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An NGO to be proud of, if there’s any justice Add to ...

For more than a decade now, Rick Craig and a small team of justice advocates from British Columbia have been heading to one of the most dangerous regions in the world to try and make a difference. And they have.

Mr. Craig is the executive director of the Justice Education Society. You’ve likely never heard of it, and neither had I before 2006, when I accompanied a group of officials from the institute to Guatemala City to see first-hand what they were up to. And what they were up to was helping build a legitimate justice system from the rubble of the civil wars that had racked the country for years.

It’s been no easy task.

Guatemala is one of the most murderous countries on Earth. In 2011, there were 38.5 homicides per 100,000 people – that added up to 5,681 deaths. By comparison, Canada had a rate of 1.5 per 100,000. Guatemalan crime is fuelled by rampant poverty, which has helped nourish thriving gang and drug problems. It’s not rare to have days with 15 or 20 murders in Guatemala City, where most of the problems are centred.

A core aspect of the society’s work has been teaching police and government lawyers how to properly investigate and prosecute crimes. When Mr. Craig first arrived, police didn’t have even the most basic crime-scene tools. A pair of pliers was a luxury. Police investigators often had to get to crime scenes on a city bus. They were only allowed to take three photographs at a time because they were required to make their 12-exposure films stretch for four homicide cases.

Since 2000, the institute has trained 900 specialists in murder-scene evidence gathering. It has trained 800 prosecutors and 400 judges. And that work is paying off.

Four years ago, just 5 per cent of intentional homicides were solved and successfully prosecuted in Guatemala. That figure is now almost 30 per cent. As high as the homicide rate is, it’s down almost 10 points from just a few years ago. Over the past few years, justice society officials, including former RCMP officers and staff from the B.C. attorney-general’s department, have begun working with government and police in Honduras and El Salvador, where the murder rates are even higher.

It’s not work for the faint of heart. Carjackings ending in murder are everyday occurrences. Many obvious outsiders, like Mr. Craig and members of his team, don’t go out without a flak jacket. They get driven everywhere by heavily armed police.

You would think this would be the type of peacekeeping work that would make the Canadian government proud. But the $2-million in annual funding that the organization exists on through a couple of federal development agencies is in jeopardy. According to Mr. Craig, paperwork that needs to be signed by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird sits somewhere on a desk in Ottawa. If the money isn’t activated by year’s end, the entire operation will come to a screeching halt.

That makes no sense. There would seem to be a strategic imperative in helping these governments build legitimate legal systems. Firstly, it’s a life-and-death situation for many innocent people living in that region. So the mission has a humanitarian component. But we also have a strategic interest; there are a number of Canadian companies that do business in Guatemala. They spend a fortune on security. If we’re promoting business in this neck of the woods, surely there’s a benefit in helping governments get violence under control.

Beyond that, Central America is the gateway to 80 per cent of the cocaine that comes into North America. There is a real danger that if the battles with gangs in the region aren’t won, these countries could become narco states.

“We’re dealing with the dark side here,” says Mr. Craig, a long-time international aid worker. “But we’ve helped the governments there make some real advances. I like to believe this is important work and I’m worried about what will happen if it stops. There’s no question that people’s lives are at stake.”

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