Since his refusal to allow for the return of Iván Velásquez, the current chief of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Jimmy Morales’s behavior is of increasing concern for international observers who were once optimistic about Guatemala’s prospects for democratic ‘normalcy’.
Now that he’s effectively expelled the investigative body, things are looking worse for Guatemala. Hopefully, the appropriate response from the international community can reverse the Central American president’s rush to authoritarianism.
CICIG, it turns out, was just the tip of the iceberg. Morales’ next target appears to be the Constitutional Court, which has at various points displayed its independence by ruling against the president. Morales’ solution: orchestrate the removal of three unsympathetic judges, allowing him to pack the court. What follows is uncertain, but there is growing speculation about a slow-motion coupallowing Morales to suspend elections by declaring a state of exception, or at least use the courts to eliminate potential successors who might allow the investigations against him to proceed.
In the meantime, Guatemala’s fragile rule of law gains are already under assault by those who see CICIG’s potential departure as an opportunity to reassert a status quo ante marked by impunity for the powerful. A little over a decade of police reform and professionalization—which helped reduce Guatemala’s homicide rate by about 5 percent annually from 2007-2017—are being controversially dismantled by the Interior Minister. The country’s chief organized crime prosecutor frets publicly about the mafia infiltrating his unit if CICIG departs. And Congress is advancing a proposal to grant amnesty to the relative few individuals convicted of crimes against humanity during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.
Ironically, Morales’ overreach may offer an opportunity to recalibrate U.S. policy and rebuild bipartisan consensus based on a sober assessment of U.S. interests in Guatemala. Even for CICIG critics and those sympathetic to Morales’ approach to foreign policy, the prospect of the largest country in Central America—through which 1400 metric tons of cocaine were smuggled in 2017—drifting down the path of corrupt misrule will be disquieting. From reducing migration to combating organized crime and drug trafficking, it is hard to see how fundamental U.S. interests are positively impacted by a Guatemalan government willing to undermine law enforcement and democratic institutions to protect itself.
To advance its own stated priorities, not to mention protect the U.S. national interest, it is urgent that the Trump Administration disabuse President Morales of the notion that he is operating with a blank check from Washington. Forty-six members of the U.S. Congress—albeit all Democrats—recently urged Trump to rebuke Morales’ actions with sanctions and aid cutoffs. Such forceful steps are sadly unlikely to materialize. But with an adequate bipartisan push, the Administration could be convinced to communicate red lines to Morales and his backers in the military and private sector, at least in private. If necessary, the CICIG issue should be handled on a separate track while U.S. policy focuses on broader threats to democracy and the rule of law. If CICIG’s popularity among Guatemalan citizens is any indication, Guatemala’s next president will have strong political incentives to maintain or revive it—as Jimmy Morales himself did. For that to happen, however, Guatemalan democracy must first survive Morales’ assault. It’s not too late for Congress and the Trump Administration to get Guatemala right.