In a huge shift of momentum, Guatemala's congress has voted to retain President Jimmy Morales' immunity in the face of corruption allegations, a clear demonstration of the willingness of the country's elites to come together and protect themselves amid investigations into their alleged misconduct.
On September 11, congress voted by a tally of 104 to 25 in favor of maintaining Morales' presidential immunity, AP reported.
According to Prensa Libre, the vote effectively stalls investigations into suspicions of illicit campaign financing during Morales' 2015 presidential bid, which were carried out by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) and Guatemala's Attorney General's Office (Ministerio Público - MP).
Soon after becoming aware of the investigation, Morales tried to oust CICIG head Iván Velásquez by declaring the Colombian national "persona non grata" and ordering him to leave the country "immediately." However, Guatemala's Constitutional Court later ruled that the president could not expel the head of the anti-graft body in this manner.
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The back-and-forth battle between the president and the justice system comes against the backdrop of widespread international support for Guatemala's anti-corruption efforts, including from the diplomatic missions of the United States and other countries. It also follows days after both houses of the US Congress took steps to reaffirm their support for the CICIG's work, which has helped reveal the depth and breadth of graft in Guatemala.
In addition to allegations that during the 2015 campaign season, Morales' party, the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional - FCN), may have received a $500,000 contribution from alleged drug trafficker Marlon Francesco Monroy Meoño, alias "El Fantasma," the Guatemalan news outlet Nomada reported September 12 that Morales also allegedly received a "military bonus" of 50,000 quetzales (around $6,900) from the Defense Ministry in March 2017.
According to lawyers consulted by Nomada, as president of Guatemala, Morales is also commander general of the military and therefore cannot receive any additional bonuses from any of the country's ministries under Guatemalan law.
InSight Crime Analysis
President Morales so far has proven unable to remove the CICIG or Velásquez. But the decision by congress to preserve the president's immunity shows that he can count on the support and protection of other politically powerful actors, many of whom have an interest in staving off similar investigations into their own activities.
"I would have thought congress would have supported investigations to protect themselves [and] say they're on the side of anti-corruption, but they sort of went the other way to protect themselves by protecting Morales," Mike Allison, head of the political science department at the University of Scranton, told InSight Crime.
This domestic support for the president could counterbalance the pressure brought by international players, and may incentivize Morales to move against close allies of the CICIG while the momentum seems to be in his favor. Allison told InSight Crime that it "makes sense that [Morales would] go after some of those sympathetic of CICIG within his administration and government," adding that there could be a "purging of other people that are seen as progressive and not aligned with the FCN."
The three most likely targets are Interior Minister Francisco Manuel Rivas Lara; Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who has worked closely with the CICIG on several high-profile anti-corruption cases; and pro-CICIG US Ambassador to Guatemala Todd Robinson.
Rivas would likely be among the first to be targeted. Congress could decide to issue a "vote of no confidence" against the minister, which would give Morales the power to oust him and replace him with an ally. According to La Hora, "Rivas is considered one of the officials in President Jimmy Morales' cabinet who is closest to the work of fighting impunity." Congressional representative Amílcar Pop of the left-wing Winaq party told the news outlet that "to weaken the interior minister is to weaken the fight against corruption."
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Following Rivas, it is possible that Attorney General Aldana could be next on the list. However, Aldana is set to leave her post in 2018, so it is more likely that Morales will simply wait for her term to end in order to position an ally to take her place. At the same time, Aldana previously reported receiving threats from "hidden powers" as her office pressed forward with corruption cases implicating a number of elites, suggesting that those same "powers" will be able to exert pressure regardless of who replaces her.
Similarly, Robinson's term as ambassador is also set to finish up this year. His successor, Luis Arreaga, a Guatemalan-born US diplomat, has already been confirmed and has pledged to continue support for the CICIG. Although Morales has less room to move directly against the US ambassador, his government has retained the services of US public relations firms with the aim of boosting Guatemala's lobbying penetration in Washington. And actors close to the president have previously been reported to have used back channels to attempt to undermine the US diplomatic presence in the country.
Still, Allison told InSight Crime that the CICIG has operated for some time in "uncomfortable shoes," suggesting that this dynamic is not likely to change. But he also added that the only way for Guatemala to "turn a page" is if prosecutors and the CICIG can "keep their foot on the pedal" -- something that may be difficult in light of the current political context.