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Political Turmoil in Guatemala: Opportunities and Risks
Political Turmoil in Guatemala: Opportunities and Risks
Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity
Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity

Political Turmoil in Guatemala: Opportunities and Risks

Guatemala is confronting a fast-moving crisis of political legitimacy, as prosecutors reveal new evidence that appears to implicate President Otto Pérez Molina and his former vice president in an allegedly massive tax fraud scheme. Powerful business and civil society organisations are calling for the president’s resignation. Almost twenty years after the end of a bloody civil war, Guatemala has an opportunity to overcome a legacy of impunity, weak institutions and crippled political parties. At the same time, there is a danger that hope could turn into frustration and even violence if political actors fail to respect constitutional rules, and those chosen in the 6 September elections for president and Congress ignore popular demands for justice and transparency.

The tax fraud case, dubbed “La Línea” after the telephone line said to have been used by importers to reduce customs duties in exchange for bribes, is one of several corruption scandals involving high-level government officers that have rocked the country since April. A special legislative commission voted unanimously on 29 August to lift the president’s immunity, a decision now before the full Congress. If a super-majority of at least 105 of 158 lawmakers agrees, prosecutors can then file charges against the president in criminal court.

Pérez Molina, who is ineligible for re-election and whose term ends on 14 January, has denied responsibility and refused to resign. He accuses the private sector of complicity in the racket and denounces unnamed foreign actors’ intervention in internal affairs. Backing national prosecutors in these investigations is the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a hybrid body established with UN help in 2006 to investigate and dismantle illicit groups operating within state institutions. Its mandate was recently extended to 2017.

Support for the president is falling away rapidly. More than a dozen high-level government officers have resigned, while the most powerful private sector association, the Catholic Church, human-rights groups, academic institutions and dozens of civil society organisations have called for him to step down. Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets to demand that Congress withdraw his immunity. Some also call for the elections to be postponed, allowing candidates independent of a political system now widely viewed as corrupt to run.

As CICIG pointed out in a July report, Guatemala’s political parties tend to be clientelistic machines that pursue power to extract personal benefits, not to channel broad political demands. The candidates in Sunday’s general elections, which will choose the national congress plus local authorities by simple majorities, mainly appear to represent politics as usual, rather than the change many citizens are demanding. Unless one of the three main contenders for the presidency achieves an absolute majority, there will be a runoff on 25 October.

The new Congress’ first business, when it takes office on 14 January, should be cleaning up the political system. It needs to begin by reforming the electoral law to strengthen oversight of campaign financing, limit lawmakers’ and mayors’ terms, allow grassroots movements to run independent candidates and provide equal access to mass media. Laws governing the civil service, transparency and the justice sector should be reformed next. A proposal by the electoral authority to modify campaign laws, which remarkably enjoys support of more than 100 civil organisations, was stalled in the old Congress. Those chosen in the upcoming elections will be scrutinised closely by an increasingly organised civil society determined to push for change and hold leaders accountable for wrongdoing.

National prosecutors and CICIG, with strong public support, are showing that no one is above the law. Guatemala has the opportunity to transform a political crisis into cleaner and more accountable government and in so doing provide a lesson that other Central American nations, particularly Honduras, should heed.

In addition to legislative reforms, however, much remains to be done to sever politics from crime. Prosecutors must still work to dismantle illegal structures. Trials must be open, with full respect for defendants’ rights. Those demanding justice in the streets need to be ready to accept both guilty and not-guilty verdicts. The elections must be free and fair, so that the results are widely respected. While it is remarkable that the business community and civil organisations are working side by side, they will need to incorporate internal reforms to prove that their intentions are for the greater good of Guatemalan society.

If the resignation of the president is accepted by the Congress, or if the position becomes vacant permanently for any other reason, the constitution requires that he be succeeded by the vice president, who is then to present Congress with three candidates for his own replacement. These legal procedures must be respected. Likewise, the government must continue to respect the rights of protesters, who in turn must continue to act peacefully and avoid provocation.

The judicial authorities, backed by an energised citizenry, have gained the initiative in this crisis. This is a welcome departure from Guatemalan history, which includes attempts in 1987 and 1988 to overthrow the elected governments that ended decades of military domination; an effort in 1993 by an elected president to dissolve Congress and the Supreme Court; and, traditionally, the shaping of events by parallel or outside powers, including the U.S.

Accountability, social participation and political reform offer the best chance yet to fulfil the dreams of Guatemalans who, with international support, crafted the 1996 peace agreements with the goal of building a democratic, inclusive society based on strong, transparent institutions.

Guatemala City/Brussels

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.