The Nobel Peace Prize is the patron saint of lost causes. This month, the Nobel Committee recognized the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons for its far-fetched but admirable ambitions. Next year, the Norwegians should give a nudge to another gutsy organization facing an impossibly uphill climb: the United Nations anticorruption office in Guatemala.
The office is formally known as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, but is always referred to by its Spanish acronym, CICIG. For outsiders, it is an obscure squad of investigators created by the UN and funded by a range of outside donors. But for the legions of corrupt Guatemalan elites, CICIG is a Central American caped crusader, their first worthy adversary in the country’s troubled history.
Yet CICIG is increasingly embattled. Guatemala’s president has tried to expel its top official, and Guatemalan elites—many of whom find themselves in CICIG’s crosshairs—regularly grouse that the organization isn’t necessary and that it has overstepped its mandate. A Nobel Prize would strengthen CICIG’s mandate, and help spread its model in the region and beyond.
The UN established CICIG in 2007 to uproot criminal networks that outlived Guatemala’s brutal civil war, which ended in 1996 after 36 years and 200,000 deaths. Rather than impose an international tribunal, the UN deployed foreign investigators to partner with a trusted cadre of local prosecutors and police. Cases would be tried in Guatemalan courts, under Guatemalan law.
CICIG was not designed to rebuild Guatemala’s overburdened criminal justice system. The country sees 6,000 murders a year, and only 2% go to trial. The case backlog at the attorney general’s office reportedly exceeds one million. It would take 15 years to catch up, provided no other murders occur; sadly, that is unlikely, as cocaine trafficking and gang violence continue to plague the country.
Rather, CICIG’s modest job was to rescue Guatemala from the criminal syndicates that had long ago penetrated its public institutions. In that respect, it has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination, despite daunting challenges.
CICIG investigations have led to the dismissal of 1,700 corrupt police officers. It has targeted hundreds of other public officials as well, including lawmakers and judges. In one inquiry, CICIG built a case against the once untouchable Haroldo Mendoza, a notorious drug trafficker who operated a private army in eastern Guatemala responsible for countless murders and disappearances.
In its most famous case, in 2009, CICIG investigated the death of a lawyer, Rodrigo Rosenberg, who staged his own murder to frame President Álvaro Colom. Before CICIG stepped in, public outrage over the alleged killing had nearly toppled the government.
Recently, it has played the opposite role, turning its attention toward the government; in 2015, CICIG’s investigation into a multimillion-dollar customs fraud implicated President Otto Pérez Molina. As the Guatemalan public digested the evidence—including tens of thousands of intercepted phone calls—protesters in Guatemala City demanded Mr. Pérez Molina’s ouster. He resigned, and was quickly arrested.
Today, CICIG is targeting Mr. Pérez Molina’s successor, a former comedian elected in 2015 on an anticorruption platform. President Jimmy Morales, in his inaugural address, pledged he would “not tolerate” corruption. But like his predecessor, his enthusiasm for anticorruption investigations dimmed after he was targeted by CICIG. As a campaign finance scandal intensified, Mr. Morales attempted to expel CICIG’s commissioner, Iván Velásquez, an investigating judge on Colombia’s Supreme Court who was appointed to CICIG in 2013 by the UN secretary general.
CICIG appears safe, for now. Mr. Morales’s decapitation strike provoked international and local condemnation, with Human Rights Watch warning of “devastating consequences for Guatemala’s efforts to combat corruption and organized crime.” Ultimately, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court blocked efforts to revoke Mr. Velásquez’s visa. Polls show CICIG is Guatemala’s most trusted institution. U.S. support—approximately $5 million per year, the largest single contribution—is not in question.
Still, CICIG’s future is uncertain. Mr. Morales is clearly no ally, and there is no guarantee Guatemala will continue to extend CICIG’s mandate, which expires in 2019.
That would be a shame. Should its success continue, CICIG would not only free Guatemalans from the grip of organized crime, but also set a new standard for neighboring kleptocracies, including Honduras and El Salvador. There, too, high-level corruption has fueled drug trafficking and gang violence and destabilized public institutions. CICIG’s continued triumphs could also inspire anticorruption activities elsewhere in Latin America—where former presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Panama and Peru face corruption charges—and globally.
For its potential future impacts, and in recognition of its achievements in Guatemala, CICIG has earned a Nobel Prize. Like previous recipients—including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—CICIG is the type of courageous and quixotic organization whose time has come for a moment on the Oslo stage.
Benjamin N. Gedan, PhD (@benjamingedan), is a former South America director on the National Security Council. He is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he serves as a term member. Dr. Gedan is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he was responsible for Honduras and Argentina at the U.S. Department of State, and covered Central America and the Caribbean as an international economist at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.