Two recent reports on Guatemala’s CICIG illustrate the international’s body’s potential to affect powerful shifts in the status quo, as well as its broad limitations.

The reports — written by the Open Society Foundations (OSF)* and the International Crisis Group (ICG) — tell a similar story of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), the transcendental United Nations-backed judicial body that upended Guatemala’s executive branch in recent months with a series of powerful, albeit still unfinished judicial cases, that led to the resignation and arrests of the president and the vice president, among others.

(Download OSF report – pdf; download ICG – pdf)

They each chronicle the commission’s slow start in 2007, its near demise on various occasions since, and its sudden, unexpected resurgence in 2015, although the OSF report goes into much greater detail (the ICG published a much more complete report on the CICIG in 2011). The CICIG is a difficult thing to describe. It is part watchdog, part investigator, part lobbyist and part teacher. The cases it has assisted the Guatemalan government on range from drug trafficking assassinations to corruption of high level government officials to illegal adoptions.

The CICIG must massage its relations with the very elites it is investigating.

Indeed, part of these reports concern the CICIG’s perennial problem of defining its mission and narrowing its broad mandate. The result of this near constant internal debate is the feeling of a disjointed effort led by three commissioners with three different styles, backgrounds and priorities. At times, the commission is flailing, seemingly searching for meaning. Other times, it is powerful, setting an agenda and incarcerating the country’s most powerful figures.

Success, as the reports note, often came with high costs, particularly because some of those who were targeted for investigation were the very same people who had supported the commission’s establishment and its ongoing mission. This tricky balance — where the CICIG must massage its relations with the very elites it is investigating — is not addressed sufficiently in either report and remains a critically unexplored aspect of the commission’s story. (InSight Crime will release an investigation regarding this subject in the coming weeks.)

Failures also came with severe consequences. The inability of the commission to secure a conviction against ex President Alfonso Portillo for embezzlement was one of the commission’s most powerful setbacks. It came not long after Francisco D’allanese, the CICIG’s second commissioner, had also launched a poorly planned, if not terribly sound case against the former Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann. In both instances, these cases moved to other countries: Portillo was extradited to the US where he served a short sentence; Vielmann’s case is ongoing in Spain, where he is a citizen.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Judicial Reform

The US role in propping up the CICIG financially and politically is another aspect that these and other reports have yet to fully explore. The US has funded close to half the commission’s $12 million – $15 million annual budget since its inception. And at various junctures, it has backed up its work with strong and public pronouncements, arguably saving the commission from an early, ignominious demise.  

The OSF report does a particularly good job describing the contradictory and troubling tenure of CICIG’s first commissioner, the Spanish Magistrate Carlos Castresana. Castresana had the unenviable task of setting up the commission. During that first phase, he had to raise money, establish working relationships with unwilling partners in the Attorney General’s Office and the police, set up and run an office of varying nationalities and degrees of experience, and meet outsized expectations regarding some of the most-high profile judicial cases and government processes.

In a country that depended on witnesses highly susceptible to political and criminal pressures, this use of forensic evidence has been forever a game changer.

In this, as the OSF report notes in great detail, the Spanish magistrate had a decidedly mixed record. On the positive side, he may have forever helped change the way Guatemalans approach the law — not to mention saved the presidency — by relying on forensic evidence in the infamous Rodrigo Rosenberg case. Rosenberg, an elite lawyer, had been killed under very strange circumstances and had made a video prior to his death, which posthumously charged then President Álvaro Colom and First Lady Sandra Torres with his murder. Protests calling for the president’s ouster quickly followed, putting the administration on the brink.

Castrasena, at the president’s request, took the case and had dozens of his investigators triangulate phone records, scrape together receipts and view hundreds of hours of surveillance video, among many other tasks. The result showed that Rosenberg was not, in fact, killed by Colom and Torres, but rather had orchestrated his own murder in a bazaar political suicide designed to topple the Colom administration. In a country that depended on witnesses highly susceptible to political and criminal pressures, this use of forensic evidence has been forever a game changer.  

However, Castresana also fell into a trap that illustrated just how tricky the commission’s job really was. In 2009, the commission weighed in heavily on the process to select Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia – CSJ) and appellate court judges. CICIG’s investigation into the process uncovered very little, if any, wrongdoing, and Castresana’s campaign was largely waged via the media, but it worked: several judges were removed or excluded from the high courts. However, the results left a bitter taste in people’s mouths.

“While the campaign may have produced a better CSJ and more competent set of Appellate Court judges, it also left a set of troublesome ambiguities in its wake,” the OSF report rightly says. “Castresana was denounced for attacking the integrity of nomination commission members with broad, undocumented claims, and even friends of the commission asked to see the evidence supporting his charges.”

CICIG is hardly finished shaking the foundations of power in this country of 15 million people.

As the reports note, the commission eventually settled down under the able management of its third and current Commissioner Ivan Velásquez. Velásquez is a Colombian judge whose experience in a conflict-ridden country with high level criminal groups who worked with politicians clearly aided his understanding of where to put his limited resources and how to make a deep impact on corruption. He jettisoned things such as writing reports or trying to overtly influence the selection of high court judges. He also benefited from the years of work of his predecessors at all levels of the commission and the improved Guatemalan justice system.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

The results are nothing short of revolutionary, as the reports duly note. The resignation and incarcerations of the president and vice president of Guatemala were just two of the cases the CICIG has helped prosecute in the last year. Others include a case against an elite politician who was skimming from his bloated budget, and another case investigating the top officials and providers of the largest state company, the Social Security Institute of Guatemala (Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social – IGSS) for selling bogus medicine to the government.

Two groundbreaking cases revealed earlier this year — one involving one of the country’s most powerful banks, the other connecting 16 military officers to massacres and disappearances — promise that CICIG is hardly finished shaking the foundations of power in this country of 15 million people.

However, as both reports note, there is a what the OSF report calls a “fragility of success.” Both the commission’s ability to finish prosecuting these cases and its ability to transfer its skills are still in doubt. What’s more, it’s not clear that the local institutions, strengthened though they may be, have the political capital to upend the economic and political order of Guatemala in the same way that the CICIG has.

*Open Society Foundations is a major funder of InSight Crime.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...

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