Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After Fighting Crime, Ex-Guatemala Attorney General Moves To U.S.


Now let's get some insight into a place that's produced many migrants to the U.S. We have a story that begins about 10 years ago on a street in Guatemala.


Claudia Paz y Paz was driving on that street. She had an experience that she says is common in her country. She witnessed a homicide.

CLAUDIA PAZ Y PAZ: My family and I were driving home. And in front of us a drug man killed a bus driver.

INSKEEP: Killed a bus driver? You were just in traffic.


INSKEEP: And you saw it happen?


INSKEEP: And your family was in the car?

PAZ Y PAZ: My son, he was a baby.

INSKEEP: This personal story illustrates a widespread problem. Central American nations have suffered from an epidemic of crime. Gang violence is linked to the flow of migrant children to the U.S. border. And last week, Vice President Biden announced plans to make it easier for some who face violence in Central America to seek refugee status in the United States. So Guatemala's crime affects the U.S., and the story of Claudia Paz y Paz suggests what it takes to fight back. She is a human rights lawyer who was appointed in 2010 as Guatemala's attorney general. She encouraged the use of DNA testing, wiretaps and other technology in a system that she says was solving only 5 percent of homicides.

PAZ Y PAZ: I was very surprised of how many people were there that have a commitment with the justice system in Guatemala that were honest, that were brave and will risk their lives to make their jobs.

INSKEEP: How risky is it to be a prosecutor in Guatemala?

PAZ Y PAZ: There is risk. For example, one of our colleagues was killed by the Zetas.

INSKEEP: The Zetas, a famous international crime gang?

PAZ Y PAZ: Yes. And they left his body in a public place with a note saying to us don't continue doing this, don't be like gringos. So that was a very strong moment. It was in May 2010.

INSKEEP: In the United States, it is presumed that a federal prosecutor would very rarely be targeted. It sounds like you don't have that same sense of security when you're a Guatemalan prosecutor.

PAZ Y PAZ: Not before that case. Because after that happened, we started to work 24 hours a day until we find the ones who did that. And they are now in jail.

INSKEEP: You found the perpetrators of that assassination?

PAZ Y PAZ: Yes. And very quickly because we need to send that message - that you cannot do that to a justice official.

INSKEEP: What did you do about that prosecution rate that you mentioned? You said only 5 percent of murders were solved in the past.

PAZ Y PAZ: Yes. So when I left office we had changed that situation and out of every 100 cases, 30 were solved.

INSKEEP: Thirty?

PAZ Y PAZ: Yes. That was not enough, but was a way to face impunity.

INSKEEP: How long did you stay in the office?

PAZ Y PAZ: Three years and a half.

INSKEEP: You left Guatemala?


INSKEEP: I guess the question that's on my mind is whether you also left because it might not of been very safe for you to remain.

PAZ Y PAZ: My family and I need to be away for a little time. It was a risky job. And I think that it was good for us to make distance from Guatemala for a little time.

INSKEEP: In case there was some convict who remembered you unfavorably.


INSKEEP: What kind of security did you have day-by-day when you were Attorney General of Guatemala?

PAZ Y PAZ: We had a lot of security, like seven people with me every day.

INSKEEP: They would just surround you if you walked down the street or towards your car they'd be surrounding you as you went?


INSKEEP: And you'd go home at night and there'd be somebody guarding your home and your family?


INSKEEP: I want people to remember that there's been civil conflict in Guatemala in the past, that the country is still struggling with this question of truth, justice and reconciliation for what passed officials have done, that you even prosecuted a former president of your country during your time as attorney general and I believe won a conviction that was later overturned. But this still hangs over the country. Is it difficult for the government to focus on the practical problems of people given that you're still struggling with the past?

PAZ Y PAZ: I believe that if we want that these crimes are never committed again they should be punished. And the people in Guatemala should know what happened and the ones who were responsible should face justice. And that is the better way that we assure that this type of crimes will never be committed again.

INSKEEP: Claudia Paz y Paz, thank you very much.

PAZ Y PAZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's the former attorney general of Guatemala and is now a visiting scholar at Georgetown University's Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.