Luis Echeverra / REUTERS Oscar Chinchilla, president of Guatemala's Congress, heads a meeting where lawmakers voted to preserve President Jimmy Morales's immunity from prosecution, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, September 2017. 

Is Guatemala’s Fight Against Corruption Under Threat?

How Its Enemies Are Undermining Progress

Over the past decade, Guatemala has made unprecedented progress in tackling corruption and impunity. The country has seen many powerful criminals, government officials, and influential elites who were once deemed untouchable face justice. This progress is due in great part to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed agency that assists local institutions in exposing criminal networks that have infiltrated the state. Now, however, Guatemala’s progress and the CICIG itself are under threat.

CICIG critics have groped for an accusation that might stick, at times portraying the body as a tool for U.S. interests and at other times as a tool of Latin America’s far left. The most recent attack baselessly claims that the commission has colluded with the Kremlin. These allegations of Russian interference provided the CICIG’s enemies with a new strategy to diminish its support internationally, and the accusation has gained traction among a small minority of legislators in Washington. Reducing U.S. support for one of the most successful global anticorruption mechanisms would pose serious risks to Central American regional security, as well as to the security interests of the United States.

A GAME-CHANGING COMMISSION

Created in 2006 as a result of an agreement between the Guatemalan government and the United Nations, the CICIG aims to dismantle criminal networks that emerged from Guatemala’s brutal civil war–era counterinsurgency structures. These criminal groups have used their relationships with politicians, security officials, and economic elites to co-opt the state and protect their illicit activities. Although the commission can initiate investigations and participate as a co-plaintiff in cases that fall within its mandate, it cannot carry out prosecutions, raids, arrests, or wiretaps on its own. Thus, the CICIG does not replace local institutions but works with them, strengthening the capabilities of Guatemala’s fragile justice system along the way.

Since 2007, alongside Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, the CICIG’s investigations have resulted in the prosecution of powerful drug traffickers, extortion rings, politicians, and senior security officials and in the ousting of more than a dozen corrupt judges and thousands of police officers. The commission’s most prominent investigations have taken place under the leadership of Commissioner Iván Velásquez. In 2015, he exposed a massive corruption scheme implicating President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti, eventually leading to their resignations and prosecution.

The CICIG has helped transform the way criminal investigations are conducted in Guatemala. Thanks to its proposals, prosecutors now have access to essential investigative tools (such as the use of supervised wiretapping and the ability to provide legal benefits to cooperating witnesses) needed to mount stronger cases against organized crime and corruption. With the commission’s support, Guatemala also improved its witness protection system and created special courts that protect judges from organized crime.

These efforts have contributed to a steady decline in Guatemala’s national murder rate, from a high of 45 (per 100,000) in 2009 to 26.1 in 2017. Based on official data, the impunity rate for homicides has also decreased from 98 percent in 2008 to 87 percent in 2016.

Unsurprisingly, these achievements have earned the CICIG the respect of the Guatemalan people and have helped restore Guatemalans’ confidence in the justice system. A 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University shows that 70 percent of Guatemalans support the CICIG, with 57.8 percent expressing confidence in the Attorney General’s Office, making it one of the country’s most trusted public institutions.

THE MORALES BACKLASH

Because of its remarkable achievements, the CICIG has also made powerful enemies. Since late 2016, sectors within and outside of government have colluded to shut down high-profile corruption probes as well as the commission itself. Well-financed, coordinated defamation campaigns have sought to discredit Velásquez, former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, activists, journalists, and others who seek to unearth corruption.

Since late 2016, sectors within and outside of government have colluded to shut down high-profile corruption probes as well as the commission itself.

Tensions escalated last summer after the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office requested that President Jimmy Morales’ immunity be lifted so he could be investigated for illicit campaign financing. The president responded by declaring Velásquez persona non grata. Guatemala’s Congress shielded Morales and, in an attempt to protect its own members and allies from prosecution, sought to reform the penal code to curb penalties for engaging in illicit campaign financing. Following a massive public outcry, the country’s Constitutional Court reversed both decisions.

The battle did not end there. In recent months, the Morales administration replaced several top government officials who had been known to support anticorruption efforts. After these changes, information leaks thwarted several anticorruption operations carried out by the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG. Morales’ allies in Congress continue to seek ways to restrict the fight against corruption, including attempts to remove the country’s independent human rights ombudsman, whose mandate is to ensure the defense, promotion, and protection of human rights in the country and who has been a strong backer of the CICIG and the anticorruption agenda. 

Morales’ strategy has also involved taking aim at the commission’s key sources of support and funding. (The CICIG depends exclusively on the voluntary contributions of international donors, including Canada, the European Union, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States, among others.) Thousands of dollars have been spent on lobbying efforts in the United States. Guatemala supported President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and was the second country in the world to open an embassy there, a move that many analysts believe was meant to curry favor with the administration.

Most recently, anti-CICIG campaigners have used what is known in Guatemala as the “migration case” to spread a false narrative about the commission. The case involved a massive fraud ring in which immigration officials charged up to $50,000 for fake passports and other fraudulent documents. Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office began the investigation in 2010, and the CICIG joined in 2013. Pursuing this case was risky: the whistleblower who had tipped off prosecutors was tortured and killed just three months after sounding the alarm. Prosecutors nonetheless pushed forward, and in January 2018, a judge convicted 39 people, including lawyers, human traffickers, and immigration officials. The case is of critical concern for the United States, as it does not want Guatemala to turn into a refuge for criminals or a transit country for human traffickers, smugglers, or terrorists.

Among those convicted were members of the Bitkovs, a wealthy Russian family, who were charged with identity fraud for buying fake passports, birth certificates, and other documents. The family’s defense was that they fled to Guatemala in 2009 to escape persecution from the Russian government. Yet they did not apply for political asylum until 2016, a year after charges had been brought against them as part of the investigation. The asylum petition was denied. An appeal has been pending a decision by Morales. Last month, the Constitutional Court reversed the verdict against Igor Bitkov and ordered the case to be reconsidered. The case of the Bitkov family has received a great deal of attention in Washington owing to unfounded accusations that their conviction was the result of a Kremlin-CICIG connection.

Those behind the allegations against the CICIG have provided no proof of Russian interference in the commission’s investigation. Russia was never a donor to the CICIG. Nor is there evidence of any other CICIG investigation being influenced by its donors or other external entity. In fact, according to officials present during the UN negotiations that resulted in the creation of the CICIG, Russia was one of the main opponents of the proposal, fearing that similar bodies would be established in its near abroad.

Undeterred by a lack of evidence, these accusations of CICIG-Russia collusion are being echoed by a handful of U.S. members of Congress, including Republican Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey and Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. Consequently, $6 million of U.S. funding to the CICIG has now been placed on hold by the Senate. Since 2007, Washington has provided the CICIG with $44.5 million to carry out its crucial mission. Because the CICIG relies on these funds to operate, criminal networks who had feared investigation have newfound reason for optimism.

WASHINGTON'S CHOICE

Abetting those who seek to derail Guatemala’s progress would have terrible consequences for Guatemala, the region, and the United States. Although the CICIG’s efforts have achieved unprecedented results, domestic justice institutions are not yet strong enough to secure the gains achieved thus far; the influence of powerful criminal structures on state agencies has not been fully undone. In many parts of the country the state remains nonexistent. The country has one of the lowest judges-to-population ratios in the region, and the Attorney General’s Office has offices in only 41 of Guatemala’s 340 municipalities. Moreover, despite the overall drop in killings, rates of violent crime remain high.

For the United States, ensuring that Guatemala strengthens its state institutions is key. Rampant violence, organized crime, and poverty have long driven undocumented immigration from Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexican border. Dismantling criminal networks that have co-opted Guatemala’s institutions is in Washington's best interest and will ultimately lead to greater governability, security, and prosperity. The U.S. Congress must choose: become distracted by a groundless disinformation campaign or continue protecting the CICIG from its enemies, thereby providing Guatemala with a chance of a stable future.

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