Guatemala Wants to Shield Drug Judges.

The Guatemalan government said Friday it wants to shield the identity of judges trying drug and organized crime cases to combat corruption and protect the judges from intimidation and violence.

Interior Minister Carlos Vielman said he has asked the country's judicial system to assign a group of judges to the cases and not to reveal their names. Judges are now assigned cases within a geographic region rather than by type of crime.

"We have a problem in that if there are judges in one location, the drug traffickers identify them and buy them off or intimidate them," Vielman told The Associated Press on Friday.

Guatemalan judges earn about $2,000 a month.

"I don't think that a poor judge can withstand the pressure," Vielman said.

Critics charge that protecting the identity of judges could make the country's judicial system vulnerable to abuse.

"A judge without a face is an authoritarian justice, with little transparency," said Luis Ramirez, an expert at the Institute of Comparative Studies in Criminal Science in Guatemala. "We already had this during the war and it didn't work. In Colombia, it also was a failure."

During the dictatorship of Efrain Rios Montt in the early 1980s, secret military tribunals tried more than 300 people, including some human rights officials say were wrongly convicted. The courts tried cases of people accused of helping leftist rebels during the country's 36-year civil war. Some 200,000 Guatemalans were killed in the war, which ended in 1996.

The government eliminated the secret tribunals after Rios Montt was overthrown.

Ramirez said protecting the identities of judges does not guarantee they cannot be bought by drug traffickers.

"If you don't have to show your face, you don't have to take responsibility," he said.

Guatemala is a main transit route for drugs heading north, and top law enforcement officials have been linked to smugglers. Last month, Guatemala's former top anti-drug chief was detained in the United States on drug smuggling charges.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 75 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States passes through Guatemala.

[Source: By Juan Carlos Llorca, Associated Press Writer, Guatemala, 09Dec05]

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