Guatemala Stumbles in Central America’s Anti-corruption Fight

What is happening in Guatemala?

A remarkable and hopeful two-year interlude in one of Central America’s most corrupt countries may now be ending.

The key reversal came on Friday 25 August 2017, at a meeting requested by Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales with UN Secretary-General António Guterres in New York. Morales signalled his intent to eject the head of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Iván Velásquez. Morales protested that Velásquez had interfered in Guatemalan politics by calling for constitutional reforms and by exploiting media coverage in legal proceedings. After returning to Guatemala he declared Velásquez persona non grata and ordered his expulsion from the country.

This represents a setback to the progress made toward rooting corruption out of Guatemala’s political system between 2015 and 2017, thanks to a combination of popular protests, a new president, a brave external judge and a groundswell of support for change in the growing educated middle class.

Guatemalans are still not ready to go back to the old ways. Two days later, on 27 August, the Constitutional Court – Guatemala’s highest court on constitutional issues – temporarily suspended President Morales’ order. Some members of the government resigned to protest Morales’ move, notably the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of health and most of their vice ministers. Demonstrators in support of Velásquez poured into squares in Guatemala City, while other sets of demonstrators voiced their support for Morales’ move against CICIG’s Commissioner. On 29 August, the Constitutional Court overturned the expulsion order.

Exactly what will happen next is unclear. In a social media posting on Monday 28 August, Guatemala’s president said that he will respect resolutions from judicial bodies. While the fact that he has adopted this position is welcome, it does not mean he will halt his efforts to ensure Velásquez departs the country and to curb CICIG’s influence.

Why has President Morales moved against CICIG?

CICIG – proposed by Guatemalan civil society, in operation since 2007, and acting through the attorney general’s office – has been steadfast in its fight against corruption in Guatemala. Central to CICIG’s recent success has been Velásquez, a courageous former judge with considerable experience dealing with political corruption in his native Colombia. Velásquez has moved CICIG away from a more general mission of fighting impunity toward a tightly-focused mandate of combating illegal money-producing schemes. It has spearheaded probes into political funding and corruption, resulting in almost two hundred defendants facing investigation and trial this year alone. Most are currently jailed on remand, including former President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti.

Corrupt traditional actors who have profited in the past from Guatemala’s rigged political system have campaigned relentlessly against CICIG. Morales was swept into office after the country experienced a wave of disgust at revelations of the depth and breadth of a high-level corruption scandal in 2015 that forced the previous incumbent, Pérez Molina, to resign. Since then he has come under considerable pressure from elements of Guatemala’s political and business elite to revise his initially supportive attitude toward CICIG’s agenda of reform and to oppose the anti-corruption campaign.

Morales had some success in treading a balanced line, but events last week altered his political calculus. On 25 August, the same day that Morales flew to New York, CICIG and the attorney general’s office formally presented a request to the Supreme Court to lift Morales’ presidential immunity, a necessary step before a final decision is made by Congress. They claimed there are sufficient grounds to investigate Morales for illicit financing of his 2015 presidential campaign, specifically $900,000 USD in unreported contributions. It was the first time in Morales’ presidency that CICIG had targeted the president himself, making clear to Morales that his political survival could be at risk. Rather than abiding by his previously balanced line, the president heeded the counsel from elements of the business and political elites and set out to defend his own endangered mandate by seeking Velásquez’s expulsion.

Why does the attempted expulsion of the head of CICIG matter?

The future of Guatemala’s corruption-fighting commission is closely tied to the country’s development as a democratic state. Since the 2015 corruption scandal, CICIG has capitalised on the political fallout from the previous government’s collapse. It has sought to bring about lasting change by backing proposals to reform the constitution and bolster the justice system’s independence.

But Guatemala has been ensnared in an ongoing political crisis between two camps. On one hand, there are social, political and business actors supporting CICIG’s efforts to strengthen Guatemala’s justice institutions. On the other hand, there is a traditional, conservative group of actors who seek to maintain their privileged position. They control ports and customs offices, have links to organised crime and are involved in illicit activities such as people smuggling and drug trafficking. They have wielded significant power and influence over various government institutions for many years.

CICIG’s work also has kindled discord in Guatemala’s foremost business elite group, the Coordinating Commission of Agricultural Commercial Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF). Within the organisation, which traditionally has presented a united public face and has been a powerful actor in Guatemala, younger industrialists and tradesmen who support CICIG’s anti-corruption agenda are pitted against others who seek to reduce the risk of their own prosecution. President Morales’ recent move to weaken the anti-corruption agenda will make it more difficult for the business organisation to maintain its unified position.

CICIG’s support to the justice system through technical advice and direct collaboration designed to reveal large corruption schemes has catalysed previously unthinkable modifications to Guatemala’s legal order. The expulsion of its head would have represented a significant setback to the anti-corruption fight, validating claims that CICIG has exceeded its mandate when in reality it is robustly enforcing it. It might even have served as a stepping stone toward a “conservative restoration” – a return to the more corrupt mores of the past – in the country’s political system and damage the country’s favourable image in Latin America as a relative success story. Such an outcome would have reassured other regional leaders that they could continue to act with impunity and could fight back any effort to establish a CICIG-like entity in their country. Finally, it would have meant that even the most innovative tool of international cooperation to strengthen the rule of law in the form of CICIG is not strong enough to break a well-established corrupt system.

What are the next steps and potential risks?

The Constitutional Court’s provisional decision to block Velásquez’s expulsion is now definitive. The court’s final ruling found that the order violated the constitution because it was only signed by the president and not by all of his ministers. While some observers speculate that this merely was a temporary, face-saving measure approved by the UN and Morales to avoid a direct conflict, and that Velásquez will still eventually be removed, for now the president has had to back down.

This is good news. Although there is a risk that Morales might seek to assume more power in light of this crisis, this seems limited given the potential for judicial action against him and significant public opposition to his recent actions. Nor does Guatemala appear likely to experience a resumption of the state-sponsored violence that plagued it in the past. Both the minister of defence, General Williams Mancilla and government Spokesman Heinz Heimann have ruled out the imposition of a state of siege or punitive measures against those who had protested President Morales’ decision to expel Velásquez. That the minister of the interior, Francisco Rivas, a trusted former attorney, has remained in place suggests that heavy-handed methods can be avoided. The army, too, has been weakened in recent years and no longer is a decisive political actor.

That said, protests could well grow. For now, widespread turnout remains significantly short of the unprecedented level of mobilisation that was witnessed during the 2015 corruption scandal. However, should there be a future attempt to remove Velásquez or curb CICIG, this could trigger wider anger. Most importantly perhaps, it remains to be seen what Morales will now do to resist CICIG’s requests to lift his immunity from prosecution for illicit campaign financing.

What can the international community do?

The U.S. has important interests in Guatemala, frequently referred to by high-level U.S. officials as a significant national security concern. The European Union (EU) also has an interest in Guatemala. It has provided as much financial support to CICIG as the U.S. Both the EU and U.S. have made clear their opposition to Morales’ action, the EU through communiqués opposing Morales’ decision, the U.S. through the voice of its ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, as well as through various members of Congress. They, along with others, should continue to support Velásquez’s position but without a heavy-handed approach that would smack of interference. Facing such pressure, Morales may already have realised that he has committed a political error, and will need to devise less provocative strategies to avoid the threat of prosecution and a premature end to his presidency. He also will want to avoid overly alienating the U.S., given the risk of counter-measures from Washington, in particular a halt to its financial aid to the Northern Triangle area.

For the international community, CICIG is a unique case study in international support for the justice sector in a weak democracy. It remains to be seen if CICIG will be strong enough to stand up to the power of a national corrupt system under threat. Whatever happens, measures to clean up Guatemala’s system should emanate from Guatemalan institutions, not from obvious direct impositions by outside powers, and the international community should demonstrate its confidence in them and in the country’s citizens. Over the past decade, the CICIG has shown the capacity to act effectively, even if it is now threatened by those who stand to lose money and influence or who seek to justify the defence of their interests by denouncing foreign intervention in a sovereign state. That is an indicator in itself of CICIG’s success, which can and should be replicated in other Latin American countries.

Arturo Matute, Analyst, Guatemala.

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