Last week, hundreds of people gathered in Guatemala City to evaluate the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG for its initials in Spanish) and to bid the Commission goodbye. Those involved in anti-corruption and human rights cases fear a surge in threats and attacks after international scrutiny ends.
First installed in 2007, the CICIG investigated and helped the prosecutors’ office to dismantle organized crime rings inside and outside the government. Participants celebrated the Commission’s accomplishments: 120 cases resulting in charges against 1,540 people in 12 years of work, with over 70 criminal structures dismantled. Three ex-presidents (and one former vice president), crooked judges, politicians, and business leaders were jailed, and almost all of those indicted eventually tried and convicted.
The public shouted to the judges, prosecutors, and human rights and anti-corruption activists in the room, “You are not alone.”
I hope they’re right.
Threats to Prosecutors and Judges
The U.N.-backed Commission is leaving as of September 3. Prosecutors and judges worry that threats against them will increase. Already, judges involved in high-profile cases have received death threats against them and their families, and have been subjected to spurious legal complaints. The judges’ security chief was fired for domestic violence, but another hasn’t been appointed, leaving the judges unprotected.
CICIG is ending because President Jimmy Morales refused to support the Commission after it went after his brother and son for fraud, and after him and his backers for illegal campaign contributions.
Not surprisingly, last week, a local judge found insufficient evidence to convict Morales’ family members. More cases are likely to fail, and more former military or crooked actors are likely to be released from jail after CICIG leaves. The country’s current attorney general, unlike her two predecessors, has not supported the Commission’s work and has been passive in the face of attacks on its anti-corruption prosecutors. They too are at risk once international scrutiny ends.
Corruption in Guatemala
Attacks are likely to get worse under newly-elected President Alejandro Giammattei, who takes office in January 2020. Giammattei (already being called “Jimmymattei” in Guatemala) looks poised to continue many of the current government’s policies. His backers, after all, are the same mix of former military intelligence officers, corrupt elites, evangelicals, and hard-liners who put Morales, a former TV comic, into power. So far, Giammattei has promised to continue to fight corruption, but with no specifics.
Even if Giammattei were serious, it would be an uphill battle. Criminal cartels have broadly infiltrated Guatemalan governments over the last quarter-century, to the point where the last CICIG investigation found that it was a “captured state,” willing to do anything, including allying with criminal groups, to maintain its lucrative hold on power. Half of the political party financing is connected to organized crime or corrupt private interests. State contracts regularly involve kickbacks and favoritism, while health care and education spending lag.
Without an international presence to support real investigations and reforms, the situation of impunity and extreme poverty that sends people fleeing north is unlikely to improve.
It’s not only judges and prosecutors who are at risk. Attacks against human rights defenders increased last year. Guatemala now has the sad distinction of having one of the highest numbers of murdered environmental defenders per capita in the world, a number that increased fivefold over the last year.
Community activists fighting mines, dams, huge palm oil projects, and other takeovers of indigenous lands express concern that bogus criminal charges and attacks on activists will continue into the new year. They are particularly concerned about the safety of indigenous activists working with a newly-formed political party, the MLP, whose indigenous woman candidate garnered a surprising 10 percent of the presidential vote in the recent elections.
After 12 historic and productive years, the mandate of Guatemala’s unique anti-corruption commission, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish acronym), expires exactly a week from today: September 3, 2019.https://t.co/9nWfLcF0h0
— PWYP US (@PWYPUSA) August 28, 2019
Until recently, the United States supported CICIG. But the Donald J. Trump administration, perhaps in exchange for Morales’ move of Guatemala’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, turned against the Commission. Those targeted by the Commission funded expensive lobbyists in the United States. The U.S. State Department also cut back spending on anti-gang and rule of law initiatives.
Those defending the courts, prosecutors, and activists fighting for the rule of law and an end to impunity and corruption in Guatemala will have to look elsewhere.
Let’s hope the rest of the world pays attention.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.