Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Fight Inspired Latin America. It May be Shut Down.
GUATEMALA CITY — Jailed in the squalid barracks of a military base, members of Guatemala’s once untouchable elite plot their return to power.
Former presidents and ministers, legislators, judges and business owners, all accused in a yearslong battle against graft, spend their idle hours gardening, strumming guitars, studying English, barbecuing for Sunday visitors — and waging a campaign to crush the anti-corruption drive that put them in jail.
Their target is a panel of international investigators, backed by the United Nations, that has led one of the most effective fights against corruption in Latin America and set an example for a region that has struggled to curb the graft that is at the root of much inequality and violence.
Working alongside Guatemalan prosecutors, the panel has worked to strengthen institutions in the fragile democracy that emerged after decades of military rule and Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.
The accused have a powerful ally in Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales. He campaigned as a reformer, only to switch sides once he and his family were themselves charged with crimes by the investigators.
Since then, the offensive has escalated, threatening the rule of law in the country, said Iván Velásquez, the head of the panel, which is called the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala but best known by its Spanish acronym, Cicig.
“The businessmen who are accused, the legislators, the Supreme Court magistrates, the whole government: their intent is to assure impunity,” said Mr. Velásquez. “To do that, they need to remain in control of the state.”
Now, with a presidential election in June, the prisoners and their allies on the outside are conspiring to turn the vote their way and ensure that Cicig is shut down for good.
A decision by a Guatemalan court on Wednesday brought their goal closer: Thelma Aldana, a former attorney general and the only well-known presidential candidate to support Cicig, was barred from running.
Eliminating Ms. Aldana, who won international praise for confronting corruption, from the race makes it almost a certainty that Cicig will leave when its mandate finishes in September, said Alexander Aizenstatd, a constitutional lawyer.
The anti-corruption drive has won such support among Guatemalans that whoever is elected will not be able to scrap Cicig outright, Mr. Aizenstatd said. But he warned that a substitute could prove to be toothless, just “steps to appease popular sentiment.”
Much is riding on Cicig’s survival, and not just within Guatemala.
Since its creation a dozen years ago, Cicig has prosecuted more than 100 cases, bringing charges against some 700 people involved in more than 60 criminal networks and earning the trust of Guatemalans, who have taken to the streets in its defense. During a presidential campaign in which polls suggest that voters harbor deep distrust of their government and politicians, Cicig consistently wins the approval of well over half the population.
If Guatemala’s recent effort against corruption is rolled back, the ripples will likely spread all the way to the United States, where policy in the region has focused on stemming the flow of drugs and halting the exodus of migrants fleeing poverty and violence. Neither is possible without the sturdy rule of law, said William Brownfield, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the former United States assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement.
“Cicig’s work does play into the root causes of migration, of gangs, of drug-related issues,” said Mr. Brownfield.
Neighboring countries have also started to see the panel as a model. In Honduras a similar, though weaker, commission has uncovered networks of corruption among legislators. El Salvador’s incoming president has proposed a version of Cicig and Ecuador’s president this week established a technical anti-graft commission of five outside experts.
But the challenges to prosecutions here suggest how fragile those gains against corruption can be — not just in Guatemala, but in much of Latin America. Rising public disgust with graft and poor governance helped bolster investigations that deposed presidents and jailed CEOs, but also generated fierce resistance from entrenched power brokers.
In Guatemala, politicians, business leaders and the military have made common cause against the commission. They argue that the involvement of foreigners in Guatemalan investigations undermines the country’s sovereignty. They question Cicig’s use of informants, and maintain that suspects’ presumption of innocence has been violated. Above all, they argue that the process has become politicized.
“I feel like a political hostage,” said Carlos Vielmann, a former interior minister. He helped negotiate the agreement to bring in the international prosecutors — then became and a defendant in one of their cases, and an inmate at the improvised pretrial detention center on the Mariscal Zavala military base, in the hills of Guatemala City. After six months in jail, he was released on bail earlier this month.
The effort to eliminate the panel has held the country at the brink of constitutional crisis for months.
In August, Mr. Morales announced that he would not renew Cicig’s two-year mandate when it expires this September. He then tried block its work during its last year.
He kicked out Mr. Velásquez, the Colombian head of the commission, in September and declared four months later that Guatemala was pulling out of the agreement with the United Nations. When that order was overturned by Guatemala’s constitutional court, the country’s highest, opponents tried to impeach the three judges whose majority vote had protected Cicig.
For now, Cicig — which Mr. Velásquez still leads from outside Guatemala — and the attorney general’s office have continued to work. Last week, they accused Mr. Morales’s economy minister, a presidential candidate and six legislators of scheming to buy votes in Congress between 2012 and 2015. They have all denied the charges.
The campaign against Cicig and the constitutional court “is putting our democracy at risk, it is violating our constitution,” said Edgar Gutiérrez, an analyst and former foreign minister who first proposed that Guatemala seek outside help.
It has also emboldened other attempts to reverse Guatemala’s recent gains against impunity and corruption.
Over the past year, the interior ministry has dismantled the leadership of the national police, sweeping aside professional commanders trained by the United States. In Congress, a proposal to grant military officers amnesty for war crimes needs only a final vote to be approved. “The ideological tables are turning,” said Fernando Linares, the legislator proposing the amnesty.
Cicig began as a unique experiment a dozen years ago, when Guatemala’s government went to the United Nations for help in controlling the military-criminal networks that had seized control of parts of the state.
Along with providing technical expertise, setting up specialized courts and proposing new laws to speed investigations, Cicig’s presence fortified the attorney general’s independence, serving as a buffer against political pressure.
“I think in our countries in Latin America, prosecutors are closely linked to political and economic power,” said Mr. Velásquez, who led the investigation in Colombia into ties between politicians and right-wing paramilitary groups. “That limits their actions.”
The arrival of Mr. Velásquez in 2013, and Ms. Aldana’s appointment the following year, accelerated the pace of investigations.
The cases they brought offered Guatemalans a picture of their country as a place where payoffs and embezzlement were part of doing government business and corruption cost lives, as in one case that involved the sale of faulty dialysis equipment to government hospitals.
In 2015, Ms. Aldana charged the president at the time, Otto Pérez Molina, and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, with leading a customs fraud scheme — charges both denied. Guatemalans filled the streets in protest for months.
Mr. Pérez Molina resigned, and the anti-corruption fervor swept Mr. Morales, a former television comic, into the presidency. He promised to work with Mr. Velásquez.
New cases rolled out so quickly that Guatemalans took to calling the weekly news conferences announcing them as “Cicig Thursday.”
The volume of prosecutions also clogged the courts and confined suspects to wait months, often years, in pretrial detention at the military base.
Despite cases against powerful individuals, established political networks in Congress and in local government remained in place. So too, did corrupt judges.
Then Mr. Morales’s family fell under Cicig’s scrutiny. First, the president’s son and his brother were charged with fraud, which they deny.
Then Cicig began to uncover illegal campaign finance schemes. The president, who is the only person with the power to end its mandate, came under investigation. So did some of the country’s most powerful businessmen.
Cicig made enemies of people like Angel González, who owns five television stations, giving him a near monopoly over television news. Mr. González’s wife is accused of making illegal donations to Mr. Pérez Molina, the jailed former president.
The campaign finance cases appeared to end whatever support the business lobby had shown for Cicig in the past.
“We expressed our concern that in some cases the commission was intervening in political debates that exceeded its mandate,” said Roberto Ardón, the executive director of the powerful business organization known as Cacif.
The government and Cicig’s opponents in Congress, where more than 20 percent of legislators face corruption charges, also managed to undermine the commitment of the United States to the commission by cultivating support within the Trump administration and sidelining the State Department professionals who had long supported Cicig.
As the elections approach, the enthusiasm that drove Guatemalans to the streets to protest corruption four years ago has been replaced by the acceptance that it will take much more than a new president to overturn the structures of power.
“It is not that easy to change a dynamic of centuries,” said Álvaro Montenegro, one of the organizers of the 2015 street protests. “It won’t happen from one day to the next. But there will be a change.”