After 12 years, the mandate of a widely heralded international anti-corruption commission has come to an end in Guatemala, but in its absence, serious questions remain about where the country’s anti-graft drive will go from here.
Formed in 2007 and backed by the United Nations (UN), the work of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala — CICIG) centered on investigating and stamping out elite-level corruption and impunity.
Working alongside the Attorney General’s Office, prosecutors targeted more than 1,500 individuals, of which 660 were successfully prosecuted for high-level crimes, according to the commission’s final report. This included the arrest of former President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president at the time, Roxana Baldetti, on charges they headed a vast customs fraud network, among other noteworthy cases.
Below, InSight Crime offers four takeaways from Guatemala’s anti-corruption experiment, and looks ahead at what can be expected when President-elect Alejandro Giammattei takes office in January of 2020.
1. Organized Crime's Penetration Into Upper Echelons of Power
The CICIG demonstrated how organized crime has penetrated the highest levels of power in Guatemala, from the presidency itself to corporate leadership.
During the first half of its mandate, including the efforts of Commissioners Carlos Castresana and Franciso D'Allannese, the CICIG supported the local Attorney General’s Office in investigations that served to dismantle important drug trafficking groups, small corruption networks that operated on the boundaries of political power, and to try exiled military defendants accused of war crimes.
With the arrival of Colombian prosecutor Iván Velásquez in 2013 to head the CICIG, the commission went all in to fully investigate the vast corruption networks in which the most powerful politicians in the country participated with the complicity of the largest economic conglomerates.
The investigation that began to show the full depth of organized crime’s penetration of the state was the so-called “La Línea” case, a multidimensional corruption investigation into a customs fraud network that involved President Pérez Molina and his closest allies. From there, the Attorney General’s Office anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI), which was created to work with the CICIG, opened up a dozen inquires.
These files unveiled spy networks and corruption schemes that included large companies, such as the telecommunications company Tigo and the main construction companies in the country. At this stage, the CICIG also undertook actions to discover the illicit campaign financing of political parties tied to powerful businessmen and organized crime groups. None of that had happened before.
In 2015, the investigations against Pérez Molina generated massive demonstrations in support of the anti-corruption fight in Guatemala, which included large private companies. The fervor, however, diminished when the businessmen began to be the object of joint investigations between the commission and local prosecutors.
In an interview with InSight Crime last year, Velásquez said that these cases showed that criminal groups in Guatemala had achieved "a total co-optation of the state."
2. Roadblock After Roadblock
Throughout its mandate, the CICIG continually faced opposition, especially during the administration of outgoing President Jimmy Morales, but also less publicly during the Pérez Molina administration. All of this is to say that the state itself does not have the capacity to rid itself of corruption and impunity.
The beginning of the end for the CICIG came when Morales, who’s term as president ends next January, launched a political campaign that included lobbying the administration of US President Donald Trump in Washington to discredit the commission and expel Velásquez from Guatemala. It wasn’t just that the CICIG had opened an investigation for alleged illicit campaign financing against him, but it was at this exact moment when traditional economic and political powers in Guatemala united to stop an anti-graft body that had already become too annoying.
Morales was joined in this anti-CICIG crusade by former intelligence officers associated with political power since the time of former president Álvaro Arzú. This is the same Arzú whom the CICIG also investigated for alleged irregularities during his time as mayor of the capital Guatemala City, in addition to countless political operators in congress.
In their eagerness to get rid of the commission, the blockades included the almost absolute dedication of Morales's diplomatic apparatus to gaining support among congressmen and political operators in the United States. Morales, in addition, appointed a friendly attorney general who lowered the profile of these investigations. The president also used his security cabinet to block investigators.
Morales and his allies were eventually triumphant. CICIG said goodbye to Guatemala at the end of August with public events and a small street demonstration. On the first day of September, when launching Guatemala’s independence day holiday, Morales, one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of Guatemala, celebrated having "thrown out" the CICIG.
3. Strengthening of Prosecutorial Capacity
Due in part to the initial enthusiasm behind the CICIG's creation, as well as the support of the international community and various sectors within Guatemala, prosecutors were able to achieve some very important legal and institutional reforms.
Shortly after getting to work with Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, the CICIG helped reform the country’s Law Against Organized Crime in order to allow prosecutors to obtain “firsthand, verifiable and effective” information through plea bargaining and establishing a witness protection program. This helped authorities gain further insight into organized crime dynamics in the country and target other top criminal players.
Such reforms also helped bolster Guatemala’s investigative and prosecutorial capacities. Between 2009 and 2012, the impunity rate for homicide cases in the country progressed from 95 percent down to 72 percent. A 2018 International Crisis Group report on the positive impact of the CICIG also found the commission to be “instrumental” in strengthening the state’s capacity to gather and analyze forensic information like DNA and ballistic testing.
In addition, the CICIG also worked with the Attorney General’s Office to enact an asset seizure law in 2010. This gave authorities the ability to hit the economic bases of the country’s most sought after organized crime groups. While indeed a slow and at times controversial process, authorities were able to seize more than $3 million in criminal assets -- including a farm purchased with drug proceeds and used for illegal trafficking -- in just the first three years after the law was enacted.
Local officials are now indeed in a better position than they were 12 years ago to successfully investigate and prosecute criminal activity.
4. Not A Cure-All Solution
Despite the noticeable impact that the CICIG has had in Guatemala, the commission was never going to be a solution to the country’s most pressing criminal problems, nor did it ever claim to be.
To be sure, 94 percent of crimes went unpunished on average over the last decade in Guatemala. In 2018 alone, the impunity rate was almost 98 percent. And despite specifically targeting high-level corruption, such crimes had the highest rate of impunity at 99 percent, underscoring the limits of a CICIG-style judicial appendage in enacting lasting change to the justice system.
While there has been a marked improvement in the homicide rate, state institutions continue to show a vulnerability to being penetrated by criminal groups. Earlier this year, authorities broke up a ring of corrupt police officers moonlighting as drug dealers and hitmen. Not long after that, a presidential candidate was arrested for employing Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel to assassinate his rivals and provide him with drug money to boost his prospects of winning the election.
At the municipal level, powerful street gangs like the MS13 and Barrio 18 continue to have a stranglehold over impoverished communities. Extortion is vital fuel for such groups. In order to stay alive, shopkeepers and small business owners are forced to pay up.
With the help of the CICIG, the extent of criminality in Guatemala may now be more exposed than ever before, but ensuring corrupt actors are held accountable remains a work in progress.
5. Guatemala's Anti-Graft Drive Halted
The future of anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala looks bleak. The Attorney General’s Office has refused to hire a single CICIG investigator, and it’s unclear what will happen to the unfinished cases handed over to prosecutors by the CICIG. All of that said, for now Guatemala will not return to the state that the CICIG found it in with international drug trafficking organizations seeking to establish themselves in the country, security forces plagued by death squads and previous levels of corruption.
Local institutions, however, remain too fragile to ensure that all of this won’t happen again.
The only visible inheritance is the FECI, the special prosecution that accompanied the CICIG. On paper, this unit of the Attorney General’s Office would carry out in-depth investigations from the files that were left unfinished with the commission's departure. The future of the FECI, however, does not look promising. Attorney General Porras has not made clear what she will do with the special unit.
President-elect Giammattei doesn’t seem very inclined to follow the roads that the CICIG opened either. On the campaign trail, he said he would bet on, rather than "strengthen," local institutions, although he has not clarified how he will do that. In one of his first interviews as president-elect, Giammattei said that the CICIG was a thing of the past. Some of his alliances with old military operators and a past that includes accusations that he participated in a scheme of extrajudicial executions when he was a top prison official doesn't give rise to much optimism.