US Again Warns Central America over Attacks on Prosecutors, CICIG

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A US senator has warned Guatemala that aid funding could be put in jeopardy if the Central American country’s president, Jimmy Morales, insists on calling for the removal of Iván Velásquez, the head of the anti-corruption body CICIG.

This is the latest in a series of warnings and messages from Washington to the capitals of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where the fight against impunity, organized crime and corruption is a major pillar of relations with the United States. 

The most recent warning came from Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and second-in-command of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. In a March 22 statement, Leahy raised concerns that Guatemalan President Morales’ may attempt to remove Velásquez.

Leahy’s message also included support for Guatemala’s Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who, along with Velásquez and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), has investigated and brought cases to court that have uncovered the relationship between organized crime and Guatemala’s political elites. 

In 2016, Aldana’s office and Velásquez’s CICIG exposed “La Línea,” a corrupt criminal network with criminal structures implicating former President Otto Pérez Molina, former Vice President Roxana Baldetti and former Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla. All three are now in jail.

“If the leaders of Guatemala support Thelma Aldana and Iván Velásquez … we will do our part to support the Alliance for Prosperity. But if there are attempts to undermine or shorten the work of these two exceptional officials, then Guatemala’s leaders must seek support elsewhere,” Leahy wrote in a separate statement.

While Leahy, one of the most influential senators in matters related to Central America, addressed his message to the “leaders of Guatemala” in general, he explicitly mentioned President Morales. 

Aldana and Velásquez “have received anonymous threats and attempts to intimidate them, and there is concern that President Morales opposes the renewal of Velasquez’s appointment — whose term ends in September — or that he will ask the Secretary General of the United Nations to remove him,” Leahy said. 

SEE ALSO: Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime 

The idea that the country’s of Central America’s Northern Triangle are incapable of fighting organized crime and impunity on their own has persisted in Washington for at least three years. In the US State Department’s annual reports on the state of drug trafficking in the world, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are typically on the list of countries with serious problems regarding drug trafficking and money laundering. 

In 2014, following the surge of undocumented migrants from the Northern Triangle, the Obama administration concluded that violence by criminal organizations and gangs was one of the main reasons for migration, and launched the Alliance for Prosperity plan in response. 

Later, the Senate Appropriations Committee, pushed largely by Leahy, approved some $750 million to fund the plan. These disbursements depend in part on the approval of the committee. And with the Vermont senator as second-in-command, his warning to Guatemala holds substantial political weight. 

Before Leahy, 12 representatives from both major parties had also supported Aldana and the attorneys general of Honduras and El Salvador in a tone similar to that used by Leahy. 

“Recent efforts in the region intended to impeach or remove Attorneys General – or shorten their terms – send a troubling message … [O]ur Congress is skeptical of recent maneuvers to remove Attorneys General who are clearly committed to fighting corruption and organized crime,” says a letter signed by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrat Eliot Engel, the first and second-in-command of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and ten other congressmen. 

Next week, the three Central American attorneys general will arrive in Washington, DC to fulfill an agenda drafted by the State Department, specifically by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), according to InSight Crime sources in Washington and San Salvador. It is, according to a government official who spoke under the condition of anonymity, an initial show of support from the Trump administration. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

The new warnings from the US legislators come at a difficult time for the Northern Triangle leaders, particularly due to the discomfort local political elites feel when international commissions with investigative and prosecutorial authority are closely observing their behavior.

The warning to President Morales, and the explicit subject of Senator Leahy’s letter, comes after the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG said they were investigating Morales’ son for suspected corruption. Afterwards, the president did not deny “rumors” that the CICIG was connected to an attempted coup d’etat. Morales was referring to a smear campaign against CICIG, in particular on social media, which led the UN to issue a statement in support of the commission.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández traveled to Washington this week just after a confessed drug trafficker told a New York court that Tony Hernández, the president’s brother, had links to the criminal gang known as Los Cachiros. 

SEE ALSO: Los Cachiros News and Profile

And in El Salvador, the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has completely refused to support the installation of a commission similar to the CICIG. Members of his party have also accused Douglas Meléndez, El Salvador’s attorney general, of having an opposing political agenda and being part of a plot to orchestrate a “soft coup.” 

In the Salvadoran case, Vice President Óscar Ortiz has been linked to José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo,” who is the alleged leader of the Texis Cartel, a drug trafficking organization related to Colombian cocaine suppliers.

Since the days of the Obama administration, combating organized crime and the inability of nations to do it alone has guided the policies of the US legislative and executive branches toward Central America’s Northern Triangle, one of the world’s most violent regions. The recent warnings from top politicians add to tensions surrounding US assistance, and offer a reminder that in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the relationship between politics and organized crime remains a constant.

*An earlier version of this article had an error in which the author said that President Jimmy Morales had blamed the CICIG for being behind a coup d’etat. That was not the case. Morales said his government was investigating a possible coup d’etat, and he did not distance CICIG from the rumors that it was connected to that coup d’etat. InSight Crime regrets the error.

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