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11/09/2017 | Anti-Corruption: Will Latin America’s Anti-Corruption Wave Founder Where It Began?

Frida Ghitis

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 malfeasance. 

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 acronym. 

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 was involved. 

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 interest. 

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.” He won.

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 anti-corruption investigations. 

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 sovereignty.

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 easily drained.

**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.

World Politics Review (Argentina)


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