GUATEMALA CITY — She holds one of the most dangerous jobs in this spectacularly dangerous country, confronting the most feared and powerful men of the Guatemalan present: gang leaders; dirty public officials; shot-callers in the Mexican drug cartels who have bled in from the north.
She is also taking on the titans of Guatemala’s past: military men and security chiefs whom she has accused of human rights abuses during the nation’s brutal 35-year civil war. Guatemala’s emblematic 20th century strongman, Efrain Rios Montt, has been under house arrest since January, when her office charged him with genocide and crimes against humanity.
Claudia Paz y Paz, a 46-year-old former human rights lawyer, has served as attorney general since December 2010, earning a reputation as the most aggressive prosecutor the Central American nation has seen since the war’s end in the mid-1990s.
The challenges she faces are formidable: The Guatemalan homicide rate has roughly doubled in the last decade, because of ghastly cartel slayings in the countryside and a rise in crime, much of it gang-related, in and around Guatemala City, the capital.
Moreover, she inherited an office tarnished by scandal and a dismal conviction rate. Her critics, meanwhile, accuse her of re-fighting the civil war in the courts on behalf of the Guatemalan left, not administering justice, they say, so much as settling scores.
If the pressure gets to her, it does not show. On a recent afternoon, a smiling Paz y Paz slipped quietly into a casual downtown cafe for an interview, wrapped in an oversize shawl. She could have been a Latin protest singer from the 1970s.
Small of stature, with a voice smaller still, she spoke of the criminal charges she had brought against men once considered untouchable here. She referred to them by last name only, in the hard-boiled shorthand of cops and prosecutors everywhere.
“Lopez Fuentes,” a general. “De la Cruz,” a former national police chief. “Arredondo,” another police chief. “Mejia Victores,” another general.
The case of Rios Montt stands apart. He ruled for 17 months in the early 1980s when the civil war was at its ugliest, and he went on to play a major role in Guatemalan public life for years, as a congressman and political shot-caller. Some Guatemalans still believe he saved the country from ruin with his ferocious crackdown on communist rebels, his “hard hand” crime-fighting measures and his moralizing evangelical sermons, televised nationwide on Sundays.
Others consider Rios Montt a criminal, the man responsible for the army’s burning of villages, massacres of civilians, and the death or internal displacement of tens of thousands of Guatemalans, many of them indigenous Maya. By one estimate, about 86,000 people were killed during Rios Montt’s brief tenure as head of state.
He says he is innocent of genocide. His attorneys have been maneuvering to keep him out of court. But the retired general, now 86, is relegated to his rock-walled compound on the tony side of the capital, unable to step out even for the morning paper.
Paz y Paz figures it is a waiting game.
“It’s important, because any country that wants to avoid massive human rights violations has to adjudicate them,” she said. “If not, you run the risk of repeating them.”
Since 1996, when a peace accord ended the fighting between the government and Marxist rebels, Guatemala has tried to heal its old wounds. But they run deep. A 1999 report by the country’s truth and reconciliation commission estimated that more than 200,000 people died in the conflict, and that 93% of the widespread human rights violations were committed by the government or its paramilitary allies.
Current President Otto Perez Molina, elected in November 2011, is a former army general who commanded troops in a civil war hot spot. Some on the Guatemalan left have accused him of war crimes. None of the accusations have been proved.
Then there are Paz y Paz’s critics.
“The problem,” said Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, who heads a group called the Foundation Against Terrorism, “is when you take your ideology to the public prosecutor’s office, to seek vengeance.”
Mendez, a 53-year-old Guatemala City businessman, says he was kidnapped and tortured in 1982 by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, one of the main armed leftist groups during the war. At the time, his father, a military officer, was serving as Rios Montt’s interior minister.
Last year, Mendez filed a complaint with Paz y Paz’s office, alleging that two members of her family, one alive and one now dead, were involved in his kidnapping. A separate complaint, filed by a military widow, alleges that Paz y Paz’s father, Enrique Paz y Paz, who died in July 2010, was involved in the armed struggle against the government.
When a newspaper asked Mendez why he filed the document nearly 30 years later, he answered, “It was for the attack of Atty. Gen. Claudia Paz y Paz; she decided to unleash the hunt against the soldiers.”
Mendez acknowledges that political ideas can’t be passed down genetically. But he says that Paz y Paz has demonstrated an inclination to favor the forces of the left, failing to protect private property rights and neglecting to vigorously pursue complaints against suspected guerrillas.
He also believes she is clinging to the past. “The army won it, and won it due to many of the decisions that Gen. Rios Montt made,” he said. “Now, that is a theme that the left will never pardon him for. Never.”
Paz y Paz says her father, an engineer, was never a member of an armed group as far as she knows. And she would neither “affirm nor deny” whether other family members were involved with the guerrillas.
“What I can affirm to you is that I have never belonged to any guerrilla force,” she said. As for Enrique Paz y Paz, “the alleged militancy of my father is something that has nothing to do with the work of bringing justice.”
After attending law school in Spain, Claudia Paz y Paz took on a number of roles in which she confronted her country’s miserable human rights record. One of her jobs was with the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala. Its founder, Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, was murdered by army officers in 1998, two days after his group issued a report on the civil war that laid much of the blame for atrocities at the army’s feet.
Paz y Paz was appointed attorney general by center-left former President Alvaro Colom. The preceding attorney general had been ousted by the constitutional court after he was accused of having criminal connections.
In her job, the present weighs as heavily as the past. The government was desperately weak after years of war; the Mexican drug cartels and local street gangs had taken advantage. Last year, the homicide rate was more than eight times that of the United States.
With the help of a unique United Nations-chartered prosecutorial support group, Paz y Paz has begun modernizing her office, firing dirty employees and demoting lazy ones, adopting new database and crime analysis technology, and expanding the criminal analysis unit from eight to 70 employees.
She has not worked miracles, but she has performed well on some big cases. Five months after her appointment, a prosecutor in the state of Alta Verapaz who had been investigating the Mexican Zetas cartel went missing. He turned up in the city of Coban in five plastic garbage bags. Paz y Paz’s office ended up sending 16 people to prison.
Two months later, the Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral was shot to death on his way to the Guatemala City airport. Paz y Paz’s office launched an investigation that led to the arrest and sentencing of six of the perpetrators.
U.S. officials who have been trying to help the Guatemalans with their rampant crime problem say she has shown little evidence of having a hidden agenda. And they are effusive in praising her work dealing with cartel bosses and gang leaders.
“She’s one of our No. 1 allies,” said one high-ranking U.S. law enforcement official based in the country. “There’s not anybody in her inner circle that gives us the creeps.”
The country, meanwhile, waits and wonders what will become of Rios Montt, the general she has managed to corner for now — that is, if they remember him at all.
On a recent afternoon, a quartet of special police officers, boyish and heavily armed, was stationed outside Rios Montt’s compound, keeping vigil in the cramped cab of a marked pickup truck.
They were asked their opinion of the civil war, and the dictator, and the bold and controversial prosecutor across town.
“We can’t really say,” one of them said. “For us, it’s all a part of history.”