In the fight for Guatemala’s institutions, there is never a dull moment. Recently, and especially in the last few weeks, powerful groups in the country’s capital have made it clear that they will do everything in their power to stop investigations of corruption, impunity and organized crime being carried out by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office.
Powerful politicians — like former Guatemalan president Álvaro Arzú Irigoye and now mayor of Guatemala City who is under investigation for corruption — are questioning the actions of the commission and the Attorney General’s Office. Others, including former President Otto Pérez Molina (who is also being prosecuted for corruption) and current President Jimmy Morales, tried to subvert the fight against impunity by electing a congressional leadership board that was resisting reform efforts. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court annulled that election earlier this week.
President Morales also recently removed the superintendent of Guatemala’s Internal Revenue Service (Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria – SAT), Juan Solózano Foppa, and the Interior Minister, Francisco Rivas, both of whom were considered friendly towards CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office. In Rivas’ place, Morales appointed an official with alliances to Arzú and other powerful groups.
Meanwhile, the committee established to select the next attorney general, known as the postulation commission — made up of 15 lawyers, some of whom have questionable ties to underworld figures — had its first meetings. In May, the commission will select the final six candidates who the president will choose from to replace Attorney General Thelma Aldana, another staunch CICIG ally. In all, it looks like organized crime groups, some of whom had been losing ground in Guatemala, seem ready to engulf the Guatemalan state yet again.
These de facto powers threaten to reverse the achievements made by the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office, largely since 2015, when the two judicial bodies forced Pérez Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign, following a series of dramatic, largely spontaneous protests in the country’s main plaza.
At the center of this current backlash is CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez. Velásquez, a Colombian national, was declared a persona non grata, last August by President Morales. A court, however, reversed that motion.
Velásquez spoke with InSight Crime about the current situation and the future of the fight against corruption in Guatemala. The CICIG head acknowledged that Guatemala is in “a difficult moment,” marked by the belligerence of powerful economic actors that are under investigation for their possible connections with organized crime.
InSight Crime: How do you see the fight against corruption in Guatemala right now, especially after the election of the new congressional leadership board and the conversation surrounding the battle for the next attorney general?
Iván Velásquez Gómez (IVG): Authority, or more abstractly, power, doesn’t have any interest in changing things. There isn’t one single thing that can change this reality, and it is the same reaction we’re facing in the fight against corruption. For that reason, those in power oppose any important reform, even if the reform isn’t revolutionary like the one that was proposed in the justice system. There’s a concerted effort among all governmental sectors, as well as people inside and outside the government involved in illegal activity, to prevent any sort of progress in this country. I believe that they’re using any and all tools at their disposal to block this. For example, many people under investigation resort to ideological arguments, or claim that the political right is being persecuted by the left.
Unlike countries in South America, where we see similar things happening, I think there’s a much more favorable climate in Guatemala to use that argument based on the country’s recent history. There has always been a fear of communism. After 1954 [when there was a coup against a democratically elected president], and especially after 1960 [when a 36-year civil war began], there was all that anti-communist thinking: “Here, we can die of hunger, but we’ll never accept communism. Here we can be illiterate, but we don’t accept communism.”
Everything has revolved around this. It’s even apparent in some parts of the military, which maintains that “we were the victims” [in Guatemala’s decades long civil war]. They claim that it was a war of outside powers developed on their own soil. The complicated thing is, how do we transform those fears into building real power?
IC: The Guatemalan elites understand that this conversation is part of Guatemala’s recent history. Are ordinary people having that conversation? Do ordinary people in Guatemala buy the elite’s argument when it’s made through a governmental official or an analyst?
IVG: I think that the discourse does manage to get through, maybe because of the generalization or amplitude of the argument. But one cannot rely on news from social media alone, especially when there’s so much manipulation these days on social networks. But I don’t know. I sense that something has changed since all the euphoria of 2015. I don’t know if we could talk about a specific setback, but the transformative enthusiasm of 2015 should still be a reality. Today, it’s not a reality. Things are more reserved, and it can also be explained by some of those reactionary forces in the government. Of course, to maintain a reform movement for prolonged periods of time when there’s no longer an organization to do so, after all that spontaneity in 2015, it’s very difficult.
Now what we are seeing are organized groups — an important result of 2015 — but still one without a larger transformative force behind them. They have some political power, like when they prevented laws of September 2017, for example, [designed to give lawmakers and their allies] impunity but not enough power adopt the laws required to move the country forward. Some of those laws can be prevented, but we can’t pass laws to reform electoral participation and political parties. If we’re really interested in democratic politics or electoral participation, then yes, those norms need to be adopted.
This situation has reached a new level in which people are directly affected [by the CICIG and Attorney General’s Office investigations], and they’re no longer able to use the same tools they’ve traditionally used. Now, those who have power — in any real sense — have had to show up and face the facts.
It would be easier if Guatemalan citizens were more active, but I think overall it’s still lacking. Attorney General [Thelma Aldana] is more optimistic about this, and I think that she believes that awareness is already there. I think that it’s possible to get there, but there’s still a step forward that we must take in order to achieve it.
IC: What would that step look like?
IVG: Well for example, we know that there are many business owners who are concerned with illicit campaign financing. They know that the Attorney General’s Office and CICIG are investigating illegal financing. It’s been said repeatedly that it’s been one of the principal themes of our investigation this year, in an effort to improve the democratic process for next year’s elections. I’m sure there are people that know that we have information that could implicate them, but that we haven’t yet completed the investigation. These people, instead of looking for a solution to their own problems, are trying to raise a fuss, become confrontational, or try and discount the validity the investigation.
So they want to see if we get scared or leave, or decide not to continue the investigation. And when that sentiment comes from the highest levels of the state — I don’t know how to change their mentality… It’s the same thing that they are saying about (the comparisons with) Venezuela: For me, it’s incredible that people, whether in a management position or higher up on the social ladder, can rationally believe that Guatemala is becoming like Venezuela — or that our anti-corruption efforts are a plot by the political left.
Because the other thing they are doing is using propaganda, incite fear in the people. And it’s just plain manipulation.
IC: But do you think people believe it?
IVG: Yes! There are people who truly believe it. In conversations I’ve had with some people I’ve said, “It’s not possible because what it reveals is a very low intellectual capacity…” But it’s true!
IC: At the beginning of our conversation, you referred to “abstract power.” The actions of CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office tell us that in the past, powerful groups in Guatemala looked more like the narcos mixed with military intelligence. But now we’re talking about investigating groups that have real, economic power over Guatemala. Did the pressure on those groups change when you started to investigate Guatemala’s economic elites?
IVG: I wouldn’t say that it’s only economic, although it’s clear that they have plenty of influence. This is the same reason why CICIG’s investigative leads have all started from the same hypothesis since 2014 — that those in power seek total control of the state. What the investigations have demonstrated is that, in effect, that’s the reality. So this phenomena, which isn’t just co-option of specific sectors of the government, seeks power over the state in its entirety. It’s also a problem that has developed over time, which has allowed us to come to the conclusion that corruption is not just circumstantial, or just a singular case, nor does it stem explicitly from the government or those certain people. Rather, it’s a structural issue, one that is already endemic in a corrupt system. All the things that we do to remove those who co-opt the state make those who have control of the state use everything in their power to prevent the state from being freed — that is, to prevent them from losing power, and losing their control.
What’s happening is too difficult to explain in one simple conversation. For example, the problem of drug trafficking: Do drug traffickers have control over the state? Clearly, some actions of the drug traffickers demonstrate this, and that kind of control exists in some municipal governments in some areas of the country. Does it show that drug traffickers control the entirety of Guatemala? No, but it’s a part of it.
What is the relationship between corruption and drug trafficking? How does drug trafficking feed on the same corruption that stems from, for example, illegal campaign financing? So it’s true: everything is related to everything.
IC: So where do we start? Where does this liberation of the state that you’re talking about begin?
IGV: The problem is to dissect this ultimate control of the state and say: “If we intervened here, it would achieve real change.” This is part of CICIG’s mandate, and it gives us legitimacy to intervene in the discussion. But this should be the aim of any state that is grappling with such a problem, which is the case in many countries in Latin America.
The first place we should intervene is in the judicial branch, to build a judicial body that is actually independent. I think that starting there gives us the best chance of real liberation and recovery of the governing process. Strengthening institutions should be a part of strengthening the justice system.
In Guatemala, 90 percent of the country’s municipalities don’t have an Attorney General’s Office. And where they do exist, they’re quite weak, which means that even the specialized prosecutor’s offices in the capital are weak prosecutor’s offices. They have no capacity to respond to any crime at all. It’s like Attorney General (Thelma Aldana) said this week: The attorney general is the open door through which citizens can achieve justice. And if that door is closed, then we have to strengthen this process of constructing the real democracy that we’ve been talking about.
IC: You have said that regarding the possibility of backsliding in the process, Attorney General Aldana is optimistic whereas you are more pessimistic. The interpretation that I am seeing quite frequently now is the more pessimistic one; that there is indeed the possibility of taking a step backward. That at the end of the day the outcome of the state possessing greater powers is that it has effectively once again closed the door on the possibility of getting an attorney general that won’t work with the CICIG and that will be weak and who will merely reverse everything.
IVG: It’s possible. It is extremely difficult to say. In any case, you can’t say at this point they will nominate an attorney general who is not committed to the fight against corruption; I think it’s difficult to say one way or the other. There are people in the nomination committee that I think have a clear understanding of this, and people that I hope will responsibly fulfill the role they have been entrusted with. But it is also important that there people get involved to ensure that the members of the commission do their work adequately. They are quite aware of the great responsibility they have, and, I imagine, must feel a great amount of pressure from all sides, from those that advocate for an attorney general to give continuity to the work that is being carried out, and those who advocate for an attorney general who will slow down, pause or disengage. But the nomination committee has the responsibility to deliver six good candidates to the president and the old way is always a possibility.
IC: Some people say that any form of blatant manipulation would be extremely difficult given the attention vested in the process. Do you agree? Does citizen oversight guarantee the correct application of the legal mechanisms on which the actions of the commission are based? Will the presence of the university deans help to act as a safeguard?
IVG: Officially yes, but in reality, it is no real guarantee. In 2014, during the last nomination commissions for the courts — Supreme Court and Appeals — there was intense citizen oversight, and in the end, we discovered, partly from a notice from (the ex-magistrate) Claudia Escobar, that the appointments were split between the two major parties. The leader of the incumbent party, Alejandro Sinibaldi [who is a fugitive for corruption charges] as well as the supposed opposition party leader, Manuel Baldizon [who was recently captured in the United States and is involved with several cases of corruption, according to the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office, among them a case connected to the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht], split up the appointments. This was done in front of citizen watchdog groups, which was had a lot of oversight, and had even pushed the constitutional court into suspending the inauguration of the magistrates.
So it is not a guarantee, but it helps. I think it depends a lot on the beliefs that the individuals on the postulation commission. What are their beliefs? Who do they represent? Is there the possibility of representing the general good as opposed to the interests of specific sectors? Especially in the conditions that the country is in now.
The hope is that the original view of the people who set up the postulation commissions remains: that the inclusion of academy in the selection of high ranking government employees, as well as that of the attorney general and of the magistrates will lead to the selection of candidates based on suitability, capacity, and honorability, as it says in the constitution. That this is indeed the conviction of the postulation commission members. That is the hope we all should have. How effective will that be? That’s another question.
IC: Beyond the apparent cohesion of the de facto powers to prevent the fight against corruption, do you feel that there is unity regarding a basic national agenda to keep trying?
IVG: Outside of these powers? Through democratic or via social avenues? This is a problem in this country. I think that we have not yet managed to build common cause among citizens, something that will bind them in the struggle for transformation. What we need is to agree on some minimum points that will allow us to take a step forward in creating that change. What is it that will allow for groups from different ideological and political spectrums to join together and fight for a common goal in the national interest?
2015 had a lot of momentum, but what ended up happening was that everything was improvised. Everything was so spontaneous that it was not possible to build. And when the University of San Carlos convened a platform for state reform…What was supposed to be gathering of all sectors was lost, it was diluted.
After 2016, the state was co-opted because a group understood that there would be no more privileged class, nobody was going to be above the law. The results of an investigation would be presented as they were. And if a banker, or a businessman or a politician were involved it would still be presented regardless of who was involved.
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That naturally left some people scared, and when some get scared you start to hear, “Well, yes, of course [we want change], but not so much. Obviously, that’s what we wanted, but there has to be a limit, or else what’s the point? It could destroy the country! The impact on the economy… Investment is going to be discouraged… You will have to handle this very carefully…” Does the truth really matter? Are we not fighting precisely for the truth, independently of who it affects?
So that generated at the very least a tepid commitment from some sectors in the fight against corruption, and eventually everything was so diluted we ended up in the situation that we have now.
There needs to be national will to fight corruption. If you look at the outlook of many of the institutions in the fight against corruption, I feel like it is significantly shortsighted.
IC: How does the whole issue of illicit electoral financing, which you have mentioned as being one of the priorities of CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office, affect the country’s institutions?
IVG: What we have found through the investigation of the illicit electoral financing is just how resources obtained illicitly from the government and private sources ended up going to specific political campaigns.
This obviously establishes an unequal playing field between the candidates who are only supposed to invest a certain amount, but who, in reality, spend substantially more, sometimes 12 times more than the legal amount. Wouldn’t it be better to establish rules and regulations so that all candidates could submit to a discussion that would focus more on the policies rather than depend on their financial resources? Is this not the ideal democracy we dream of? To discuss different plans for government programs and allow the people to choose between them? But this isn’t what’s happened, not here or in many other countries.
IC: Let’s say that hypothetically on the day when the president chooses the new attorney general, he selects someone who, as you say, intimidates or slows down the work of CICIG? And what about the opposite scenario: what happens if there is an attorney general who continues in this line of work with CICIG and makes it clear, as you have just said, no matter who it is, if there is evidence, he will be prosecuted? What will happen?
IVG: Obviously, it will be much harder to work with the first type of prosecutor and easier to work with the second. But it is a situation where even with the first kind of prosecutor, I would not say that there is nothing that can be done, or that everything is bound for failure. We rely on investigations; the investigations have compelling probative elements. There is a lot of power in structuring a case that — when presented to an attorney general of any nature and given the robustness of the evidence — an attorney general who does not see this or refuses to continue with such an investigation is consciously aware that he is acting illegally. In this situation, with this type of evidence, would make his life complicated. It’s not a problem of interpretation, nor a question of fundamentally interpreting the testimony. Naturally, there will be testimonial evidence, but these are cases that are built much more on documents or telephone intercepts, financial analyses — evidence that is, shall we say, more credible than what a witness can provide.
So for example, in the Odebrecht investigation, let’s say the big question is: How can you prove the witness’ testimony that Alejandro Sinibaldi and Manuel Baldizón met on the reported date? Well it doesn’t matter if they did or didn’t meet on that day because there is substantial evidence that Alejandro Sinibaldi received a part and Manuel Baldizón received another part (of the alleged Odebrecht bribes.) Was there an agreement between them? That’s another issue. So testimonies what they do is serve to connect and to explain, but it is not the basis on which the case is built. When a case like that goes to an attorney general and he consciously chooses to service impunity over the law, it’s not a mistake. And when that happens, we continue our investigations. We support the Attorney General’s Office, which is also the way in which the CICIG was envisaged, and we present to the attorney general, in conjunction with the prosecutors, all the elements gathered in the investigation. Just because a barrier is put in the way does not mean that these cases will not be prosecuted. Maybe that’s why some people who know how it works consider that what they have to do is stop CICIG. That would be a more significant guarantee (of impunity).