Last week, Guatemala’s attorney general stated that the country’s president was not an ally in the fight against corruption. Days later, the country’s Congress elected as their leaders several individuals linked to corruption. The U.S. and international community must support the Guatemalan people in defense of the gains that they have made over the last 10 years. Otherwise, the hard work of its citizens and attorney general will have been for nothing.
The Guatemalan government and the international community agreed on the creation of a unique hybrid entity backed by the United Nations, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), in 2006. Working alongside local partners, the commission investigates and dismantles illicit criminal networks operating in or at the margins of the state. Although the outcomes of previous investigations and prosecutions should not be minimized, the CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors’ major success was uncovering wide-scale corruption within several state institutions in 2015, including a multimillion-dollar scheme operating out of the customs authority. Nationwide protests and judicial investigations led to the resignations and arrests of the country’s president, vice president and several high-ranking officials. International support for the Guatemalan people and prosecutors were essential to the removal and arrest of such powerful figures.
Citizen disenchantment with status quo politicians subsequently led to the 2015 election of Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front, a political party formed by former military officials tied to the country’s counterinsurgency project of the 1970s and 1980s. While Morales was a comedian turned politician who campaigned as “not corrupt, nor a thief,” Attorney General Thelma Aldana and the CICIG’s corruption investigations led them to President Morales and his family last year.
Aldana asked Congress to initiate impeachment proceedings against Morales because of the unexplained source of some $825,000 that his presidential campaign had received. Authorities also arrested Morales’s brother and son on corruption and money laundering charges. Morales sought to end the investigations by expelling CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez from Guatemala. The U.S. State Department stated that it was “deeply concerned” about the commissioner’s expulsion and that “[I]t remains crucial that (the commission) be permitted to work free from interference by the Guatemalan government.” The Constitutional Court subsequently blocked Morales’s order.
Congress then refused Aldana and the CICIG’s request to lift the president’s immunity from prosecution in September, and subsequently moved to reduce the maximum penalty for campaign finance crimes to 10 years and allow criminals who face sentences of 10 years or less to pay a fine rather than serve prison time. The Guatemalan people rejected this “pact of impunity” by the country’s politicians and, once again, the Constitutional Court blocked Congress.
In recent weeks, however, Guatemala’s president and congress have again sought to undermine the rule of law and democracy. On Jan. 13, the same Congress that had sought to rein in the attorney general and CICIG elected its new leadership, composed of congressmen already under investigation on corruption charges and presided over by the son of Guatemala City Mayor Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen, a powerful man also under investigation. Morales followed suit by naming as his economic minister a man under investigation for violating campaign finance laws. The position grants him immunity from prosecution.
The president of one of the poorest countries in the region has now come under fire for receiving one of the highest salaries in the region and using government funds for questionable personal purchases totaling $40,000. Attorney General Aldana recently declared, “I don't see the president of the republic as an ally in the fight against corruption."
International support for Guatemala is critical once again. The U.S. and international community have identified the attorney general’s office and CICIG as two of their two most important anti-corruption allies in Guatemala. The U.S. must reiterate its unwavering support for Aldana and the CICIG, and provide them with the resources necessary to carry out their anti-corruption and institution-building initiatives. It must work with its local partners to ensure that the next attorney general, selected in May, is independent of corrupt political forces and committed to building on the work of the last two attorneys general. And the U.S. can deport former presidential candidate Manuel Baldízon to Guatemala, where he is wanted on charges of illicit association, bribery, and money laundering in connection with the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.
As it has done before, the U.S. should offer both carrots (continued assistance through the Alliance for Prosperity initiative) and sticks (targeted economic sanctions) to fight corruption in Guatemala.
Michael E. Allison is professor and chairman of the political science department at The University of Scranton.