GUATEMALA CITY -- Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz is a small, soft-spoken woman with the quiet mannerisms of an academic, which she is. But she also displays a dogged perseverance that has made her a champion of human rights and the rule of law. And that may put her out of a job soon.
On Wednesday, Guatemala’s highest court will her a final round of arguments on whether Paz y Paz should fill a full four-year term that the constitution stipulates or only the remainder of the term of the previous attorney general, whom she replaced. If the Constitutional Court rules in favor of the latter – and it’s already said that’s the decision it favors – Paz y Paz, 46, will be out in May.
It would be a stunning end to a term in public office marked by all-but-unprecedented crusades against corruption and “impunity,” the idea that military officers and top government officials would never be prosecuted for atrocities that occurred while they were in charge.
Paz y Paz’s greatest triumph came last May, when prosecutors under her won the conviction of former President Efrain Rios Montt on charges of committing genocide against the indigenous Ixil Maya during the early 1980s as part of a 36-year civil war.
Yet it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Constitutional Court threw out the conviction less than two weeks later. The case is on hold until 2015, and it’s “really snarled up because a great number of habeas corpus suits have been put forward,” Paz y Paz said in an interview.
Despite her best efforts, Paz y Paz may find herself unable to shepherd the case back to court.
Paz y Paz was appointed in December 2010 after the legal disqualification of the previous attorney general, who’d been appointed seven months earlier. The question is whether she’s merely serving until the end of that term or whether she’s entitled to a full four years in the slot.
Forces on the right see a chance to remove Paz y Paz, while Guatemalan progressive groups, the U.S. government and others in the international community back her, saying a decision to remove her would endanger the rule of law.
The court’s provisional decision in favor of limiting Paz y Paz’s term in office, issued three weeks ago, “sends a strong message that efforts to promote the rule of law and accountability will continue to meet obstacles,” said Daniel Wilkinson, the managing director of the Americas division for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
If forced to step down, Paz y Paz could run for another term as attorney general, though she says she “hasn’t decided” yet.
If she decides to run, she’d be “a very strong candidate,” said Jo-Marie Burt, the director of Latin American studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., since Paz y Paz enjoys the support of President Otto Perez Molina, a retired army general who has the final say in appointing the attorney general.
The forces that oppose Paz y Paz include conservative groups that are roughly aligned with the business community and the military. Paz y Paz’s fight against impunity has led to a record number of prosecutions for major crimes as measured by the U.N.-financed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which said the rate of unprosecuted major crimes had dropped from 95 percent in 2009 to 72 percent in 2012.
Paz y Paz has worked closely with police and the anti-impunity commission to fight low-level, local corruption and drug trafficking, although some observers attribute gains on these fronts to improvements in the Interior Ministry.
Her greatest impact has been on the front of prosecuting human rights crimes.
Early in her term, Paz y Paz oversaw the prosecution of four soldiers for a civil war-era massacre in the hamlet of Dos Erres. The soldiers were collectively sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for the killings of 201 people, the first time a civil war massacre had been prosecuted in Guatemala.
Paz y Paz, who sees human rights as the foundation of justice, once worked as a lawyer in the human rights office of Roman Catholic Archbishop Juan Gerardi, who was murdered in 1998 two days after releasing a blistering report on the victims of the nation’s civil war. Paz y Paz later won a scholarship to study criminal law at the University of Salamanca in Spain.
As the attorney general, Paz y Paz makes some centrists and the moderate right wing uncomfortable, even as they acknowledge her competence as a prosecutor. Critics think that her family connections with leftist guerillas during the civil war have led her to cherry-pick cases to prosecute.
Her most virulent critics are far right groups that say they promote the rule of law but oppose the application of human rights norms and the prosecution of crimes, particularly those that occurred during the 1960-1996 civil war.
Armando de la Torre, the leader of La Liga Pro-Patria (League for the Nation) and the dean of the graduate school of social sciences at Francisco Marroquin University, said his organization opposed “the illegalities of Ms. Paz y Paz.”
Another ranking member of La Liga, U.S. businessman Steve Hecht, a 40-year resident of Guatemala, said Paz y Paz “has no more respect for the rule of law than . . . Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler.”
La Liga’s members think Paz y Paz represents a leftist, quasi-communist plot to manipulate the centrist Perez Molina government while protecting workers and indigenous rights groups, which Hecht says are “fronts that commit criminal acts and then hide behind human rights.” Hecht charges that Paz y Paz harbors “an ideological hatred of the private sector.”
U.S. Ambassador Arnold Chacon defended Paz y Paz, saying the day after the Constitutional Court issued its provisional order that she’s shown “that honorable, capable public servants with integrity exist in Guatemala. . . . She has elevated the name of Guatemala in the whole world. . . . It is a privilege for my government to have a partner like Dr. Paz y Paz.”
Some experts plumb psychological motives in the debate over Paz y Paz. Guatemalans who’d prefer to put the civil war behind the nation and assign blame equally on all sides, the military and guerillas alike, have been forced by Paz y Paz’s prosecutions to once again relive a brutal conflict that had no winners.
“Claudia Paz y Paz and the people who work with her . . . brought faith back to the Guatemalan people who were affected by that conflict directly,” George Mason’s Burt said. “By finding ways to address crimes of the past by using the rule of law, I think she’s created new value in the idea of justice in Guatemala.”
Reeves is a McClatchy special correspondent.