All Hands on Deck to Hide Jimmy Morales’ ‘Ghost Flight’

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President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala has many public enemies, but there is one who costs him more sleep at night than the others: CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez Gómez.

It was Velásquez, the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), who did not excuse Morales’ brother and son from a crime involving $30,000. The commissioner also presented evidence showing that the president received illicit campaign financing during the country’s 2015 elections. So Morales hatched a plan to go above Velásquez’s head. He would go to New York and meet with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutérres.

Last year, Morales was in the United States from August 24 to the 26, but no official record or public official has been able to explain how the head of state traveled the 3,311 kilometers from Guatemala to New York.

*This story was translated, edited for clarity, and published with permission from Nómada. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

The Secretariat of Administrative and Security Matters of the Presidency (Secretaría de Asuntos Administrativos y de Seguridad – SAAS), which is responsible for managing such trips, including logistics and the security of the president, vice president and their families, has not provided any answers. Or it is hiding them.

In its finance department, there are no traces of airline ticket purchases for New York on the dates Morales was there. Not even a budget for air transport spending could be found. Moreover, the secretariat’s security department has no record of the army, which is responsible for Guatemalan Air Force aircraft, permitting the use of its fleet.

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Orlando Ramírez, head of the SAAS, said that any inquiries should be made through its public information office. The answers should be there.

Between February 12 and July 13, 2018, Nómada made 20 information requests to the SAAS, the Defense Ministry and the General Directorate of Civil Aeronautics (the latter being under the Interior Ministry). However, while inconsistencies in other presidential trips may have surfaced, none of the institutions provided conclusive information about Morales’ flight to New York.

Communication Secretary Alfredo Brito said that Morales traveled by his own means but did not provide any evidence to verify that statement.

Even beyond the New York trip, government reports do not explain how other presidential flights were paid for, or if they do they are inconsistent. These include two to Miami in June 2016, another to Panama in December 2017 and one to Israel in May 2018.

Transparency Failures

On August 27, one day after returning from New York, without even an echo of his plan at the United Nations, President Morales declared CICIG Commissioner Velásquez persona non grata and nearly succeeded at expelling him from Guatemala. However, citizen protests, legal action from civil organizations and three Constitutional Court judges foiled his plan. Morales had failed to get his revenge twice now.

“That trip left evidence of Jimmy Morales’ plan against the CICIG. There is no excuse for the government to hide the information and all the logistics details of the flight,” activist Helen Mack, director of the Myrna Mack Foundation, said.

According to Guatemala’s 2008 information access law, citizens have the right to know where and why the president is traveling, as well as who is paying for the trips. The information is supposed to be up-to-date and available on the institutions’ websites. The citizens should not have to request it.

In the event that a government official flies in a private plane, article 18 of Guatemala’s probity law establishes punishments if the official has received favors from individuals in exchange for a decision or action.

Guatemalan criminal code also defines what is called passive bribery (soborno), which is when “an official or public employee receives a handout [dádiva] or gift [regalo], or accepts an offering or promise for carrying out an act related to the exercise of his/her functions or position, or for abstaining from an act that he/she must carry out.” The punishment is a prison term of one to five years and a fine. To determine whether a person has committed the crime, the Attorney General’s Office must conduct an investigation.

The Need for a Presidential Plane

Morales is not alone. Former President Álvaro Colom (2008-2012) may have violated the probity law. In ten instances he used planes from Tomza, a company that imports and sells liquefied petroleum gas. And his successor, Otto Pérez Molina (2012-2015), used a plane from the Multi-Inversiones company to attend the 2012 Summit of the Americas, which was hosted by Colombia that April. Furthermore, Samuel and José Manuel Morales, the brother and son of the current president and both accused of corruption, traveled to the United States in a plane owned by former Fundesa President Felipe Bosch — whom the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG have accused of illegally financing Jimmy Morales’ presidential campaign — to see Guatemala’s national soccer team play a game in 2016.

A Nómada investigation discovered that Morales traveled to Israel in May 2018 in the plane of Israeli-American Sheldon Adelson, a casino and convention center owner who has been sanctioned for corruption.

Adelson also invests in pro-Israel lobbying that favors Israel’s annexation of territory still in dispute with Palestine. The Morales government backed him up by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The government’s refusal to explain the use of a private plane during a state visit to inaugurate the Guatemalan embassy in Jerusalem led the Attorney General’s Office to open a file on the matter.

Julia Barrera, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, explained that the comptroller general must audit and investigate the flight. And the Anti-Corruption Unit of the Attorney General’s Office must also determine who traveled in the plane, and establish whether they committed any crimes. The investigation is ongoing.

Government Institutions Shirking Responsibility

Comptroller Carlos Mencos said that the case regarding the trip to New York is not within the purview of the Comptroller General’s Office because the flight was not paid for with public funds.

“We are responsible for auditing public spending, and in this case the investigation belongs to the Attorney General’s Office,” he said.

But spokesperson Barrera stated that no complaint has been filed that would lead to a case being opened.

Violeta Mazariegos, head of the Information Access Secretariat (Secretaría de Acceso a la Información) at the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, believes that the trip was an act of public administration that Morales carried out in his capacity as president of Guatemala, and not as a private citizen or as part of his own vacation time. She said that is why he should account for it.

“For the purposes of ethics and integrity and to avoid conflicts of interest, who pays for the president’s flights must be declared,” she said.

*This story was translated, edited for clarity, and published with permission from Nómada. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

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