Why Is Trump Tacitly Supporting Corruption in Guatemala?

The administration’s silence empowers President Jimmy Morales to continue ruling with impunity.

When President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala announced last monththat he would not reauthorize a joint United Nations-Guatemala anticorruption commission to remain in the country, he set in motion what some are calling a slow-motion coup.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as Cicig, has been operating there since 2007. In the mid-2000s, Guatemala was on the verge of becoming a narco state — and Cicig’s international prosecutors and investigators, and their Guatemalan counterparts, were tasked with fighting organized crime and ending the institutional impunity that gave free rein to powerful criminals and corrupt officials.

Cicig has become especially effective since Ivan Velazquez, a renowned Colombian prosecutor, was appointed commissioner in 2013. In the last five years, more than 60 criminal groups, many deeply embedded in the government, have been exposed, and some 680 people have been jailed for corruption and related crimes.

In 2015, President Otto Perez Molina was imprisoned, along with his vice president, for presiding over a corruption network. Nearly 70 percent of Guatemalans view Cicig favorably.

President Morales, a former television comedian, is widely regarded as corrupt. His government is backed by a so-called juntita of retrograde military officers and a bloc in the Guatemalan Congress derisively known as “el pacto de corruptos” for its efforts to pass legislation granting members impunity from prosecution for corruption and other crimes.

Cicig has been investigating Mr. Morales for accepting undeclared campaign contributions, and the commission recently asked Congress to lift his immunity from prosecution. In response, Mr. Morales not only refused to extend Cicig’s right to operate in the country, but he sent armed military vehicles to the United States Embassy to intimidate the American ambassador, who publicly supports Cicig.

Last week, Mr. Morales went on to bar Mr. Velazquez, who was in Washington for meetings, from re-entering the country. On Sunday, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that Mr. Morales had to readmit Mr. Velazquez. The Morales government responded by demanding that the United Nations nominate a new commissioner.

The United States supplies 40 percent of Cicig’s funding, and historically Cicig has received firm support from American presidents, both Republican and Democratic. But as tensions have risen between Mr. Morales and the commission, the Trump administration has been too quiet.

The administration’s tough-talking foreign policy chiefs — including President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton — are not standing up to a leader who faces credible accusations of corruption and is aggressively defying a United States ambassador.

The administration’s silence helps pave the way for a possible coup, and chaos and violence that would most likely result. One firm step by the Trump administration could be enough to stop Mr. Morales’s dangerous gambit. Mr. Trump or his lieutenants could

  • join the United States Congress in threatening to cut off economic assistance to Guatemala. They could
  • slash military aid. They could
  • reiterate their support for Cicig’s anticorruption work, including its investigation of Mr. Morales.

Some commentators say that the Trump administration wants to reward Mr. Morales for moving the Guatemalan Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Others speculate that Mr. Trump’s advisers fear provoking Mr. Morales into swapping American patronage for that of China.

But it’s important to remember why Cicig was founded. In the post-civil war period, elite Guatemalan military officers, politicians and other powerful groups and individuals, recognizing that the era of Cold War American largess and unconditional support was over, found a new master: organized crime.

And the country remains a key transit point in the drug corridor between Colombia and Mexico. As recently as 2014, the State Department estimated that as much as 80 percent of the cocaine that eventually reached the United States passed through Guatemala.

An international solution is needed to fight transnational crime. This insight led to the establishment of Cicig.

The American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, wrote in a Sept. 10 article for CNN: “Corruption spurs revolutions, enables extremist groups and fuels civil wars. Combating corruption is not just about good governance, it’s about maintaining peace and security.”

Those are important words. But when it comes to Guatemala, the Trump administration appears to have a different standard. Instead, in his silence, Mr. Trump is embracing corruption and organized crime.

Guatemala’s president tries to shut down anti-corruption group investigating him

Last year, Morales tried to expel the head of CICIG, Colombian prosecutor Iván Velásquez, but the Consitutional Court blocked the move.

Over the past week, the conflict has flared up again. On Friday, Morales said he would not renew CICIG’s mandate, which expires next year. The same day, Guatemalan military vehicles stood guard outside CICIG’s offices and descended on a central plaza. On Tuesday, Morales ordered that Velásquez, who has led CICIG since 2013, not be allowed back in Guatemala.

. On Tuesday, Morales ordered that Velásquez, who has led CICIG since 2013, not be allowed back in Guatemala.

.. While Velásquez remains in the United States, the work of CICIG continues, said a spokesman, Matias Ponce. The organization, which has about 200 staff members, is also waiting for the Guatemalan government to renew work visas of CICIG’s foreign staff, he said.

Apart from blocking Velásquez’s entrance into Guatemala, the Morales government this year removed 25 police personnel assigned to guard CICIG, cutting its security force in half.

Morales has argued that CICIG, as a foreign body that receives U.S. funding, constitutes a violation of Guatemalan sovereignty and that Guatemala’s own judicial institutions should be handling such graft cases.

CICIG works in conjunction with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office in building corruption cases.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres last week, Morales said CICIG has had more than “sufficient” time over the course of its mandate to achieve its goals.

.. “For some time now, there have been efforts to derail anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala and continued attacks against the commission and the commissioner,” said Adriana Beltrán, a Guatemala expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. Morales’s actions, she said, are “his attempt to protect himself, given the continuing probe against him.”

.. CICIG works in conjunction with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office in building corruption cases.

.. CICIG was set up in 2006 to bolster Guatemala’s weak judicial institutions. At the time, impunity was rampant in the country, and murders were hardly ever solved. The group, composed of investigators from around the world, used sophisticated investigative techniques, wiretapping and examination of financial records to pursue high-profile crimes. Its work became a model and inspiration in Latin America, where corruption often goes unpunished.

But CICIG has also been polarizing. Critics see it as overzealous and manipulated for political reasons. Earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) put on hold $6 million in State Department funding to CICIG, saying he was concerned that Russia had “manipulated” the group into pushing for the prosecution of a Russian family in Guatemala.

CICIG’s investigation against Morales had also been gaining steam. Last month, Velásquez, along with Guatemalan Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, asked the nation’s Congress to strip Morales of his immunity from prosecution. A congressional commission has been formed to weigh the request.

Guatemala’s President Shuts Down Anti-Corruption Commission Backed by U.N.

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala on Friday shut down a crusading anticorruption commission sponsored by the United Nations that has pressed a number of high-profile investigations, including one pending against the president himself related to campaign financing.

Speaking in front of civilian and military leaders, Mr. Morales said he had informed the United Nations secretary general of his decision to revoke the body’s mandate and “immediately” begin transferring its capacities to Guatemalan institutions.

Minutes before the surprise announcement, army vehicles donated by the United States that Guatemala uses to fight smuggling operations were deployed to the commission’s headquarters in the capital in what critics called an attempt at intimidation.

The decision caps a long history of friction between the president and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, also known as Cicig for the initials of the commission’s name in Spanish.

In August 2017, Mr. Morales announced that he was expelling the commission’s chief, Iván Velásquez, but that move was quickly blocked by Guatemala’s top court.

At the time, Mr. Morales declared Mr. Velásquez a persona non grata and fired his foreign minister for refusing to carry out the order to expel him, before later backing off and saying he would obey the court’s decision.

.. “We sincerely regret the great mistake that the president made public in not renewing Cicig’s mandate,” said Jordán Rodas, Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor. “We are grateful for its valuable contribution in the country to the fight against corruption and impunity.”

The Year Justice Caught Up With Trumpworld

In 2018, impunity came to an end.

Ever since the 2016 election, it’s been common for some people to refer to whatever year we’re in as a synonym for dystopian weirdness. (Last year, for example, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted “Peak 2017” about a headline saying, “US ambassador denies own comments, then denies denial.”) The world has felt continuously off-kilter, like a TV drama whose writers developed a sudden fondness for psilocybin. Last month astronomers at Harvard wrote that a strange oblong space object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” and it barely made a ripple in the news. There was simply too much else going on.

Amid this ceaseless barrage, things many of us have taken for granted have been called into question, including the endurance of liberal democracy, the political salience of truth and the assumption that it would be a big scandal if a president were caught directing illegal payoffs to a pornographic film actress. Often it feels like in American politics, none of the old rules still apply.

.. But in 2018, they did. (At least some of them.) Alien probes aside, this was a year in which things started to make sense again. The Democratic landslide in the midterms proved that the laws of political gravity haven’t been suspended; Trump’s incompetence, venality and boorishness had electoral consequences. Further, it was a year of justice and accountability for at least some of those who foisted this administration on the country. An awful menagerie of lowlifes was swept into power by Trump’s victory two years ago. In 2018, at least some of them started to fall back out again.

.. At the beginning of 2018,

  • Michael Cohen was still Trump’s loyal personal lawyer.
  • Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sleeping in his own bed at night.
  • Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy, had not yet made a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
  • Mueller’s investigation hadn’t yet sent anyone to prison.
  • The Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about work he’d done with Gates for the former Ukrainian president, became the first, in May.
  • He was followed by Richard Pinedo, seller of fake IDs and fraudulent bank accounts,
  • and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.

When this year began,

  • Scott Pruitt was still indulging in spectacular corruption as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Omarosa Manigault Newman had just been fired from her senior administration job and had not yet revealed her stash of secret recordings.
  • Rob Porter, who has been accused of abuse by two ex-wives, was still White House staff secretary.
  • David Sorensen, accused of abuse by one ex-wife, was still a White House speechwriter.

At the start of 2018, the

  • casino mogul Steve Wynn was the Republican National Committee’s national finance chairman. He resigned after The Wall Street Journal reported that he’d been accused of committing multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault. (Wynn denied assaulting anyone.)
  • Elliott Broidy, owner of a private security company, was an R.N.C. deputy national finance chairman. He resigned after The Journal reported that he’d paid hush money to a former Playboy model who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant.
  • (Cohen was also a deputy chairman; he resigned in June.)

As this year began,

  • Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign head and chief White House strategist, whose sympathy for white nationalists did so much damage in so little time, was still running Breitbart News. He’d not yet burned his bridges to Trumpworld with his comments in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” which was published in January. Since then, Bannon has lost considerable pull. He most recently made headlines after he was scheduled to speak at a conference on sex robots; a backlash to his invitation led to the conference being postponed.

In January,

  • McClatchy reported that the F.B.I. was investigating whether Russia funneled money through the National Rifle Association to aid the Trump campaign. Throughout the year, as evidence of sketchy connections between the N.R.A. and Russia kept emerging, many on the right poo-pooed it. (“This attempt to turn the N.R.A. into another cog in the Russian conspiracy is laughable, but the mainstream media apparently still find it deeply compelling,” wrote Breitbart editor Joel Pollak in March.)
  • On Thursday, Maria Butina, a Russian who’d nurtured ties to N.R.A. leadership and to Trumpworld, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. The plea described how, after arranging a junket to Moscow for a “Gun Rights Organization,” she wrote a message to her handler that was translated as, “We should allow them to express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”