A Discussion with Vinicio Zuquino, Director of the Department of Justice Reform, International Justice Mission Guatemala
November 11, 2015
Could you tell me a little about your life, your career, and how you came to IJM?
I started in the world of human rights at a young age. In 1995 I began working for the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, during the time of armed conflict, when many human rights violations were committed. During that period many independent UN experts came to Guatemala as observers to verify the situation of human rights in the country. Thus the Presidential Commission on Human Rights was born, with the objective of advising the nation’s public sector on all human rights issues. At that time the notion of human rights was largely unknown, so that in addressing the issue we had to struggle for understanding of the term and in explaining to the full apparatus of the state, including the police and the army, the importance of respecting all the human rights of the population. We served as advance guard, as adviser, and as educator in the field of human rights. When the United Nations mission, MINIGUA, was established in Guatemala, our office served as a national counterpart supporting them in their Guatemala assignment.
I then started to work with the Presidential Commission on Human Rights in the eastern regional Directorate. There I was an educator and regional director; this was my first professional experience in human rights. Then I started my studies for a career as a lawyer. I participated in many dialogues on the peace process in Guatemala. At that time there were many forums for dialogue with civil society, with all sectors involved, to make the peace accords that were about to be signed better known. And the overall agreement on human rights had been signed in 1994. From that point the task was to publicize the peace accords among the population, and when the peace accords were eventually signed, to spread knowledge of all aspects: the overall agreement, the agreement on indigenous peoples, the social-economic agreement, and the agreement on the role of the army in a democratic society. Thus there were many aspects of the peace agreements that had to be disclosed and publicized.
In late 1999, I started working with the UN Peace Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA). I was initially one of the few national officers working on substantive issues, because most were international. I worked first at the Public Information Office and later as assistant for human rights and Justice, which was my final position there; I had the opportunity to work directly on issues involving verification and closure of human rights cases, advising on the broad issue of the human rights, compliance with the peace agreements, verification of compliance with the peace accords by the government, and working on much deeper topics like justice as a theme.
There were many changes that came as a result of the peace agreements in the field of justice but justice was also progressing as part of a normal process, with changes to the criminal code, for example. We began to develop round tables on justice with judges, police, prosecutors, with the idea of dialogue and to ensure better coordination of everything that had to do with the cases that were unfolding. There was also a process of transition to local actors with the exit of the United Nations personnel, this would entail setting up a parallel transitional stage and developing the capabilities of national organizations including organizations with focus on women's and human rights.
I then moved on to work as a consultant to the European Union. I was involved with a European Union project based at the Human Rights Institute of the University of San Carlos. My assignment there was to develop a project that sought to make human rights a cross-cutting issue for different institutions, in this case the University of San Carlos. The project aimed to train teachers and diploma graduates at the center of human rights for university professors.
Then my life took a rather interesting twist. I had participated in the Inter-Varsity organization in the United States. It is a faith-based organization dedicated to educating and training college students. We work in universities with the objective of developing leaders worldwide. We are in 178 countries. In each country it has different names; in Guatemala it is called Evangelical University Group (USG). The vision is that future leaders are trained in universities and we can further encourage and train them following Jesus’ ethical example, so they can be our future leaders and thus help us to have a better country. Of course, the gospel itself can be a source of transformation in people’s lives and, as university students, they can become well trained professionals in the service of their country.
Are they people who are already evangelicals?
There are many sorts. Some people are already evangelicals, those who generally are more attracted to the group; but of course the effort can reach people of any denomination. There frequently are Bible study groups, lectures, and other activities for students. Here in Guatemala we organized a theater festival for justice. The idea is to try to focus the students' attention on these important issues within the university and also demonstrate how they can be seen from the point of view of faith, because sometimes there can seem to be a divorce between faith and what happens in the secular world. Thus the idea is always to encourage students to think about this combination, because faith is not separated from the reality we live in today, because the word itself has an answer for everything or is a guide to all these issues. I participated in this group when I was a university student, and then accepted the invitation to be National Director for Guatemala. I was the director for eight years. This was a very interesting change in my life but also an investment of time and training in the life of students, an invaluable experience.
Evangelical groups have hesitated for a long time to get involved in political activism, have they not?
I think this is changing a bit; I believe that groups of young people are driving such participation, given everything that is happening in the country in recent days; that has provided an incentive. It is, I believe, a very interesting phenomenon. In Guatemala the younger generations have been marked by the admonition not to complain, to keep silent. No denunciations, no protests, because history has been very harsh for people who have been opposed to the system. There are many in this country who disappeared [los desaparecidos]. The Commission to Clarify History and its report, which was part of the design of the peace accords—I think the Commission to Clarify History produced eight volumes—recounts clearly all the atrocities that happened in this country, and Monsignor Gerardi's report, Guatemala Never Again, tells a part of the history through many testimonies. We are a society that learned to keep quiet. I think what has happened in recent years and in recent months and weeks in Guatemala was really driven by many youth. It was the youth, young people, the new generation, that took to the streets. And I think that's a big change. I think this presented a new paradigm in Guatemala, a change where the youth are really taking action; this youth represents a new generation that did not live through war, so that they have to some degree avoided such fears. I think they know the history but are not marked by it.
And evangelical youth more specifically?
The GEU [Grupo Evangélico Universitario de Guatemala] came out to protest. I do not know about other Christian organizations. I think maybe some came as part of a church because I know that many people came from the churches. But I could not tell you if they identified with a particular evangelical church because the churches are very fragmented.
I have heard that there is a small evangelical youth movement for greater civic participation from the leaders of the evangelical church.
I think so and that is important, because in the difficult times, it was only the Catholic Church that was seen coming out to protest. And I think that reflects a degree to which some leaders tried to protect themselves. It was much harder to hurt them. But I tell you that there were many priests who died and there were many who disappeared. Perhaps politically it was not that easy. Perhaps evangelical leaders felt more vulnerable because traditionally in this country, really until recent years the evangelical church made up, as you mentioned to me before, not a large percentage. In reality it was always a minority. I remember growing up, for example at school, when they asked who were evangelicals. And only one or two in the class would say that they were. And they felt a bit discriminated against. It was normal to be Catholic and to practice Catholicism; that was normal. I'm talking about the '80s.
When did this change in the number of people who identify themselves as evangelicals take place?
I think that it happened more or less beginning in the late nineties, and in 2000 the numbers grew more rapidly. I do not have the exact statistics but that is my perception. It also had to do in part with the arrival of the Pentecostal churches or mega-churches. I think the growth of large denominations, mega-churches, and of growing churches themselves also had a strong impact. It was a happy stage in my life because I came to do more political work, on human rights, and it was like an interlude where I could truly see what was happening with the youth and the great importance of training of future leaders. And I think that's very basic in a country where only a tiny percentage has the capacity to go to college. Before that number was around one percent of the population. I think some statistics say it has grown to three percent. I think we now have a little more access for people because there are more universities in the country, and they have opened many more campuses at universities and in the departments. That has allowed for a growth in the percentage of students who now have the capacity to go to college. But truly, historically only a tiny fraction of the population has had access to higher education.
Then I discovered IJM, which was established in Guatemala in 2005, the same year I started to work for the GEU. I identified closely with the cause; for me it was like making a transition back to what I had already worked on for many years. It was also like a call from God, a preparation for a new journey.
Is IJM associated with or does it have a stronger affiliation with a particular denomination?
No. I think that IJM Guatemala is known as a faith-based organization within the broad circle of Christian denominations. The organizations that we work with are Christian with similar work, like World Vision, Compassion, AMJ, and all the Christian organizations based on faith. But I think in a legal sense in Guatemala that IJM is seen as an international cooperation organization, from the standpoint of its technical, logistical and professional behavior. My perception is that IJM is seen as an international, technical, human rights organization that supports the issue of justice in Guatemala. Clearly it is a faith-based organization, but perhaps more by the type of relationships we have; the nature of IJM’s work does not mark it directly as faith-based organization. We don’t deny this either and when the opportunity is given we share it. I actually came to IJM to work on the issue of strategic relations with the church and international and justice organizations. And then I joined the department involved in reforms of the justice system.
On justice reform, could you give us a general description? What did IJM see as the weaknesses or deficiencies of the judicial system that needed reform?
This is a natural part of IJM’s strategic work. IJM is very serious in looking for long-term changes and in trying to institutionalize them so that efforts will last over the long term. When we enter a country, we usually begin with specific cases, which involves work on cases day by day, cooperating with the justice system, communicating with prosecutors, being part of the process of accompaniment, support and ensuring that justice is done. We want this kind of involvement because it is not the same if you come from outside and do not know the reality. It is important to see it from the inside, by accompanying, and being part of the process.
What do we do with all the experience we gain? We make all this experience available to the authorities and decision makers in the judicial system, thus pointing out ways in which this is the logical path to reform the justice system. We do not come with a preconceived idea, but we build our ideas step by step with the proper authorities of the judicial system, building alliances, so that we can apply our casework experience and fieldwork and then link them to initiatives that the authorities themselves are undertaking. We try to understand how we can work through these processes in ways that strengthen the way boys and girls are treated in the justice system but also the ways in which cases are investigated. In 2008, we began work on a study that was completed in 2013. This studied the criminal justice system as it is applied to cases of sexual violence. The study is very interesting because it is based on statistical data of the justice system itself but also on a sample of cases. This sample highlights what happens in cases and also what happens in the overall statistics. The statistics showed that over five years, from 2008 to 2012, 3,366 cases of sexual violence came into the system, which is a lot of cases. But it also makes us think of the darker figures—that is, how many cases were not reported? Criminal incidents of sexual violence in Guatemala are terrible; the numbers are high. And monitoring—what is being done? Looking year by year we have noticed that since 2008 the number of cases has been increasing every year. The number of complaints in the justice system rises.
But not necessarily because the cases increase; is it simply that there are more complaints?
That is the question one always asks—what has increased? Are there more cases or is there greater confidence in the justice system and people are reporting more? I dare say that there are more complaints because terrible cases have always been there that were never reported. Because many people think, "I won’t complain because this will affect our family and it is best to leave well enough alone," because usually cases of sexual violence involve someone very close to the victim. And when we say close, we're talking not just one’s family and neighbors. We are talking about political family, teachers, religious leaders; sometimes we are very unfair in saying that only family members are involved. We prefer to say "in the victim’s area of confidence," which means the people around them, who we normally find are sex offenders. There are very few cases of unknown assailants. Most aggressors are known somehow by the victims. We need to be aware that the aggressors are usually in the victim’s circle of confidence. Our study showed that only 5.8 percent of cases ended in conviction. And more than 60 percent of cases were stalled at the stage of criminal investigation.
Together with other allies and other organizations a protocol was developed to receive declarations of adolescent boys and girls on Gesell camera, closed circuit, and other tools, because the idea was that children entering the system who are victims or witnesses were not confronted with legal processes immediately but could make their statement in a more friendly atmosphere that was better for them, and did not re-victimize them. That protocol was approved by the Supreme Court. It is a protocol that allows this work in the Public Ministry, alongside an instruction and a technical instruction that was prepared. It is a general instruction for investigating cases involving children when they are victims. These two instruments are very valuable for investigations and for training many judges and prosecutors in dealing with children when they enter the system. We term it awareness training to sensitize those who manage the justice system. Meanwhile we were developing our baseline report. We then began a second phase of the project in 2014, with a focus on criminal investigation. Because if the cases are stuck, mostly at the stage of criminal investigation, then we need to improve the criminal investigation of these cases.
How do we accompany and how do we proceed with criminal investigation? The criminal investigation process in cases of sexual crimes is very specific and expertise is only now being developed in Guatemala: the Specialized Criminal Investigation Division (CISD), which is the police office that investigates cases of sexual violence, was opened only in late 2012. What that means is that before, there were investigations with an office and a small team that had UNICEF support as the specialized police to investigate these cases. This is precisely the type of police unit that we are now beginning to develop for specific criminal investigations, particularly in cases of sexual violence. We have brought police experts and U.S. investigators who have more than 30 years of experience to support investigation of such crimes in Guatemala. In April 2015, 70 new agents graduated, because the idea is that we can now move forward, strengthen this department, and also bring this to the country level. The goal now is to reach the departments of Alta Verapaz and Quetzaltenango. These departments, the report showed us, have the highest incidences of sexual violence and we hope that with government support we can move forward to expand units across the country.
The Public Ministry has already advanced quite far with prosecutors in the interior but there is a need for police support, always working together. The Public Prosecutor conducts investigations and the police investigate further. Police carry out fieldwork. We must make a coordinated effort between these two bodies, police and prosecutors, to have good investigations. The Public Ministry is a good platform for criminal cases but needs to have good investigators alongside.
How do we better equip police with the best tools, so that they can provide the prosecution with a good investigation, so the prosecutor will have good elements to accuse and to act and reach a verdict? A successful conviction starts from the criminal investigation. You first have a complaint. Then you take the complaint and if it is poorly handled, we will not have much success in the criminal investigation and therefore we will not achieve more sentences.
What are the steps that victims have to go through and what does IJM do at every step of the process?
IJM as an organization is not involved in all the cases; we are in those cases where we lead and there we are present throughout the process, because we have the right to be present at each stage. There are criteria for accepting cases, and they differ. Most cases are referred by the Public Prosecutor himself, by judges who also refer cases to us. When a case is difficult or falls within the range of cases we handle, they refer it to us. Many cases come through churches or through civil society organizations with whom we work and that work with children in shelters. We are present in such cases all the time.
And what characteristics do you look for to work on a case?
One of IJM’s philosophies is that we seek to demonstrate that justice is possible for the poor. Thus one of the fundamental requirements of a case is that the person does not have the economic capacity to pay a private lawyer and who therefore needs support to reach leaders, do the tests, investigate, all that is needed. Many people do not have the financial means and therefore decide not to pursue a case. They can barely afford to feed their children or to pay for transport from their home to the place where they must lodge a complaint. So many families need to be treated in a holistic manner, not only with legal support but also psychological support for the victim and his family. We also try to pay attention to the family’s psychological and financial situation because a case can truly devastate the family, for it is not only the victim that has suffered from the incident but also the family. Thus you have to restore the family, we must restore the victim’s inner circle, to ensure that there is a breakthrough in the family, that it can be restored.
Are there technical aspects to consider?
We always ask—what would happen to this case if we did not intervene or support? We also look to a degree at the situation of the specific case, because if it is not a recent case, procedural opportunities will have been lost. Normally we do not take them because we do not want to give false illusions. When we decide to take a case, no matter how complicated it is, we believe that we can resolve it because we see that there are means for resolution. But I think it is difficult, when a case has gone badly, or because the person did not file the complaint, or because something happened and comes up much later. We evaluate the situation of each case. A committee selects cases and meets when appropriate. When an incident arises, it comes through the Department of Social Work and it is they who hear the complaint and make the first selection. If they decide it is a case of sexual violence, cases pass to the Committee, which does a preliminary investigation and decides whether or not to take it.
The problem is that our case team is very limited in the number of cases that we can take on in terms of staff and budget capacity. If there is a good criminal investigation, if well-prepared police respond to a criminal investigation, if the Public Ministry deals well with the case from the time the complaint is lodged, then there is some guarantee that it will be handled well, and that is the goal we seek to achieve. It must be said that all this work of accompaniment and technical support is feasible because the country's authorities are committed to the issue. The Attorney General is a very committed person. The General Secretary of the Public Ministry is also a person who is dedicated to his work and the staff of the Office of Women also want to do a good job and allow us to accompany them because it really is their decision. They are responsible for this and we simply offer our support and they have believed in us. They have opened the doors. I must say that is team effort. We can do so much because there are so many cases. There are tired prosecutors who have worked for 24 hours, because such offenses happen 24 hours a day in this country. There is a comprehensive care model that works 24 hours a day. They are not yet in every department but there is good progress. In several departments they are already open 24 hours for such complaints so that victims do not have to wait until eight o'clock the next day. There are 24-hour shifts for police and prosecutors to receive complaints. This model assures that doctors and psychologists are available to support the victim in a comprehensive manner. It is a very good model and the authorities are making great efforts to make the model work the way it should because there are still challenges in working under optimal conditions to meet the needs and ensure that victims are not re-victimized. But they are making great efforts. So our job is to accompany, to provide technical assistance, to provide them with the training that is important and necessary.
And of the 60 percent of cases that were stuck in the system, are they moving or is the focus more on moving new cases?
We are measuring that, because there is a whole series of steps before a case reaches the judge; if judges do not have sufficient hearings, cases cannot move. The judiciary is also making great efforts, because the judges who hear these cases are overwhelmed; they are scheduling hearings for next year, because they are already completely overwhelmed by the number of cases. Every time we send cases, the judiciary must be able to respond. The judiciary is trying to handle as many cases as it can. We are trying to measure a baseline specifically so we can then assess progress over time and the efforts that institutions are making. We will do another measurement in 2017.
We are working with the police to develop a new methodology for criminal investigations in cases of sexual crimes, because what we want is to have tools; the idea is not only to propose a methodology that is functional and practical and of course modify and adjust it, but at least to start testing it. In murder cases, we work with dead victims. But with sexual violence, the victim is alive. Thus the treatment of the victim is different and the criminal investigation is also different. It is very important not to re-victimize, and we make great efforts to avoid that, for example by taking a statement from the victim in advance test and using a Gesell chamber, which is a friendlier way to take a statement. It means that the victim is accompanied by a psychologist, and the litigants are behind glass. Everything is seen through the windows and the litigants ask questions to the psychologist, and the psychologist then passes on the question to the child in order not to intimidate them and not to cause as much re-victimization. The whole process is recorded. When we need to repeat it at a hearing, it is not necessary to have the victim there again. You can play the recorded video or audio. That's why we are promoting extensive use of Gesell cameras. Several organizations have donated cameras. Both the judiciary and the Public Ministry, as well as many family courts, already have cameras installed in their respective courts with the idea that they are used so as to not re-victimize victims.
Is there any initiative to work with the perpetrators, who in many cases have also been victims in the past?
Some psychological studies do show that. Our research does not touch that subject because we do not interview the perpetrators to learn a bit about their past. But several studies have been published that suggest that violence is the result of trauma that the person relives and repeats even though he does not wish to commit it, that his intention is not to repeat the abuse. And that is why IJM believes that the psychological approach to these crimes is so important. It is something we have always said in the Public Ministry, that a comprehensive approach to these crimes is important. We always say to the prosecutor, "The work of the police is very important, but these crimes must involve psychologists, because the psychologists will give us many insights for investigation and handling of such cases."
Unfortunately, the state does not have a policy of restoration. I think both the Public Ministry and the Attorney General's Office (PGN) know that it is important, but because they have challenges with budgets and personnel, they struggle with what they have to respond in the best way they can to the victim who has suffered.
But I think it is very important to address the aggressors because in the end, those who end up being condemned and those who are charged or investigated end up as prisoners. But who restores them? I think that's also an issue that must be addressed. IJM does not work on that dimension because we are focused on protection, but we believe there are other institutions that can specialize on this subject.
How do you see the future? What are your predictions?
I view Guatemala’s future with hope. The country has gone through major structural changes over the past few months. I think this reflects a hope for the country along many lines. There is hope in the areas where we work; if you compare the handling of cases a few years ago to what happens today, it is very different. Special prosecutors to handle such cases, specialized courts, prosecutors and police have tried to train their staff. Even with the limitations that exist, they are making efforts to address these crimes better. I see the past and now I see this and I think that there have been substantial changes. The future course presents great challenges to us because we always have an ideal. We face many challenges of coordination, personnel, proper approach, good criminal investigation work, and resources for the police. Yesterday we were evicted from the department where we were working on sexual crimes because of failure to pay. Day to day one encounters many obstacles, but if you see it with a long-term perspective, I am hopeful given how far we have advanced; I do not think we will go back. I think that the progress we have made opens the prospect of a good path ahead.