As a former top judge in Colombia, Ivan Velasquez is used to investigating shady ties between security forces and criminals and taking on corrupt politicians.
Velasquez is best known for putting 50 Colombian congressmen behind bars for their connections to right-wing paramilitary groups.
His proven track record should serve him well when he takes over this month as the new chief of an International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) in Guatemala – a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates, rampant corruption and high levels of impunity.
Set up at Guatemala's request in 2007, the independent U.N.-backed commission, based in Guatemala City, has a special mandate to fight corruption in the judicial system and investigate links between the police, government officials and organised crime networks.
The CICIG can take credit for some success.
Impunity levels for crimes in Guatemala have dropped from 93 to 70 percent over the last six years, according to the latest CICIG figures.
Investigations overseen by the commission and a special court it helped set up to deal with high-profile corruption cases have lead to the imprisonment of hundreds of government officials, including former ministers, judges and a string of businessmen and politicians.
The body has also been responsible for the purge of over 2,000 police officers over their links to organised crime and drug traffickers.
In 2012, a CICIG report, "The Judges of Impunity", named 18 judges it accused of ties with organised crime.
Despite the commission's progress, Velasquez has his work cut out and time is running short. The commission’s mandate ends in September 2015.
Velasquez takes over at a time when the CICIG is facing increasing criticism in Guatemala.
The commission's failure to win the conviction of former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo on embezzlement and money laundering charges has disappointed supporters and encouraged critics to dismiss it as ineffective, experts say.
The CICIG was also partly blamed for the decision by Guatemala's constitutional court to overturn a genocide conviction against the country’s former dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
And a recent scandal over alleged threats made by a CICIG official to a Supreme Court judge prompted some local congressmen to call for a vote revoking the commission's mandate, which was defeated.
“Velasquez is taking over CICIG at a time when it faces increasing political attacks. So he will have to be both an aggressive investigator and an astute politician to succeed. CICIG has many enemies – including the powerful business chambers,” said Mary Speck, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group, a think-tank.
“And it needs support from the Public Ministry, which prosecutes the cases investigated by CICIG. Attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz has been an important ally of CICIG but she is under fire for her prosecution of the Rios Montt case among other issues. Plus her term ends in December 2014. Without the support of a strong, independent attorney general, CICIG cannot succeed,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email reply from Guatemala.
Another challenge Velasquez faces is building trust among Guatemalans, who have little confidence in their country’s judicial system and its politicians to deliver justice.
“Guatemalans won’t feel that there is justice until they see a significant decline in street crime, including gang violence and extortion. The murder rate has fallen since 2009 (with some ups and downs) but armed assaults on motorists and pedestrians remain far too common. In the interior, drug trafficking groups fuel violence,” Speck said.
“Obviously combating this kind of crime is a long-term process – CICIG is not charged with investigating common crimes nor can it dismantle international cartels. But part of CICIG’s mandate is to investigate the complicity of government officials with organised crime figures. Polls show that Guatemalans have very little confidence in their institutions – thus they have little incentive to cooperate with authorities.”
The commission’s legacy will depend on Velasquez securing convictions in high-profile cases and ensuring it leaves behind prosecutors and judges with the skills and training needed to build cases against criminals so they can continue the commission’s work.
“Velasquez’s challenge will be to use the final two years of CICIG to revive sensitive investigations while also training – and perhaps more importantly inspiring – prosecutors in the Public Ministry to continue this work after CICIG leaves. The legacy of CICIG, and Velasquez’s own reputation as a hard driving investigative judge, will depend on winning significant cases,” Speck said.