Corruption Scandal Renews Fight Against Impunity in Guatemala

Street protests in Guatemala continue following revelations by the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) of corruption at the highest levels of government. On April 25, thousands gathered in La Plaza de la Constitución in a peaceful demonstration against the allegations and a culture of impunity in the country. The crowds demanded the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who was implicated in the controversy, and called for broad institutional reform.

[Update: On Friday, May 8th Vice President Baldetti resigned to face an official investigation into her alleged involvement in the scandal]

The protests were triggered by the case against a vast criminal network known as La Línea—referring to the telephone number that importers dialed to avoid taxes in customs—which was presented in a joint press conference on April 16 by CICIG Commissioner Iván Velázquez of Colombia and his counterpart in the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office, Oscar Schaad.

Outrage over the revelations has been widespread, and local media have described the protests as “legitimate and spontaneous.” Following the 1996 peace accords that ended a decades-long civil war, many hoped for a period of security and prosperity. But it was not to be. Since then Guatemala has been plagued by corruption, organized crime, and levels of violence rivaling the years of armed conflict. Now its citizens are demanding change.

The uncovering of La Línea has shaken Guatemalan society. No one imagined that CICIG and the Public Prosecutor’s Office would dare to unravel such an entrenched criminal network. At the top of the chain of command was none other than the Vice President’s private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas. As of May 6, 24 people had been arrested in relation to the case, but the whereabouts of Monzón Rojas remain unknown. Any direct involvement of Baldetti continues to be investigated.

The timing of this news comes at a critical time for CICIG. Support for the commission had been ebbing. Established in 2007, its current mandate is set to expire on September 4 and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was not expected to ask for an extension. The government had been mulling over for months whether to renew the mandate and had decided that the commission should be allowed to come to a close.

From its inception, CICIG was controversial. Many saw it as a violation of sovereignty to give an international body the power to prosecute crimes at a national level. The idea was originally proposed as part of the UN-mediated peace accords signed in 1996, under President Álvaro Arzú. It took almost a decade for the proposal to gain favor, with the acknowledgment that international support was needed to tackle the deep-seated problems of organized crime and impunity in Guatemala.

For some, CICIG remains an international presence that meddles too much in domestic affairs. In a conversation with the Global Observatory, Gert Rosenthal, former Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the UN, acknowledged that CICIG’s nature is indeed intrusive. But, he observed, it is intrusive “only because we asked for it and congress ratified it. If it had been imposed then it would be intolerable.”

CICIG has a “hybrid” mandate authorized by an agreement between the government of Guatemala and the UN Secretary-General. It is an internationally supported investigative body that prosecutes its cases in Guatemalan courts, jointly with national prosecutors. Albeit not a perfect partnership, CICIG has played an important role in the fight against organized crime and impunity in the country.

CICIG’s fortunes changed drastically after it uncovered La Línea. Calls for its renewal came from all sectors of Guatemalan society. Even prominent leaders in the private sector that had previously voiced opposition changed their mind. The Coordinating Body for the Modernization of the Justice Sector, tasked by Pérez Molina to review CICIG, also joined with overarching support. With increased pressure from all sides, just one week after the discovery of La Línea, Pérez Molina reversed his previous opposition and announced CICIG’s mandate should be renewed. Civil society leaders and the international community welcomed the government’s decision.

The protests and the calls for change also come during a delicate moment for Guatemala, with general elections to be held in September. Pérez Molina is barred by term limits from running for reelection, and the contest between candidates Manuel Baldizón and Sandra Torres is expected to be close.  The future of the current government is uncertain. On May 6, the Supreme Court of Justice authorized an impeachment process (antejuicio) against Baldetti due to her alleged involvement in La Línea.

The demand for change by Guatemalan citizens provides a new dramatic backdrop for the upcoming elections. Much uncertainty remains, but what appears clear is that the case against La Línea and the social movement it inspired represent a victory for the fight against impunity in Guatemala.

Adam Lupel is Director of Research and Publications at the International Peace Institute (IPI) and tweets at @alupelJimena Leiva Roesch is a Policy Analyst at IPI.