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11/09/2017 | Guatemala - Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Drive Ousted One President. Can It Take Down Another?

Laura Weiss

To Morales’ critics, his rejection of anti-corruption efforts is a sign of the political agendas he represents.


Two years ago, Guatemalans succeeded in pushing then-President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxanna Baldetti out of office for corruption, thanks to the help of the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG. Through its investigations, which brought thousands of protesters out into the streets, the commission found that Perez Molina’s administration had led a high-level graft ring, taking bribes from international businesses rather than collecting taxes for the state. Both leaders are currently in prison.

It was an unprecedented moment of accountability for a country that suffers from high rates of impunity. But it was just the start of a struggle between CICIG and Guatemala’s entrenched political class. It came to a head last week when President Jimmy Morales, a career comedian and political outsider who was elected after Perez Molina’s resignation, declared Ivan Velasquez, the Colombian judge who has headed CICIG since 2013, persona non grata and ordered him to be expelled from the country.

A week before, Velasquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana had asked Guatemala’s highest court to strip Morales of his executive immunity from prosecution, after uncovering that his party had failed to disclose nearly a million dollars in campaign contributions. The request followed on the heels of corruption probes into Morales’ son and brother, who has been under house arrest since January on fraud charges.

Morales’ announcement about Velasquez was immediately met with international condemnation, as thousands of protesters rallied in Guatemala City, demanding the president resign and be put on trial. On Aug. 29, in a win for anti-corruption activists, the Supreme Court ruled that Morales could not expel Velasquez from the country. Then, earlier this week, the court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to strip Morales of executive immunity, leaving the final decision to Congress.

“What we’re seeing is a last-ditch effort for Morales to try to undermine the judicial process and to escape justice,” says Kara Andrade, a Guatemala City-based researcher with the Guatemala Scholars Network, a consortium of academics and professionals specializing on Guatemala. 

CICIG was established by the United Nations a decade ago as a politically independent body to help Guatemala investigate criminal networks and strengthen the judiciary after its 36-year civil war, which officially ended in 1996. The commission has made significant progress under Velasquez. 

Andrade attributes much of CICIG’s success to its independence from domestic political forces. “There’s always been these corruptive forces in the country that civil society and members of this fledgling democracy haven’t been able to … exercise any kind of oversight [of],” she says. “[The commission] can do these investigations without being hindered by local interests.”

Luis Barrueto, the coordinator of the research team of JusticiaYa, a youth-led collective based in Guatemala City that was instrumental in organizing the mass protests that ousted Perez Molina and Baldetti, says CICIG has made it more possible to “touch the structures of power” in Guatemala. Its shakeup of the political status quo was a major challenge to the political elite. The past week’s events, Barrueto adds, “gave a sense of clarity across the board politically because we knew that the politicians were on Jimmy Morales’ side. These are the voices that support his rejection of the fight against corruption.”

The anti-corruption struggle extends into other areas of Guatemala’s politics. Indigenous movements that oppose large-scale international mining and dam projects have aligned themselves with CICIG, as Velasquez has focused on criminal-political linkages involved in the conflicts over such projects, which are often built on indigenous territories. Morales, his political party and Guatemala’s largest business association have all seen CICIG’s investigations into these projects as a threat to their economic interests.
These same forces will help decide Morales’ fate. Now that the Supreme Court has issued its recommendation, two-thirds of Congress must vote to strip Morales of immunity so that prosecution can move forward. But that will be difficult, according to Natalia Garavito, coordinator of the Commission on Reforms at JusticiaYa, given Morales’ large coalition in Congress.

Garavito says the conditions that led to the stripping of Perez Molina’s immunity in 2015 have changed considerably. In addition to the broad coalition in support of Morales, the mass movement against corruption has become less unified in the past two years, partly because of efforts to delegitimize CICIG. 

“There was a strong campaign of polarization and misinformation,” Barrueto says. Morales and his allies have argued that CICIG is a leftist instrument of international interventionism that will harm investment into Guatemala, Central America’s largest economy by GDP. Such arguments have gained traction in a media environment dominated by government-funded outlets. 

To Morales’ critics, his rejection of anti-corruption efforts is a sign of the political agendas he represents. “He’s a puppet for a lot of different interests that are the same hidden powers that have always kept this country from deepening its democratic institutions and becoming a more prosperous state for everybody,” Andrade says.

These interests go deeper than the conflict over CICIG. For one, the barriers to creating new political parties and running for office are high, often precluding anyone outside of the political elite from running, which helps explain why someone like Morales came to power in the first place. 

In 2016, Congress finally passed watered-down electoral reforms, after two previous attempts in the past 20 years. Although they established some restrictions on political campaigns and monitoring of political finances, the reforms were stripped of their most ambitious original proposals, which would have addressed judicial abuses and increased the budget for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to enforce the reforms, according to the National Democratic Institute.

The lawmakers whose support is needed to pass further reforms “have interests that stand against the fight against impunity,” Barrueto says. “They do not want to give in to certain aspects … that will make it easier for them to be investigated or lose their privilege.” As such, it is unlikely that other major reforms, such as lowering the barriers to creating new political parties, will pass before presidential elections in 2019.

Garavito’s outlook was even bleaker. “We can come together and collaborate to reach agreements, to write the best possible electoral law on political parties,” she says. “But when [a bill] reaches Congress, they cut off its head.”

The potential candidates for the 2019 election represent these traditional political powers. One is Zury Rios Sosa, an ultra-conservative former member of Congress and daughter of the military dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, whose brief tenure from 1982 to 1983 marked the bloodiest phase of the civil war, which was fought mostly between the rural, indigenous poor and the forces of the central government. Montt was the first former head of state to be tried for genocide in his own country. 

Despite peace accords in 1996 marking an official transition to democracy, the wounds from the war are still fresh. A majority of Guatemalans, based on polling, distrust the democratic process. According to a 2014 study by the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University, just 44 percent of Guatemalans believe that the government respects their basic rights. 

“You need a strong and independent judicial system to help exercise oversight of the laws,” Andrade says. “I think that’s what been missing. And people have been beginning to see the importance of that with CICIG, since Otto Perez Molina. This is what a judicial institution looks like when it works, when it’s healthy.”

**Laura Weiss is managing editor at the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). She has a master’s degree from New York University in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

World Politics Review (Argentina)


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