The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-sponsored body created in 2007 to help Guatemala combat crime and impunity, and Iván Velásquez, its chief since 2013, have found themselves in the crosshairs in recent weeks. The UN-sponsored entity has received wide acclaim for the anti-corruption investigations it conducted alongside the Attorney General’s Office, which, in 2015, led to the arrest of former president Otto Pérez Molina, his vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, and dozens of government ministers for widespread government fraud. However, it appears that for some, CICIG got too close for comfort.
President Jimmy Morales—who was elected in the wake of the Pérez Molina government’s downfall in 2015 and ran with the slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief”—catalyzed a campaign to remove the dragnet CICIG commissioner with an aim to debilitate or even permanently oust the UN body from Guatemala. His campaign may be motivated by his own concerns about ending up in the dock, but it is also supported by a loose alliance of diverse groups and individuals who fear CICIG’s anti-corruption crackdown.
Morales’s effort to expel Velásquez has been beaten back for now, and the crisis moment has subsided. But the situation remains at a tense standoff, as new corruption scandals have spurred massive citizen protests demanding an end to corruption in government, mirroring the protests of 2015 that led to the collapse of the Pérez Molina government.
In this two-part post, we revisit the events leading up to the crisis and discuss the tense calm that persists in Guatemala in its aftermath. In today’s post, we review the lead-up to President Morales’s decision to declare Commissioner Velásquez persona non grata and order his expulsion from the country, and the rapid succession of events that followed. In out second post, we evaluate the key role that CICIG has played in consolidating the battle against corruption and impunity, which directly benefits the struggle against impunity in grave crimes cases, and the rise of what Carlos Figueroa Ibarra has called a “new citizen subjectivity” demanding clean government and an end to impunity for corruption and other grave crimes.
The Imbroglio Over CICIG
It is not an exaggeration to say that under the leadership of Iván Velásquez, CICIG has become a symbol of the struggle against corruption and impunity in Guatemala. Velásquez, a former prosecutor from Colombia who is highly regarded for his investigation into the parapolitics scandal, has led the Commission since 2013. Two years later, investigations he spearheaded led to the arrests of former vice-president Baldetti, former president Pérez Molina, and dozens of government officials for a multi-million dollar customs fraud ring. Under Velásquez’s leadership, CICIG also coordinated a broad process of consultation that led to the proposal of a series of constitutional reforms that congress has failed to approve. Since 2015, other high-profile investigations have followed, revealing Velásquez’s determination to pursue as vigorously as possible the Commission’s mandate to attack corruption at its root. This determination also led to the doorstep of another president, Jimmy Morales.
Morales, already piqued because of the Commission’s investigation into his brother and son, who were arrested and are awaiting trial on corruption charges, grew ever more concerned about the Commission’s investigations into campaign finance. On August 24, Velásquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana announced investigations into illegal campaign contributions involving the opposition party, National Unity of Hope (UNE), and the now defunct Líder. The following day, Morales traveled to New York to meet with UN Secretary General António Guterres. Rumor had it that Morales was going to ask Guterres to remove Velásquez as head of CICIG. In a show of solidarity, Aldana announced she would resign if Morales expelled Velásquez from the country.
In the end, Morales opted to criticize Velásquez rather than ask for his removal, saying he was overstepping the Commission’s mandate, and that instead of investigating corruption, CICIG should be investigating gang-related crime and violence. The very same day, Velásquez called a press conference in which he and Aldana announced that they were seeking to lift President Morales’s immunity in order to proceed with an investigation into illicit campaign contributions to the National Convergence Front (FCN), the party that got Morales elected during the 2015 presidential campaign.
The smoldering crisis flared up on August 27. Back in Guatemala, President Morales released a prerecorded video early Sunday morning declaring Velásquez persona non grata and ordering his immediate expulsion from the country. Citizens rallied in support of the commissioner in the central plaza, in front of the CICIG offices, and in front of the Constitutional Court, where youth activists connected to the #JusticiaYa anti-corruption movement had filed a protective measure in favor of Velásquez. Smaller numbers of protesters against Velásquez also appeared, including the president of the pro-military Foundation Against Terrorism, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, who has been an implacable critic of Velásquez and Aldana.
Within a matter of hours, the Constitutional Court issued a provisional ruling in favor of Velásquez and ordered all state agencies to desist from any attempt to remove him from the country. Morales issued a new video reaffirming his declaration of Velásquez as persona non grata, raising fears of a constitutional crisis. But broad Guatemalan and diplomatic support for CICIG and Commissioner Velásquez (including declarations from the United States, several European countries, and the UN Secretary General) inhibited Morales from acting. Two days later, the Court ruled definitively in favor of Velásquez, leaving Morales’s effort to remove him dead in the water.
The mainstream press portrayed this as a showdown between President Morales and Commissioner Velásquez. However, as several analysts have noted, the conflict was broader and more profound. Morales is not acting solely on the basis of his own personal interests, though this is clearly a factor in his anti-CICIG stance. Several analysts suggest that he has also been goaded into the standoff against Velásquez by a group of powerful actors, some of whom are currently on trial as the result of CICIG investigations, or who fear that they may soon come under the Commission’s magnifying glass. As journalist Paola Hurtado put it in an op-ed in Nómada, Morales and Velásquez are “just the faces of a battle [against corruption] that began in late 2014 and that more and more special interests are seeking to stop.”
According to Hurtado and other analysts, a coalition of powerful groups opposes Velásquez. These groups include former senior military officials on trial for corruption as well as grave human rights violations related to the internal armed conflict; members of congress from Morales’s FCN, several of whom are under investigation for illicit campaign contributions and other crimes; local mayors, including former president and Guatemala City mayor Álvaro Arzú; significant business sectors; and drug traffickers. What they appear to have in common is their preference for a semi-failed state that allows corrupt activities to go unchecked and unpunished. As Guatemalan analyst Héctor Rosada put it, CICIG has “struck at the heart” of Guatemala’s system of organized crime and impunity.
Commissioner Velásquez, undeterred by the campaign against him, held his ground. He and CICIG have broad support within Guatemala and within the international community. This support is rooted in a series of high-level investigations that have led to the arrest of dozens of government officials, most famously the investigation into a multi-million dollar customs fraud scheme known as “La Linea” that resulted in the 2015 arrests of then vice-president Baldetti, then president Molina, and dozens of government ministers and businessmen, among others. It is also rooted in the important role CICIG played, alongside local partners, to develop concrete initiatives to address structural problems that facilitate corruption, including the constitutional reform initiative.
The headway made by the crackdown on corruption has also contributed to the creation of what Carlos Figueroa Ibarra describes as a “new citizen subjectivity.” This took shape, according to Figueroa, during the anti-corruption protests in 2015, and became evident again in the wake of this most recent crisis. It revealed that a population that had largely been politically inactive was, at last, awakening and taking on an active role in public life. It also revealed that the urban middle classes and rural indigenous communities, which traditionally have had little in common, have converged in their demands for honest and transparent government.
Impunity Laws and a New Wave of Citizen Indignation
Congress has voted on two separate occasions against lifting Morales’s immunity, as requested by CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office, though they have not had sufficient votes to shelve the request permanently. Analysts remarked wryly on the sudden alliance between the opposition UNE party, led by Sandra Torres, who was narrowly defeated by Morales in the 2015 presidential elections, and Morales’s FCN party; they acted together to deny the request to strip the president’s immunity. On the heels of this ruling, Nómada published a report that Morales had received, in addition to his 150,000 quetzal monthly salary (approximately $20,000, which makes him the highest-paid president in the Americas), a special monthly payment of 50,000 quetzals (approximately $6,800) from the army since January, supposedly for security risks. The public disclosure of what appears to be an illegal payment of nearly $55,000 fueled citizen indignation. Comptroller David Mencos ordered to Morales to return the funds, stating “under no circumstances can a subordinate authorize benefits for his boss.” Morales tried to calm the waters by announcing he had returned the money.
A few days later, on September 15, 111 of 158 members of congress passed emergency legislation to alter the criminal code. The new legislation made it so that accountants, rather than the general secretaries of political parties, are liable for any illicit campaign contributions, and commuted prison sentences for 400 different crimes, including extortion and child pornography. Critics dubbed this an effort to legalize impunity. It sparked a new round of citizen outrage and street protests. Hundreds of people surrounded the congress building and blocked the exits for hours, leading to a tense standoff.
#JusticiaYa and other groups called for a national strike on September 20, demanding the resignation of both President Morales and the 111 members of Congress who voted in favor of the laws. The strike was both massive—estimates suggest 205,000 participated in protests throughout the country—and non-violent. It brought together indigenous peasant federations, trade unions, student organizations, members of the urban middle class, and small and medium-sized businesses. The “new citizen subjectivity” of which Figueroa spoke is alive and well in Guatemala.
In response to this massive demonstration of citizen outrage, congress moved the following day to revoke the controversial legislation, which Human Rights Watch referred to as “one of the most flagrant violations of the rule of law seen in recent years in the region.” Some of those who voted for the legislation made public apologies to their constituents. Some have floated the idea of a dialogue to resolve the crisis, but #JusticiaYa and others continue to demand the resignation of President Morales and the members of congress who voted in favor of this legislation, and to demand reforms in the laws governing elections and political parties. Others propose a national constituent assembly to write a new constitution.
Morales’s moral leadership and political capital have been seriously debilitated by this chain of events. Four government ministers have resigned, including Minister of Governance Francisco Rivas, who is a critical ally of CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office. (A fifth, the minister of foreign relations, was forced out by the president, presumably because he refused to sign the order declaring Iván Velásquez persona non grata.) Congress has twice voted against stripping the president’s immunity, but the request has not been permanently shelved, as doing so would require a two-thirds vote by congress. Last week, the Attorney General’s Office filed a new request to lift Morales’s immunity in relation to the monthly payments he received from the military. Though Morales returned the funds, prosecutors say the payments were illegal and constitute a prosecutable crime.
Despite this, Morales seems determined to resist calls for his resignation and to build alliances to prevent Congress from stripping his immunity. Some analysts have expressed fears that the Morales will seek the backing of the military to retain power and crack down on protest.
In our second post, we will examine the implications of the anti-CICIG campaign for grave crimes cases in Guatemala.
Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.