After Guatemala joined the United States in moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the Trump administration has been working to weaken an international commission on corruption that is targeting the Guatemalan president, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
The Trump administration is still debating what specific changes it wants to pursue, but talks between agencies have alarmed supporters in Guatemala and Washington who feel the changes could undercut the role the United Nations-backed body plays in combating official corruption and other root causes of illegal immigration.
Proposed changes to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, include changing the body’s mandate to more narrowly redefine corruption, increasing reporting requirements for donors, limiting terms of the commissioner and appointing a deputy commissioner which Guatemala would help select, according to the sources.
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who with his family is a target of CICG’s investigations, has accused CICIG of abusing its power and has tried to oust the commissioner, Iván Velásquez.
Until recently, the criticism largely went unheeded as the agency got credit for tackling crime and corruption. But the body now faces its own accusations of corruption and abusing its power that Republicans say has gone unchecked for too long.
The White House was particularly grateful to Morales for backing Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital amid international uproar. Guatemala was the second country to move its embassy there from Tel Aviv after the U.S. did earlier this year. Jerusalem is a divided capital with part of it in Palestinian territory.
“The only reason why the U.S. is all about it is because they’re so happy with Guatemala that they moved the embassy to Jerusalem,” said one U.S. source with direct knowledge of the conversations. “Just because the president (Morales) is upset that CICIG is investigating some of his family members then he makes a decision to do the whole thing in Israel to get in front of the Trump administration and then tell Trump, ‘Help me on CICIG.’ “
The United States has spent $44.5 million – the largest individual donor – supporting CICIG since it was established in 2007.
Created to confront and dismantle illegal security forces and criminal networks that have infiltrated all levels of government and society, CICIG has largely received bipartisan support in Washington and international praise around the world for its work providing democratic stability in a violent country that thousands of migrants flee each year to come to the U.S.
It has identified more than 60 criminal networks and helped the Guatemalan attorney general convict more than 200 people for corruption, including politicians, judges, police officers and drug traffickers.
The most high profile case was in 2015, when CICIG helped uncover a customs fraud scheme that led to the resignations of then-President Otto Perez Molina, his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, and members of his cabinet.
State Department officials acknowledged CICIG’s role in fighting corruption helps stop illegal immigration to the United States. A spokesperson for the department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau wouldn’t address specific proposed changes, but said CICIG must continue to tackle corruption and impunity that undermines security in Guatemala.
“Any reform of CICIG should only serve to strengthen the commission and preserve its important, independent mandate,” the spokesperson said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Republicans say CICIG began fighting transnational criminal networks, but Velázquez has led CICIG to focus more on splashier, white-collar investigations that were not what the body was created for.
“They seem more interested in these high-profile, publicity-garnering initiatives like going after Morales’s brother and third cousin, I mean, come on, and then basking in the adulation, to be blunt about it, from the international do-gooders,” said José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials.
Some Republicans became alarmed about CICIG after it helped prosecute a Russian family who was convicted of buying false passports in Guatemala. Igor Bitkov and his family argued they fled Russia in 2009 and looked for safe haven in Guatemala after receiving physical and legal threats from the Russian government looking into their paper business.
The congressional Helsinki Commission held an emergency hearing in April on whether the U.N. body helped “the Kremlin destroy a Russian family.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., one of CICIG’s most powerful critics and who has Trump’s ear on this issue, wrote to Morales, questioning “CICIG’s ability to remain free from the corruption that it has been charged with prosecuting.”
Rubio pushed for a hold on $6 million in U.S. funding for CICIG and credited it with generating momentum for needed reforms.
“Until recently, there has been little congressional oversight on how CICIG spends millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars,” Rubio told McClatchy. ”Recent examples, especially the case of the Bitkov family, demonstrate the need for increased transparency.”
Morales was elected in the wake of Pérez Molina’s downfall and ran with the slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief.” Morales pledged his strong support for CICIG and worked with the team until it uncovered more than $800,000 in campaign financing that he couldn’t explain.
Morales declared Velásquez persona “non grata” and ordered him to leave the country. The courts blocked the move.
But Velásquez and members of the private sector didn’t give up.
Wealthy Guatemalans are spending $80,000 a month for Washington lobbyists to promote “the rule of law”, a campaign some say is designed to target CICIG. And Morales has been currying favor with Trump, including the embassy move, which some U.S. allies slammed as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘dangerous.’
After the U.N. passed a resolution condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley invited those countries that voted with Washington to a reception to thank them for their “friendship to the United States.” She then traveled to Guatemala where she told CICG that the U.S. saw room for improvement and they should work more quietly — like the FBI.
Benjamin Gedan, who served as National Security Council director for Latin America during the Obama administration, said it’s unusual that the Guatemalan president is spending so much political capital “begging the White House to neuter CICIG.”
“You’d think he’d be seeking foreign aid from the United States, or defending the rights of Guatemalan migrants,” Gedan said. “Instead, he is colluding to undermine one of the country’s most effective, and popular, institutions.”
CICIG officials said any changes to its charter must be approved by the United Nations and the Guatemalan government.
CICIG spokesman Matías Ponce told McClatchy it is committed to transparency and open to suggestions on how to improve its work. But he slammed attempts to tie the Kremlin and the U.N. body as part of a campaign to undercut the group’s work.
He added that investigations into the private sector and political arena were natural progressions of their pursuit after clandestine security networks that have infiltrated Guatemalan society.
“It is natural for the groups affected by the investigations to react against the commission,” Ponce said. “Currently there are hundreds of people belonging to groups and very powerful sectors affected by investigations or already convicted. The opposition and campaign against is therefore great.”
To make any changes, the United States would also have to convince other major donors to CICIG.. Some, like the government of Holland, have publicly praised CICIG and the commissioner.
“We are 100% behind the valuable work of the @CICIGgt and its Commissioner @Ivan_Velasquez_ in the fight against impunity and in favor of justice,” the embassy of Holland tweeted after Reina Bujis, Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs met with the Velásquez two weeks ago.
A 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University showed that 70 percent of Guatemalans support the CICIG.
Fernando Carrera, former Guatemalan foreign minister, sees room for improvement, but said any changes must not weaken CICIG and should be timed after the next election so as not to encourage corrupt political forces.
“Let’s put it this way, for those who defend the commission, there are some extremist people who believe that only commission as it is and only the commissioner that exists can provide the right leadership for the fight against corruption,” Carrera. “I don’t go that far.”
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.
For a decade, the United States backed an international body investigating corruption in Guatemala. Now experts are asking why the White House is silent as the country’s president, Jimmy Morales, wages war on the panel
In May, Guatemala became the first country in the world to follow in the Trump administration’s footsteps and move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The White House promised at the time that it would reward the small Latin American country for its decision. Could that reward come in the form of turning a blind eye to attacks by Guatemala’s president on an international anti-corruption body?
Experts and former U.S. officials see a possible link between Guatemala’s decision to move the embassy and the Trump administration’s change of policy with regards to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N.-supported panel that has uncovered vast corruption scandals in the country.
The administration, according to experts on U.S. policy in Latin America, is looking the other way while Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales tries to dismantle CICIG by sending military forces to its local office and barring the panel’s head, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country.
“The American position on this issue has shifted dramatically – not just in comparison to how the Bush and Obama administrations treated it, but also in comparison to how the Trump administration treated it just last summer,” said Benjamin Gedan, an expert on Latin America at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Gedan said he has no direct knowledge of a connection between Guatemala’s policy on Jerusalem and Trump’s policy on the Latin American state. He notes, though, that “this seems like a possible explanation. The change in American policy on CICIG makes no sense.”
The Guatemalan government has accused CICIG of being a “super-national entity that dictates to governments how to exercise their duties” on behalf of the UN. An article in The Economist called this accusation “flimsy”... Mac Margolis, a columnist on Latin America for Bloomberg News, wrote last week that a “quid pro quo” over the embassy issue could potentially explain the administration’s policy shift on CICIG.He mentioned another possible explanation: That, unlike other Latin American countries, Guatemala has not cozied up to China and continues to hold diplomatic relations with Taiwan.CICIG was established in 2007 with the strong backing of the George W. Bush administration. “Fighting corruption in politics is an urgent need in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America,” said Gedan, who worked on Latin America policy in the Obama White House. Over the past decade, he added, the panel has contributed to the downfall of a number of senior politicians in Guatemala, including the country’s previous president, Otto Pérez Molina. He is currently in detention and awaits trial on corruption charges.
Molina was replaced in 2016 by Morales, who was a comedian prior to entering politics. Over the past year, Morales has been showing an increasing level of hostility toward CICIG, probably as a result of an investigation regarding his campaign finances. The panel is looking into allegations that Morales’ party received more than $1 million of illegal campaign donations in the 2015 election, according to a report last week in The Washington Post.
Morales’ attacks on CICIG first surfaced in the summer of 2017 when he tried to expel Velásquez from the country and get him replaced. The Trump administration reacted quickly and forcefully, signaling to Morales that the United States had the anti-corruption body’s back.
- The U.S. ambassador in Guatemala posed for a photograph with a sign proclaiming “I love CICIG.”
- Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, also expressed support for the panel’s work, and Morales eventually backed down.
This was not the first time a U.S. administration thwarted attempts by the Guatemalan government to weaken CICIG. Under the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden at one point threatened to cancel all U.S. aid to Guatemala, in light of attempts by the country’s previous president, Molina, to shut down the panel’s investigations.
“When you compare those past responses to how the Trump administration is reacting to Morales’ current attack on CICIG, there truly is no good explanation for what they are doing,” said Gedan.
Morales announced last week he was shutting down the panel and barring Velásquez from entering Guatemala. He also sent military forces, driving U.S.-manufactured vehicles, to CICIG’s offices. While the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala released a statement expressing support for CICIG’s work, the statement did not include direct criticism of Morales’ actions.
On September 6, at the height of Morales’ attacks on CICIG, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to the Guatemalan president over the phone. The State Department readout of the conversationcontained no criticism of Morales’ actions. Instead, it opened by stating that Pompeo “reiterated the United States’ support for Guatemalan sovereignty.”
According to the readout, Pompeo “expressed continued support of the United States for a reformed CICIG and committed to continue working with Guatemala on implementing the reforms in the coming year.”
A former senior U.S. official who worked on Latin America policy told Haaretz that this statement was “a huge achievement” for Morales in his fight against CICIG.
The former official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “Pompeo basically told Morales that America had his back, and that CICIG is viewed as a problematic organization that needs to go through reforms. The fact that the readout included no mention of Morales’ aggressive steps against CICIG is a sad capitulation to violence, and it sends a message that has already been received by other leaders in the region,” the official added.
“Since 2007, across the Bush and Obama administrations, and in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, a bipartisan commitment to CICIG has been a fundamental element of our foreign policy,” the legislators wrote in their letter. They also mentioned Morales’ use of U.S.-manufactured military vehicles against CICIG, writing that “such a gesture is unacceptable and does not comply with the purpose for which the United States donated the vehicles.”
It should be noted that all four lawmakers are considered strong supporters of Israel. This could indicate that, on the congressional level at least, Guatemala’s decision on Jerusalem has not affected, so far, their response to Morales’ attacks on his own investigators.
Flight on Adelson’s private jet
Morales may be losing popularity on Capitol Hill, but there are other places where he still enjoys support and appreciation. One such place is Jerusalem.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement congratulating Guatemala on its Independence Day, personally applauding Morales for his leadership.
Morales is also popular in pro-Israel circles in the United States. Last May, for example, when Morales visited Israel to celebrate the relocation of his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, gambling tycoon and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson let Guatemala’s government use his personal Boeing 767 aircraft for the journey. The plane carried government officials and other guests, according to a statement by Guatemala’s foreign minister.
Morales also spoke in March at the annual conference of the AIPAC pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, where he received a warm welcome from thousands of participants. An AIPAC official told Haaretz that it was not doing anything to help Morales push back against the current criticism he is facing in Congress. “We are not involved,” the official said.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington also said it was not aiding Guatemala on Capitol Hill or with the Trump administration.
But perhaps Morales doesn’t need any help. Hector Silva Avalos, a journalist and former diplomat who has written extensively on corruption in Latin America, wrote in InSight Crime last week that “mixed messages from Washington have left the door open for Morales to strengthen his fight against the institutions investigating him for alleged illicit campaign financing.”
Avalos added that “with several Trump administration officials in his corner, Jimmy Morales has the advantage in his battle against CICIG.”
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.
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.