Central America has drifted toward authoritarianism in recent months. While both Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Juan Orlando Hernandez in Honduras have consolidated power through fraudulent election processes and the use of violence, they had a more fundamental thing in common: both strongmen first reined in the courts and curtailed judicial independence.
In Guatemala, a similar situation is unfolding.
In recent weeks, President Jimmy Morales’ long running confrontation with the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has escalated to become a power struggle between the executive branch—and the relevant power sectors that support it—and the Constitutional Court of Guatemala. If the Court cannot hold its ground, Guatemala will join its Central American colleagues in a shift toward autocracy.
With the exception of Morales’ personal appointee, Dina Ochoa, magistrates have halted several of the government’s measures to impede the work of CICIG. In recent weeks, the Court has instructed Morales to backtrack on his decisions to:
- Prevent the Commissioner, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country;
- Withdraw visas for eleven investigators in charge of key corruption investigations; and
- Allow one of these investigators, Yilen Osorio, to enter the country, following a 25-hour standoff in which migration and police forces refused to allow him to enter.
More recently, the Court ruled against Morales’ decision to terminate the agreement that founded CICIG and regulates its mandate. According to domestic and international law, the government must announce its intention to terminate the agreement with at least twelve months’ notice. As the treaty expires every two years by itself, and Morales announced his intention not to renew it next year, the treaty ends this year on September 2019—he seems to be in a hurry.
If Morales goes through with refusing to recognize the Constitutional Court’s authority, the country will transition from a government based on rules—which in democracies courts are vested with interpreting and upholding independently—to one in which one ruler can impose his or her will unchecked. Also worrying is that CICIG’s staff left the country to prevent any violent clashes—a sign that their presence alone has become polarizing thanks to the president’s action. CICIG’s staff were prudent to do so; the government’s reaction to the Court’s ruling was merely that it will “ponder” the sentence, rather than obey it, while a campaign is underway on social media and in the streets to discredit Constitutional Court magistrates for their recent decisions.
Morales is not acting alone
Since Guatemala’s transition to democracy, the Constitutional Court has been a sort of arbiter of last resort in Guatemalan politics and rule of law. In 1993, for example, it struck down decrees by then-President Jorge Serrano Elías aimed at dissolving Congress and controlling the judiciary. The military and the private sector promptly supported the Court’s decision and order was restored.
Still, the Court’s decisions have never been beyond criticism, such as when it struck down the genocide sentence against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in 2013. But its authority has always held ground. Currently, however, it is unclear how the army or the police forces would respond to Constitutional Court magistrates. Would they remain loyal to the Executive if the standoff escalates (not a small matter since the Minister of the Interior, Enrique Degenhart, has appointed his allies as chiefs of the National Civil Police) or would they uphold the rule of law?
Military and business elites make common cause
Two groups are key to determining the end of this clash: the military and the elite. Relationships between the two sectors have not always been smooth, but both have kept a portion of power throughout the decades, and both stand to lose the most from a country in which CICIG unearths their misdeeds.
In recent months, army leaders have been accused of money laundering operations and manipulation of judicial proceedings, while heads of the largest firms in the country pled guilty of illegal campaign finance and the misappropriation of public funds in infrastructure projects. Without CICIG, the regular Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office wouldn’t have the muscle to bring these cases to trial.
But Morales and his peers seem to have decided just before the ax falls on them to undo all of CICIG’s legacy. If they need to do away with the Courts’ authority—and with it the hope of a more just and democratic country—to protect themselves, they seem to be willing to do so. Will the rest of the country, including the armed forces and the people, stand by?