GUATEMALA CITY – Even in crime-ridden Guatemala, the headlines were startling: Prosecutors busted a customs bribery ring that likely defrauded the state of millions of dollars, with the current and former Tax Authority chiefs and a top aide to the vice president implicated.
The wiretaps, raids and 20 arrests announced last week were the fruit of a probe by prosecutors and by the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which was set up to investigate and prosecute organized crime and its pernicious influence over the government and judicial system.
The unprecedented U.N. body's future is uncertain, however. President Otto Perez Molina says he will decide soon whether Guatemala will continue cooperating with the commission or hand its responsibilities over to local law enforcement.
Analysts say it is far from clear Guatemala is ready to tackle corruption on its own and warn that a "no" from Perez Molina could imperil efforts to bolster the rule of law in a country plagued by endemic graft, gangs and a homicide rate of around 34 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world.
"The institutions still need CICIG," said Guatemalan law professor Alejandro Balsells, using the commission's Spanish initials. "Those who are against the commission staying are the ones who are upset that real justice could flourish in the country."
The commission has recently received support from influential international voices, including U.S. senators and Vice President Joe Biden, who earlier this year visited Guatemala for talks with Central American leaders about $1 billion in U.S. aid requested for the region by President Barack Obama.
Perez Molina has said he will not be pressured on the matter and intends to announce a decision this month after he gets a recommendation from a panel named to evaluate the U.N. commission's work. While acknowledging the commission has achieved some results, he suggested its presence cannot be permanent.
"Even if it remained for 10 more years, it is not the commission that will solve the justice situation," Perez Molina told The Associated Press in an interview. "It is us, the Guatemalans, who must see if we truly want to fix our institutions, strengthen them and move forward."
Created in 2007 after Guatemala asked for help in investigating serious crimes, the commission's staff of police and prosecutors from 25 nations has helped bring 161 public officials to trial for corruption, although it hasn't said how many of those were convicted. Its work also has incriminated two directors of the National Police, prompted the firing of hundreds of police officers with links to graft, drug trafficking and extrajudicial killings, and identified 33 criminal organizations operating in Guatemala.
"It's as if I told my neighbor to come punish my son, when in fact that's my job," said Francisco Palomo, a lawyer for former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who faces charges over massacres committed during his reign. "It's time for (the commission) to go."
Many civic groups, however, are calling for the commission's mandate to be renewed for another two-year term. Backers say it has made important progress in dismantling criminal networks in Guatemala, where 90 percent of crimes go unpunished.
In one high-profile last year, the commission compiled evidence leading to further charges against former army Capt. Byron Lima, who was already serving 20 years for the 1998 assassination of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi.
Lima is alleged to have built from prison a multimillion-dollar empire based on extortion and corruption. He allegedly claimed to have financed the campaign of Perez Molina's political party, though the president disavowed any link.
A recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based organization that promotes human rights in the region, traces the origin of criminal networks in Guatemala to the intelligence services, counterinsurgency movements and paramilitary groups that operated during the 1960-96 civil war and were never truly disbanded.
"They progressively co-opted the institutions of the State in order to secure impunity from within (the system). ... They continue to be a threat to governability and the rule of law," the report said.
Ivan Velasquez, who heads the U.N. commission, agreed.
"It is a country with deep problems of impunity that have not yet been resolved, but for which we are prepared to contribute toward a solution," Velasquez said.
Perez Molina said a few months ago that the commission's time was nearing an end, but he then reversed himself and said no decision had been made.
Human rights activists contend the president fears keeping the commission in business because he might come under investigation himself, although they have made no specific accusations against him.
In his interview with the AP, Perez Molina denied that.
"I am not afraid of anything because there isn't anything," he said. "Those are excuses or pretexts of those who want the commission to remain. It's not in the commission's mandate to investigate presidents."
But the activists note the commission already investigated one former president and point out that Perez Molina leaves office in nine months.