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30 | TV-Show | Is civil society driven by networks? (Sociedad civil: ¿amplificada por las redes?)
Image: DW/R. Oberhammer

Helen Mack Chang on corruption and impunity in Guatemala

Julia van Leuven
June 17, 2019

A culture of impunity and organized crime have made life dangerous for many in Guatemala. As citizens went to the polls, DW sat down with Helen Mack Chang to discuss the situation for activists in the country.


Helen Mack Chang on freedom of speech

A human rights activist fighting against impunity and corruption in Guatemala, Helen Mack Chang founded the Myrna Mack Foundation in honor of her sister, who was murdered by a military commando in 1990. She received the Right Livelihood Award in 1992 for her "courage and persistence in seeking justice and an end to the impunity of political murderers."

This culture of impunity, along with organized crime, creates an atmosphere that makes reporting "extremely delicate." The murder of journalists remains an issue, with UNESCO reporting the deaths of 19 journalists since 2006. The dangers that activists and indigenous and social leaders face are even higher. In January this year, President Jimmy Morales terminated the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), further aggravating the situation for journalists and human rights activists in the country. Iván Velásquez, Commissioner at CICIG and recipient of the 2018 Alternative Nobel Prize, was declared persona non grata and had to carry out his work from Colombia before the CICIG was abolished. DW sat down with Helen Mack Chang to discuss how these developments affect her work and the work of other activists in the country today.

profile image of Ivan Velasquez Head of CICIG
Ivan Velasquez headed the CICIGImage: picture alliance/KEYSTONE/S. Di Nolfi

How have recent events affected investigations into corruption in Guatemala? 

We first started trying to use the rule of law to make citizens aware of their rights because we were still in the midst of the conflict. Our work consisted in fighting against impunity in the rule of law. That caused a lot of problems, because there was no rule of law. After the Civil War, the police were changing, becoming more professional and this restored the population’s confidence in the police. But within six months of the 2016 elections, the new Minister of Interior dropped all the policemen who were trained professionals. The esteem of the people started decreasing; now the military has control over the police again.

Read more:  Guatemala votes for new president as gang violence soars

In what way does the termination of the mandate by Morales mean a setback to the times of the Civil War?

In everything. The problem now is it's not only military but it's how these networks are legal and at the same time illegal. They use the democratic institutions for their corrupt purposes. The Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala showed how this corruption was affecting democracy and the rule of law. The police were fighting impunity, they were respecting human rights and when Jimmy Morales unilaterally canceled the agreement, it started moving backwards. It affects the whole region because we're connected.

Jimmy Morales speaking at a press conference with the CICIG logo
President Jimmy Morales terminated the commission on impunityImage: picture-alliance/EPA/E. Biba

How is the Guatemalan government using targeted disinformation campaigns against activists?

Against activists, against the international community and all those who are fighting corruption. The government criminalizes and spreads fake news via WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook, especially Facebook and WhatsApp. A study by CICIG found that many of the tweets that were against the Commission or against human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, judges or prosecutors, were reproduced in Guatemala, Colombia, Paraguay, Mexico and the United States.

What project are you currently working on?

In 2014, we started seeing that they were capturing the judiciary. We started taking legal action on unconstitutionalities or whenever they were not respecting the law and we were winning. That's why they went against the good judges and that's why they criminalize. For example, now they want to eliminate the high risk courts (Ed. Note: the Guatemalan Court for High Risk Crimes), which deal with such complex cases. They achieve impunity by bribing judges to free them of charges. We're losing the battle in the whole region. Guatemala is the biggest country in Central America, so it affects El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. It is the whole region. It's more about corruption and how organized crime is trafficking, laundering money. Organized crime is a worldwide problem: it's human trafficking, it's migration, it's drugs.

An infographic showing the number of deaths of activists in Latin America
A report by Front Line Defenders in 2018 counted the deaths of 26 activists in Guatemala

What is your motivation to keep fighting against impunity?

It is our country and it's dying because the public money doesn't get to the people. We have the Millennium Development Goals but instead of closing the gap, we’re opening the gap, and it's because of corruption. How is it possible that less than one percent of the people are stealing all the money from Guatemala? Our country, it’s getting more violent, migration. Everything has to do with it. It should be an interest for the whole world because corruption is eroding the rule of law and democracy. That's why it is very complex. But there are also decisions being made that are beyond us. Central America has nothing to say in the new world order. That's between Europe, the United States, Russia, China and India.

The problems we have in our region are also affecting Africa and Eastern Europe. The problem is corruption and how corruption takes opportunity away for employment or dignity. People don't want to leave the country. This is our country. But you're forced to do it if you want to survive. I am 67 years old. Where am I going to go?  Everywhere you go, you're gonna be a second or third class citizen. I am 67 and I have to die in my country. That's why we are resisting and that means surviving and attacking, by saying things and doing things that can create some awareness in the people.


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