Guatemala – CICIG’s Legacy

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) have done a series of short reports looking at Trends of the Decade. Guatemala features in various themes, but I thought to concentrate on the Fight Against Corruption and CICIG’s legacy.

Since 2007, Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office worked in conjunction with the UN-backed initiative the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to investigate the infiltration of criminal networks in state institutions. Many of these probes implicated the country’s most powerful political and economic elites, leading to in the indictment of Guatemala’s former president and vice president; the prosecution of dozens of prominent government officials such as a Supreme Court magistrate, two former presidents, members of Congress, and government ministers; the ouster of more than a dozen corrupt judges and thousands of police officers; and the detention of powerful drug traffickers. 

In addition, CICIG help to build the capacity of Guatemalan prosecutors and police, and earned high levels of approval from the Guatemalan public, and helped pass dozens of reforms that empowered investigators to more effectively combat organised crime and corruption.

However, once investigations started to target the sensitive topic of campaign finance, attempts by political and economic elites to neuter the commission intensified, and the Trump administration’s withdrawal of consistent U.S. support further emboldened the country’s so-called “pact of the corrupt.”

President Jimmy Morales defied Guatemala’s Constitutional Court and unilaterally terminated the CICIG’s mandate, resulting in its withdrawal from Guatemala in September 2019.

CICIG has left behind a strong track record of success and an important model for other anti-corruption efforts in the region, and beyond. However, it is a legacy that elites in Guatemala are now attempting to dismantle, via attacks against former CICIG employees, a lack of support for the special anti-corruption prosecutorial unit, and a regressive legislative agenda in the Guatemalan Congress.

WOLA put together a Q&A to help understand CICIG’s role and its successes, as well as looking at what the future holds for anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, and a summary follows.

How did CICIG come about?

WOLA describes how prolonged lobbying efforts by Guatemalan civil society groups led to the Guatemalan government asking the UN to help establish an initiative that would assist local institutions in investigating, prosecuting, and ultimately dismantling powerful, post-conflict criminal networks. 

The result was an independent investigative body operating under Guatemalan law and reliant on the local justice system, working hand-in-hand with the country’s prosecutors and police, and helping to build their capacities in the process. 

What has been the impact of CICIG’s work in Guatemala since its founding in 2007?

CICIG has assisted in filing more than 120 cases in the Guatemalan justice system, implicating more than 1,540 people, with some 660 people currently facing charges or other type of legal process. According to the U.S. State Department, some 200 current or former government officials are among those facing charges. 

Joint investigations by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office and CICIG also resulted in more than 400 convictions, representing an 85 percent success rate in resolving cases.

CICIG did not have prosecutorial powers, nor could it independently carry out raids, arrests, or wire taps and, while its work in investigating high-impact cases has drawn the most attention, it has played a fundamental role in promoting important reforms to Guatemala’s justice system. By doing so, it helped initiate a new era of sophisticated and effective investigations by Guatemalan prosecutors. 

It is felt that CICIG’s role in challenging long-term impunity, led to a sharp drop in Guatemala’s homicide rate, and earned it the support of the Guatemalan people.

Given CICIG’s successful track record, why is its mandate being allowed to expire? 

The anti-corruption efforts of CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office have long faced pushback from sectors within and outside of the government. Many have sought to undermine the anti-corruption agenda through smear campaigns, lobbyists, and legislation aimed at protecting corrupt officials and influential individuals from prosecution, among other strategies. 

But it was a confluence of events—investigations into illicit campaign financing that implicated both political and business elites, a resistant Guatemalan Congress, and the withdrawal of strong U.S. support—that created a political storm, resulting in President Jimmy Morales’s much criticized and arguably unconstitutional decision to shut down CICIG.  

At the same time, Morales himself ended up facing allegations of accepting some $1 million in illegal campaign donations, in an investigation led by the Attorney General’s Office with support from CICIG.

All this intensified the pushback against CICIG, eventually leading to Morales unilaterally announcing in January 2019 that he would not renew CICIG’s mandate, arguing that the commission is unconstitutional and a risk to national security, among other assertions.

Throughout this political earthquake, the Trump administration failed to show much interest in providing consistent, strong support for efforts to strengthen rule of law in Guatemala. 

What happens now to anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, as CICIG’s mandate comes to an end?

A major uncertainty is what will happen to the special prosecutor’s office that investigates impunity (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI). Alongside CICIG, FECI was instrumental in leading some of Guatemala’s biggest anti-corruption probes.

Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office has said that the FECI will maintain operations, but it is unclear what kind of support, guarantees of continuity, and protections the special prosecutor’s office will actually receive.

The Morales administration has taken actions to weaken FECI and many FECI investigators are currently facing what they say are dozens of spurious lawsuits and other forms of judicial harassment, intended to impede their work.

Another major short-term concern is what will happen to the Guatemalan investigators that previously worked under CICIG—including lawyers, forensic accountants, and other forensic specialists.

Other concerns include the future of the cases that CICIG worked on and are currently before the courts, and the security of judges, Constitutional Court magistrates, and prosecutors who have had a role in the anti-corruption efforts.

Why is it critical that the fight against corruption continue in Guatemala?  

Given Guatemala’s current levels of poverty and inequality, unabated corruption will only continue to make the country a place where there are more reasons to leave than to stay.

Without strong rule of law, a resurgence of organized crime and violence would further exacerbate the wave of Guatemalan migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing abroad. In both 2018 and so far in 2019, Guatemala ranked number one for unaccompanied children and families apprehended at the U.S. southern border. Guatemala’s citizenry will grow ever more vulnerable to pitches by human smugglers, if increasingly poor governance and rising insecurity leaves them feeling as though they have no choice but to leave.

Over the past two years, the erosion of U.S. support for anti-corruption efforts has helped create the current situation in Guatemala: the end of CICIG’s mandate, a political elite brazenly and repeatedly defying the rulings of the country’s highest court, and rising attacks against human rights defenders. 

As recently noted by a coalition of more than 200 civil society groups, part of CICIG’s legacy is that it serves as a warning: “accountability initiatives only succeed where domestic desire for justice is backed by consistent and strong international support.”

You can read the full, very insightful, piece, here, on the WOLA website, and you can view their Trends of the Decade in Human Rights, here.

Categories: Criminalisation, Culture, Genocide, Guatemala, Human Rights, Justice, Legal, Report, Solidarity in Action, Violence

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