Guatemala President Jimmy Morales has pushed his country to the brink of a constitutional crisis in his eagerness to rid himself of the anti-corruption commission that has accused him of illegally financing the election campaign that brought him into power.
Morales’ hunger to oust the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) -- an entity funded by multiple countries that acts as a sort of adjunct prosecutorial body alongside the Attorney General’s Office -- has reached the point where he has violated court orders and illegally used security forces to carry out his plans.
On January 7, the Guatemalan foreign affairs minister delivered a letter to the United Nations in New York stating that the Morales administration had unilaterally decided to terminate the agreement that founded the CICIG.
Morales said he was revoking his government’s recognition of the CICIG because its officials “participated in illegal acts such as malfeasance, abuse of authority, acts against the constitution [and] illegal orders and sedition." He also accused the commission of exceeding its powers.
In conjunction with the letter to the UN, Morales held a televised press conference at the presidential palace to announce his decision. To defend his position, the president put forward the cases of businesspeople, a former government official and a Russian citizen whom the CICIG had investigated for crimes ranging from using false documents to committing extrajudicial executions. So far, only the Russian citizen has been convicted, but Morales claimed that all of them were victims of arbitrary actions on the part of the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office.
On Tuesday, January 8, a CICIG spokesperson announced that the Commission's international staff would be leaving the country as a preventive measure due to a lack of guarantees for their safety and work. However, the CICIG's office in Guatemala City will remain open and local staff will continue to work.
Since its arrival in the Central American country a decade ago, and especially during the past four years, the CICIG has helped the Attorney General’s Office to solve corruption and organized crime cases involving legislators, mayors, important business leaders and even former presidents, many of whom are now in prison.
In fact, the president and those who joined him behind the podium at his press conference on Monday are a prime example of the powerful figures whom the Guatemalan Attorney General's Office and the CICIG have shaken with their investigations.
Among the people the president used to justify his newest attack on the CICIG are the following:
- Relatives of former Interior Minister Carlos Vielman. The CICIG investigated Vielman for his alleged participation in extrajudicial executions committed by the National Civil Police, which he headed during the 2000s. Internal CICIG documents to which InSight Crime had access established that in January 2009, the commission investigated Vielman as a “member of an organized group” within the Guatemalan government that participated in an inmate massacre at the Pavón prison and in the murder of three Salvadoran representatives of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen) and their driver. A court in Spain, where Vielman holds citizenship, acquitted him of his charges in connection with the Pavón prison massacre, and the Parlacen investigations were discontinued in Guatemala. In October 2018, the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office presented another case against Vielman, this time for his alleged role in the extrajudicial executions of inmates who had escaped from a prison known as El Infiernito (Little Hell) in 2005. Vielman was interior minister during the presidency of Óscar Berger and known to be very close to Guatemala’s economic elites.
- The Valdés Paiz family. InSight Crime published a detailed report on the elites in Guatemala in 2016 that revealed the possible participation of brothers Francisco and José Valdés Paiz in a criminal plot that culminated in a lawyer named Rodrigo Rosemberg committing suicide. One of Rosemberg’s clients was Luis Mendizábal, a shadowy political and intelligence operator whose name US legislators have requested be added to a list of people sanctioned for connections to organized crime. The Attorney General’s Office accused the Valdés Paiz brothers of masterminding Rosemberg’s death. In August 2017, an appellate court closed the case against them for lack of evidence.
- The Bitkov family. Igor Bitkov is a Russian citizen who was convicted in Guatemala for buying false documents from a criminal organization embedded in the country’s immigration department. In 2010, when Bitkov bought the documents, the Attorney General’s Office was investigating a criminal network specializing in immigration fraud. The Attorney General’s Office included current Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart in its investigation as a suspected member of the network. Degenhart is also one of Morales’ main allies. On December 28, a judge sentenced Bitkov to five years in prison. The case gained importance because, with the help of lobbyists and a US news columnist, Republican legislators used it in an attempt to stop the CICIG’s investigations, alleging that the commission was colluding with the Russian government to persecute the Bitkovs. However, the US State Department under President Donald Trump denied that possibility.
Of course, the main protagonist of the press conference was Morales, who himself has been investigated by the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office for alleged illicit campaign financing. Once again, as he did before the UN plenary session in September 2018, the Guatemalan president accused the CICIG -- and by consequence the Attorney General’s Office -- of violating the law. He also, once again, placed himself at the helm of a show of force intended to remove the commission from the country. Only this time it is in direct violation of multiple Guatemalan Constitutional Court orders already issued in favor of the CICIG, and other court rulings such as the one that sentenced Igor Bitkov to serve jail time, not attend a press conference.
In another violation of a court ruling, the Morales government ordered the police to cordon off La Aurora International Airport in an attempt to prevent a Colombian CICIG investigator from entering Guatemala. A court had previously ruled that foreign CICIG officials could not be denied their visas.
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For now, Morales’ unilateral termination of the agreement that created the CICIG will have no concrete ramifications. The commission’s mandate was already set to expire in September 2019, and several legal steps that supersede Morales’ decision -- at least in theory -- would have to be followed to cut the mandate short.
The CICIG’s existence is regulated by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT), which the Guatemalan government signed and ratified. Article 14 of the agreement signed between Guatemala and the UN states that the CICIG lasts for two years following each renewal, and Morales himself renewed it last year, which puts the commission’s expiration date at September 3, 2019.
The same agreement holds that if one of the parties wishes to unilaterally terminate it, that party must give 12 months’ advance notice, which would be impossible to do at this point because the agreement only has eight more months before it expires.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutérres said on Monday that he rejected the Guatemalan petition and reiterated that the CICIG will remain intact at least until the end of its current mandate.
One thing that has remained clear throughout the events of the past few days is that the Guatemalan business elites who used to support the CICIG now seem to be joining Morales’ camp regardless of the consequences. In an immediate reaction to the president’s announcement, Guatemala’s business leaders gave their own press conference to endorse his decision.
But Morales’ latest moves have pushed other actors to position themselves more clearly in favor of the CICIG and corruption investigations, or to reiterate their unwavering support for the organization’s efforts.
Such is the case with the Guatemalan government’s attempt to block the entry of the Colombian CICIG official, Yilen Osorio, into the country on Saturday. The situation motivated Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who until then had made only lukewarm efforts to challenge Morales, to order the arrest of the executive officials who tried to deport him.
On the other hand, Congressional President Álvaro Arzú Escobar, who is the son of late former president Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen -- himself the target of CICIG and Attorney General's Office investigations -- has said that there were votes to support the president’s decision to terminate the CICIG agreement. According to Guatemalan law, however, such a decision by Congress would only be symbolic.
In the United States, one of the CICIG’s largest donors, positions have also become clearer. When Trump entered the presidency, the unquestionable support previously maintained by the Obama administration began to wear away, even to the point where Guatemalan officials dared to use military equipment donated by Washington to intimidate the CICIG. But in light of recent events, US Democrats, now in the majority of the House of Representatives, have warned Morales that they will suspend aid to his country and have openly branded him as corrupt.
Moreover, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), one of the Senate’s most influential members on Central American issues, has stated that the Guatemalan president is not welcome in the United States.
However, Morales’ willingness to flout the law begs the question of how far international pressure will go in curtailing his hunger to expel the CICIG from Guatemala, stall the investigations currently underway and prevent new ones from being opened. As of now, he has gone against the country’s judicial authority, which is prohibited by the Constitution, and has demonstrated that he is willing to use government security forces to enforce his decisions, even when they are unlawful.
Morales has sparked a constitutional crisis in Guatemala, and now he is poised to stoke the flames.