A Corruption-Fighting Panel Is Endangered in Guatemala. Why?

A Corruption-Fighting Panel Is Endangered in Guatemala. Why?

MEXICO CITY — Almost a dozen years ago, a panel of international prosecutors backed by the United Nations arrived in Guatemala. Their goal: to team up with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office, strengthen the rule of law and combat the criminal networks that had taken hold after the country emerged from more than three decades of civil war.

It was a bold experiment in outsourcing justice, but given Guatemala’s fragile democracy, its weak institutions and the extent of corruption in the country, the government was prepared to cede sovereignty.

Since the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala began its work in 2007, it has peeled back layers of corruption, helped strengthen the courts and professionalized the attorney general’s office, winning the approval of the Guatemalan people and sending powerful politicians, leaders of organized crime and businessmen to jail.

But when a 2017 inquiry into illegal campaign financing focused on President Jimmy Morales directly, he began to stifle the work of the commission, known as Cicig, according its Spanish initials.

That changed this week, when the government declared on Monday that it was withdrawing from the agreement and gave Cicig’s international staff 24 hours to leave the country. In response, the country’s highest court on constitutional matters threw out the government’s decision.

Elections. The country votes for a new president and Congress in June. Although Mr. Morales is ineligible for re-election, he and his allies will oppose any candidate who supports Cicig and the continuation of its investigations into government corruption. Mr. Morales will lose immunity once he steps down from office.

With Cicig out of the picture, the government may find it easier to pressure electoral authorities not to allow presidential candidates who can cause trouble for it — such as Thelma Aldana, the former attorney general who worked with Mr. Velásquez to bring the highest profile prosecutions.

Allies of Mr. Morales in the Guatemalan Congress and the courts are maneuvering to remove three of the constitutional court’s five magistrates. If that effort is successful, then the last formal check on the government’s power will be lifted.

That leaves only the international community, including the United States, and Guatemalans themselves to pressure the government to uphold the rule of law.

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