Guatemala President Jimmy Morales’ decision not to renew the mandate of the CICIG and to block reentry into the country of its leader, Commissioner Iván Velásquez, is already starting to have consequences for security in Guatemala.
Since 2007, when Congress approved the mandate for the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), the country’s economic and political elite has bristled at the presence of the internationally-backed anti-graft body, and their relationship has been fraught with tension.
The situation intensified when then-Attorney General Thelma Aldana teamed up with the CICIG to take on the same elites, including the president and his entourage.
It has now reached the point where, on August 31, Morales announced that he would not renew the CICIG’s mandate. And a few days later, commissioner Velásquez received a letter while abroad informing him that he would not be permitted to reenter Guatemala.
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On September 19, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad – CC) ordered immigration authorities to allow Velásquez to enter the country. However, speaking through two ministers, Morales said he would defy the court order.
Various sectors of civil society are against the president’s move, but there are also sizeable factions of the local business sector and Congress that support it.
The US government’s position, meanwhile, has been ambiguous, despite its being the CICIG’s primary financial contributor.
The turbulent relationship between the Morales administration, various government authorities and the CICIG has been going on for years now, and its consequences are growing more evident.
1. Risk of Violating the Country’s Constitutional Order
If Velásquez decides to return to Guatemala and the Morales government continues to disobey the CC’s order, the court is authorized to dismiss the officials who bar the Colombian commissioner from entering the country.
If Morales then interferes with the court’s dismissals, he would be disobeying a direct and binding order from the judicial branch of government. Such an act would be tantamount to violating the nation’s constitutional order, according to a high-level judicial official in Guatemala City whom InSight Crime consulted.
Such a violation could eventually lead to a state of siege or the suspension of constitutional guarantees. The militarization of public security forces for political purposes could also become a possibility.
In fact, an example of what Guatemala could see more of took place on September 15, the country’s Independence Day. Dozens of police officers restricted access to the public celebrations, including conducting body searches before allowing citizens to enter public spaces that had been cordoned off, according to media outlet Prensa Libre. They also allegedly targeted young people more than other populations.
2. Weakening Specialized Government Investigation Units
One of the main legacies of the CICIG is the anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI) created at the Attorney General’s Office and tasked with working with the commission to investigate crimes related to corruption or complex criminal structures.
The FECI has spearheaded numerous landmark cases that have dismantled some of Guatemala’s longest-standing corruption networks, such as one dubbed “La Línea,” which uncovered a scheme led by ex-President Otto Pérez Molina to plunder state coffers through the customs department.
But the confrontation between Morales and the CICIG has affected these types of investigations. In April, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart — an unconditional Morales supporter — reassigned trusted police officers who had been working with both the commission and the FECI.
Without the professional skills that the CICIG’s international investigators bring to the cases (skills that Guatemala’s institutions largely lack) and without the training they provide, these investigations will be less effective, FECI head Juan Francisco Sandoval explained to media outlet Factum.
On another front, Morales has also attempted to use Congress to reform Guatemala’s laws governing preliminary hearings, the last step in investigations conducted by the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG. The hearings are used to remove immunity from government officials so they can stand trial for the crimes the two bodies accuse them of.
His aim is to shift the decision-making power over such hearings from the CC — which decides cases against government officials — to the legislature, where he has more allies.
Attorney General’s Office and judiciary officials told InSight Crime that this would allow Morales to remove his enemies in the CC from the equation and empower like-minded legislators to handle the preliminary hearings according to his whims.
3. A Return to the Official Narrative Focusing on Combating Street Gangs
In Guatemala, gangs such as the MS13 and Barrio 18 are not the main threat to public security. They are not responsible, for example, for the majority of the country’s homicides, unlike in El Salvador, where gangs are behind more than 60 percent of them, according to authorities.
An InSight Crime study revealed that, in Guatemala, no single type of criminal group — whether gangs, drug traffickers or other organized crime groups — is responsible for more than 35 percent of homicides.
With the arrival of Morales ally Degenhart to the Interior Ministry, however, such figures seem to have been overshadowed as the government’s fight against gangs retook its position as the centerpiece of its security policy. The minister’s first proposal was to categorize gang members as terrorists, emulating a controversial Salvadoran law despite the countries’ differing situations with organized crime.
In Honduras and El Salvador, the focus on gangs has meant that anti-corruption strategies have taken a back seat, even though they are key to dismantling the political mafias that have plagued the two countries. Moreover, favoring zero-tolerance models has only worsened crime rates.
4. Empowerment of Old Criminal Networks Still Embedded in the Government
The Attorney General’s Office has uncovered links between the intelligence and political corruption networks operating in Guatemala today. They can be traced back to the same origin: the old Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS).
The CIACS are primarily made up of retired military personnel able to mobilize surveillance and cyber warfare resources. Attorney General’s Office investigations into massive corruption schemes have revealed the likely involvement of CIACS members in complex networks of front men used to hide money connected with illicit campaign financing and other crimes.
The CICIG’s exit from Guatemala would inevitably cause the country’s investigative capacity to plummet, paving the way for these criminal networks to once again act with near impunity.
Evidence of an uptick in the activities of these kinds of groups has already begun to emerge.
On September 16, at a press conference where the CC judges read their decision in favor of the CICIG, an undercover police officer attempted to photograph journalists who were covering the event. Once discovered, the officer identified herself as a member of the police force, then fled.
Vice Minister of the Interior Kamilo Rivera — a key Morales ally — said the agent was there at the request of the CC, which the court denied. Both the Attorney General and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Offices have opened investigations into the matter.
Amid such potential signs that government resources intended to fight crime are already being used for internal espionage or even political persecution, a CICIG exit from Guatemala could spell disaster for the country’s fight against corruption.