GUATEMALA CITY - In this nation whose murder rate is more than triple that of Mexico, judges and prosecutors are underpaid, underprotected, and under attack by organized crime. Guatemala teeters on the edge of failed-state status.
Yet a U.N.-backed investigative team that has by all counts been highly effective in prosecuting criminals is suddenly meeting stiff resistance from the very people who should stand to gain from a stronger rule of law: Guatemala's political and business elite.
The pushback comes as nearly half the territory in a country of 14 million is controlled by drug gangs and other criminals, with violence even at the capital's swankiest addresses. More than 96 percent of murders go unsolved, and recently stray bullets killed three bystanders at a restaurant in the capital.
"We live in a terrifying anarchy," psychologist Oscar Quintero said on a TV show where mental-health experts discussed coping strategies.
The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG in Spanish, was launched three years ago at Guatemala's request to dismantle illegal security groups, many of them tied to the military and a legacy of the 1960-1996 civil war, and to end criminal impunity. It has also taken on rampant vigilante justice, which includes contract killings of criminals.
The work by police and prosecutors from 25 nations has landed a raft of senior officials in jail - a remarkable feat for a country whose elite has long made sure that law enforcement was selective and the penal code lax.
Eduardo Stein, a well-respected vice president from 2004 to 2008 who helped bring the commission into Guatemala, has now accused it of "going out of control" for filing extrajudicial execution charges against top officials from his government over the allegedly premeditated killing of prison inmates.
Stein and other businessmen have suggested the commission be put under local political control, arguing that it has overstepped its mandate and operated outside the law.
Its director, former Costa Rican attorney general Francisco Dall'Anese, rejects the campaign for local control as sabotage, part of "a dark campaign by powerful groups" seeking to dissolve the commission, although he declined to name names.
Facing trial on criminal charges dominated by embezzlement are former President Alfonso Portillo, a son of ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt; an ex-defense minister; two former interior ministers; a prisons director; three national police chiefs; and two antinarcotics police commanders.
Then there are the convictions, all surprisingly swift, for murderers, drug cartel enforcers, and kidnappers, including members of Mexico's notoriously violent Zeta narco gang.
"All the cases we've brought to justice have so far ended in prison sentences for the accused," said Carlos Castresana, the Spanish magistrate who led the commission until August. "It's an earthquake for a country like Guatemala."
On Castresana's anticorruption recommendations, 1,700 police officers were purged, a handful of senior prosecutors forced to resign and six judges dropped from the Supreme Court. Human Rights First has praised the commission for pushing the criminal-justice system to arrest "hitherto untouchable ex-military leaders."
The independent commission, whose head is named by the U.N. secretary-general, works within Guatemala's justice system in hopes it can one day stand on its own. Its annual budget of $20 million is provided by donor nations, including the United States, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, and the Nordic countries.