GUATEMALA CITY– The escalating homicide rate in Central America’s North Triangle – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – has resulted in a larger workload for police and investigators, hindering their ability to solve crimes as fast as they’d like.
Honduras has the highest homicide rate of the three countries – 80 per 100,000 residents, according to a 2010 world report on homicide published by the United Nations Organization on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). El Salvador follows with 63, and Guatemala has a rate of 42.
The problem, said Esdras Flores, an agent with the Homicide Investigation Division of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police (PNC), is that by law, an investigator in his country has 72 hours to complete the investigation before forwarding it to the prosecutor.
“Each investigator has at least 20 [homicides assigned] to solve,” Flores said.
Verónica Godoy, director of the NGO Center for the Monitoring and Support of Public Safety in Guatemala (IMASP), said the difficulties faced by homicide investigations in the country stem from the lack of resources and corruption within the Public Ministry and court system.
“There’s a link between the rise in violence and drug trafficking in Guatemala,” she said. “You can’t say that’s the only cause for the rise, but we have seen cartels hire hitmen to carry out murders in the country, and the cartels also are violent with each other.”
In an effort to assist the region’s police officers and investigators in solving homicides, French police and the Embassy of Costa Rica in Guatemala partnered to hold the conference “Techniques for Homicide Investigation” earlier this month in Guatemala.
Police agents from Central America and Mexico exchanged their experiences investigating homicides, covering such topics as preserving crime scenes, interviewing and protecting witnesses and handling dead bodies.
Patricia Gamboa, international liaison for the Guatemalan PNC, said “the training included a practical component during which participants went out into the field to conduct actual investigations.”
Beyond addressing the lack of adequate technical and staffing resources, the region’s police chiefs said they are handcuffed by the laws governing homicide investigations.
For example, in Guatemala and El Salvador, homicide investigators have a 72-hour window to gather all the information a prosecutor will need to build the case. If the background report is incomplete at the deadline, the remainder of the investigation must be conducted by the prosecutor.
“The laws and the [timeframe] for these processes sometimes constitute an obstacle, because there’s too little time to gather all the evidence,” said Juan Carlos Martínez, a division chief with the National Police of El Salvador.
In Costa Rica, on the other hand, homicide investigators turn evidence over to the prosecutor only after they have detained a suspect. Prosecutors present the evidence at a preliminary hearing, which precedes the trial. But since there is no law-established deadline for gathering evidence, investigators can take their time to do a thorough job.
Protecting witnesses is another problem
The courts in El Salvador and Honduras do not allow witnesses under protection to have their voices distorted to avoid being recognized by the accused, which often leads to witnesses’ being uncooperative for fear of retribution.
Case in point: A judge in El Salvador ordered the release of gang members accused of setting a bus on fire that killed one and injured six because all witnesses refused to testify after their voices were not allowed to be altered.
“In some countries, there is a framework to protect the witness, but others don’t have it,” Martínez said. “In other cases, you can’t call on a witness unless there is a full identification of that witness [which makes solving a case more difficult].”
A similar problem exists in Guatemala, where the law protects witnesses for the purpose of solving a crime, but at the same time, the justice system puts the burden on victims to identify suspects.
Sometimes, both parties have to face one another, which makes solving a crime even harder, said Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz.
“Because adequate scientific methods have not yet been developed [to solve crimes in Guatemala], it still falls on the victims and on the witnesses’ shoulders to pursue the cases,” she said. “This is why it’s fundamental to have an effective witness protection program that makes citizens feel safe when cooperating with the justice system.”
Paz added Guatemala’s witness protection program is weakened by a lack of coordination between the Public and Interior Ministries and distrust between prosecutors and police.
This year, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CIGIG) has offered at least two courses and training sessions to agents from the Public and Interior Ministries, hoping to smooth differences between them and improve the way they coordinate investigations.
Meantime, 19 agents were certified by the Guatemalan government in witness protection, joining the 75 who graduated in the previous two years.
“They’re not ‘basic’ police officers, but special agents committed to ending the impunity [that exists] in the country,” said Interior Minister Carlos Menocal.