In 2015, massive protests forced then-Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti out of office for corruption. The protests erupted in reaction to an investigation—presented by local prosecutors and the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—into a customs fraud scheme that directly involved the two prominent politicians. Holding a president accountable for corruption while still in office was unprecedented in Guatemala’s democratic history. But equally unprecedented was the combination of sustained, massive mobilizations to push for justice, alongside the effort led by CICIG to uncover the widespread networks of corruption in the country and how they operated.
CICIG’s mandate requires it to work as complementary prosecutor alongside the Attorney General’s office, both to secure the process of capacity transfer to local institutions, and to assuage sovereignty concerns.
But, in an environment marked by extensive impunity, CICIG’s independence and international financial backing has been crucial in building local prosecutor’s capacities and bringing more than a hundred high-level government officials to trial. The leadership of Colombian Ivan Velásquez has been instrumental in pushing forward with cases despite widespread political opposition. And as investigations move forward, cases have grown to include not only corrupt politicians, but also bankers, heads of construction firms and businessmen.
In Guatemala, corruption is not the mere deviation of public officials’ behavior. It is a systemic linkage between criminal groups and elected officials to divert public funds to private pockets, and promote their agendas through the power of the state. In this context, CICIG has pinpointed illegal campaign financing—only recently classified as a crime—as one of the key drivers of the process, the “original sin of Guatemalan democracy,” as Velasquez has repeatedly said.
Toppling a corrupt president, electing another
President Jimmy Morales, a career comedian and political outsider who rose to power during the 2015 election, had long been mulling whether to continue support for the anti-corruption efforts led by CICIG and the Attorney General. His brother and son are accused of facilitating false receipts that defrauded the national property registry in 2013, and some of his party’s backers are also facing charges on human rights abuses; one example is the man who brought Morales into the party, Edgar Ovalle, who fled the country and has an Interpol arrest warrant against him.
As prosecutors have made inroads to uncover campaign contributions, however, the president made up his mind and on August 27 declared Ivan Velásquez persona non grata, ordering him to be expelled from the country.
A few days before, CICIG’s chief and Attorney General Thelma Aldana requested that the Supreme Court remove the President’s immunity from prosecution and presented strong indications that Morales’ party had received at least a million dollars in non-declared campaign contributions for his party, FCN Nacion.
The Constitutional Court (CC) ordered Jimmy Morales to backtrack on his decision to expel Velásquez, arguing the President did not follow the dispute resolution mechanism contemplated in the formal agreement that gave birth to CICIG. Formalities aside, Morales acted on his personal interest to prevent any further progress in the investigation and in doing so, he played puppet to the entrenched political class (the same one he ran against), who have had long sought to stop CICIG.
A political pulse larger than the impeachment
Guatemala’s social movements have rallied behind Ivan Velásquez as the crisis has unfolded and have continued to call for the president’s resignation.
But Morales is backed by the the military, including former officials who feel threatened by CICIG’s peering into cases of human rights violations. In recent days, the president also gained full support from the National Mayor’s Association, parts of the private sector who fear another crisis will affect their business interests, and the Evangelical church. And today, in the latest significant step towards a full-blown constitutional crisis, Guatemala’s congress voted overwhelmingly not to lift President Morales’ immunity.
In Congress, several representatives share an interest with the president to protect themselves from upcoming anticorruption investigations—the Odebrecht shockwaves are yet to arrive in Guatemala—and CICIG is reviewing the books of all parties that took part in the 2015 election.
There is more at stake than Morales’ fate, however, as the groups that oppose CICIG’S efforts also oppose a variety of much-needed structural reforms. Several analysts and institutions have called for reforms to ensure the independence of the judicial system, to remove barriers that prevent new political parties from running for office, and to promote transparency throughout the public sector. But if the fight against corruption is to continue to deliver results, the work of Velásquez in CICIG needs to continue unencumbered. Any semblance of a functioning political system in Guatemala is at risk without it.