Ivan Velasquez, head of the United Nations-backed anti-impunity commission in Guatemala known as the CICIG, sits down with El Faro to discuss the body’s monumental accomplishments as well as the challenges that still lie ahead.

Velasquez, who leads the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), will allow this interview to last half an hour more than planned, and he will answer every question as if his job depended on it, responding with the clarity of someone who has reflected upon the same ideas time and time again. 

This interview was translated, edited for length and clarity, and reprinted with permission from El Faro. See the Spanish original here.

A 60-year-old Colombian lawyer and former judge, Velasquez knows that he and the CICIG are not appreciated by many authorities who oppose being investigated. Up until last April, President Otto Perez Molina was still debating the possibility of not extending the commission’s stay for another two years in Guatemala. Following the discovery of a customs fraud network within Perez Molina’s own government, the president had no other choice but to renew CICIG’s term until September 2017.

How would you describe Guatemala today in comparison to the one that you found in September 2013?

There has been a transformation. Since April, the mobilization of society, the reaction after the customs fraud case of La Linea was revealed, led to a social awakening. At first this was expressed in almost a completely spontaneous way, and which soon began creating enough levels of coordination — although without much preparation — that certain actors began talking amongst themselves. For example, on April 25 some students went out to protest alone but later, on May 2, sectors of student that had never spoken to each other began to do so. I don’t think they ever would have thought that they would sit down at the same table for a common cause. This has been greatly beneficial for the country, having a common cause, because there has been much division within civil society and among people who view others’ activities with mistrust. The issue of corruption managed to bring people together for nearly 20 weeks, leading to what you could call public manifestations en masse in a country that has experienced a lot of apathy. 

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Do you think there are other issues that could potentially unite Guatemalans?

On such a broad scale, no, because there are big differences between sectors of society on many other issues. For example, the issue surrounding the indigenous population divides people when it should bring them together, but this is the reality. It seems to me, in any case, that to persist in the fight against corruption by forming this civilian movement is very positive … Various sectors of society have declared that there has to be oversight of the newly elected president [Jimmy Morales], either when he comes into office on January 14 or even starting now. The president-elect said in a recent interview that, despite his presidential role, he counted himself among the dissidents and called for this citizen movement to continue.

Other than the CICIG’s operations, what are your ultimate aspirations as commissioner?

The aim is to truly achieve the mandate of the commission: to identify the more permanent criminal structures, not the temporary ones, although this is also important. And also to strengthen the institutions, to have justice institutions that are truly strong or at least independent, something that is very much necessary in Latin American nations. But also for society to be participating, demanding, watching over, I think this would be a great move forward. The aspiration is that the possibility exists to construct a stronger social, democratic and lawful state — this should be the aspiration of all countries.

During your public appearances you frequently  call on citizens to demand more from the authorities. It’s as if you are talking to a single person, when in reality the citizenry is diverse.

It’s diverse but it has to find ways to participate. Naturally it won’t be the whole of society, because society is not just one group. There are sectors, interests and contradictions within society, but we can surely talk of general objectives, objectives that are shared among larger segments of society, and take advantage of this as a chance to rebuild the social fabric that is barely visible here in Guatemala. There are small aspects of everyday life around which the population, the municipalities, could organize… It’s a process, of course, but it’s a process that reflects the need for citizens to show an interest in state issues, for the public to participate in political issues like public administration. In our countries we are used to issues just getting decided, but this concept is one that allows our countries to reach where they are now.

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Where has the most pressure against your work originated from, and what have been the greatest obstacles for the CICIG to carry out its job?

I think that a great advantage for Guatemala, in these current circumstances, is the presence of the CICIG as a body for international cooperation alongside the judicial system. If we had to find an image to explain the role of the CICIG, it would be this: it’s like a shield protecting the Public Ministry [as the Attorney General’s Office is know in Guatemala], which is much more sensitive to all kinds of distinct pressures. It is definitely true — and this is not a Guatemalan problem but an international one, although it is much more visible in Latin America — that certain factors — state powers and non-state powers — pressure judicial bodies so that they don’t affect their interests. What’s more, they are highly influential because of the way in which these bodies are formed, among other reasons.

In El Salvador, one argument against an anti-impunity commission is that the institution could be co-opted and taken down a path that does not necessarily comply with citizens’ needs. Do you think that the CICIG is incorruptible and can avoid infiltrations or misdirections in its work?

Well, I think this is a permanent risk. No institution can reach such a level of perfection to say that it’s sacrosanct. Certainly, many sectors aim to penetrate them, to know what they’re doing. But there are cases in which I can show that confidential information is not being leaked. Nobody knew, and I emphasize nobody — despite suspicions surrounding [then-private secretary to former Vice President Roxana Baldetti] Juan Carlos Monzon — that Mr. Monzon was part of this network [La Linea] until 11 AM on April 16 when I revealed it during a press conference that day. It was to the surprise of everybody, including co-workers in the CICIG.

The United States puts pressure on the Northern Triangle countries [El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala] to meet certain conditions, such as the creation of anti-impunity commissions … How would you describe the role the United States has played with regards to the CICIG?  
(Velasquez pauses for five seconds) There has been no intervention, no meddling, no recommendation, or obstacle… In the first few months of 2014 the US ambassador said that the United States was committed to the fight against corruption. Now they look at that phrase and say: “Aaah, of course, seeing as the United States is interested in the fight against corruption, the CICIG is functioning according to the agenda of the United States.” But I’ve heard talks of the fight against corruption from many diplomatic sources. Others say “The United States is supporting the CICIG, so they have to follow their recommendations.” It’s not true that the United States is propping up the CICIG, although it is an important beneficiary, but it’s at the same level as Sweden. 

Is the CICIG a superpower?

We can carry out independent investigations, and our agreement lays out that state authorities have to provide us with the information needed for our investigations, but if we need to tap someone’s phone we can’t ask the judge to issue an order. We have to present the case to the Public Ministry, ask the prosecutor general to arrange for a case to be opened by the Prosecutor General’s anti-impunity unit. Then we tell them in a report why we would recommend the use of wiretaps, for example. The prosecutor decides whether they agree with the suggestion, says yes, and then they submit a request to the judge. The judge authorizes and controls this procedure, which is carried out by national police agents in the Public Ministry headquarters with the exclusive presence of the special procedures unit, without our intervention. So we don’t have any superpowers, it just seems that we’re that strong because we’re protected. 

A version of this article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for length and clarity, and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.

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