In another blow against anti-corruption efforts, President Jimmy Morales’ government replaced the head of the police and his top advisors. The move was met by a rare, stern and public rebuke by the private sector.
The government dismissed Nery Ramos, director of the National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil -- PNC), as well as deputy directors Stu Velasco, Edwin Mayén and Rony Espinoza. In a February 27 statement, the Interior Ministry, which administers the police, said Interior Minister Enrique Antonio Degenhart Asturias was trying to give "oxygen to the institution."
For his part, the Vice Minister of the Interior, Kamilo Rivera, said it was part of the ministry's house cleaning since he and Degenhart Asturias assumed their posts in January.
"We've done a thorough evaluation since we took over a month ago, and we have taken administrative actions to remove certain police personnel," Rivera said. (See video below)
The Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations, a trade association known by the acronym CACIF that brings together the most important business leaders in the country, called the decision “inconvenient.”
Expressing their support for the ousted police chief, the private sector representatives argued that Ramos had succeeded in reducing crime, particularly homicide rates, in the country.
In a statement, the US Embassy in Guatemala, also expressed its gratitude to Ramos for his work.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent ousting of the police leadership appears to be a new attempt by Morales and his allies to shield themselves from criminal investigations. However, it seems to have had the effect of distancing powerful private sector actors from the different groups that support Morales and his administration.
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This is not the first controversial leadership change that President Morales has made in the last few months.
In January, the President fired Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa who, as the head of Guatemala’s Internal Revenue Service (Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria – SAT), played a key role in high-impact, anti-corruption cases investigated by the Attorney General’s Office and the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG).
Shortly thereafter, Francisco Rivas, Interior Minister and ally of the CICIG and Attorney General’s Office, was also ousted from his post.
What sets the case of Police Chief Ramos apart from the others, however, is CACIF’s reaction to his removal.
After voicing its disapproval of President Morales’ decision, CACIF went one step further. At an event held on February 28 to launch the Citizen's Front Against Corruption (Frente Ciudadano contra la Corrupción), prominent members of the business elite joined indigenous leaders, non-profit representatives, academics, and activists in a show of public support for CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana.
The same day, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, met with President Morales in Guatemala and insisted on the importance of the country’s fight against corruption.
“I told him that we supported CICIG and supported the commissioner,” Haley told reporters in Guatemala.
Haley also met with Commissioner Velásquez and Attorney General Aldana during her visit to Guatemala.
The dismissal of Ramos should be understood as part of the tension between President Morales and the CICIG and Attorney General’s Office, which became something akin to a war when the two institutions opened an investigation into the possible illicit financing of Morales’ presidential campaign. The Attorney General even presented a petition to remove Morales’ presidential immunity in order to open a criminal investigation, but congress dismissed the request.
The recent changes in the government are closely related to this clash, and involve institutions and officials who have actively participated in corruption investigations implicating Morales as well as other influential members of Guatemala’s political and economic elite such as the ex-president and current mayor of Guatemala City, Álvaro Arzú.
The first change made as part of the government’s security overhaul, the dismissal of Interior Minister Rivas, also marked a radical transformation of the government’s official narrative. Just days after taking office, Rivas’ successor, Degenhart Asturias, shifted the narrative from prioritizing the fight against corruption towards prioritizing the fight against gangs, which are not as serious a threat in Guatemala as they are in neighboring Honduras and El Salvador.
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While the police leadership was never vocal in its support of the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG, the police played an essential role in investigations. According to sources from the Attorney General’s Office who spoke to InSight Crime in Guatemala City, the police investigative units were especially critical because they prevented sensitive information about raids and captures from being leaked.
Before the ousting of the police leadership, the majority of business leaders were considered to be part of the bloc supporting President Morales. Many analysts put CACIF in this bloc due to the risk of criminal prosecution that some CACIF members faced related to such crimes as tax evasion, payment of bribes and illicit electoral financing.
With expulsion of Ramos, that support for Morales seems to have been ruptured.