The corruption saga in Guatemala has taken a sinister turn with Jimmy Morales’s most recent actions against The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Last month, the embattled Guatemalan President refused to renew the international body’s mandate, as well as blocking the re-entry of Iván Velásquez, the organization’s head. Should Morales continue to attack the Guatemalan justice system, and steer the country off its path toward institutional renewal, the Central American nation admired for its progress in the last decade may again lose its way towards a truly free democracy.
“A change of tune in Washington may explain why Mr Morales has dared to tread where his predecessor did not. In May Marco Rubio, an American senator, blocked a $6m grant to CICIG to protest against Guatemala’s imprisonment, for using false passports, of a Russian family who say they were persecuted by Vladimir Putin’s government. They were later freed, but the episode made clear that America’s support for CICIG was now wobbly.
Mr Morales has reinforced this trend by courting Donald Trump. In 2017 a group of Guatemalan political parties signed an $80,000-a-month lobbying contract with Barnes & Thornburg, a law firm whose boss has often worked for prominent Republicans. One week after neighbouring El Salvador drew America’s ire by recognising China instead of Taiwan, Guatemala reaffirmed its support for Taiwan. Mr Morales was also the second world leader after Mr Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and moved his country’s embassy there. His efforts seem to have paid off. The United States conspicuously neglected to condemn his decision to let CICIG’s mandate lapse.
With one of the pillars supporting CICIG knocked down, the government is now seeking to topple the other: public opinion. Turning CICIG’s words against it, Sandra Jovel, the foreign minister, calls the commission a “parallel structure” of its own. She says that the UN has established a “super-national entity that dictates to governments how to exercise their duties”.
For anyone familiar with CICIG’s charter, such arguments are flimsy. The commission operates at the pleasure of the government. Only local authorities can prosecute cases; CICIG merely assists them. The body has proposed or endorsed 34 legal reforms, but it is up to congress whether to accept them. And the commission’s international nature is central to its mission. Only investigators with experience around the world can hope to take on globe-spanning criminal networks.
CICIG was never intended to remain in Guatemala indefinitely. The true measure of its legacy will be whether Guatemala’s own justice system has developed enough to prosecute corruption successfully itself. In theory, local authorities might simply be ready for the challenge at last.“