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Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala
Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala
People hold national flags as they take part in a demonstration in demand of Guatemalan President Otto Perez's resignation, in Guatemala City, on 22 August 2015. AFP/Johan Ordonez
Report 56 / Latin America & Caribbean

Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala

Dramatic changes upended Guatemalan politics in 2015. Forcing the pace were international prosecutors, bolstered in their fight against corruption and impunity by a great wave of support from ordinary citizens. If Guatemala’s national reforms continue when outside help leaves, it can become a true role model for the region.

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Executive Summary

Guatemala – one of Latin America’s most violent, unequal and impoverished countries – is enjoying a rare moment of opportunity. A new president, Jimmy Morales, bolstered by a landslide victory, has taken office promising to end corruption. The old political elite is in disarray. Emboldened citizens are pressing for reforms to make justice more effective and government more transparent. Behind these changes is a unique multilateral experiment, the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose investigators work with national prosecutors to dismantle criminal networks within the state. CICIG is not a permanent fix, however. Guatemala will lose its opportunity unless national leaders assume the fight against impunity as their own, approve stalled justice and security sector reforms and muster the financial resources to strengthen domestic institutions.

CICIG began operations in 2007 to investigate clandestine security groups that continued to operate within the state following the 1996 accords that ended 36 years of intermittent armed conflict. Such groups still undermine the state, though their main goal now is economic power, not elimination of political opponents. International support and financing guarantee the commission’s independence, though it operates under Guatemalan laws. Unlike traditional capacity-building efforts, it not only trains, but also works side by side with national prosecutors and police, providing them with the necessary technical expertise and political autonomy to hold powerful suspects accountable before the law.

CICIG has promoted and helped implement legislation to create a witness protection program, tighten gun controls, establish rules for court-ordered wiretaps and asset forfeiture and institute high-risk courts for the trial of particularly dangerous defendants. At the same time, it has carried out complex, high-profile probes that resulted in charges against a former president for embezzlement, an ex-minister and other top security officials for extrajudicial executions and dozens of additional officials and suspected drug traffickers for fraud, illicit association and homicide.

The commission has faced significant setbacks and limitations, however. Some high-profile cases have ended in acquittal. Key reforms, such as a judicial career law, have stalled in Congress. While it has helped strengthen certain specialised prosecutorial units, the public prosecutor’s office remains overstretched, even absent, in much of the country. Other institutions essential for combatting impunity – notably the civilian police and judiciary – are still weak, vulnerable to corruption and largely unaccountable.

The most dramatic blows it has delivered against impunity came in 2015 with the arrest of almost 200 officials for corruption, including a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud customs. Working with national prosecutors, CICIG collected and analysed massive amounts of evidence. The evidentiary trail, according to prosecutors, led to President Otto Pérez Molina, who resigned (though denying any criminal activity) and now awaits trial in a military prison.

Much of CICIG’s recent success is due to the determination and persistence of its current commissioner, Iván Velásquez, a jurist known for uncovering the links between politicians and paramilitary structures in his native Colombia. CICIG cannot function, however, without the close collaboration and support of Guatemalan prosecutors. Very different attorneys general – Claudia Paz y Paz, a former human rights activist, and Thelma Aldana, a veteran jurist – have shown the independence and courage to pursue complex, controversial cases against powerful suspects.

A crucial ingredient is popular support. Both the commission and public prosecutors enjoy wide approval among citizens exhausted by violent crime and corruption. The investigations spawned a broad civic movement for justice reform and government transparency. In a country long polarised by ideological, economic and ethnic differences, the anti-corruption crusade has at least temporarily united groups ranging from business associations to labour unions, urban professionals to indigenous leaders.

Anger over government fraud holds this movement together, rather than any clear agenda for change. Elected leaders should channel discontent into positive action by initiating a national debate on the reforms needed to strengthen justice and encourage accountability. Morales, a former television comedian, campaigned as the anti-politician. He has yet to put forward a clear reform program, including new legislation to guarantee the independence of judges and prosecutors, toughen campaign-financing laws and create honest, professional civilian police. Moreover, a weak, underfunded state needs to enact fiscal and tax reforms so that its justice institutions have the resources needed to pay good salaries, provide decent working conditions and extend their coverage across the country.

CICIG’s mandate ends in September 2017, though the president wisely has proposed extending it. International assistance cannot last indefinitely, however. The commission is Guatemala’s best opportunity for genuine justice reform, and it should not be wasted, but the government must start planning for its departure by fortifying its own capacity to fight crime and corruption.


To translate anticorruption promises into clear action plans and prepare for the time when CICIG is no longer needed

To the Guatemalan government:

  1. Promote, adopt and implement legislation and policies to further professionalise prosecutors and judges, including reform of the selection and recruitment process, longer terms to guarantee independence and new mechanisms to evaluate performance and curb corruption.
  2. Revive efforts to transform the civilian police into professional forces focused on preventing violence and to revamp its investigative body to work with prosecutors on resolving crimes, including the transfer of capacities and knowledge from CICIG.
  3. Give police, prosecutors and judges more resources to fight crime and impunity by carrying through tax and fiscal reform, including by challenging private sector leaders, economic experts and civil society to devise proposals for making taxing and spending more efficient, equitable and transparent.

To the Guatemalan Congress:

  1. Work across party lines and with the president and civil society to devise a strategy, including tax and fiscal reform, for combating corruption and strengthening justice and security institutions.
  2. Schedule promptly a final vote on the bill to reform political parties and tighten campaign-financing rules.
  3. Reconvene the working group on justice reform, bringing lawmakers together with CICIG, judges and civil society to propose and debate initiatives to strengthen judicial independence and competence, as well as whether or how to limit the prosecutorial immunity of members of Congress and other public officials.

To the Guatemalan judiciary:

  1. Provide additional training for judges at all levels on use of criminal analysis, scientific evidence and new prosecutorial tools, such as plea-bargaining with defendant/informants.
  2. Work with the president, Congress and civil society on the career law and other initiatives to make the judiciary more independent and professional.

To the Guatemalan Public Ministry (MP) and CICIG:

  1. Expand cooperation to transfer capacities to specialised prosecutors working on complex cases, such as those investigating organised crime, money laundering and human trafficking.
  2. Strengthen the MP’s internal affairs office to identify, sanction or remove officials guilty of misconduct.
  3. Work jointly on a strategy to build a professional corps of investigative police.
  4. Promote accountability within the MP and CICIG by devising measurable goals and benchmarks.

To the U.S., European Union and its member states and other donor states and institutions:

  1. Continue to provide CICIG with the resources needed to conclude its work, including additional funds for capacity building.
  2. Encourage other countries struggling with corruption and violence to consider an appropriate version of the CICIG international/national partnership model.

 Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 29 January 2016

Use our interactive timeline to explore the developments leading to CICIG’s creation, its impact and the dramatic events of 2015.

Guatemalan presidential candidate for National Convergence Front Jimmy Morales addresses the media at his campaign headquarters in Guatemala City, 6 September 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Guatemala’s Electoral Dramas

Amid unprecedented scenes of high political drama, Guatemalans voted for major change in a first round of presidential voting on 6 September. They handed first place – for now – to a comic actor. But whether this will deliver political renewal, or a clean sweep of corruption allegations that brought down the previous president and vice president, remains unclear.

Extraordinary citizen mobilisation accompanied the poll, as did judicial investigations into alleged corruption. Just three days before the vote this resulted in the resignation, and subsequent detention, of the president of the country. Guatemalans cast their ballots in record numbers, giving Jimmy Morales – a comedian with little experience in politics – the largest percentage in the poll. He was followed by former First Lady Sandra Torres. Her success narrowly squeezed the previous front-runner, businessman Manuel Baldizón, out of the 25 October second round.

INFOGRAPHIC | 2015 Guatemalan Elections

On the streets, in café conversations and in television phone-ins, citizens are still demanding greater transparency in both government and campaign spending. They know that criminal investigations have weakened, but not eliminated, the nexus between politics and illicit business. For the extraordinary events of 2015 to usher in a deeper process of political reform, however, reformists need to transform their street mobilisation into organised civic engagement.

Prosecutors have carried out a sweeping anti-corruption campaign with the help of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a hybrid body created in 2006 with the help of the United Nations to investigate and dismantle illicit groups operating within state institutions. As Crisis Group detailed in April, the scandal broke when they exposed a racket dubbed “La Línea” that was allegedly defrauding the government of customs duties in return for kickbacks.

The case enveloped former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who resigned in May, before claiming President Otto Pérez Molina himself, after Congress voted unanimously 1 September to lift his presidential immunity. In a development that is unprecedented in Guatemalan history, both the president and vice president are now in custody, facing corruption charges. The new president, Alejandro Maldonado, a veteran jurist appointed to succeed Baldetti, took power through the established legal procedures, as called for by Crisis Group, and presided over the elections.

Television comedian Jimmy Morales will stand against Guatemala’s former first lady Sandra Torres in a presidential run-off election on 25 October. CRISIS GROUP/

Morales, the winner in the first round, benefitted from name recognition and his status as an outsider from the political class targeted by protestors. An evangelical protestant, he is a conservative who ran on the simple slogan of being “neither corrupt, nor a thief”. Critics worry about his inexperience, which he acknowledges, and his support from military veterans’ groups committed to preventing further trials about human rights abuses perpetrated during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict.

Sandra Torres is known for implementing social programs popular in rural areas during the government of her ex-husband Alvaro Colom (2008 – 2012). Opponents depict her as a radical, though she has tried to move toward the center by naming a businessman with close ties to the country’s biggest consortiums as her running mate. She has the advantage of a solid national party structure, though electoral authorities and CICIG accused her of unfair campaign practices and critics point out to other grave allegations.

A protester climbs up the columns of Guatemala’s Metropolitan Cathedral. CRISIS GROUP/Arturo Matute

Whoever wins the 25 October runoff will face a divided Congress. Although Baldizón failed to make the second round, his Líder party has the most members of the national legislature, with 37 lawmakers. Torres’ National Unity of Hope (UNE) party won 28 seats in the assembly, which may allow it to build alliances with potentially like-minded groups, such as former President Alfonso Portillo’s Everyone (TODOS) and other smaller groupings.

This could help UNE push for a reform agenda, which Torres says is her objective. Countering critics, skeptical of UNE’s commitment to change, Torres has called on Congress to approve the reforms before the new legislature, although this may be a campaign tactic to muster support from the urban middle classes where her showing was weakest. The runoff could be close. Morales is expected to take much of the urban vote while Torres may be able to pick up votes from former Baldizón supporters in predominantly rural municipalities. The winner will take office on 14 January 2016.

Meanwhile, President Maldonado has promised to take up protesters’ demands for political reform, urging the current Congress to approve amendments to the electoral law before the runoff. His caretaker government also faces a difficult fiscal situation, which will require the government to carefully distribute funds among critical public institutions, especially hospitals, prisons and the police.

Comments left behind on a large canvas in Guatemala City’s central square during a massive demonstration on 27 August, a few days before former President Otto Pérez Molina resigned after a corruption scandal. CRISIS GROUP/ Arturo Matute

The president presented a list of three candidates for vice president, from which Congress chose Alfonso Fuentes Soria, a former rector of the national university and director of the Presidential Human Rights Commission under Alfonso Portillo. It is not clear if Maldonado, Soria and his newly appointed cabinet have the political skills and clout in Congress to forward the reforms.

Citizens’ groups, business associations and activists have come together during the crisis and reached basic consensus on a minimal reform agenda that considers stricter regulations for political parties and campaign funding, an invigorated comptroller to oversee public transactions, more transparency in government procurement, the enhancement of a meritocratic civil service, buttressing the independence of judges and magistrates, and strengthening the Public Ministry’s capacities to investigate corruption.

Unfortunately it’s unlikely that a majority of lawmakers will support the reforms now that the incentive to respond to citizens’ demands implied by their re-election campaigns is over. Nevertheless, it may prove unwise for them to disregard the new popular will. Guatemalan society has been maturing much faster than its political system, mobilising the people and intensifying demands for political change.

Much remains to be done to fulfill the promises made way back in 1996, when a peace accord offered not only to terminate the civil war, but to bring a better democracy to Guatemala, based on transparency, accountability and an enhanced rule of law. Peaceful protests and civic engagement combined with greater judicial scrutiny have already proven to be the best means available to compel politicians to better represent public interest.

If even these mechanisms fail to push forward democratic reforms, society risks opting for more radical demands and means, prolonging the crisis and perhaps descending into violence. The extraordinary steps forward already taken during 2015 are an opportunity Guatemala should not miss.