Guatemala and the CICIG: A New Era of Corruption in Latin America

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 14

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) led the charge against corruption across Guatemala since 2007. After the thirty-six-year civil war that rattled the country, many criminal networks and government institutions allied, forming what Amnesty International defined as a “corporate mafia state.” Guatemala was nearing a breaking point in its fragile democracy, and to avoid total collapse, the government agreed to support the CICIG. The initial goal was to limit impunity in the Guatemalan judicial system. Through conducting investigations and collaborating with the Attorney General’s office and other prosecutorial bodies to fight against corruption and crime, CICIG helped strengthen state institutions and limit impunity in the country. During its twelve years of operation, the UN-backed investigative body dismantled dozens of crime networks, removed corrupt politicians from office, and prompted prosecution for hundreds of criminals. However, as of September 2019, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales ordered the organization to shut its doors. The dissolution of CICIG is detrimental not only to Guatemala’s internal stability but it will have an immense impact on immigration in the region and on the fight against corruption across Latin America.

CICIG was highly effective in curtailing crime and corruption across Guatemala. The homicide rate in the country dropped by nearly 32 percent during CICIG’s existence – an approximate 2 percent annual reduction. Additionally, CICIG investigated and helped prosecute numerous high-level politicians. In 2015, Guatemalan prosecutors charged former President Otto Perez Molina and his wife following a CICIG investigation into their involvement in a massive corruption network known as ‘La Linea.’ Roxana Baldetti, Molina’s vice president, was sentenced to fifteen years for running a separate corruption network involving a scam with an Israeli-based water cleaning company. She was also involved in ‘La Linea,’ at least two other corrupt scam networks, and cocaine trafficking in the United States, all of which she stands to face charges for. CICIG has been instrumental in collecting evidence and instigating prosecutions in each of these investigations. Current President Jimmy Morales’ announcement that he would not renew CICIG’s mandate came shortly after CICIG had started an investigation into him and his campaign for accepting illicit campaign contributions and fraud. Without CICIG, impunity and corruption in politics will likely grow unchecked.

Due to CICIG’s impressive and impactful achievements, over 70 percent of Guatemalan citizens support CICIG as of 2017. Shortly after the body’s officials were forced to vacate their headquarters in Guatemala City, protesters painted a mural on the outside walls of the compound: “Thank you CICIG. The people will not forget. Justice will remain.”

Additionally, with the official end of CICIG, the group’s staunch supporters face a great deal of danger. In a conversation with Reuters, a politician imprisoned following a CICIG investigation shared a chilling message: “In politics, if you’re going to attack, you should never leave the wounded behind… Now we have the list of investigators and prosecutors who are going to pay for being such bad people with all of us.” To that end, the Guatemalan Congress has recently formed a specialized commission, intending to investigate CICIG’s allegedly ‘corrupt’ and ‘biased’ conduct. The commission is a group of five staunchly anti-CICIG politicians—two of which had been investigated by the group for corruption. The commission has the authority to seek jail time for those they are investigating, which range from prosecutors to CICIG allies. While Guatemala’s Supreme Court declared the move unconstitutional, due to increasing strife between Morales and the Constitutional Court (including pressure by the Morales administration to impeach pro-CICIG judges on the court), compliance with the ruling is no guarantee. In August 2018, CICIG requested to drop Morales’ immunity so he could be charged with the crimes they had investigated. While the Supreme Court ruled in favor of CICIG, Congress defied the ruling. The defiance is less surprising when considering that nearly half of the members in Guatemala’s Congress have faced or are facing criminal investigations, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Increased instability in Guatemala will impact surrounding countries and exacerbate the number of refugees forced to flee dangerous conditions. Prior to CICIG’s dissolution, tensions surrounding immigration in many Central American countries already ran high. Guatemala and the U.S. recently signed a ‘third safe country’ policy deal, which will put further strain on a weakening political and economic system in Guatemala. Without CICIG limiting the crime and corruption in the country, instability, poverty, and violence are bound to spread, increasing the number of refugees fleeing dangerous conditions.

The CICIG was a shining example for anti-corruption measures—without it, the fight against impunity across Latin America faces risk of backsliding. Inspired by the model in Guatemala, in the past few years, multiple countries have initiated anti-corruption measures. In 2016, Honduras launched the “Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras.” Even as recently as September of 2019, El Salvador launched the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador, a near one-to-one copy of CICIG. Jimmy Morales sets a disturbing precedent: if anyone with an anti-corruption body finds themselves facing a corruption investigation, they could simply refuse to renew the mandate.

Guatemala’s President-Elect, Alejandro Giammattei, is set to be inaugurated in January 2020. While he does not plan to renew CICIG’s mandate upon assuming office, he claims he will implement a smaller, locally-run commission against impunity. However, one of CICIG’s most significant advantages is its ability to foster independent and unbiased investigations. This cannot be achieved when the government itself is largely still entrenched in illicit criminal networks. The future stability of governments across Latin America depends on the ability to limit impunity. The CICIG model offered a bold, effective way of doing so. Its absence will undoubtedly be felt in Guatemala and across the globe as the region enters a new period of potential instability.

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