Why Guatemala is abandoning high-profile anti-corruption drive

Why We Wrote This

Guatemalans have been outspoken about battling fraud and corruption. But their voices have grown quieter, which may speak to an increasingly difficult political atmosphere in the country.

Santiago Billy/AP
A woman holding a Guatemalan flag protests at the Plaza de la Constitución in Guatemala City Sept. 4. President Jimmy Morales recently announced he would not renew the mandate of a UN-backed commission probing corruption in Guatemala.

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The last time President Jimmy Morales, a former comic who was elected president on promises of honesty, tried to block the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission, Guatemalan demonstrators flooded the streets, demanding CICIG stay. Fast-forward one year to Mr. Morales’s announcement last Friday to halt the commission and the response is decidedly different. Demonstrations have been smaller and groups previously supportive of CICIG are largely silent. Observers say recent events – including the mobilization of military tanks surrounding CICIG offices and a tepid response from the United States – have created a chilling effect. “People are afraid and confused and many say the protests have been infiltrated by spies,” says demonstrator Rodrigo de León. Corruption and impunity are deep-seated challenges in Latin America. Now, citizen organizers in Guatemala are responding to Morales’s decision with political action, focusing on overhauling the nation’s political system. “People need to organize,” says Leiria Vay Garcia, leader of the country’s main peasant organization. But “this doesn’t just mean taking to the streets.” 

Last Friday, hours after President Jimmy Morales announced he would shut down a United Nations-funded anti-corruption commission that put two of his predecessors behind bars, protesters gathered in Guatemala City’s main square.

“The people revoke your mandate. Resign now,” read a hand-scribbled sign, a reference to President Morales and his move to halt the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The commission has been renewed repeatedly since launching in 2006, with its current authorization set to expire next year.

Corruption and impunity are deep-seated challenges in Latin America, where widespread protests to clean up government have swept nations from Honduras to Mexico to Brazil in recent years. Amid a regionwide perception that the public sector is corrupt, Guatemalans have recently become known for speaking out against fraud. In 2015, weekslong mass protests pressured then-President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti to step down. Their alleged involvement in an embezzlement scheme that skimmed millions from public contracts was initially brought to light by CICIG.

When Morales, a former comic who was elected president on promises of honesty and integrity, tried to cancel the commission’s mandate last year after CICIG began investigating his participation in illegal campaign funding, Guatemalan demonstrators once again flooded the streets, demanding that CICIG stay.

Moises Castillo/AP
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, center, places a medal on general Manuel Pineda Saravia, right, during the 145th anniversary of a military school in San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala, Sept. 1. After he became the target of investigations, President Morales has repeatedly tried to halt the work of a UN-backed anti-corruption commission.

But this most recent move to halt the commission’s work – and to ban the lead investigator from reentering the country – has drawn a decidedly different response. Demonstrations have been smaller and groups previously supportive of CICIG, like the business class, are largely silent after recent investigations targeted their community.

Observers say recent events – including the mobilization of military tanks surrounding CICIG offices and a tepid response from the United States – have created a chilling effect. 

I don’t want “the fight against corruption to grind to a halt,” says demonstrator Rodrigo de León, explaining his reason for joining the protest in Guatemala City’s main square last week. “I want a better future for my children.” But unlike the 2015 protests, he chose not to bring his wife and two young kids.

“People are afraid and confused and many say the protests have been infiltrated by spies,” Mr. de León says. “Everyone is fighting for their own causes. We need a common discourse to bring us together again.”

Corruption Fatigue 

Since CICIG was created by treaty between Guatemalan lawmakers and the United Nations in December 2006, the commission has investigated high-level crimes ranging from drug trafficking to illegal adoptions to government kickback schemes. 

The commission, envied by anticorruption protesters across the region, is one of the most trusted institutions in Guatemala, according to a 2017 survey by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project. Some 70 percent of Guatemalans surveyed said they have faith in CICIG. 

But support for the body has faltered in recent years, says Renzo Rosal, a political analyst in Guatemala City. “What we have today is a good level of backing for CICIG, but it’s dispersed,” he says. “Over the past two years there have been shifts in public opinion around CICIG due to impressions that there’s selective prosecution involved,” he says, referring to cases targeting the business class or Morales’s extended family.

Critics say lead investigator Iván Velásquez Gómez has overstepped his authority by taking over public institutions. Supporters say the organization has the autonomy to confront the nation’s powerful elite who have long operated above the law, and to train local officials in investigation and prosecution.

Morales announced the expulsion of CICIG a week after the country’s highest court ruled that he should be stripped of his prosecutorial immunity and charged for his involvement in the illegal campaign funding scandal during the 2015 election.

“I see it as a coup,” although not in the traditional sense, says Anita Isaacs, a Guatemala expert at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. “It’s the military against the symbolic upholder of democracy in the country.”

Many observers attribute the muted public response to military presence – the tanks circling CICIG offices – and what they symbolize. Guatemala endured a bloody 36-year civil war under a right wing, US-backed dictatorship. Few have been held accountable for the estimated 200,000 people killed during that time. 

As more cases of corruption are exposed, there’s also the very real possibility of corruption fatigue

“After the current president turned out to be just as bad as his predecessor, people ask themselves what’s the point in protesting,” says Gabriel Wer, a member of #JusticiaYa (#JusticeNow), the main coordinator of the 2015 protests.

Empowering civil society 

The Constitutional Court could override Morales’s decision to block CICIG, as it did last year. But the lack of action so far, combined with a lukewarm response from both the Guatemalan people and from the US suggest it’s unlikely.  

Over the past decade, CICIG has made an impact in Guatemala, says Dr. Isaacs. “It has been a spectacular experiment in building capacity within local institutions,” she says. “It’s generated a belief that democracy is possible in Guatemala and [it] empowered civil society to actually understand what corruption means in everyday life and the importance of ending it.”

But others say the advances haven’t gone far enough. “What I fear the most is that the progress Guatemala has made during CICIG’s time here – those advances are easy to turn back,” says Mr. Rosal. “The commission can’t be here another hundred years….But I think we need CICIG to be here for another four years, at least.”

From protest to political action 

In the past, Guatemalans have protested attempts to block CICIG. This time, citizen organizers say they are responding with political action.

Indigenous and peasant groups have issued statements against Morales’s decision to expel CICIG but instead of calling for national strikes, as they did in 2015, they’re focusing on upcoming elections. 

Leiria Vay García, a leader of CODECA, one of the country’s main human rights organizations for rural populations, says it is creating a political party that can compete in the 2019 elections. The goal is to overhaul the nation’s political system and rewrite the constitution, scrapping lawmakers’ rights to prosecutorial immunity, Ms. García says.

“People need to organize,” she says. But, “this doesn’t just mean taking to the streets.” 

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