Although the image of Guatemala as a massive violator of human rights has drawn world attention in recent years, almost as troubling is the nation's growing corruption, an infestation of special privilege that has reached to the top of the armed forces and into the highest ranks of government.
The most important question facing President Jorge Serrano "is how much he is interested in fighting corruption," said Gen. Hector Gramajo, the retired minister of defense and former army chief of staff.
The immediate question involves Guatemala's increasing drug trade and related money laundering and the involvement of government officials, military officers and prominent business people in the worldwide scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.
Although American drug agents have pinpointed several army officers and members of the government of former President Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo for involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering, no charges have ever been filed.
In the BCCI case, a current investigation centers on the bank's involvement in financing Guatemalan arms shipments to the Nicaraguan Contras, its alleged financing of a coffee-smuggling operation and a deal in which Guatemala purchased helicopters from Jordan.
In that case, three helicopters worth about $2.5 million were purchased for $5 million, the difference allegedly going as kickbacks to at least two Guatemalan generals and a relative of Cerezo.
The former president has publicly denied any connection, and the others would not respond to questions. However, Guatemalan Atty. Gen. Acisclo Valladares Molina has publicly said that retired Gen. Roberto Mata Galvez, onetime chief of Cerezo's presidential guard, and the current army chief of staff, Gen. Edgar Godoy Gaitan, were involved.
Also mentioned in the BCCI case is former President Cerezo's half-brother, Milton Cerezo, who was named in papers filed in a Miami court as receiving part of a $420,000 payoff in the Jordan helicopter sale.
Although he has spoken openly of his findings and has promised to prosecute, Atty. Gen. Valladares has not filed official charges in the BCCI case.
Marta Altoguerre, a prominent attorney and journalist known for disclosing corruption in the Cerezo administration, said, "The level of corruption couldn't be maintained without the approval of the highest levels of government." The question now, she said, is how much interest Serrano has in fighting corruption and how much strength he has to do it.
"We don't know," Altoguerre said. "Serrano has directed all his attention" to ending the country's 30-year civil war "and has forgotten everything else."
Other doubts come from Jorge Skinner Klee, one of Guatemala's best-known lawyers and an opposition leader in Congress. The president "depends on the military for stability," he said. "It has become a psychological dependency. . . . So in all fairness, can he do anything?"
To Serrano there is no problem. "The law is the law," he said. "The attorney general has my full support. The (BCCI) case is a very difficult thing to follow, but we are improving our abilities to investigate," and if generals and politicians are implicated, "they will be punished."
If so, it will be the first time. No prominent businessman or senior Guatemalan military officer or government official has ever been arrested for corruption, let alone sent to jail.