By Annabelle Timsit
Claudia Paz y Paz served as Guatemala’s first female Attorney General from December 2010 to May 2014. She is a respected criminal law specialist and judge with over 18 years of experience in human rights and social justice. She is the founder of the Institute for Comparative Criminal Studies of Guatemala (ICCPG). She has achieved unprecedented success in prosecuting human rights abuses in Guatemala through high profile cases, such as former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, and the perpetrators of the Dos Erres Massacre. She has reduced crime and impunity in Guatemala through her commitment to justice. She has led a concrete, coordinated effort to purge corrupt officials in both the police and the judicial system, and has worked extensively on improving women’s rights in Guatemala.
Her tenure was cut short and she was replaced as Attorney General by Ms. Thelma Aldana, a former head of the Supreme Court. Dr. Paz y Paz will be returning to academia for one year as a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, with a joint appointment between GIWPS and the Georgetown University Law Center.
On October 1st, 2014 we sat down to talk to Dr. Paz y Paz about some of the toughest issues she faced as Attorney General and how she achieved such incredible results in her country. Read the full transcript of our interview below.
Parts of the interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: During your tenure as Attorney General of Guatemala, you tackled corruption, illegal trafficking, and gang violence. Can you tell us about what the situation was like when you first took office and what you and your team did to change it?
The levels of impunity were very high. They say that it was 95% of impunity, and violence was also very high, with murders, etc…So when we first started building special teams to investigate all the crime, I worked a lot with scientific evidence, working very closely with the special police team, we changed that situation of impunity from 95% to 70%. So we reduced impunity, and with that we also reduced the homicide rate from 46% in 2009 to 33% last year. When we started the prosecutor’s office, there was a lack of confidence in the justice institutions, and we built trust in the citizens toward our office. We did that by working hard. When we started important investigations, when there were big crimes, like the killing of the singer from Argentina Facundo Cabral, we could solve it very quickly…and, for example, there was also a murder of 27 persons by drug traffickers, and we could solve it. The perpetrators of those murders were the Zetas, the Mexican couple, and we investigated and found the perpetrators, so those parts of the cases brought the trust of the citizens.
Q: You tried and convicted former dictator Efrain Rios Montt of war crimes and genocide, but in May 2013 the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction. Can you tell us what you think of this decision and how it reflects the level of political impunity in your country?
I believe that the trial was very important for my country. For the first time, the victims had the opportunity to tell what happened in the villages in front of the perpetrator. They could tell it in their own language, and by telling this, they recovered part of the dignity that was stolen when they suffered so many human rights violations. So when the judges said that he was guilty and that it was genocide and crimes against humanity, it was very important for the victims, but, I believe, also for all the country.
Q: And what was your reaction when his conviction was overturned?
We did not agree with that sentence from the Constitutional Court, because we believe that they were normal and not extraordinary instances to review that decision, and also because the trial was respectful of all the due process.
Q: You have worked extensively on improving women’s rights in Guatemala. The Vital Voices Leadership in Public Life award celebrated you for your efforts this past summer. Can you tell us about some of the measures you implemented to protect women in Guatemala and what you hope will be accomplished by your successor to continue your efforts?
Violence against women is the most reported crime in my country; we have to work very hard to prevent this crime and to punish if it is committed. So we implemented 24-hour calls, so that the women could always come and receive 24-hour service from the Prosecutor’s office. We did this because they don’t suffer violence from 8am to 4pm; they suffer violence all times of the day. There, in just one place, there were psychologists, social workers, prosecutors, police, surgeons, forensic medics and doctors so that they could get the total attention that they needed in just one stop.
Q: Can you tell us about your future research work on human rights as a Distinguished Scholar in Residence with GIWPS and the Georgetown University Law Center? What do you hope to accomplish with this research?
I am now writing about my experience in the past years, so that what we learned could be used for others. I hope to document and highlight the methods or the practices that lead to the possibility of increasing justice and reducing impunity in Guatemala.
Q: Can you share with us one or two of your most powerful memories from your tenure as attorney general?
There was a very big gang that raped women, and we had the chance to investigate this network of criminals, and they were punished for the instance of rape. That was an important case. Also I have the memory when I finished my work, I left the office and there were a lot of men and women that were waiting for me with flowers to say that they were grateful because they had had a better chance to get justice in the past years.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
I remember that there was a grandfather whose daughter was killed by her husband, who fled the country with the man’s two grandchildren. When we were able to find this man and to bring back the little children, I will always remember his smile after he saw his grandchildren.
Dr. Paz y Paz holds a joint appointment with the Georgetown University Law Center and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She conducts independent research related to human rights, justice and women, peace and security in Latin America. She also participates in symposia, seminar discussions and other public events in Washington, D.C. and beyond.