Claudia Paz y Paz – Fearless crimefighter

Claudia Paz y Paz, the first female Attorney General in the history of Guatemala, had numerous enemies, as she energetically waged war on past and present crimes and human rights abuses. She could not finish her job, but made great progress. ‘We have tackled the idea that it is impossible to change things in Guatemala.’

Claudia Paz y Paz did what her predecessors could not or dared not do. After being the first woman in history to be appointed Attorney General of Guatemala in December 2010, she gathered all employees of the public prosecutors’ office in the lobby. ‘There will be changes’, she said. ‘Lots of changes.’

After getting the internal affairs in order, she initiated criminal proceedings for offences committed during the military dictatorships. Paz indicted former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, whose regime is held responsible for some 70,000 killings and disappearances, for genocide. Ríos Montt was sentenced to eighty years in prison in May 2013.

Paz’ drive came at a price, however.  In 2014 the Constitutional Court reduced her term of office by six months, without reason given. Shortly before, the court had squashed the verdict against Ríos Montt for ‘flaws’. After Paz was removed from office she sought reelection. But this decision was in the hands of the same Constitutional Court, so she did not stand a chance. The following day she fled the country together with her family.

Has Claudia Paz achieved what she set out to do when she was appointed? ‘We have made considerable progress when it comes to proceedings against perpetrators of human rights abuses, drug dealers, assassins and blackmailers’, she says. ‘With the help of brave judges we have tackled the idea that it is impossible to change things in Guatemala. The legal system is not the same as five years ago. Bringing to trial a former head of state for genocide was highly unlikely, if not unthinkable.’

The results obtained by Claudia Paz are indisputable. She doubled the number of convicted criminals and crime rates fell by 9 percent. She also brought to trial ten times as many perpetrators of violence against women. Guatemala is notorious for its so-called parallel structures: a network of ties between criminals, politicians and members of the army. ‘I think that progress has been made in weakening those ties. But much work still needs to be done. Decades of impunity cannot be undone in one day. ’

Claudia Paz left Guatemala after being removed from office. ‘We thought it would be wise to go away for a while’, she says unemotional. Was Guatemala too dangerous? ‘It was better to leave the country for some time, but I continue to dedicate myself to the cause of human rights.’ She does not know how long it will take before she can safely return home. But she is determined to return: ‘Yes, of course. Until further notice, I will stay in Washington for one year only.’

By Cees Zoon