Corruption in Guatemala – a renaissance

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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. Unfortunately she 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. He claimed 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. This blog looks as corruption in Guatemala and what efforts are being made to strengthen and weaken it.

CICIG and Corruption in Guatemala – a recent history

The CICIG was created in 2006. The UN and Guatemala created it to be an independent body to investigate and prosecute serious crimes in Guatemala.  

Following the end of the 36-year civil war in 1996 there was overwhelming popular support for the commission. This fact is still true today – 72% of the population support CICIG.

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

The CICIG was born in 2007 from extended lobbying by Guatemalan civil society. They were concerned about the effect of the criminal networks on Guatemala’s democracy and population. In 2006, the Guatemalan government asked the UN to establish an initiative to 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.” 

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

Despite anti-CICIG proponents claiming that the Commission endangers Guatemala’s sovereignty, this may to a certain degree be true. 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. CICIG states that,“the aim of the commission was to bolster, rather than supplant, the capacity and legitimacy of national institutions.”  

CICIG’s successes:

Ex vice-president Baldetti was arrested in the highest profile case thanks to the CICIG. Source:EFE/Archivo
CICIG inspired MACCIH in Honduras Source: https://enaltavoz.com
The Secretary-General appointed Iván Velásquez of Colombia as CICIG Commissioner Source: CICIG.com


CICIG credited for lower impunity rate Source Photo: James Rodriguez

What Changed?

Despite Morales’ 2015 “Not corrupt, not a thief” 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, in 2015, the CICIG discovered of a customs scandal – known as La Línea. It blew the cover of many high ranking officials 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, one discovers that elite business owners were involved in illicit campaign financing. In return they received favors and public contracts. Not long after, in August 2017, CICIG alleged that Morales and his party failed to report almost $1m during the 2015 campaign. CICIG was unsuccessful when appealing to Congress on 3 occasions to strip Morales’ immunity so he could be investigated. This 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.

The CICIG getting too Personal for Morales

Shortly after, Morales expelled the CICIG commissioner from the country. The Constitutional Court ruled the action unconstitutional. Soon after, a fraud trial began involving Morales’ son and brother in addition to 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 remained quiet with regard to confronting Morales. This is 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. It also validated the 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 facts consistently reported from international and national nonprofits, civil society groups, independent ombudsmen and citizens. Corruption in Guatemala is apathetically accepted as the norm in Guatemala at every level of government, institution and society.   

CICIG is crucial in order to continue its progress 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 in Guatemala is no longer tolerated. Even after 12 years of CICIG’s presence, the country is not yet prepared to unravel decades of engrained corrupt practices. Guatemala 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. He 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

Despite the future being uncertain, what is certain, is that Pionero Philanthropy will continue supporting and promoting nonprofits who are fighting for a more just, equitable, and flourishing Guatemala.

Contact us if you would like to support such organizations.