Guatemala's corruption rennaissance

Morales at his UNGA speech on 25th September. Morales shall leave the presidency in 2020. Source: Reuters

Morales at his UNGA speech on 25th September. Morales shall leave the presidency in 2020. Source: Reuters

Pionero Philanthropy’s New York Ambassador, Estefania Palomino, attended this year’s UN General Assembly with business cards in hand but unfortunately didn’t meet anyone representing Guatemala nor the country’s President who gave a speech on the 25th September.

Thanks to his speech, President Morales didn’t win any pro-UN friends claiming that despite the UN backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) strengthening Guatemala’s democratic institutions, it interfered in the country’s internal affairs and used excessive force. After 12 years in operation, the president did not extend CICIG’s mandate as it had “encouraged corruption, selectively pursued criminal cases based on ideological bias and sown “judicial terror”. No evidence has been presented to back his statement. 

CICIG and Guatemala’s recent history of corruption

The CICIG was created in 2006 when the United Nations and Guatemala set up the Commission as an independent body charged with investigating and prosecuting serious crimes in Guatemala.  

Following the end of the 36-year civil war ending in 1996 and the signing of the Peace Accords, there was overwhelming popular support for the commission, a fact still true today - 72% of the population support CICIG.

Supporters of CICIG demonstrate in Guatemala Sept 2018 (UN Human Rights/Twitter)

Like in many post-conflict nations, applying Peace Accords is a complicated and uncomfortable process requiring deep, structural changes within usually weak political and judicial bodies. In Guatemala, these changes were necessary due to the extensive infiltration of organized mafia-like networks within judicial, legislative and executive branches meaning that such interests pose grave threats to the population’s wellbeing. Today these networks still exert a strong influence on state institutions and continue threatening human rights defenders and official legal investigators.  

The CICIG was born in 2007 from extended lobbying by Guatemalan civil society, concerned about the effect of the criminal networks on Guatemala’s democracy and population. In 2006, the Guatemalan government asked the UN to help establish an initiative that would assist in investigating and dismantling such networks.  The commission was built on the concept that “Guatemala was not simply outsourcing its justice system, but rather relied on the expertise of the CICIG to work hand-in-hand with the country’s prosecutors and police, helping to build their capacities in the process.” 

Despite anti-CICIG proponents claiming that the Commission endangers Guatemala’s sovereignty, this may to a certain degree be true. Of course, having a foreign-funded, unelected body intimately involved in a country’s legislative and judicial structure is highly intrusive and undemocratic. However, CICIG did not have prosecutorial powers and could only start investigations upon approval of a judge. CICIG’s position was only that of co-plaintiff with the Attorney General’s office and again, “the aim of the commission was to bolster, rather than supplant, the capacity and legitimacy of national institutions.”  

CICIG’s successes:


What changed?

Despite Morales’ original 2015 “Not corrupt, not a thief” anti-corruption platform and immediate extension of CICIG’s mandate upon taking office, his relationship quickly soured with the commission. Many suspect this is because CICIG’s mandate started hitting too close to home. So what happened? 

First, CICIG’s 2015 discovery of a customs scandal – known as La Línea – blew the cover of many high ranking offcials profiteering from charging importer fees in exchange for fraudulently lowering taxes on goods brought into Guatemala. In the words of Professor Jo-Marie Burt, a Guatemala expert at George Mason University; “Cicig-backed investigations revealed how counterinsurgency military officials and their economic backers transferred their power and privilege from the war years into new clandestine parallel powers through organised crime and corruption.”  

After following the money, it was discovered that elite business owners were involved in illicit campaign financing in return for political favors and public contracts. Not long after, in August 2017, CICIG alleged that Morales and his party had failed to report almost $1min funds during the 2015 campaign. CICIG was unsuccessful when appealing to Congress on 3 separate occasions to strip Morales of immunity so he could be investigated which shed light on how entrenched illicit interests lie within both government branches. Congress not only maintained Morales’ immunity but also passed a bill to lower penalties for illegal campaign funding. Thankfully, the population’s outrage pressured the legislation to be rolled back.

 Shortly after, Morales expelled the CICIG commissioner from the country which the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional and then a fraud trial began surrounding Morales’ son and brother in additional to later allegations of illicit 2015 campaign funding. His family members were cleared of fraud and were charged with misappropriating public funds.  Morales vowed to “disobey” rulings he considers illegal, which according to political analyst Luis Solano, would constitute a “technical coup”.

 All the while, the US government has remained quiet with regard to confronting Morales given his support to Trump administration’s policy on moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem…challenging the Maduro regime in Venezuela” and more recently regarding his support for declaring Guatemala a “Safe 3rd country”. However, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “privately, U.S. officials sharply questioned the action as contrary to the U.S. bipartisan policy of supporting anti-corruption and the rule of law in Guatemala.”

What now?

On the 3rd September 2019, CICIG formally left Guatemala and released a report; “Guatemala: a captured state” that summarized its key findings during its 12-year tenure. Key findings and case studies include illicit political party funding, the degradation of the political elite, press assassinations and the subordination of legislative and judicial bodies to pass laws to benefit private interests.

A Congressional Commission composed of partisan Morales supporters has been established in Guatemala that is investigating and determining the existence of illegal or arbitrary actions of CICIG and whether they endangered the human rights of Guatemala’s inhabitants. At the time of writing, the Constitutional Court has presented an Executive Order stating the illegality of such a commission. 


Is the future looking brighter?

The CICIG’s departure was a gigantic step backwards in Guatemala’s development and a validation of the continued strength of the same civil war elite networks that call the shots to the detriment of the broader population. But let’s look at the reality and facts consistently reported from international and national nonprofits, civil society groups, independent ombudsmen and simple day-to-day citizens. Corruption is apathetically accepted as the norm in Guatemala at every level of government, institution and society.   

CICIG is crucial in order to continue its great strides in strengthening judicial institutions, the rule of law and anti-corruption policies. Without CICIG, Guatemala risks reversing the progress made in reducing homicides, strengthening institutions and consolidating the message that corruption is no longer tolerated in Guatemala. Even after 12 years of CICIG’s presence, the country is not yet prepared to fully unravel decades of engrained networks and corrupt practices, it still needs an independent body to support it on its journey. 

The incoming 2020 president, Alejandro Giammattei has signaled his support for creating an Anti Corruption Commission and shall be visiting the US and seeking international support and donors for such a commission. It is unclear how the commission shall operate and the extent of its independence in comparison to the CICIG. Nevertheless, he isn’t supportive of directly reinstating the CICIG to its former format.

Two indigenous women crossing the Plaza de Constitución     Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Image

Two indigenous women crossing the Plaza de Constitución

Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Image

We shall see what the future holds however what is certain, is that Pionero Philanthropy shall continue supporting and promoting the nonprofit community organizations who throughout all the political turmoil, are constantly fighting and working on the ground for a more just, equitable and flourishing Guatemala.