GUATEMALA CITY -- For a 17-day period that ended last month, Guatemala seemed to be falling under the direct control of suspected mobsters.
A lawyer leading a posse of unsavory characters became the attorney general and started dismantling the state's legal apparatus.
Central America's most populous country teetered on the edge of going narco.
Guatemala, a rugged coffee-growing nation of 13.5 million people, 40 percent of them disenfranchised Mayan Indians, has largely been off the world's radar screen. As U.S. anti-narcotics aid poured into Mexico and Colombia, bad guys flooded the region in between.
Narcotics are pervasive. Some 275 to 385 tons of South American cocaine transits Guatemala each year, almost enough to satisfy all the U.S. demand, according to a March estimate by the State Department.
Drug gangs operate largely unhindered. As many as seven of Guatemala's 22 provinces may not be under government control, making it one of the world's most dangerous countries, according to a report June 22 by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization.
Impunity is the rule. A weak judicial system keeps most of Guatemala's corrupt politicians, hired assassins, arms traffickers and drug dealers out of prison.
It got so bad that the United Nations set up a special commission in 2006 to help Guatemala dismantle its vast clandestine networks of organized crime, and by doing so give Guatemalans hope for justice.
Leading the U.N.'s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala was Carlos Castresana, an outspoken former Spanish judge. At high personal cost, he yanked Guatemala back from the precipice last month in an extraordinary chain of events.
A starting point for the drama occurred at noon May 25 when Conrado Reyes, a lawyer, was administered the oath of office as attorney general.
To the surprise of those there, standing nearby was Juan Roberto Garrido Perez, a former army captain whose U.S. visa had been revoked because of suspicions of links to narcotics trafficking.
Garrido's shady connections are said to go beyond drugs. Castresana later accused Garrido of links to alien smuggling, the murder of a human-rights activist's son and a 2006 heist of $9 million at the Guatemala City airport, where Garrido was then the security chief.
Once sworn in as attorney general, Reyes seized personal control of criminal investigations and the most sensitive bureau of the Public Ministry, the Special Methods Unit, which handles wiretaps of major drug traffickers, corrupt army officers, tycoons and politicians.
Within days of Reyes' takeover, more than a dozen seasoned prosecutors were swept out of their jobs, imperiling cases such as a pending trial of former President Alfonso Portillo on charges of embezzling $15.7 million.
With key prosecutors gone and suspected mafiosos calling the shots, however, Castresana saw his work coming undone. In desperation, he resigned June 7, issuing a broadside against Reyes.
He is not the prosecutor that Guatemala deserves. He has ties with illicit organizations, Castresana said at a news conference.
Under international pressure, the Constitutional Court annulled Reyes' selection as attorney general on June 11.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon named a renowned Costa Rican corruption buster, Francisco Dall'Anese, to replace Castresana as the head of the U.N.-backed impunity commission, whose mandate expires next year.
Saturday, Jul. 10, 2010