Guatemala’s Uphill Battle Against Corruption
The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala has gained important enemies and faces an unprecedented level of opposition within the country’s highest levels of government.
Guatemala’s history over the last century has been one of the most troubled, as well as most heavily influenced by foreign interventions, in all of Central America. During the first half of the 20th century, two revolutions over the span of a decade ended the military dictatorship of Jorge Ubico and Federico Ponce in 1944, and, in 1954, the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz. Later on, between 1960 and 1996, the country underwent a violent internal conflict, marked by a succession of military coups. The most notable dictator during this period was General Efrain Rios Montt, whose year in power was particularly violent for the country’s indigenous communities.
Over these troubled decades, multinational companies, particularly the United Fruit Company, played a determinant role in Guatemala’s national economic and political sectors. Today, Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America, Mexico’s southern doorstep and one of the region’s most important export economies, yet it still struggles with a government that is plagued by graft, corruption and impunity.
In December 2006, under the presidency of Oscar Berger, Guatemala signed a treaty with the UN with the purpose of creating an international entity in charge of investigating corruption and crimes against humanity committed during the country’s violent civil conflict, which ended in 1996. A year later, in August 2007, the Guatemalan congress ratified the agreement with the UN and ushered the creation of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) under the leadership of the renowned Spanish lawyer, Carlos Castresana.
This UN-backed and internationally funded commission independently supports Guatemala’s constitutional, judicial and law enforcement systems. More specifically, the CICIG conducts investigations to uncover criminal activities on all levels of national government, with the central mission of dismantling all the criminal structures that have permeated both the Guatemalan state and society. Another important mission of the CICIG involves shaping public policies aimed at eradicating and preventing the reappearance of clandestine armed forces and criminal organizations run by either former guerrillas or soldiers, such as those that emerged during the 1990s and 2000s to pursue all kinds of questionable interests.
In principle, the CICIG is not meant to overshadow or replace any part of Guatemala’s constitutional judiciary, but rather aid in its work and reinforce its independence. However, this UN agency is empowered to denounce anyone in the government who is not complying with the law. The CICIG also gives technical advice to local institutions and officials in the judicial system. Nevertheless, after more than a decade of existence, the CICIG has gained important enemies in Guatemala and currently faces an unprecedented level of opposition within the country’s highest levels of government.
Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, sworn into office in January 2016, is largely considered to be a political outsider given his previous career as a comedian, actor and entertainment entrepreneur. He is a member of the National Convergence Front (FCN), a party created by former military officers in 2008 that currently holds just 11 out of 158 seats in congress. Morales ran his campaign railing against the corrupt political establishment and, before his election, even praised the CICIG’s work. Now, following a series of investigations and trials involving leaders within the FCN and even some of his own family, the president has become one of the commission’s leading critics. Moreover, as an investigation involving corruption in the campaign financing of the 2015 election advances, Morales announced in August that he will not renew the CICIG’s mandate.
Since taking office, President Morales has clashed with the CICIG on several occasions, most notably after a judicial raid took place in the presidential residence in November 2016. This joint operation between the CICIG and Guatemala’s Ministry of Justice was meant to obtain crucial evidence on corruption charges against high-ranking members of government.
Once hailed as a leading mechanism for stabilizing Central America’s Northern Triangle, the CICIG has gained powerful and vocal enemies in recent years. In 2015, then-US vice president Joe Biden lauded the CICIG’s judicial work and lobbied the Guatemalan government to extend the commission’s mandate for another two years. As recently as February of this year, former President Alvaro Colom, who held office between 2008-12, was arrested along with nine members of his cabinet due to an ongoing corruption investigation conducted by the commission.
Likewise, Alfonso Portillo, in office between 2000-04, has been condemned in the United States for money laundering, and Otto Perez had to resign his mandate in 2015 during his third year in office due to a high-level judicial process advanced against him. Alejandro Maldonado, who filled in after Vice President Roxana Baldetti also resigned due to ongoing investigations, had to step up and serve as acting president for nearly six months in 2015. Moreover, the CICIG has gained important allies in Guatemala, including the country’s supreme court and large sectors of civil society that support its work. Nonetheless, nowadays the CICIG has powerful adversaries, including US Senator Marco Rubio who seems to take issue with the commission for supposed Russian interference.
On September 3, President Morales stated in a televised address that he will not be renewing the CICIG’s mandate for another two-year term, thus limiting the commission’s existence to the end of the current session that ends in September 2019. Opportunely, in recent months, Morales has been grandstanding on the issue of a territorial dispute with neighboring Belize in an attempt to rally popular support and distract from his assault on the rule of law. It has been evident from almost the very beginning of his tenure as president that Morales is uncomfortable with the CICIG’s operations in Guatemala, which led him to publicly express his worries about the UN-mandated commission during the most recent General Assembly meeting in New York.
The CICIG has also encountered recent difficulties relating to its commissioner, Ivan Velasquez. Velasquez is a Colombian lawyer and former member of the Colombian supreme court, who has served as the CICIG’s third commissioner since taking the relay from Costa Rican attorney Francisco Dall’Anese in October 2013. As part of his strong stand against the CICIG, President Morales declared Velasquez persona non grata back in September and refuses to allow him back into the country. Meanwhile, Guatemala’s constitutional court issued a ruling in favor of allowing Velasquez back into the country, but the president has not relented on his stance.
Like many countries across Latin America, Guatemala suffers from chronically weak judicial institutions. However, over the last 12 years and with the help of the CICIG, there has been an unprecedented volume of investigations and convictions against both public and private sector stakeholders on charges of corruption, graft and criminal offenses. In spite of the fact that major stakeholders in Guatemala, including civil society organizations, still support the CICIG’s work, the commission has, as of right now, less than a year to complete a successful departure from the country where it has operated for over a decade.
While it might be true that the CICIG must further strengthen its close working partnership with Guatemala’s Ministry of Justice in order to secure lasting structural changes in the country, President Morales’ antagonism toward the body raises serious concerns about the rule of law. Moreover, his seemingly opportunistic and news cycle-driven decision regarding the CICIG’s future might be the most compelling testament to the commission’s effectiveness.
The CICIG cannot and should not become a fixture in Guatemala’s political and judicial landscape, primarily because it is not a part of the national constitutional framework. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that the CICIG is being forced to dismantle while there is a government that is openly hostile to the commission’s valuable work. At the very least, the CICIG should be allowed to complete the processing of ongoing investigations as well as the transferring all of its valuable databases and technical capabilities to the Guatemalan judicial system.
If President Morales does not reconsider his decision and refuses to reauthorize the CICIG’s mandate for another two-year term, the country’s political system will come to an important crossroads in 2019. Whether Guatemala’s judicial system and the rule of law emerge strengthened or weakened after the CICIG’s departure will be President Morales’ most important legacy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.