Marco Rubio’s intervention against Guatemala’s U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission may further destabilize the political situation in the country.
attorney general took office in Guatemala last week amid
sharp tensions over the role of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption
commission that has helped bring high-profile charges against some of the
country’s most powerful politicians. Maria Consuelo Porras, a former substitute
judge for Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, will run the country’s Public
Ministry and direct its criminal, human rights and anti-corruption
investigations. The outgoing attorney general, Thelma Aldana, and her
predecessor, Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, showed impressive leadership and
independence in investigating and prosecuting these sorts of cases. Now
their enemies want those advances reversed.
Central America, public prosecutors are taking on a
key role in
investigating and dismantling deeply rooted organized criminal networks. But
Guatemala’s widening corruption probe, which brought down a
Otto Perez Molina, in 2015 and threatens to implicate the current president,
Jimmy Morales, as well as scores of others, has triggered a
entrenched economic and political elites who want to protect themselves from
Foes of the U.N. anti-impunity commission, known as CICIG for its initials in
Spanish, seemed to score a hit in early May, when U.S. Senator Marco Rubio
announced he would seek to freeze $6
U.S. funding for CICIG. The United States provides about 40 percent of the
commission’s funding. Rubio’s announcement came days after the U.S. Helsinki
Commission, a federal agency, held a hearing on CICIG’s alleged malfeasance
in a case in Guatemala involving the wealthy Bitkov family.
The Bitkovs are self-proclaimed Russian exiles convicted in
January 2018 of identity fraud as part of a broader probe against a criminal
ring within the Guatemalan immigration office that is accused of selling false
passports. In April, a higher court in Guatemala overturned the Bitkovs’
conviction. Despite accusations raised during the recent congressional hearing
in Washington, there is no evidence of Russian government influence over CICIG
in the Bitkov case or any other case in Guatemala. CICIG does not receive
funding from Russia.
The Bitkov controversy is really just a sideshow, a piece of a much larger
lobbying effort spearheaded by conservative political and economic sectors
within Guatemala to discredit and weaken the anti-corruption commission. Why do
these sectors oppose CICIG, and how have they won a U.S. senator’s support?
Will Guatemala’s new attorney general cooperate with
when it means pursuing politically sensitive cases?
CICIG was created in 2006 at the request of the Guatemalan government and with
the support of the United Nations. Its mandate is to help investigate and bring to
justice cases of corruption and criminality, including drug-trafficking, graft,
money-laundering, tax evasion and other financial crimes. CICIG provides
technical assistance to the Guatemalan Public Ministry and can serve as an
“adjunct prosecutor” in select cases.
Many of CICIG’s early cases focused on Guatemala’s so-called “hidden powers,” shadowy criminal networks that
gained influence during the decades of military dictatorship and
counterinsurgency warfare in Guatemala. Active and retired military personnel,
particularly those linked to army intelligence, used their government
connections to expand their illicit activities, such as moving contraband and
illegal drugs, facilitating illegal adoptions and human smuggling, issuing
false government documents, and skimming hundreds of millions of dollars from
public coffers. CICIG’s work accelerated
after 2013 under
the direction of Ivan Velasquez, a veteran prosecutor from Colombia who is now
the target of attacks by those threatened by the commission.
The lobbying effort to discredit CICIG got serious in December 2016 after
Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, and CICIG’s foes within Guatemala
thought they had an opening. A group of right-wing businesspeople went to
meetings in Congress to call for the removal of then-U.S. Ambassador Todd
Robinson, whom they saw as overstepping his diplomatic role by vigorously
defending CICIG. One of them was Betty Marroquin, a conservative columnist and
political analyst, who has since played a leading role in the anti-CICIG campaign.
The lobbying escalated during Trump’s first year in office, as four Guatemalan
congressmen hired the law firm Barnes &
under contract to represent President Morales, who faces corruption charges of
his own—for $80,000 a month to help them lobby U.S. lawmakers.
Last August, Morales tried to expel
CICIG and the Public Ministry linked him to illicit campaign financing and
sought impeachment proceedings. The president’s maneuver was blocked by the
Constitutional Court and condemned internationally, including by bipartisan
congressional leaders in the United States. In February, Guatemalan Foreign
Minister Sandra Jovel tried—and failed—to convince U.N. Secretary-General
Antonio Guterres to issue a statement condemning Velasquez’s leadership of
CICIG. Velasquez has been widely praised by Guatemalan civil society and by the
Although some news outlets reported, erroneously, that Rubio had
succeeded in suspending U.S. funding for CICIG this month, in fact, American
support for the commission remains intact. Rubio’s “hold” on funding is just a
request that is not likely to go anywhere in Congress. The anti-graft
commission continues to be praised by U.S. lawmakers, the State Department and the
new U.S. ambassador in Guatemala City. Guterres offered his continued support
for Velasquez shortly after last month’s misguided and sparsely attended
hearing in Congress.
CICIG is seen as a model for anti-corruption efforts elsewhere in Central America
and even Mexico. A bipartisan bloc of U.S. lawmakers consider these
anti-corruption measures key to addressing perceived American security threats
in Central America, such as transnational crime and migration. Public opinion
in Guatemala is also strongly in favor of CICIG; a recent survey by the
respected pollster Latinobarometro found that CICIG is the most trusted
institution in Guatemala.
Rubio’s intervention is not likely to make a dent in U.S. support for CICIG.
But it may further destabilize the political situation in Guatemala. Less than
a week after Rubio’s announcement, the Guatemalan government demanded that
Sweden withdraw its
Guatemala, Anders Kompass, after Kompass announced a new round of Swedish
financial support for CICIG and praised the anti-corruption efforts.
new attorney general is entering a volatile political scene. Just days before
Porras took office, prosecutors in Guatemala presented new
Porras’ prior career, during which she held several
positions within the Public Ministry before becoming an appellate judge, does
not mark her as a crusader. She was named to her post by Morales from a slate
of other candidates. Certainly, she will face intense pressure from entrenched
elites to slow or even reverse the gains made in prosecuting organized crime in
Guatemala. Then again, human rights groups had the same doubts about Porras’
predecessor, Thelma Aldana, who nonetheless unleashed a wave of high-level
The reactionary forces of the status quo in Guatemala are well-heeled and
accustomed to winning. But Guatemala’s citizens are increasingly emboldened to
demand justice and an end to impunity for crimes and corruption. They deserve
the support of Americans, and their elected representatives.
**Kate Doyle is a senior analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America at the
National Security Archive.
****Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American studies at
the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd