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Ending Corruption in Guatemala
Ending Corruption in Guatemala
Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity
Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity
Aerial view during a protest against Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti for the recent corruption cases in the government, in Guatemala City, 25 April 2015. AFP/Carlos Alonzo

Ending Corruption in Guatemala

The work of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) played a crucial role in Guatemala’s recent successes against corruption.

In this Q&A, Crisis Group Guatemala Analyst Arturo Matute explains what the UN-backed body’s investigations have revealed, and how it should fulfil its mission to promote accountability and strengthen rule of law in one of the world’s most violent countries.

Crisis Group: How important is the recent crackdown on corruption in Guatemala?

Arturo Matute: The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has scored its biggest prosecutorial hit yet with the arrest of top officials accused of running a racket to defraud the state of millions of dollars in customs revenues. The scandal has rocked Guatemala’s political establishment, coming as it does just months before the September general elections. It has also sparked condemnation by political and civil society leaders across the ideological spectrum. President Otto Pérez Molina acted quickly to stem the outrage by requesting a two-year extension of the commission’s mandate, pointing out that his government supported its inquiry into possible customs fraud. But charges against Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary as the group’s alleged ringleader has fractured the governing party.

Why was CICIG created and how does it operate?

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is a unique UN-backed body set up to promote the investigation, criminal prosecution and punishment of the crimes committed by illicit security forces and clandestine security organisations. These groups – known by the acronym CIACS in Spanish – were initially linked to counter-insurgency and intelligence networks formed to eliminate government opponents during the 36-year armed conflict that ended formally when guerrilla groups and the government finished signing a series of peace agreements in 1996. After the conflict ended, some CIACS mutated into profit-oriented criminal groups, using their ability to influence or infiltrate state justice institutions to commit illegal activities with impunity.

Human rights and other civil society groups, with strong international backing, pushed for creation of an independent body to investigate criminal networks and their links with the state. Despite opposition from some conservative groups, the government signed the agreement creating CICIG with the UN in 2006. As a mechanism for criminal prosecutions, CICIG is an international entity, funded by foreign governments, but embedded in the national judicial system. Evidence gathered by CICIG is used by Guatemalan prosecutors to bring charges in Guatemalan courts; the commission can also act as a co-plaintiff in certain cases. Its mandate also includes advising the government on judicial and institutional reforms.

What has CICIG accomplished?

A justice sector committee charged with evaluating CICIG’s performance credited the commission with helping secure seventeen convictions as co-plaintiff, resulting in the dismantling of criminal organisations, while providing support in another 24 successful prosecutions. Some of its highest profile investigations have been used to secure guilty verdicts abroad, such as ex-President Alfonso Portillo’s conviction in the U.S. on corruption charges and former National Police Chief Erwin Sperisen’s conviction in Switzerland for the 2006 murder of seven inmates. It has strengthened prosecutors’ capacity by helping establish a special investigation methods unit, a criminal analysis section and a witness protection office. It has also promoted legal reforms, including laws to create special high-risk courts, regulate firearms and ammunitions and permit plea bargaining, plus the country’s first asset forfeiture law, allowing the state to seize illegally acquired properties.

But CICIG has also drawn criticism. Despite past investigations leading to the arrest of top officials within the police, the Ministry of Interior and the prison system, some said it had failed to uncover criminal networks within the state or to consolidate institutional reforms. The investigation into customs fraud by CICIG under Commissioner Iván Velásquez, a former Colombian judge known for investigating paramilitary activity and political corruption, has helped change that perception. The scale of the fraud and the seniority of the officials captured have outraged Guatemalans, who often seem disinterested in public issues or reluctant to express dissent, given the country’s history of repression. Timing has also magnified the investigation’s impact: the arrests come as political parties are gearing up for presidential, legislative and local elections.

What did CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors uncover and how did they do it?

Prosecutors on 16 April revealed the results of an eight-month investigation into a network created to defraud the national revenue agency. Dubbed by prosecutors “La Línea” – or “The Line” for the telephone number provided to importers seeking to evade duties – the group allegedly took bribes in return for underreporting the value of imported goods. According to prosecutors, it operated within customs offices at ports and border crossings, manipulating shifts so that conspirators could be placed on duty at specific times in specific locations.

Authorities arrested 21 suspects on 16 April, including the current and former heads of the revenue agency. The fraud was allegedly orchestrated by Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, who recently travelled with her to South Korea. His whereabouts since are uncertain and he has been declared a fugitive.

The investigation conducted by CICIG with the help of a special investigation unit in the Public Ministry (Public Prosecutor’s Office) has collected massive amounts of scientific and documentary evidence, including financial records and the interception of some 66,000 telephone conversations and over 6,000 electronic messages. This means that prosecutors do not plan to rely on witness testimony or confessions to obtain a conviction, an advance reflecting the increasing sophistication and professionalisation of Guatemalan investigators.

What are the political implications of this investigation?

The governing Patriot Party has suffered a huge blow. The incrimination of Vice President Baldetti’s private secretary severely weakens the position of one of President Pérez Molina’s closest political allies. Both Baldetti and Monzón have previously faced accusations of corruption in the press, which they denied. The Patriot Party presidential candidate, Alejandro Sinibaldi, resigned from the organisation three days after the arrests, accusing the vice president of having “sabotaged” his campaign and suggesting he would form an electoral coalition. Five congressmen have also abandoned the party.

President Pérez Molina’s credibility has also suffered. Previously he had publicly expressed reluctance to extend CICIG’s work. After the arrests, he reversed his stance and speeded up the presentation of the justice sector committee’s assessment, which recommended extending CICIG’s mandate. Then on 23 April, he announced he would ask the UN Secretary-General to authorise the commission for another two-year period, in a public ceremony attended by cabinet ministers and diplomats.

But the president’s about-face has done little to quell the outrage expressed in regular and social media outlets. Thousands gathered on 25 April in the capital’s Plaza de la Constitución to demand an end to corruption in one of the country’s biggest demonstrations in recent years. Many also called on both the vice president and the president to resign. The political system in general, however, inspires little confidence. Guatemala is one of the Latin American countries where attitudes are least favourable to stability, according to the Americas Barometer, which measures levels of support to the political system and levels of tolerance to dissenting views.

What should CICIG do over the next two years?

Not only has CICIG been able to renew its mandate, it has enjoyed an outpouring of popular support. Former critics, such as the powerful Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations – known as CACIF – have praised the commission’s work in collaboration with the Public Ministry, calling corruption a “cancer” on the national patrimony. This adds to the multiple expressions of support from civil society organisations, academia, and the media as well as from international actors.

CICIG’s investigations are changing the popular perception that Guatemala’s criminal networks are impregnable. Although widespread corruption in institutions such as the tax authority has long been rumoured, national authorities were unable or unwilling to act. There is now broad agreement that international support is needed to dismantle these networks and bring their leaders to justice. But as Crisis Group pointed out in a 2011 report, Guatemala cannot depend on external mechanisms forever: “National ownership of the commission’s functions and objectives is crucial to guaranteeing its long-term impact”.

The justice sector committee’s assessment recommending CICIG’s extension also called for closer coordination with national institutions, through such measures as a joint work plan. Commissioner Velásquez should embrace these recommendations, which would not only bolster CICIG’s image as an able and neutral actor but also encourage broader engagement with Guatemalan police, prosecutors and judges. The commission can also help ensure that the September elections are clean and credible. CICIG has launched an investigation into political campaign financing, promising to turn its results over to electoral authorities. It is an open secret that criminal groups, including powerful drug traffickers, finance political campaigns, especially in vulnerable border communities.

Beyond these considerations, CICIG should make the most of its current popularity to present a proposal for justice sector and electoral reforms and seek congressional support for necessary legal and constitutional changes. The commission’s work in Guatemala will eventually come to an end. Its greatest challenge over the next two years is assuring that national institutions have the training, tools and determination to combat impunity once it is gone.

Next to a sign reading "Rest in peace CICIG", people protest against the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity, CICIG, in Guatemala City on 8 January 2019. Noe Perez / AFP
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean

Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity

President Jimmy Morales has made good on his promise to shut down a UN-backed commission fighting rampant crime and impunity in Guatemala. Though it leaves a vital legacy, the commission’s exit risks strengthening the hand of criminal networks that operate with state complicity.

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What happened?

The UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) closes its doors today, twelve years after embarking on its mission to help the country prosecute serious crimes and support the rule of law. The CICIG worked with Guatemala’s security and judicial institutions to dismantle criminal organisations and impede their collusion with state officials. The expansion of these criminal networks had contributed to the doubling of murder rates in Central America’s most populous country between 1999 and 2006. By then, the annual homicide rate had reached an historic high of 43.6 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, leading a UN rapporteur to rue that Guatemala was “a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it”.

Guatemala’s outgoing president, Jimmy Morales, initially supportive of the CICIG, made terminating it a policy priority over the past two years. A political novice famed for comedy sketches on television, Morales swept to office in 2015 on a wave of public outrage at the political establishment following then-president Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation and arrest on corruption charges in a case of customs fraud filed by the CICIG, for which he is still untried.

Even though its case against Pérez Molina helped pave the way for his election, Morales later argued that the commission trampled on the nation’s sovereignty and routinely overstepped its mandate. His hostility escalated markedly after CICIG decided to investigate him, his son and his brother for fraud, embezzlement and campaign finance violations in 2017. Even though the Guatemalan Congress refused to lift President Morales’ immunity in September 2017 – in effect shielding him from prosecution – and his brother and son were recently acquitted, Morales’ relationship with the CICIG soured permanently. In August 2017, Morales declared the CICIG’s head Iván Velásquez, a Colombian jurist, persona non grata. Then, in 2018, he announced that the commission’s mandate, due to expire in September 2019, would not be renewed. The commission’s closing today marks the fulfilment of that pledge.

How did the U.S. and other donors react?

Although Morales’ decision not to renew the CICIG’s mandate sparked domestic and international outcry, the U.S. – the commission’s main donor with almost $45 million in contributions – chose not to push back. In September 2018, the CICIG donors’ group (known as the G13), released a statement regretting the government’s decision, which the U.S. did not sign.

The U.S.’s about-face on the commission was partly the product of an effective influence campaign. Intense lobbying in Washington by Guatemalan politicians and business figures, many alarmed by probes into the thicket of collusion between companies and political leaders, helped to turn various U.S. politicians against the commission. Unproven allegations that Moscow had penetrated the commission’s 2015 investigations against the Bitkov family, who came to Guatemala fleeing Russian persecution and were then accused of securing their residency papers through corrupt means, helped give the campaign against the CICIG some traction in the U.S. Congress.

President Morales, meanwhile, curried favour with the Trump administration by moving the Guatemalan embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in February 2018, and aligning closely with U.S. efforts to dislodge Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. He also bowed to Washington’s hard line on migration control, signing a Safe Third Country agreement in July 2019. Should it be ratified by the Guatemalan Congress, the agreement will oblige asylum seekers transiting through Guatemala, largely from other Central American countries, to file their requests there rather than in the U.S.

Right-wing President-elect Alejandro Giammattei has already stated he will not reverse Morales’ decision. He has his own grievances with the CICIG, which helped convict and imprison him in 2010 for his alleged involvement in executing seven prisoners while he was head of Guatemala’s prisons, for which he was later exonerated. But CICIG’s popularity among donors and the Guatemalan people – 70 per cent of whom support the commission – has at least persuaded Giammattei to promise a replacement body, funded by the state and headed by three Guatemalan commissioners who, in his words, “will not only prosecute corrupt figures, as did CICIG, but attack the system that fosters corruption”. Doubts remain over the effectiveness of such a new body, both because it would need years to become operational, as did the CICIG, and because commissioners would be designated by the incoming government, raising questions about its independence despite Giammattei’s promise to ensure a transparent, inclusive selection.

Did the commission achieve its goals?

The CICIG made impressive progress, playing a central role in numerous high-profile prosecutions and in reducing violence across the country. Among other things, the CICIG piloted reforms creating a witness protection program, tighter gun controls and rules for court-ordered wiretaps. It spurred the establishment of high-risk crime courts to protect the safety of individuals involved in the prosecution of especially grave crimes, and a special prosecutor’s office against impunity (FECI in Spanish) within the Attorney General’s office. It also trained dozens of prosecutors and police officers in scientific criminal investigation techniques – achieving notoriety in 2010 by proving that a presumed murder victim who claimed in a widely-circulated video that senior officials, including former president Álvaro Colom, had threatened his life, had actually plotted his own homicide in an act of despondency.

Hundreds of investigations hatched or supported by the CICIG have successfully broken up rackets involving prominent officials, business leaders, drug traffickers, extortionists and street gangs. Its work helped oust a dozen corrupt judges, and led to the removal of 1,700 police officials accused of corruption and incompetence. According to the CICIG, unsolved murder cases fell from 95 per cent in 2009 to 72 per cent in 2012.

As Crisis Group has previously reported, these achievements saved lives. In the first seven years of the commission’s operations, while the country’s neighbours and regional peers experienced a 1 per cent annual rise in homicide rates on average, Guatemala saw an average 5 per cent decline, according to World Bank’s figures. Overall, Crisis Group estimates that the CICIG has contributed to a net reduction of more than 4,500 homicides between 2007 and 2017.

What risks does Guatemala face after CICIG’s exit?

The greatest danger is that impunity for serious crimes will rise again, with murder rates and emigration following suit.

According to a recent CICIG report, criminal networks have already begun to revive techniques for obstructing judicial investigations. This has contributed to a fresh spike in impunity rates, which ticked back to 94.2 per cent for homicide cases in 2018, indicating that fragile improvements can easily erode as political support wanes. Had its mandate been renewed, the CICIG might have helped stem the tide, as its presence brought with it UN, U.S. and European backing for robust judicial operations and protection for Guatemalan prosecutors and magistrates. As the lapse of its mandate has approached, threats and attacks have already risen against judges in the Constitutional Court. Attorney General Consuelo Porras has committed to consolidating FECI’s role, but has not confirmed whether her prosecution service will employ the dozens of Guatemalan professionals who built considerable expertise working for the commission.

With the CICIG’s exit, high-level officials and politicians may take advantage of weaker oversight, falling back into the patterns of corruption and state collusion with drug trafficking and other criminal organisations that multiple CICIG cases uncovered. Violence against land rights and other political activists, for which Guatemala already reports the highest per capita rate in the Americas, could worsen. “We are already starting to see a deceleration in the long-term trend of homicide reduction”, said an analyst at the Guatemalan Observatory of Violence.

Although Guatemalans already try to migrate to the U.S. in large numbers for mainly economic reasons, increasing corruption and insecurity are likely to accelerate flight to the north, creating opportunities for criminals who prey on vulnerable migrants through extortion, human smuggling and sexual exploitation.

What significance does CICIG’s closure have for the region?

The CICIG’s closure sets an alarming precedent. The commission had a worthy mandate, more than enough work to do, and the support of the Guatemalan people. What it lacked, in recent years, was sufficient support from the U.S. The evaporation of Washington’s support sends a stark message that the Trump administration is ready to trade away the fight against corruption and for protecting the rule of law in favour of other objectives – including restricting migration and eliciting support for its Israel policy. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández could feel tempted to follow Morales’ example as he considers the fate of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), a body backed by the Organization of American States whose mandate expires in January 2020. Although the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa has reiterated its support for MACCIH, it has also backed the Honduran government’s request that the OAS assess the body’s work before it takes a final decision. It will be critically important that the U.S. not repeat the cold shoulder posture that led to the CICIG’s demise.

At the same time, the CICIG leaves behind a set of accomplishments that others in the region would do well to emulate. Whereas anti-corruption campaigns in other Latin American countries, especially Brazil, have faced criticism over their allegedly selective choice of culprits, political bias and failure to address the conditions that enable graft and impunity to flourish, this charge is far harder to level against the CICIG. Indeed, both candidates in the second round of the last presidential election in Guatemala faced CICIG investigations, and one of them (Sandra Torres) was actually detained on 2 September on illicit electoral financing and unlawful association charges. In scything through the political establishment, the commission spurred its unpopularity with high-level officials – both hastening its demise and securing a legacy that future reformers can look to in taking up the work it was prematurely forced to set aside.