Guatemala President’s New Attack on Anti-Graft Body Hits Obstacles

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The death of a key ally, an uncertain future for his political party and abuses by his interior minister could foil a desperate attempt by Guatemala President Jimmy Morales to expel a United Nations-backed anti-graft body

The onslaught of events began on April 23, when Morales tweeted a video in which he denounced an alleged “abuse of authority, arrogance and violation of several of the country’s criminal laws” during a November 2, 2016 raid conducted on,the presidential residence.

The money laundering unit of the Attorney General’s Office and the national police led the operation with support from the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG).

The release of the video by Morales came just days after the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office announced the second phase of an investigation into illicit campaign financing alleging that the political party under which Morales ran for president, the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional – FCN), received more than $1 million from a select group of anonymous business leaders.

The businesspeople implicated in the CICIG investigation of the campaign financing immediately took responsibility for their actions. Morales, however, railed against the commission, the Attorney General’s Office and the business leaders in a public speech attended by military officials.

The president’s secretary general, Carlos Martínez, announced that he would be sending a request to the Solicitor General’s Office to evaluate whether the officials involved in the 2016 raid acted “correctly according to the agreement Guatemala signed” with the CICIG.

Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart Astrurias ordered an internal investigation of the role of the police in the two-year-old operation, and announced that he would present the case to the country’s National Security Council. Morales, who presides over the council, then immediately called it into session and declared that the raid “represents a threat to national security.”

In response to these events, Attorney General Mayra Veliz defended the legitimacy of the 2016 operation by referencing article 193 of the Criminal Procedural Code, which allows the Attorney General’s Office to conduct such raids.

Solicitor General Anabella Morfín, whose term ends in May, explained that to comply with the president’s request and investigate the alleged illegality of the raid, she would first have to put together an internal technical commission to perform an analysis.

She also clarified that the Solicitor General’s Office would deliver an evidence-based report — not a resolution — on the events that occurred.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

The CICIG was created in 2006 and its first act of support to the Attorney General’s Office was during the investigation into the Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS) that emerged during Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. The CIACS are made up mainly of active or retired security forces members embedded in various government and military sectors as well as organized crime. These groups have been fighting the CICIG’s efforts since its arrival in Guatemala.

In addition to Morales’ accusations of impropriety on the part of CICIG, a group of representatives close to the president submitted a motion on April 24 that called for an investigation of the anti-graft body and the Attorney General’s Office. The motion was on the floor for only 10 minutes, but 66 representatives nonetheless managed to vote for it before it was quickly withdrawn because it was mistakenly dated 2016 instead of 2018.

Hours later, Interior Minister Degenhart sent a letter to CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez in which he asked why police agents assigned to the commission were near his home the day before.

Velásquez responded in another letter that the agents were verifying the existence of a company — whose name was not revealed — registered at an address close to Degenhart’s residence and clarified that the CICIG currently has no open investigations against the minister.

The same day, news surfaced that two agents and one inspector involved in the surveillance had been detained. Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman requested in a memorandum to the Interior Ministry and the police that the agencies guarantee the lives and safety of the detained agents.

Meanwhile, former Police Chief Erwin Sperisen — recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in the 2006 deaths of six inmates at the Pavón prison — joined the fray, asking the president, “Do me a favor and get the CICIG out of Guatemala.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The risky tactics Morales has attempted to use to discredit and antagonize the CICIG are the latest example of his administration’s crusade against the anti-corruption body, which has just delivered one of its most decisive blows against a sitting Guatemalan president. The events also illustrate the extraordinary power of political elites in countries where corruption has been institutionalized.

The latest attempt by Morales to delegitimize the work of the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office comes just weeks before the selection of the country’s next attorney general. The person chosen will replace Thelma Aldana, who worked closely with the CICIG to fight corruption in Guatemala during her term in office.

The clashes between the government and the Attorney General’s Office and CICIG began not long after Morales took office in January 2016. Just a year later, his brother and one of his sons were arrested for allegedly engaging in corruption during the previous presidency of Otto Pérez Molina.

However, the dispute reached a critical point in September 2017, when the CICIG requested a preliminary hearing against Morales related to accusations of illicit campaign financing.

In response, the president declared CICIG head Velásquez persona non grata and attempted to have him expelled from Guatemala. The preliminary hearing was later blocked by Congress, which went on to approve a series of reforms to the penal code widely viewed as a “Corruption Pact.”

Attempting to expel CICIG officials from the country seems to be one of Morales’ preferred tactics. In fact, last week, after the Foundation Against Terrorism (Fundacíon Contra el Terrorismo) — an organization with close ties to the military and Morales — requested that the embassy declare CICIG attorney César Rincón persona non grata, the president took to Twitter with a video to announce his support of his expulsion from the country.

Rincón is leading the corruption investigation involving Morales’ brother and son.

So far this year, the president has made changes in several top government posts, including the appointment of Degenhart, who has little experience, as interior minister. As InSight Crime has reported, the goal is to shift the balance of power in Guatemala in favor of Morales and crooked elites who back him.

Once appointed head of the Interior Ministry, Degenhart made a series of suspicious changes in the leadership of the police and ordered the removal of 11 agents who had been assigned to the CICIG.

Although the agents were reinstated two days later, the detention of three other agents assigned to the CICIG is a clear demonstration of how the administration is systematically attempting to intimidate officials who act against its interests.

Last week, an allegedly unauthorized disclosure of information that may have prevented three arrests made with the support of the CICIG triggered a shower of accusations from the interior minister, who immediately eschewed responsibility for the leak and accused the Attorney General’s Office of sabotaging its own operation, which seems unlikely.

Degenhart has also visited the United States on several occasions where, according to sources from elPeriódico, he has spoken with members of the US Congress about plans for the National Security Council to remove the CICIG from Guatemala. This could explain why one of the videos Morales tweeted was accompanied by a message written in English instead of Spanish.

The Morales administration’s anti-CICIG lobbying in the United States seems to be paying off with support from some of the far right’s most radical representatives, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady, the latter having published an opinion piece about unproven allegations of Russian influence over the CICIG.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

The failure of the recent congressional motion aimed at investigating CICIG is a reminder of Morales’ continued interference with the country’s legislature. Another example is the case of Edgar Reyes Lee, one of the representatives who supported both the recently failed motion and the so-called Corruption Pact. Reyes was identified by InSight Crime in an extensive investigation for his ties to one of the universities that participate in Guatemala’s questionable attorney general selection process.

But Morales’ bad luck does not stop there. The sudden death of the mayor of Guatemala City, former President Alvaro Arzú, could further compromise the president’s attempts to expel the CICIG, at least in the short term.

Arzú was one of the most quintessential representatives of Guatemala’s traditional elite. And he was one of Morales’ staunchest allies in his fight against the CICIG. In fact, numerous sources consulted in Guatemala stated that much of Morales’ power and his relationship with politically powerful military elements depended heavily on the former president.

Morales’ anti-CICIG vendetta suffered another blow this week in the form of a petition from the Attorney General’s Office to the country’s electoral tribunal to freeze the FCN party’s political activities due to the ongoing investigation of campaign finance irregularities.

The continued bad news for Morales lent credence rumors that the president may have intended to declare a state of exception, restricting certain of citizens’ constitutional rights.

Now, with the future of his political party in limbo and the unexpected death of former President Arzú, whose son currently serves as president of Congress, Morales could find himself more alone and with fewer options than ever before.

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