Ahead of elections, Guatemala’s strides and setbacks in justice

Why We Wrote This

Ebbs and flows in a country's justice system don't always make headlines. But accountability is one of the underlying factors shaping everything from political campaigns to migration flows.

Santiago Billy/AP
Mayan spiritual guides create an altar to pray in support of the Constitutional Court, which blocked President Jimmy Morales' decision to end the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity, in Guatemala City, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. The commission, known by its Spanish initials as CICIG, has investigated Mr. Morales and his family for corruption.

Guatemala has been held up as a model in the region for fighting corruption. But recently the system has faced attacks. And more people are fleeing.

What has changed in terms of fighting corruption?

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is a United Nations-backed investigative body that launched more than a decade ago to root out some of the most “untouchable” cases of corruption, drug trafficking, genocide, money laundering, and other high-profile crimes in the country. The commission works in partnership with local prosecutors and is the envy of many citizens in the region yearning to see their leaders and elite held to account. CICIG investigations have implicated three former presidents, and when President Jimmy Morales won the 2015 election, he supported its mission.

But over the past year, as CICIG probes have reached him and other family members, his administration has moved to oust the body. He banned CICIG’s head from the country last September and unilaterally ended the commission in January, arguing that it was violating the nation’s sovereignty. The Supreme Court overturned President Morales’ decision, and his government has tried to unseat justices who aren’t sympathetic to his stance. Either way, however, CICIG’s mandate is set to expire in September.

The country has fought to hold people accountable for civil war atrocities. Do the recent developments affect this?

More than 200,000 people, the vast majority indigenous, were killed during the 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. CICIG’s mandate bars it from investigating cases related to Guatemala’s armed conflict, but it’s still played a key role in strengthening the justice system and empowering the attorney general’s office to take on these issues. That’s become evident as Guatemala has made great strides in holding war criminals accountable.

But a current congressional bill could set back Guatemala’s fight for justice in the civil war era, critics say, overturning a law that bans amnesty for crimes like torture, genocide, and forced disappearances. Anyone already convicted of or awaiting trial for these crimes would walk free within 24 hours, and any investigations would come to a halt.

Those who support the bill say granting amnesty and forgiving war crimes is a way to achieve reconciliation. But for victims of the conflict, it spells impunity. On a recent weekday morning in downtown Guatemala City, hundreds of indigenous protesters marched, holding up photos of loved ones who disappeared during the war. “Amnesty won’t answer my family’s questions, only the truth,” says demonstrator Angelica, carrying a black-and-white photo of her brother, missing for nearly 36 years. 

Does the upcoming presidential election offer hope for justice?

The election is about a month and a half away, yet the names that will be on the ballot are still up in the air. Threats of disqualification or even imprisonment plague the top contenders.

Take Thelma Aldana, who was polling second in late March. She served as attorney general from 2014 to 2018 and emerged as a central player in the country’s fight against impunity. But after registering as a presidential candidate, she was charged with tax fraud and embezzlement and threatened with arrest. She denies the charges (and all registered candidates are supposed to be guaranteed immunity), and although her candidacy was annulled by the electoral tribunal in April, her party has appealed the decision and she continues to speak out. For many, her candidacy represents the heated battle playing out between the old guard and those who support the promise of a strengthened democracy in Guatemala.

What do corruption and impunity have to do with migration?

The vast majority of the most recent flow of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border hail from Guatemala, many of them families and children. But migration from Guatemala has been trending upward for the past several years, experts say, and corruption plays an important role.

“The deterioration of political conditions and state support have real consequences,” says Ursula Roldán, who researches migration at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City. She points to municipalities where much of the past decade’s anti-corruption fights haven’t quite reached. “This corruption at public institutions, where they’re in charge of programs meant to help the poorest of the poor, in the end, when those services don’t reach the people they are meant to serve, that’s when they say ‘I have no future here,’ and they leave.”

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