As Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina nears a final decision on whether to extend the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), it moved in dramatic fashion with the public prosecutor last Thursday, April 16, to dismantle a network allegedly siphoning off customs revenue. Agents arrested 20 persons allegedly linked to the scheme. The current and former directors of the national tax institution are among those detained. The action may have far-reaching consequences for domestic politics and factor into the decision on the prolongation of CICIG’s institutional life.
Investigators built the case mainly on the basis of documents and wiretaps, from which they could identify various persons involved in the criminal network and their roles. According to CICIG and public prosecution investigators, Carlos Monzón, a former military captain and current private secretary to Vice President Roxana Baldetti, managed the network that encompassed public employee participants within the national tax institution as well as external actors. Monzón was outside the country at the time of the arrests and has not returned; his whereabouts are unknown. Interpol has issued an international red notice against him.
A potentially more explosive revelation emerged during the first preliminary hearing on Friday, when voices in recorded conversations played in court made reference to “El Presidente” (the President) and “La Señora” (the Lady). Many understand those aliases to refer to President Pérez Molina and Vice President Baldetti, leading many Guatemalans to wonder whether the country’s top leaders were involved in the alleged scheme, or at least aware of it.
There has already been political fallout. Conservative business interests have reacted favorably to the arrests, congratulating CICIG and the public prosecutor. The Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) even offered to assist CICIG in its further investigations of the matter. Its new president, Jorge Briz, has recently taken a favorable position with regards to the continuity of the international commission.
The customs tax scandal comes as the ruling Patriotic Party (Partido Patriota), founded in 2002 by President Pérez Molina, has been thrown into turmoil. Only a few weeks from the start of the election campaign and three days after the arrests, Patriotic Party presidential candidate Alejandro Sinibaldi left the party. He spoke of a crisis of corruption and impunity in the party, for which he largely blamed Vice President Baldetti, and affirmed that the investigation by CICIG that led to the arrests demonstrates the importance of its continuity in the country. Meanwhile, activists have launched a social media campaign to organize a rally on April 25, at which participants will call for the resignation of the president and vice president. The scandal has some observers predicting that the Patriotic Party will not only lose the next election but disappear altogether.
President Pérez Molina is close to deciding whether CICIG’s mandate should extend past September 2015. The United Nations and donors have expressed a willingness to support an extension, but this requires Guatemala’s assent. After declaring early in the year that Guatemala no longer needed CICIG, Pérez Molina appointed a committee to evaluate CICIG’s work and make a recommendation on the question. Its report is due in late April, and Pérez Molina has said he will make a decision by May 5.
Prior to last week’s arrests, the president declared that he did not fear CICIG investigations and stated that he would not give in to external pressure from those who want him to extend the CICIG mandate. As he accused CICIG supporters of impeding Guatemala’s development, he also stated that Fernando Carrera, Guatemala’s permanent representative to the United Nations, had assured him that most countries viewed CICIG as an infringement of national sovereignty. However, a day later, Germany joined the United States in publicly backing CICIG’s continuity, expanding the circle of national and international actors who see CICIG as an important player in the fight against corruption and impunity in Guatemala.
Guatemalan Human Rights Defender Recognized by Time Magazine
Time Magazine has listed Guatemalan human rights defender Aura Elena Farfán as one of the 100 most influential people of the year for 2015. Since her brother was abducted by state forces in 1984, Aura Elena Farfán has been an activist for truth and justice. She founded an association supporting family members of persons who were detained or disappeared during the internal armed conflict, FAMDEGUA. The association has played a major role in the Dos Erres massacre case, where more than 200 people were killed by a military special unit in 1982. Farfán’s efforts eventually led to the conviction of four former soldiers in August 2011. She also prompted the investigation and exhumation of mass graves on the site of the former military base of Cobán by the Forensic and Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. So far, more than 500 bodies have been unearthed from 84 graves. The Special Unit on the Internal Conflict (Unidad Especial de Casos del Conflicto Armado) in the attorney general’s office is conducting an ongoing investigation in relation with this site.