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Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity
Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity
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/guatemalaelecciones.com

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.

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.