Human rights officials and activists have warned that the rule of law in Guatemala is under threat after a UN-backed special prosecutor was banned from re-entering the country – the latest in a series of clashes between the government and an international anti-corruption commission.
The country’s human rights ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, said in a statement on Tuesday that the government’s actions destabilize the rule of law, and expressed his dismay at “the arbitrary measures of the Government of the Republic that undermine democracy”.
Anti-corruption activists fear that the pioneering anti-corruption work of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, Cicig, is now at risk.
Guatemala’s current president, Jimmy Morales, and his family are also the subject of multiple corruption investigations. On Friday, Morales announced he would not renew Cicig’s mandate, which ends in September 2019.
A staunch US ally, Guatemala was one of the handful of countries that backed Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved its own embassy to the city just two days after the US relocated its diplomatic mission.
In the past, the US has been among Cicig’s strongest supporters, but it has not clearly condemned Morales’s recent attempts to derail the commission’s work. In May, Senator Marco Rubio placed a hold on $6m of US funding to Cicig, claiming the panel was being manipulated by radical elements.
Cicig’s success in bringing down corrupt officials, judges and lawyers has soared during the five-year tenure of the head commissioner, Iván Velásquez.
But on Tuesday, the government announced that Velásquez, currently in the US, would not be allowed back into the country, alleging that he was a threat to order and public security.
“The decision to declare Cicig commissioner Iván Velásquez as a threat to national security is an absurdity. The only threat to national security is the arbitrary and illegal action of a ruler accused of accepting illegal financing,” Iduvina Hernández, the director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy in Guatemala, told the Guardian.
Morales, a former TV comedian, has been accused of illicit campaign financing during his 2015 run for president and is currently facing proceedings in congress that could strip him of his immunity from prosecution, though previous attempts to do so have failed.
Last year, Morales declared Velásquez persona non grata, but a successful constitutional court challenge filed by the ombudsman Rodas reversed the measure.
Oswaldo Samayoa, a constitutional lawyer and university professor, considers the ban of Velásquez to be a violation of the 2017 ruling.
“It’s a violation of the principle of constitutional legality. It involves the disobedience of the president and therefore a crime has been committed,” he told the Guardian.
The opposition congresswoman Sandra Morán shares the widespread view that Rodas and the constitutional court are the targets of legislative reform under consideration this week in congress. The reforms would transfer powers from the supreme court to congress that can facilitate the ousting of officials, including constitutional court judges.
“If they replace one judge, the balance of power shifts,” Morán told the Guardian. “It would mean that they would have total control.”
Guatemala has a long history of authoritarian rule, particularly during a 36-year armed conflict in which US-backed state forces carried out acts of genocide against the indigenous Mayan population. Despite a 1996 peace deal, the conditions that led to the conflict remain, and the country’s fraught peace has been plagued by organized crime, drug trafficking, violence and corruption.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, asked Velásquez to continue at the helm of Cicig from outside Guatemala until there is more clarity on the situation, the UN said on Tuesday.
But Jorge Santos, the director of Udefegua, a national human rights group, warned that there is a danger that Morales could disregard, dissolve or otherwise attack the constitutional court.
“Right now in the country there’s a really major risk of a return to the old patterns that gave rise to the Guatemalan dictatorship,” he said.
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.
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.
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.”