Ambiguous US Response Leaves Guatemala Justice in Limbo

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Mixed messages from Washington have left the door open for Guatemala President Jimmy Morales to strengthen his fight against the institutions investigating him for alleged illicit campaign financing, especially the CICIG.

The most recent — and most severe — crisis in the war between Morales and the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) began on August 31 when the president announced he would not renew the anti-graft body’s mandate, which expires in September 2019.

The first reaction from the United States — one of the CICIG’s main financiers — to Morales’ announcement came from a press release from the US Embassy in Guatemala affirming their support for the fight against corruption in Guatemala.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

But nearly a week later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tipped the scales in Morales’ favor. In a September 6 telephone call, Pompeo said that Washington supported Guatemala’s sovereignty and would support a “reformed” CICIG. Exactly what this means is unclear.

In the capital Guatemala City, the role of the US embassy seems to be to contain Morales.

Behind closed doors, the role of the US embassy was vital to preventing the Morales administration from including more drastic measures in an attempt to remove the CICIG, such as the suspension of some constitutional guarantees, three diplomatic sources consulted by InSight Crime said.

“What happens from here on will depend a lot on the pressure that [US officials] exert,” one of the sources said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly. InSight Crime contacted the US Embassy in Guatemala for comment on this version of events, but the embassy declined to comment for now.

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Washington has been one of the CICIG’s principal political supporters since the commission was created in 2007.

In 2015, when the CICIG and the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office uncovered the so-called “La Línea” case — a massive corruption scandal in the country’s ports that implicated then-President Otto Pérez Molina and his then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti — Washington and the US State Department did not hesitate to support the commission.

John Kerry, the head of diplomacy during former US President Barack Obama’s second term, and Rex Tillerson, the first secretary of state in the administration of current US President Donald Trump, supported the CICIG during crises prompted by investigations into local powers.

In the middle of 2017, when President Morales declared CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez “persona non grata” — an order the country’s Constitutional Court later reversed — the United States supported the commission through public comments made by then-US Ambassador to Guatemala Luis Arrega. Todd Robinson, Arrega’s predecessor and the United States’ current advisor on Central America for the State Department, also supported the CICIG. This generated concern among the most conservative sectors of the country.

Today that support is no longer clear.

InSight Crime Analysis

If this past week has made anything clear, it is this: with several Trump administration officials in his corner, Jimmy Morales has the advantage in his battle against the CICIG.

Perhaps the lobbying strategy he has been pursuing with certain Washington sectors has indeed paid off.

This is a longstanding situation.

In April, a case involving the Bitkovs, a wealthy Russian family at odds with President Vladimir Putin, exposed Morales’ lobbying in the United States to weaken the CICIG.

Three members of the Bitkov family were charged and prosecuted by Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office for belonging to a document forgery network that included several local immigration officials who are now in prison.

The Bitkovs have alleged that lobbying groups affiliated with the Morales government accused the CICIG of unjustly prosecuting the Russians with Putin’s support. The case reached the US Senate, where Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) announced his objection to disbursing the $6 million that had been awarded to the CICIG. After a State Department official acknowledged that there was no evidence of collusion between the Russian government and the CICIG, Rubio released the funds.

But the attacks against the UN-backed commission have not abated.

The day before Morales announced he would not renew the CICIG’s mandate, Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Sandra Jovel held a closed-door meeting with US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Diplomatic sources in Guatemala with knowledge of the meeting told InSight Crime that Jovel once again complained about the CICIG.

A year before that, Morales traveled to New York to meet with UN Secretary General António Guterres. Some believe that it was to share similar complaints about Velásquez.

However, some on Capitol Hill responded to Morales’ decision not to renew the CICIG’s mandate with messages of support for Velásquez and his team and condemnation for the Guatemalan president.

US representative Norma Torres (D-Calif.), for example, published a statement harshly criticizing Pompeo’s inaction and demanding that “assistance to the Guatemalan government be withheld and its authority under the Magnitsky Act be used to suspend the visas and freeze the assets of Guatemalan officials who have been involved in acts of corruption.”

But Pompeo’s reaction and the Trump administration’s silence only seem to substantiate the idea that the fight against corruption is not on Washington’s list of priorities.

Morales, his administration and his allies in Congress have not limited their onslaught solely to the CICIG. It appears to be part of a larger strategy to also weaken the Attorney General’s Office and the high courts, given that the CICIG depends heavily on them to push forward with the preliminary hearings weighing on the president.

If this plan works, the Guatemalan justice system will be left in limbo, with Washington’s ambiguities partly to blame.

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