Protestors flooded the streets of Guatemala in recent days after congress approved a budget for 2021 that slashed the judiciary budget by half while increasing funding for government departments accused of misappropriating public funds, among other controversial measures.
On November 17, a majority of congress, aligned with the government of President Alejandro Giammattei, approved a budget of 99.7 billion quetzales (about $12.8 billion). The session of congress was held early in the morning with little prior consultation.
The budget slashed resources for the judiciary by half, as well as reducing the budget of the public healthcare system in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. A particular sticking point was congressmen voting to lower the budget for food assistance while raising their own meal allowance.
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In contrast, it allocated about $250 million to the Ministry of Communications, which oversees major infrastructure projects and other state contracts and has been embroiled in massive acts of corruption. Two recent communication ministers, Alejandro Sinibaldi and José Luis Benito Ruiz, are currently awaiting trial for million-dollar corruption schemes.
Finally, the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies (El Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales - ICEFI) also warned that the budget included loopholes that would facilitate corruption, including the ability to allocate funds to non-governmental organizations with questionable origins and without control mechanisms in place.
An investigation by El Periódico established that the budget also allocated about $4.1 million for NGOs linked to some of the same congressmen that approved the allocation of funds.
“Serious irregularities have been detected within its content that leave room for corruption and exacerbate questions about the legitimacy of the 2021 budget,” ICEFI wrote in a press release.
The budget met with widespread public and institutional condemnation. Guatemala’s judicial branch warned that the new budget would prevent it from “fulfilling its constitutional duty of providing access to justice for the Guatemalan people,” according to a report by Prensa Libre.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) pointed out that the Guatemalan congress did not include “appropriate control mechanisms for guaranteeing the use of resources and strengthening ministries that have been hotbeds of corruption.”
It also faced opposition from the powerful private sector, the Catholic Church, indigenous organizations, the academic sector and even Vice President Guillermo Castillo denounced the budget outlined, stating that it is likely to generate more state corruption and to minimize the work of the courts and other accountability mechanisms, such as the Human Rights Office.
But the strongest reaction came from the streets. On November 21, thousands of people gathered at plazas and streets around the country to protest against the budget approved by Congress and Giammattei's administration. Hours beforehand, Castillo publicly suggested that he and the president should step down in order to assuage the crisis.
Close to 10,000 protesters gathered in front of the government palace in Guatemala City; waving flags and holding signs demanding that the country's systemic corruption come to an end, while a few blocks away, a smaller protest turned violent as one group set the congress building on fire, which led the anti-disturbance police to flood the city center with tear gas.
Saturday’s protests left 40 people arrested, 26 protesters police officers injured and 3 journalists assaulted, according to an account by No-Ficción. The marches forced congress to reject and then rescind the controversial budget proposal altogether.
InSight Crime Analysis
The 2021 budget controversy is the latest chapter of a neverending story: Guatemalan political elites facilitating corruption and embezzlement thanks to a state which is powerless to stop them.
The latest photos of angry protesters on the streets of Guatemala on Saturday look very similar to those taken in 2015, when crowds of protestors took the streets, calling for the resignation of former president Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president Roxana Baldetti, who were both investigated by public prosecutors and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) for a massive customs fraud scheme known as La Línea.
The 2015 protests and the subsequent arrests and trials of Pérez Molina and Baldetti created the impression that criminal prosecution for corruption was possible in Guatemala, even at the highest spheres of political and economic power. And for a time, it was.
But between 2017 and 2018, Jimmy Morales, Pérez's presidential successor, made sure to dismantle the efforts by the CICIG and the Attorney General's Office to crack down on corruption. Morales disbanded the commission and nominated a less combative attorney general.
By the time Giammattei assumed the presidency, institutional anti-corruption oversight had been reduced to the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad - FECI), which had been bombarded by attacks, even from within the Attorney General’s Office itself.
Nevertheless, the FECI continues to conduct complex investigations, such as its recent investigation into former communications minister Benito Ruiz for alleged money laundering offenses.
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Additionally, political operators have had their sights on the country’s high courts this year, look to fill court vacancies with allied officials that will stop criminal investigations. In July, attempts by political operators to strip the immunity privileges for Constitutional Court judges were met with strong condemnations against the officials involved for interfering with anti-corruption investigations.
The protests fueled by the temporary approval of the 2021 budget are more nuanced than those in 2015. The state response has also been more violent this time around.
Another notable difference is the division within the executive branch: while Giammattei claims that the backlash is part of a conspiracy to overthrow him, Vice President Castillo's proposed course of action was unprecedented: that both he and president resign to “oxygenate the country’s course of direction.”
In its ten months in office, the Giammattei administration had faced criticisms of its response to the coronavirus pandemic and allegations dogging the president from his previous government roles. This is a new level of crisis altogether.