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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
**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.