Guatemala’s would-be reformist President Jimmy Morales won office by a landslide last year by using a simple but effective slogan: “not corrupt, nor a thief”. In one of Latin America’s most violent, unequal and impoverished countries, his election was part of an anti-corruption “tsunami” that began in April 2015, led by the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office (AG). The racket that emerged in April 2015 in the customs authorities claimed the scalps of high-ranking officials, sparked massive protests throughout the country, and eventually brought down the corruption-plagued administration of former President Otto Pérez Molina, who was jailed promptly after his resignation.
Pérez Molina’s former vice president, most of his cabinet, scores of politicians and many prominent businesspeople now face trial in connections to the customs fraud and a barrage of ensuing cases. As a result, Guatemala stands at a crossroads. Either it continues the unprecedented anti-corruption actions, or falls back into the vice-ridden past where illicit networks sought to embezzle, defraud, bribe and extort public money for private gain, with no adverse consequences.
The past year proved how emboldened institutions are now willing to use legal prosecution to disentangle the state and political parties from criminal groups. Guatemala’s capacity to bring to justice officials who had previously enjoyed complete impunity represented a unexpected revolution in national life. The country is still reeling from the shock of this change, and the outcome of this process is far from certain. “Justice doesn’t change states on its own, it just contributes to identify what ails them” warns CICIG commissioner, and centrepiece of the judicial campaign, Colombian investigative judge Iván Velásquez.
President Jimmy Morales, an outsider who gained fame as a TV comedian, broke with a relatively long tradition of Guatemalan politics in winning by 67.4 percent of the vote in the second round of the 2015 elections even though he was not the runner-up in the previous presidential contest, nor the greatest spender in the campaign. Manuel Baldizón, the candidate in question on both counts, fled the country after a poor showing in the first round, allegedly to escape the wrath of his many financial backers.
However, Morales is now struggling to differentiate his government from that of his predecessors. A new joint CICIG and AG investigation into corruption in the National Registry of Property (NRP) has enveloped Samuel “Sammy” Morales, the president’s older brother and a close adviser, and José Manuel Morales, his son. The two men allegedly presented an invoice in 2013 to the NRP for US$12,000 for an event that never took place. They are barred from leaving the country during the investigation.
The case illustrates the slow pace of change in Guatemala. While the modes and networks of corruption have been disturbed, structural conditions of poverty and inequality, as well as rates of violent crime, remain far above the global or Latin American average. Recent death threats against Attorney General Thelma Aldana and the judge handling the main corruption cases are the most sinister side of this anti-reform backlash: Aldana had to leave the country for a month, but the threats have reportedly continued since her return.
The Guatemalan Congress modified the electoral law in April 2016 and introduced stronger controls over financing of political parties. It also passed laws to strengthen the autonomy of the attorney general and create a much-delayed institute for victims of crime. But critics point out that the initiatives have been hastily patched together to assuage popular demands for reform, and are riddled with inconsistencies. They argue that more stringent rules are needed to ensure internal democracy within parties to prevent them from being controlled by strongmen, or to allow for start-up parties such as “Seed Group” (Grupo Semilla), “Justice Now” (Justicia Ya) and “We Are” (Somos) to get a foothold in the party system.
Even though many of these recent achievements are impressive, frustration has festered among many of the civil society groups that drove the anti-corruption mobilisation last year. Most of the lawmakers elected in 2015 conform to the traditional way of doing politics in Guatemala, described in a report published by CICIG as a system where “the money that comes from corruption [to finance political parties] is increased by resources contributed by criminal organisations, which achieve dangerous influence and, in certain localities, control over authorities”. Recent efforts by the president to secure control of Congress’ governing board have been sharply criticised for relying on deputies with shady pasts.
Evidently, President Morales has not become the anti-corruption crusader that many voters wished for. His anti-establishment stance still lacks a clear plan to clean up political life and to broaden the state’s measly provision of basic services. His effort to improve state finances by raising what are Latin America’s lowest tax rates was badly planned and rejected by most sectors of society. The shadow of the so-called military “juntita” – a clique of former army officers who came into power with him – hangs over his administration and undermines his credibility as a political outsider. His call on foreign states not to intervene in Guatemalan judicial matters, presumably under the advice of juntita members bitter at international support for cases against human rights violations during the armed conflict, has also been questioned by international bodies. Falling asleep during the presentation of the 2017 budget has not helped his public image.
However, a counter-reformist backlash is unlikely. The traditional powerful actors who dominated Guatemala’s post-conflict democracy and might seek a return to the old order have lost the initiative and lack an agenda. The army is no longer a preeminent political force, and would be very reluctant to join an anti-reform effort that would face fervent opposition from citizens and international opprobrium. Opposition from the private sector has also weakened. The head of the main business association and a former fortress of political power, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), recently pledged the private sector would continue to support the anti-corruption campaign, even if it harms its members. Another new constituency vocally supporting reform is an engaged and critical middle class making use of new outlets in cable television, online newspapers and radio.
At the same time, some of Morales’ high-level appointments have pumped oxygen into his faltering administration. One of them is Francisco Rivas, a lawyer who ascended through the ranks of the prosecution service leading investigations that produced the arrests of major drug traffickers – earning him the trust of the attorney general, the CICIG and U.S. security agencies. Rivas is now providing the operational back-up to their investigations, which was not always forthcoming in previous administrations.
Another fresh face is the current Health Minister Lucrecia Hernández, daughter of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist murdered by a military death squad in 1990 due to her work with communities displaced by the conflict. Hernández and her aunt, Helen Mack, have carried out a decades-long struggle for justice in the case and created the Myrna Mack Foundation, one of Guatemala’s leading human rights organisations. Waging a complicated battle against entrenched corruption in the health ministry, Hernández confronts an acute crisis of medical supplies in hospitals.
Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa, for his part, was allegedly blackballed by the military juntita and prevented from joining Rivas in the interior ministry, but has since become another member of Morales’young bloods after his appointment as chief of the Guatemalan Tax Bureau (SAT). He worked for thirteen years in the Attorney General’s Office, where he carried out investigations against street gangs and undertook the wiretap recordings that helped bring down the Pérez government. “Foppa” developed a reputation of fearlessness, and in his new role has taken on large firms formerly considered untouchable, such as the steel works “Aceros de Guatemala”, the soft drinks firm “Big Cola” and the drugstore chain “Farmacias Galeno”, which during his first three months in his job returned over US$110 million in unpaid taxes.
But Guatemala needs more than new faces in politics to right the wrongs of the old establishment. International backing is fundamental in this effort, and unless the Republican president-elect’s campaign against undocumented migration affects other areas of policy in Central America when he takes power in 2017, U.S. support seems reliably strong.
The U.S. remains the region’s geopolitical hegemon, and regards the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) as one of its national security priorities, largely due to the stream of migrants and refugees fleeing the region’s poverty and violence. Guatemala is exemplary in enjoying bipartisan U.S. support in its anti-corruption crusade and is a beneficiary of the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle of Central America, which will significantly increase cooperation funding.
Extraordinarily, the actions of the U.S. in Guatemala are regarded as welcome even by individuals personally harmed by its earlier Cold War interventions. The “holy trinity” of the U.S. embassy, the attorney general, and the CICIG, as certain wits brand it, has been fundamental to the high-level corruption cases and reform plans in the fields of justice, politics and the constitution as a whole. Allies of the U.S. government in Guatemala are also changing, as reflected by the absence of some of its usual political associates during independence day celebrations in July 2016: most of those present were less prominent civil society activists and academics.
The strengthening justice system, new initiatives for political reform processes and support from an activist citizenry and the international community provide President Morales with exceptional opportunities to turn his campaign slogan into the new identity of the Guatemalan state. If properly implemented, reforms to the electoral law and the subsequent constitutional amendments may go a long way to cleaning up politics, but the construction of a new political party system is a challenge that must be dealt with head on. Rules must be simplified so that new groups, composed primarily of young people, are able to participate. These new political actors should hopefully be able to overcome the divisions of the past and the injustices in Guatemala society. There is a long road to travel, but the journey has at least begun.
Arturo Matute, analyst, Guatemala.