Just as Guatemala’s success fueled the anti-corruption movement across Latin America, the reverse is likely to have a similar impact.
In recent years, while different regions of the world fought
battles against extremism, disease or the rise of authoritarianism, Latin
America waged its own pivotal war against what has been arguably the region’s
greatest scourge: corruption. Now, after a string of victories that would have
been unimaginable only a few years ago, the conflict faces a make-or-break
challenge in the very place where it was born, Guatemala.
Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, has put the lie to his campaign promise
to stand against corruption and in support of the rule of law, and is now
threatening the institution that made it possible to reverse the tide of
If we wanted to trace the beginning of the anti-corruption wave that has toppled
presidents, unseated legislators and transformed Latin America from a place
where corruption was a way of life into one where graft is a risky venture,
Guatemala in 2006 would be the place to start. The country was rife with
impunity, with a broken judiciary system, corruption at the highest levels,
security services working for the highest bidders, and a pervasive sense that
justice was nonexistent. At the time, Amnesty International described the
country as a “mafia state.”
After a massive police scandal that left it under growing pressure from donor
countries, Guatemala agreed to work together with the United Nations to tackle
the problems. The idea was to build up the country’s justice system, while
dismantling the worst of the corruption. The Guatemalan Congress ratified a
deal establishing a U.N. panel of experts, the International Commission Against
Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, after its Spanish-language
The commission, led by the respected Colombian prosecutor Ivan Velasquez,
didn’t just work to remove corrupt figures. It quickly focused on creating a
credible judiciary and pushed to establish a local partner, the Special
Prosecutor Against Impunity, or FECI.
In 2014, FECI and CICIG uncovered a multimillion-dollar customs fraud scheme,
leading to the arrest of the head of the country’s tax authority and more than
a dozen others. The investigation continued and, to the astonishment of many,
Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned in March 2015 amid accusations that she
Further evidence led all the way to then-President Otto Perez Molina.
Guatemalans took to the streets in huge numbers demanding justice. By then, the
Guatemalan drama had captured the attention of the rest of Latin America, where
people familiar with corruption’s corrosive effects watched with great
The investigation shook Guatemala to the core, and its impact reverberated
across the continent. Baldetti, the former vice president, went to prison. With
tens of thousands of Guatemalans taking to the streets for weeks, Perez Molina,
a former general who had seen the heights of power, was forced to resign days before the presidential
election to choose his successor. He was promptly arrested and imprisoned on
charges that he had taken millions of dollars in bribes. Today he remains in
prison, fighting a slew of corruption charges.
By the time the president resigned, Guatemalans had lost faith in politicians
but gained respect for the U.N. panel and its local partners.
Even before Perez Molina’s resignation, corruption was a key
issue in the 2015 presidential election, and traditional politicians had
trouble shaking the stigma of their guilt by association with the crooked
system. That’s when Jimmy Morales, well-known as a television comedian,
announced he would run for president. His motto: “Neither corrupt nor a crook.”
But Morales’ claims to cleanliness did not survive for long, and now Guatemala
finds itself facing a second major constitutional crisis in less than two
years. The outcome this time could determine whether the path ahead leads back
to the old ways or toward a future of cleaner governance.
On Aug. 25, Attorney General Thelma Aldana and CICIG head Velasquez announced
they were investigating the president for possible campaign finance violations,
saying Morales’ 2015 campaign had been partly financed with money of
questionable, undeclared origin. They announced plans to ask Congress to lift
the president’s immunity.
The president’s reaction splashed fuel on the embers of the accusation. Morales
declared Velasquez persona non grata, ordering him to leave the country. The
move was a declaration of war against the highly respected panel and a
potentially fatal blow to the campaign to uproot corruption.
By now, Guatemala’s example has helped invigorate other countries in their
campaign against graft, ending the careers of countless prominent politicians
and wealthy captains of industry across the region. Brazil is currently the
epicenter of the movement, with its Car Wash case taking down hundreds of
prominent figures. Revelations of briberies by the construction firm Oderbrecht
have uncovered high-level corruption in almost a dozen Latin American
countries. Other countries, such as Panama, are also pursuing high-level
In Guatemala, Morales’ effort to thwart the investigation ran into a wall of
resistance. The top court suspended the president’s decision, creating a tense
standoff. Guatemalans took to the street demanding that Morales resign. The
president insisted he had the authority to throw Velasquez out.
But the pressure grew. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the attempt to expel Velasquez “shocking,” and
the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that
Washington expects Guatemala to let CICIG do its job. More
pointedly, Sen. Patrick Leahy issued a stern statement warning that obstruction of
justice against CICIG could bring an end to U.S. aid and put in peril the right
of Guatemalan officials to enter the United States.
The threat may just deprive Morales of the support he had enjoyed until now
from a segment of the Guatemalan government that had been benefiting from corruption
and claiming that CICIG represents an infringement on the country’s
On Monday, Guatemala’s Supreme Court ruled that the attorney general’s request
for lifting the president’s immunity contains enough evidence to warrant moving forward. That means that Congress will
now establish a panel to review the case and present its findings. Lifting
Morales’ immunity would require the support of 105 out of 158 legislators.
The president still controls the executive and security forces, so he has many
tools at his disposal.
If he succeeds in thwarting the investigation and weakening the ability of the
U.N. panel to operate in Guatemala, the impact will be felt beyond Guatemala.
Just as Guatemala’s success fueled the anti-corruption movement across Latin
America, the reverse is likely to have a similar impact. The swamp cannot be
**Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World
Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World
Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.