Guatemala's First Female Attorney General Takes On Country's Biggest Criminals

The first female Attorney General of Guatemala is taking on some of the country's most powerful kingpins, past dictators and local crime bosses. She's lowered the Central American nation's high crime rate and brought justice for victims of the 36 year old civil war.

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Guatemala has seen its share of misery from the 36-year-long armed conflict that killed more than 200,000 people, to the current wave of drug crime. Well, Guatemala is now one of the most violent countries in the world, but there are also signs of progress. One public official is seeking justice for crimes of the present and the past with impressive results.

NPR's Carrie Kahn has this profile of Guatemala's first female attorney general.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The woman fighting Guatemala's toughest gangs, a former dictator and crooked cops does not look the part of a hardcore prosecutor. Claudia Paz y Paz is 46 years old, short, soft spoken and clearly uncomfortable in public settings, like at this recent press conference. On this day, she's announcing the arrest of 12 national police officers on charges they stole a $42 million cocaine shipment from drug traffickers. Then, the next day, she's announcing the capture of 15 alleged members of a criminal assassins gang.

CLAUDIA PAZ Y PAZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: The press conference sounds more like a college lecture than indictments against hardened criminals. Before taking the job of the country's top cop, she was a university professor and a human rights lawyer. This month, she's overseeing perhaps the biggest case of her career, the trial of Efrain Rios Montt. Paz charged the former military dictator with genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the death of tens of thousands of indigenous Ixil during Guatemala's civil war.

PAZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Sitting in her top floor office, Paz says the country has a debt to pay to the victims of the armed conflict who have never seen justice. Paz has spent decades building cases against former military generals who practice a scorched earth policy during the armed conflict. Rios Montt is, by far, the biggest catch and the first former dictator ever tried for war crimes in a Latin American court.

PAZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: She said that the fact that the trial was able to go forward despite years of legal maneuvers by the former general, is a true measure of how far democracy has advanced in Guatemala. Crime in Guatemala has fallen nearly 9 percent in the two years she's been in office.

DANESSA LUNA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Danessa Luna, who runs battered women's shelters in several cities says, for the first time with Claudia, women have hope that they will see justice for crimes committed against them. And it's not just victim advocates that sing her praises. You hear it from people who've never even met her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: At the colonial city of Antigua, tourists and residents flock to the outdoor market. T-shirt vendor Freddy Utey says Paz is a really tough lady and a great example for how to get a job done.

FREDDY UTEY: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He says before she took the office crime was terrible. But since taking over, even major drug traffickers have been arrested. It's incredible, he says.

Paz does have detractors. Some say she's not nearly as zealous in upholding the law when it comes to protecting private property rights, or prosecuting wartime abuses by former leftists. Defense attorneys for Rios-Montt say she's prosecuting him to settle old political scores. But Paz is undeterred.

PAZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: She says such criticism is a tactic by the defense to discredit her. What she wants is justice. Paz's term ends in less than two years. She says she's looking forward to going back to teaching. And unfortunately for her supporters, she says she has no plans for higher political office.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That was NPR's Carrie Kahn with the story she reported in Guatemala. And, Carrie, now you're back at your base in Mexico, but this major trial is still going on in Guatemala City of the former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Give us a sense of the scene inside of the courtroom. I know the trial has been going for a good six days now.

KAHN: Yes, the first day was incredibly dramatic. There were opening arguments from both sides. The prosecutors claimed that during the 17-month rule of Rios Montt, which began in 1982, that the military had a clear plan to exterminate the indigenous Ixil people - and they live in the Guatemalan highlands. But Rios Montt is specifically charged with the murder of more than 1,700 Ixil.

Keep in mind that during the three decade-long armed conflict, more than 200,000 people were killed. But this trial is specifically about military atrocities during his time in power.

CORNISH: Now, tell us about the testimony that is being given by survivors.

KAHN: Yeah, there's been 61 who have testified so far and many were small children at the time the massacres took place. And they break down in tears sometimes during testimony. And they recall watching family members murdered, houses burned, crops destroyed. Many fled to the mountains for safety and there they watch even more family members die of starvation. It's a very gripping testimony.

The defense has repeatedly challenged the victims about their memories, since they were small children and have repeatedly asked them whether they're being paid or coerced to testify.

CORNISH: And meanwhile, we read that military supporters of Rios Montt have showed up outside the courtroom. What are they saying?

KAHN: Right. They came - about 2,000 retired soldiers and their relatives have been showing up outside the Superior Courthouse. They have signs that read: There was no genocide here and respect military dignity and historic truth. They say that he's being railroaded and this is a public lynching in a circus, and he's not getting a fair trial.

CORNISH: If he is found guilty, I mean, what would happen to Rios Montt?

KAHN: Well, he's 86 years old right now and he's currently under house arrest. But he's probably not going to see a day in jail. They have laws in Guatemala that prohibit elderly people from being put in jail. And also, his attorneys have laid the grounds for multiple appeals. So this will remain in the courts for many years to come.

CORNISH: Carrie, thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome.

CORNISH: NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking about the trial of a former Guatemalan dictator on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

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