According to polls, perceptions of democracy are not very favorable in Central America, including Guatemala. But democracy means more than elections, and access to decision making power in all areas of life is strongly lacking. Political and economic freedoms are an integral part, if not a pre-requisite, to changing a country with vast social inequalities and reducing corruption and organized crime. Guatemala faces its biggest challenge in development due to political obstacles rather than a shortage of feasible ideas.
Guatemala signed peace accords in 1996 after a 36 year civil war, but current the crime rate remains one of the highest for a country not at war. Impunity plagues the small country, and the conviction rate remains below 2%. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, CICIG, has been operating in Guatemala since 2008 to help reform the judicial system and dismantle organized crime. Clandestine security groups that are remnants of the civil war are believed to account for a majority of the violence. Human rights organizations championed the creation of the Commission, although it is widely regarded to be a more watered down version than previously designed. The democratic opening that enabled the existence of the Commission is an opening that can be taken full advantage of to strengthen the foundation for democratic participation in all areas of governance such as decisions over healthcare, education or police reform.
CICIG has had unprecedented success in its short two years. Separate from international courts, it is a hybrid court which is embedded within the local legal system. The goal is long lasting institutional reform, and legitimacy was gained by immediate success in some high profile cases. Other measures for reform include training, and efforts to increase collaboration with police and prosecution units; and Congress recently approved changes in policies such as immunity of public officials and ammunition and arms laws.
The Commission was catapulted into existence after the murder of three Parliamentarians from El Salvador; and the subsequent murder of the four police who were imprisoned for the crime. The incident highlighted the fact that organized crime was out of control and united broad sectors of society. Guatemala is frequently polarized into a right / left dichotomy, but public discussions can bring these two sides together for a common cause. Citizens often find that their ideal visions of the future are not that far apart such as the desire for a functioning judicial system and being able to feel secure.
Having been requested to renew its mandate in 2010 for another two years, momentum can build on top of what was already accomplished to further institutionalize the changes. Perhaps one of the most important initiatives is the involvement of more civilian participation for Supreme Court nominees. The Supreme Court, along with the government and judges, has historically not been well trusted as an institution trusted to protect human rights. More civilian control fosters legitimacy and accountability which in turn fosters increased interest in being involved in the first place.
Literature on hybrid courts has reported on the importance of an outreach strategy as key to creating lasting change and capacity. International efforts can be a catalyst for change, but long term reform depends on the degree to which civil society takes ownership of the initiative. Other countries, such as Sierra Leone, have experimented with outreach efforts for their hybrid court through town hall style meetings to discuss how trials are proceedings, and to answer any questions and concerns people might have. Not only do town hall meetings offer widespread educational opportunities to learn about the legal system, they foster a mutual understanding of important issues like justice and accountability. Most importantly, this is a time for creativity at the grassroots level. The challenges Guatemala faces should not be underestimated, but they should not be considered insurmountable either. CICIG has created an opening for increased democratic participation, which can be seized and expanded on and serve as a bold model of reform.