, who was allegedly also involved in human rights violations in the past, protected these human rights violators. So once Perez Molina was removed, these individuals lost his protection.

This momentum has not only applied to the old regime. President-elect Jimmy Morales appointed a financial advisor who in the past was fired from an academic institution over plagiarism in his writings. Morales has stood by his appointee and as a result has become vulnerable to public criticism. Even though, plagiarism is a serious violation in academia, most people tend not to pay attention to this kind of “corruption”. Still, it shows the sensitivity that has developed in a country so accustomed to abuse by its rulers.

In addition, one of the representatives of Mr. Morales’s party in parliament is Edgar Ovalle, a former military officer now accused of human rights violations. Given the current situation, it would be wise for Mr. Morales not to protect him just because he is a friend or a partner.

Furthermore the President’s party, the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN) has only 12 representatives in a parliament of 158 members. Thus scrutiny of President Morales will be tougher. Hopefully he takes this into account and behaves honestly.

If Morales succeeds in building honest government and accountability it will be a major victory for Guatemala’s institution building and good governance. If not, a crisis of legitimacy will aggravate the crisis of anarchy and discontent the country was experiencing. As an example, most recently, 5,000 civilians attacked the police station in the town of Santiago de Atitlan and kept five police officers as hostages. The incident was the result of the assassination of a local merchant by a police officer after the former refused to sell liqueur to the officer citing the law forbidding the sale of alcohol after certain hours.

The developments in Guatemala represent a major victory not only for the law of Guatemala but also of the positive role international intervention can play.

The role of the cooperation between CICIG and the Guatemalan judiciary is remarkable. CICIG was the result of an agreement signed between the United Nations and the Government of Guatemala in 2006. Its mission is to support the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), the National Civil Police (PNC) and other State institutions in the investigation of crimes committed by members of illegal security forces and help disband them. The idea is to help strengthen the institutions of the justice system. Likewise, the CICIG mandate includes recommending policy.

The United States Government needs to be aware of these positive developments and support efforts to rebuild failed states, particularly when these countries are located in the neighborhood where we live, namely the Western Hemisphere. As former U.S. Senator, Mel Martinez and Francis Rooney point out in a recent article, Washington’s successes in Colombia can be replicated in Central America if these countries are fully committed to a change as the Colombian leadership was in the late 1990’s. In Guatemala, the disastrous government of Perez Molina and its predecessors did not allow it. But these new developments may indicate a significant change if President-elect Morales displays political will to fight corruption, drug trafficking and gang activities.

If this is the case, the U.S. must give full assistance (not solely economic) to Guatemala to strengthen its institutions, its accountability, its democracy and its security forces. In this way the rule of law will be strengthened, drug related criminality will be reduced and Guatemalans will feel less of a need to journey northward to the United States.

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