UN-Backed Anti-Corruption Efforts Provoke a Backlash in Guatemala

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales stands in front of his cabinet in the Culture Palace in Guatemala City a day before announcing an immediate end to the UN-sponsored anti-corruption commission, CICIG. (NOE PEREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

In early January, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales decided to shut down the United Nations-supported International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and ordered its international staff to leave the country, nine months before its term is set to end. The move violated the terms of the treaty that established CICIG and renewed a constitutional crisis in which Morales’ measures against CICIG have repeatedly been overruled by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court. It also sparked debates about the “shared sovereignty” of hybrid international-national missions, placing the UN in the awkward position of supporting a mission backed by a country’s courts and a majority of its people while an executive demands its departure.

President Morales’ moves against CICIG represented a significant turnabout for a politician who originally campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, praised CICIG early in his term, and renewed CICIG’s mandate earlier than necessary. The government’s stance toward CICIG turned negative in 2018, coincident with progress in joint CICIG/attorney general investigations against the president’s family members and economic elites involved in his election campaign.

In August 2018, Morales gave the legally required twelve-month notice of his intent to withdraw from the CICIG agreement. The next month, he declared CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez a “threat to public security” and attempted to prevent him from reentering the country. Morales was overruled by the Constitutional Court. A government move in January to detain a CICIG investigator for over a day at the Guatemala City airport was also rejected by the Constitutional Court, prompting an alarming dynamic where officials of the Interior Ministry and the attorney general’s office threatened to arrest one another. 

Apparently unwilling to await the end of CICIG’s mandate, Morales announced its closure, withdrew diplomatic immunity for CICIG investigators, and ordered them out of the country. This action was also overruled by the Constitutional Court, the highest body on such matters. The president ignored the court’s ruling, sparking a constitutional crisis and suggestions that the president was executing a coup that threatened judicial independence and democracy. UN Secretary-General António Guterres indicated the commission would continue its work in accord with treaty provisions, but most CICIG staff quietly left the country.

The current crisis is important for global efforts for peace and justice because it jeopardizes and perhaps ends one of the most successful innovations in post-conflict anti-impunity efforts since the Cold War. CICIG was created in 2006 after a UN-brokered peace process ended three decades of bloody civil war but failed to contain clandestine armed criminal networks. These networks, which included high-level officials, continued to carry out political killings and intimidate and buy off the justice system.

The government and civil society worked with the UN to create CICIG, with the goal of breaking the “parallel power” of criminal networks. CICIG was carefully designed to address Guatemalan sovereignty and constitutional concerns. The Commission could investigate cases on its own, but prosecutions were done jointly with the Guatemalan Attorney General’s office before the national courts. The commission was thus an innovative hybrid of international expertise/authorities with national criminal investigative institutions.

Ultimately one of the main contributions of the UN-backed body was to allow accomplished and courageous leaders and prosecutors to emerge in the attorney general’s office. They worked hand-in-glove with CICIG to carry out a series of ground-breaking, successful prosecutions of top-level government officials, including former presidents, ministers, army officers, and police officials. By November 2018, the CICIG/attorney general teamwork had broken up 60 criminal networks and secured 310 convictions, a remarkable accomplishment in light of Guatemala’s previous record of nearly air-tight impunity for major crimes (around the time of CICIG’s formation, less than two percent of homicides were solved).

CICIG’s work helped build investigative capacity in the attorney general’s office, especially its use of physical evidence, data and financial forensics, and cooperating witnesses (with essential witness protection mechanisms). It also strengthened special units within the police, and promoted legal reforms that strengthened the ability of courts to address sensitive cases. CICIG’s reporting exposed large-scale criminal networks including the notorious “La Linea” customs fraud organization, sparking a massive popular mobilization demanding the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015. Pérez did ultimately step down, was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to prison, along with the vice president and dozens of others.

Following Pérez’ ouster, Morales won the presidency by campaigning on an anti-corruption platform and as someone from outside the traditional corrupt political class. Soon, however, CICIG began investigating Morales’ family members and supporters. Prosecutors’ focus on illegal campaign financing for Morales’ presidential bid led to indictments of top business leaders, turning much of the private sector against the international commission.

As investigations affected a broader cross section of the elite, Guatemalan entrepreneurs and the government itself began a well-funded lobbying campaign in Washington against the commission, depicting CICIG as infringing on Guatemala’s sovereignty and overstepping its investigative role. The government also took diplomatic steps to ingratiate itself with the United States (moving the Guatemalan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, for example). These efforts paid off when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted his support for Morales in the midst of his dispute with the Constitutional Court last fall.

In ordering CICIG’s closure, the government charged that CICIG had “participated in illegal acts such as malfeasance, abuse of authority, acts against the constitution [and] illegal orders and sedition.” These charges lack factual basis. All decisions regarding prosecution rest with the attorney general, and CICIG bolsters the ability of the attorney general to do her job, in the face of deep corruption and entrenched criminal networks.

CICIG responded to the government’s claims with a point-by-point rebuttal, demonstrating that its activities complied with the original agreement. Indeed, the current crisis poses questions not so much about state sovereignty as about the role of international actors who assist other, non-executive branches of government—in this case the judiciary and the attorney general’s office, which acts as a quasi-fourth branch of government in most of Latin America. This controversy has touched a nerve at a time when executives around the world, many accused of corruption, are seeking to undercut the oversight offered by independent judiciaries and the rule of law.

Nonetheless, the crisis raises questions about CICIG’s strategy in two respects: mission creep and political judgment. Morales’ government claims that CICIG has drifted beyond its original mission of breaking up military-linked clandestine armed groups, toward a broader agenda addressing corruption. Yet corrupt payments and illegal campaign contributions are precisely how politicians and the economic elite interact with clandestine armed groups. Thus, the mission saw its expanded scope of investigations as a necessary step to fulfill the original mandate. Whether it was politically realistic is less clear, especially in light of weakening international support for the commission.

In its early years CICIG was rightly criticized for lacking a strategy for prioritizing cases, but Commissioner Velásquez and a strengthened attorney general’s office directed a program of prosecutions focused on connections between the political system and criminal organizations. Given the extent and density of criminal networks in Guatemala, this approach, however clearly defined, necessarily cast a very wide net (securing over 100 convictions in 2018 alone).

One result is that Velásquez alienated many political constituencies, from the armed forces, to the police and Interior Ministry (its head is under investigation), to state officials in other agencies, to the private sector, and the president’s family. Even some of CICIG’s friends wonder whether a more politically astute commissioner could have avoided picking fights with every key political constituency. Yet the country’s prosecutors, and much of civil society, have welcomed the willingness of Velásquez and Guatemala’s increasingly emboldened attorneys general to undertake prosecutions without political self-censorship. For them, corrupt politico-economic elites who manage an exclusionary state undercut sovereignty, and the popular will can only be exercised once corrupt networks are dismantled.

The current controversy also highlights a politically problematic feature of CICIG’s status. The Guatemalan government and the UN Secretariat decided that CICIG would not report to the United Nations. Although the UN secretary general names the commissioner of CICIG under the accord, and the UN has helped with staffing and with mobilizing and managing financing for the commission, CICIG is not part of the UN and its head does not formally answer to anyone. This is an arrangement that should probably not be repeated, although it has saved CICIG from the excessive political and bureaucratic machinations brought by any multilateral organization.

The current constitutional crisis is also important because it threatens the stability of Guatemala’s post-war democracy and because it may embolden corrupt regimes elsewhere. If Morales persists in overriding the Constitutional Court, this will undermine the very institutions that CICIG has sought to strengthen. It could lead to additional authoritarian measures by the executive, open conflict between state agencies, and a menacing climate for general elections in June. This threat has brought thousands into the streets to protest Morales’ actions and support CICIG, while smaller numbers demonstrate to support Morales. Polls show a strong majority (69 percent) of Guatemalans support CICIG, but it remains to be seen whether pro-CICIG sentiment will be strong and organized enough to compel Morales to reverse course.

Paradoxically, CICIG’s experience bodes both well and ill for future international efforts to fight impunity and corruption. CICIG’s hybrid approach had the advantage of striking blows against the highest levels of corrupt elites and of incorporating and strengthening national institutions. However, its strategies and its mandate also made the mission politically vulnerable to an executive willing to use authoritarian methods to stymie those same institutions. CICIG’s prosecutorial approach led to its noted successes, yet critics say an approach that does not heed political calculation in preparing sensitive cases may be unsustainable if international diplomatic support waivers. The political risks of CICIG’s campaign finance prosecutions were clear; yet it was just as clear that breaking the tradition of dirty money in campaign finance was central to any long-term strategy to defeat the existing system of impunity.

One lesson is that if the international community is serious about cracking an exclusionary system of governance backed by a corrupt political-economic elite, it must be prepared to provide consistent, materially significant pressures to protect the agents of change. If such support is lacking, the contradictions between an anti-impunity commission based on cooperation between international and domestic actors, and the threats such a commission poses to powerful domestic actors, may be insurmountable. For CICIG and similar efforts to succeed, consistent and convincing domestic and external support will likely be required.

William D. Stanley is a Professor and Director of the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico. Chuck T. Call is Associate Professor of International Relations at American University’s School of International Service.