The United Nations anticorruption office in Guatemala has always had critics. Observers have quibbled about its selection of cases, its uneven leadership and its difficulty transforming local criminal justice institutions. But since it opened shop in 2007, one thing has always been clear: in Guatemala’s sea of murderous gangs and venal officeholders, the UN investigators are the good guys.
The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala—known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG—provoked opposition from its targets. It is understandable that former President Otto Pérez Molina sought to shut down CICIG; after all, CICIG’s sleuthing into Pérez Molina’s alleged misconduct ultimately forced his resignation and arrest. Who could blame his successor, President Jimmy Morales, for attempting to deport CICIG’s commissioner, a former Colombian prosecutor named Iván Velásquez? Morales is the target of a CICIG campaign finance probe that has trashed his anti-corruption credentials and is jeopardizing his presidency.
However, the recent attacks against CICIG from outside Guatemala are unexpected, unfair and shamefully counterproductive.
These attacks gained prominence last month, after Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady accused CICIG investigators of “thumbing their noses at the rule of law,” while summing up CICIG’s historic achievements as having “busted some criminals.” Her criticism stems from CICIG’s prosecution of a Russian family that settled in Guatemala after fleeing Vladimir Putin in 2009, and later became involved—or perhaps ensnared—in a fraudulent document ring. By way of explanation, O’Grady has darkly suggested CICIG “incompetence,” Kremlin meddling in a “rogue” institution, and the influence of “unscrupulous actors and left-wing UN ideology”—though with no evidence.
The U.S. Congress’s Helsinki Commission held an emergency hearing on the issue on April 27th, where the co-chairman, U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R, NJ), lamented the inadequate congressional oversight of CICIG. “It’s clearly time for that to change,” he said. Next, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R, FL) escalated the dispute. On May 4th, he announced a hold on the $6 million U.S. contribution to CICIG’s budget. In a letter to Morales, Rubio questioned “CICIG’s ability to remain free from the corruption that it has been charged with prosecuting.” Though focused on the fraudulent documents case, Rubio’s letter legitimized the Guatemalan president’s broadsides against the international investigators, who have also criminally charged the president’s brother and son.
CICIG has strongly denied the allegations of misconduct and Kremlin influence. In a statement, the commission said it was “shocked and concerned about biased, contradictory and troubling information regarding legal proceedings affecting the Bitkov family, which do not conform to reality.” The “unfounded allegations,” it said, “are circulating at the highest level of the U.S. Congress with no evidence.”
On May 8th, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, announced his continued support for CICIG and its embattled commissioner. The next day, U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (D, NY) promised to “reject all efforts to delegitimize CICIG.”
Like many of CICIG’s investigations, the case involving the Bitkov family is complex and involves a sprawling criminal network. CICIG is an imperfect institution, and its handling of aspects of the case might very well be flawed. But even those who have legitimate questions about the Bitkov prosecution in Guatemala should think twice before endorsing or advocating for scorched-earth tactics against CICIG.
In impoverished, violence-plagued Guatemala, CICIG is a ray of hope. Its investigations have purged 1,700 corrupt police officers, dismantled drug trafficking syndicates and broken up death squads. It has targeted hundreds of public officials, including lawmakers and judges. Its fearless and trailblazing inquiries into senior officials have no doubt inspired prosecutors elsewhere in Latin America, whose recent investigations into public corruption have felled political giants in Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.
The U.S. investment in CICIG is minor given CICIG’s successes and the importance of instituting the rule of law in Guatemala, where impunity fuels the violent crime that sends migrants to the United States.
Earlier, when CICIG faced off against Guatemala’s president, its allies rallied around the UN do-gooders. In February, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Luis Arreaga, a career diplomat, posed for a photograph with CICIG’s commissioner, holding an “I love CICIG” bumper sticker. The same month, in an important gesture, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley visited the CICIG headquarters, and she urged the Guatemalan president to back off. “I told him that we supported CICIG and supported the commissioner,” she said.
Today, CICIG’s supporters–and anyone invested in Latin America’s anticorruption struggle–should once again come to CICIG’s defense. Though CICIG’s international critics portray their campaign as a grandiose fight against Putin, their attacks merely aid the local thugs, crooks and assassins that victimize the Guatemalan people on a daily basis.
Benjamin N. Gedan is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS.