Guatemala’s first female attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, has never shied away from taking on corrupt politicians and investigating the shady ties between security forces and drug traffickers.
On her watch, the diminutive, soft-spoken Paz y Paz has secured a record number of convictions, putting drug traffickers and corrupt police and mayors behind bars.
She has also spearheaded efforts to prosecute retired, high-ranking military officers accused of committing human rights violations during the country’s 36-year civil war (1960-1996).
Paz y Paz is probably the most successful top prosecutor in the recent history of a country struggling to contain rampant drug-fuelled violence and organised crime, But her crusade has earned her powerful enemies, rights group say, and this now threatens to bring her work to a premature end.
Last week Guatemala’s constitutional court ruled that, because of a technicality, Paz y Paz must step down in May, seven months before her four-year term in office ends.
Local rights groups were quick to condemn the decision, blaming it on the way Paz y Paz’s efforts to shed light on Guatemala's troubled past have made her enemies among the political elite, the military and conservative business leaders.
“Attorney general Paz y Paz has distinguished herself in the substantial progress made in the fight against impunity in Guatemala, which has meant a confrontation with different groups of power in this country,” the rights group Centre for Justice and International Law said in a statement.
Paz y Paz’s most significant case was the trial of Guatemala’s former dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Maya Ixil indigenous group from 1982 to 1983. In a landmark ruling, he was found guilty of genocide last May, but the constitutional court later threw out the conviction. A retrial is scheduled to begin early next year.
Paz y Paz has filed an appeal against the constitutional court’s decision to cut short her term.
“Those sectors which have been affected by the advance of justice are in a hurry for me to leave office,” Paz y Paz is quoted as saying in an interview with El Periodico newspaper.
“Carrying out the duties of the attorney general’s office is done with independence whoever the person who is being accused or whoever the victim. It’s an idea that should be shared among all Guatemalans, something that apparently doesn’t seem to be the case,” she said.
Last week, Guatemala’s Congress met to choose her successor but failed to reach a quorum on the six candidates who must be put forward to a commission to begin the selection process.
Since coming to office in 2010, Paz y Paz has worked closely with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent United Nations-backed body with international prosecutors, police officers and lawyers charged with investigating a limited number of politically sensitive, high-profile cases.
They have worked together on building cases to prosecute notorious criminals and untangle murky ties between organised crime and the country’s political elite and police force.
"This has been possible thanks to the dedication of the Attorney General to her work; her presence at the Public Prosecutor's Office (MP) is of great benefit to the country and to the work of CICIG. Therefore, we hope that the culmination of her tenure does not present an obstacle for the continued activities of the Commission," Ivan Velasquez, a Colombian prosecutor who heads the CICIG, told a news conference earlier this week.
Paz y Paz and the CICIG, whose mandate ends in September 2015, are currently investigating the links between organised crime and the funding of political parties in Guatemala.