On Friday August 31, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced he was shutting the down the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the UN’s anti-graft commission. Confirming the decision, he claimed, that “selective justice has been used to intimidate and terrorize the citizenry, [and] judicial independence has been violated with the intention of manipulating justice”. Morales claimed that the UN was aware of his decision not to renew the body’s mandate, and that he would immediately transfer the commissioning capacities to Guatemalan institutions. Through Guatemala’s institutions the commission would see out its current two-year long term, which ends in September 2019.
Twelve years ago, in an attempt to bring justice back to Guatemala’s institutions, the UN established the CICIG as an independent international body, charged with investigating illegal and clandestine security groups in Guatemala. At the time, the Guatemala authorities requested UN assistance, believing that such groups had infiltrated state institutions, undermines the country’s democratic gains. CICIG’s mandate was written so that instead of replacing state institutions, it worked with them to strengthen Guatemala’s fragile justice system. Through its existence, CICIG has carried out independent investigations, acted as complementary prosecutor, and recommended public policies to help fight criminal groups. Supreme Court justices and Congressional representatives have been removed from office; drug lords have been imprisoned and extortion rings dismantled. Its mandate has been renewed four times.
Yet the body has had an increasingly icy relationship with the government, and Morales personally. The body’s commissioner, Ivan Velasquez of Colombia, has gained a high-profile due to investigations into the links between public officials and paramilitary organizations.In August of 2017, Morales attempted to expel Velasquez from Guatemala, a decision blocked by the country’s Supreme Court. Morales’ efforts followed Velasquez announcement that investigations were being undertaken into the president himself. Velasquez had requested that Congress repeal the President’s immunity, voted into law in September 2017, a step that would enable him to both subpoena Morales, and in time, bring forward a prosecution against him. On August 23rd, Guatemala’s Congress finally revoked the president’s immunity.
Widespread corruption can be traced back to the consequences of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. Scores of former soldiers and police officers who had conducted counter insurgency operations for the former right-wing military dictatorship evolved into criminal groups. Since then, they have used their relationships to politicians, security officials, and business elites to manipulate the state and protect their illicit operations. Former-President Otto Perez Molina, narrowly escaped imprisonment at the end of his term, for his supposed involvement in a massive corruption scheme with Guatemala’s customs agency and for his own illicit campaign financing. CICIG found Molina guilty on charges of corruption and involvement in criminal networks, alongside his vice president and several ministers. Former president Alvaro Colom and his former cabinet members where also investigated for embezzlement and fraud while setting up a public bus system in Guatemala in 2010. Another former president, Alfonso Portillo, was extradited to the US for similar corruption charges.
Countering corruption was the platform on which Morales won the presidential race in 2016, and in his formal statements, he continues to positions himself as the figure best placed to eliminate graft. Doing so represents the best way to distance himself from his predecessors. Indeed, Morales claimed a large amount of credit for the strengthening of Guatemalan institutions, and the fact that former president Molina and other high level government officials were investigated under his presidency. CICIG’s presence in Guatemala has not only improved the country’s judicial institutions through reforms including plea bargaining, witness protection, wiretapping, anti-corruption laws, and high security courts, but enabled international judicial cooperation. The number of cases involving joint legal assistance and extradition have increased from 251 to 393 from 2010 to 2012. In a 2015 poll, the Commission had the confidence of 65% of Guatemala’s population, regardless of age, social status, income, or location.
Yet Morales now characterizes the CICIG as a body that has co-opted state institutions to weaken the Guatemalan state. Likewise, Morales has questioned the subjectivity of the Congressional body investigating him, on the basis that it is composed entirely of the opposition party. His actions were even stronger than his words. Not a week before, he had the Guatemalan Interior Ministry remove police officers assigned to the CICIG, reassigning 20 to citizen security duties. Following his August 31 statement, Morales deployed security forces to the Commission’s headquarters.
The reason for the animosity stems from the fact that the case against Morales himself has been gathering pace. According to a 2015 audit by the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), not only had Morales’ party – the National Convergence Front (FCN-Nácion) – failed to report sufficient accounting documents for its 2015 presidential campaign, but Morales himself had also continued to write checks to FCN-Nácion after he had been elected president. The party continued to keep campaign accounts open until October 2016, a year after the election, despite a requirement that they close them in April. Morales is suspected of receiving at least 7mn quetzals (1mn USD) in undeclared contributions from FCN-Nácion, charges which he has continued to deny. In a second phase of the investigation, announced May this year, another $1mn USD was discovered to have been channeled through a company called Nova Servicios to the FCN-Nácion party, without being reported to electoral authorities as required by law. Such revelations have robbed Morales of popular support. In the spring, protesters demanded his resignation over poor handling of the Antigua volcano crisis. When the volcano erupted, Morales claimed the state had no money available to assist victims.
Before his immunity was lifted, Morales and his supporters could deny the accusations as circumstantial. However, as more concrete evidence surfaces which ties Morales’ to illicit campaign financing from the FCN-Nácion, he has been moved to act. Morales’ announcement of a new attorney general in May, his moves to oust Commissioner Velasquez, 2018, and his most recent move to dismantle the CICIG as an independent investigatory body, are all designed to end the investigation against him.
As a result, the progress CICIG has made against corruption is now at risk. By 2006, corruption had so weakened Guatemala’s institutions that the UN was convinced that other democratic and security institutions in the region would weaken as well if it remained unaddressed. Since then, other countries have sought to replicate the success of CICIG. Honduras launched the Mission in Support of the Fight Against Corruption (MACCIH) in 2016 under the support in Organization of American States (OAS). Investigations into El Salvador’s former Attorney General Luis Martinez, as well as leaders of its prominent political parties for accusations of corruption and illicit enrichment have begun since then as well. As Morales moves to end the investigations against him, the effect is not being contained. Honduran and El Salvadoran investigations are suffering setbacks in the form of forced resignations, changes in positions, and shifting powers of their Congresses.
The investigation against Morales will most likely halt as Guatemalan institutions take control of it, and patterns of elite impunity will continue. This will most likely weaken Central American country’s ability to maintain order, given the the influence of criminal groups in its politics.