MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Guatemala, a country notorious for corruption, is the testing ground for a radical justice experiment. A unique legal commission is helping charge some of the most powerful people in the country, but the commission has made some powerful enemies, too. And it's fighting to survive. From Guatemala City, Alice Fordham reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANDCUFFS CLICKING)
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In a cavernous courtroom in Guatemala City, prison guards unlock the handcuffs of a row of smartly-dressed defendants. A throng of journalists photograph the men and women who were once the country's highest officials.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
FORDHAM: This is the first hearing in a corruption case accusing former President Alvaro Colom and much of his 2010 cabinet of abetting embezzlement. Colom is the third Guatemalan president brought to trial for graft in the last decade. This is astonishing in a country where impunity for the powerful was once the norm. Behind these trials is a unique body called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as the CICIG for its Spanish initials. It's so widely credited with bringing down crime and corruption that even some on trial still support it. Here's ex-finance minister Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight.
JUAN ALBERTO FUENTES KNIGHT: I think CICIG has an important role to play to combat - to fight against corruption. I think some of the cases have been very important.
FORDHAM: But, beset by powerful enemies, the CICIG is now fighting to survive. After it announced an investigation last year into current President Jimmy Morales's campaign funding, Morales and his allies attempted to block its work with legal challenges and to expel its commissioner from the country. Now, CICIG's supporters are warning years of work eroding crime and corruption could be undone. The attorney general, Thelma Aldana who works with the CICIG, says threats are gathering because high-level criminals are striking back.
THELMA ALDANA: (Speaking Spanish).
FORDHAM: "We have touched powerful criminal structures with money and influence," she says in her office overlooking some of the rougher parts of Guatemala City.
ALDANA: (Speaking Spanish).
FORDHAM: She says, "they seek to go back to a time when they could make easy money stealing from the people." The commission was dreamt up with the help of the United Nations in 2006. This came as a frail Guatemala struggle to prosecute those criminal networks still rampant after a decades-long civil war. Lawyer Daniel Wilkinson, now with Human Rights Watch, helped set it up.
DANIEL WILKINSON: The state institutions, especially in the criminal justice area - we're extremely weak and no match for criminal organizations which were, to a large extent, made up of former military and people who'd been involved in the repression in the past.
FORDHAM: Now the CICIG's international lawyers and researches dramatically strengthen public prosecutors, in part, because their families are out of the country and, therefore, not subject to the death threats often levelled at prosecutors here. And regular people see the difference, according to opinion polls and people I chat with in the capital. Karin Escobar, a statistical analyst, is picking up Chinese takeout.
KARIN ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).
FORDHAM: "To me, it's beneficial," she says, "because before it came along, it was impossible to bring a corruption case against the authorities." The U.S. helps fund the CICIG and makes aid conditional on whether Guatemala continues to fight corruption. A group of us Congress people lately wrote to urge the president to allow the prosecution of corruption cases. But to Aldana, the public prosecutor, the key to whether the efforts continue lies with the Guatemalan people.
ALDANA: (Speaking Spanish).
FORDHAM: "They have awakened from a long dream," she says. "And now? I don't think they're inclined to continue tolerating corruption or impunity." For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Guatemala City.
(SOUNDBITE OF DJ BADU'S "ARUARIAN DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.