Even in Guatemala’s dark political history, this week will go down in infamy. On Monday Congress voted 104-25 to maintain President Jimmy Morales’s immunity from alleged crimes related to campaign financing. Two days later, Congress voted 107-16 to modify the laws to clear Morales of the offense he had been accused of in the first place.
Sandwiched in between the two votes was the revelation that Morales had been receiving Q50,000 a month (nearly $7,000) from the military, a payment framed as a “responsibility bonus” that started just as his brother and son were facing trial for fraud.
The “responsibility bonus” is currently under investigation. Guatemala’s comptroller has recommended that the president pays back the Q450,000 ($61,640) he has received so far. On the other hand, Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro claimed there were, “more or less 96 other government institutions with similar bonus schemes.” Even without those payments, Morales was already Latin America’s highest paid president, receiving a salary of more than $27,200 a month (Q199,000).
Digital news site Nomada broke the news of Morales’s “responsibility bonus,” but within an hour the website went offline amidst claims of hacking. A general internet outage in Guatemala followed, though by Tuesday morning it was back up and running.
With last month’s failed attempt to remove Ivan Velásquez, the commissioner of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the population has essentially been split into pro- and anti-CICIG camps. However, recent lack of action by the Congress on a number of cases appears to have united at least the media and civil society. This includes Congress’ delay of any reform attempts following the ousting of then-president Otto Pérez Molina in 2015. Another was Congress’ decision to make the Tribunal Supremo Electoral—Guatemala’s top electoral body— responsible for filing complaints about illegal funding. On paper this makes some degree of sense, but by its own admission, the TSE has not audited either Morales’s party FCN (Frente de Convergencia Nacional) or its opponent UNE (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza) for reported crimes during the 2015 election.
What was the point? Part of Congress’ reform was to change who is responsible in a Guatemalan political party for donations from the general secretary to an accountant. This would absolve President Morales of any criminal act he may have committed as FCN general secretary from 2013-2016. With no debate or analysis in Congress, the reforms were proposed and passed in record time, receiving equal treatment to a “national emergency.” On another note, in the updated electoral code, the crime Morales was accused of would now be punished by two to four years in jail (previously, the punishment was ten years).
Using the complete breakdown of Guatemala’s prison system—which is currently running at over 300 percent of its capacity—as justification, Congress’s final move was to offer financial amnesty to criminals. Any crime which carried a sentence of less than 10 years can be paid off by a per diem fee. Such a move would allow extortionists, for example, to pay their way out of prison with the proceeds of their crime. Although there are some caveats, for example, for “habitual offenders, for high risk criminals or for those convicted of tax evasion/customs smuggling,” in the end the only thing that this works for is to “buy your way out of justice.” In the words of prosecutor Rootman Pérez, 404 of Guatemala’s 454 laws could result in zero jail time. A study by Centro de Investigaciones Económicas Nacionales (CIEN) concluded that 37 percent of Guatemala’s convicted prisoners could be set free.
Other prisoners likely to benefit from this include sexual crimes offenders, pedophiles, gang members, and, of course, Morales’s brother Sammy and son José Manuel, should they be convicted. The move, described as “the most shameful day in Guatemala’s history,” has already been challenged in the Constitutional Court.
After the changes, hundreds of protesters gathered outside Congress as business and rural organizations united to condemn the changes. The president of Congress, Oscar Chinchilla, called a meeting of the heads of the various political parties in an attempt to walk back the reforms. Guatemala Congress will resume next Monday following the country’s Independence Day celebrations.
Guatemala’s new Foreign Minister, Sandra Jovel—whose first day on the job was spent having her illegal adoption case thrown out of court—claimed that declaring Velásquez, the head of CICIG, persona non grata had “no international implications.” Her statement stands in stark contrast to the international outcry by human rights groups, a bipartisan group of U.S. legislators and the UN Secretary General.
Now, while Morales is en route to a UN meeting, the U.S. is considering its options with a key strategic geopolitical ally. It is possible that the U.S. government will opt to impose individual sanctions, or that investigations will begin into Morales’s government, or that the country will be decertified as an effective partner in the fight against drugs. The US embassy in Guatemala made its feelings known with a tweet claiming that, to congress, while the poor state of schools, roads and hospitals isn’t a national emergency, protecting corrupt politicians apparently is.
Should aid to Guatemala be cut, which seems the most likely response—it was discussed in the U.S. Congress this week—the people hit hardest will be the country’s poor and vulnerable. The government has already secured international loans to make up for any aid shortfall, which may not reach their intended recipients should Morales need to pay for political favors.
Another side-effect of this very unfortunate “blanket amnesty” is the potential for more extortion and more violence, especially coming from prisons. An estimated 90 percent of Guatemala’s extortion originates in its prison system. Should a prisoner wish to buy his or her release, extorting bus drivers, businesses and individuals is one of the quickest routes to money.
The sheer brazenness of the country’s pro-impunity Congressional vote is both a taunt and a challenge to the international community. Whether or not the reforms are illegal or not, their potential consequences would prove disastrous in an already violent nation. At best this is immoral. At worst, it leaves Guatemala as a global pariah. Sadly, the retreat from liberal order in Latin America continues.