Facing his own corruption charges, President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales moved this week to expel an international UN-backed commission meant to combat corruption and impunity in the Central American country. Since his widely criticized unilateral action, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has challenged the president, but that may not be enough. Where is Washington?
Right now, President Trump is holding the federal government hostage to fulfill a campaign promise to build a wall to keep migrants out of the U.S.; Washington should instead support efforts to root out the corruption and organized crime that drives Central Americans to flee their countries in the first place. Instead, the Trump administration’s lack of pressure on Morales has been a green light for his government’s increasingly authoritarian moves.
When Morales tried to expel the CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez, the Constitutional Court blocked the expulsion. But the government and CICIG have been on a collision course ever since. Many of the president’s closest allies are in Congress, where they have blocked judicial reforms proposed by CICIG. After Morales’ attempted expulsion of Velásquez, lawmakers voted to eliminate mandatory jail time for campaign finance violations and other crimes. The public backlash was so fierce that Congress was forced to backtrack.
Morales and his allies haven’t given up. Congress has since reduced the penalty for campaign finance violations, and Morales has purged his cabinet of reformists. The new interior minister, Enrique Degenhart, has been working to dismantle the civilian police department, which the U.S. has spent more than a decade training and vetting.
Many in Guatemala now speak of an impending breakdown in the constitutional order, a “technical coup” removing all constraints on executive power. President Morales has betrayed his commitment to the Guatemalan people and appears willing to dismantle the country’s democracy to save himself.
The Constitutional Court is the only remaining check on Morales’ power, but the President and his allies in Congress have threatened to remove key magistrates from the Court. Many in Guatemala are looking to the U.S. for help.