The revelation that Guatemala President Jimmy Morales ordered US resources intended for combatting drug trafficking to be shifted to monitoring anti-corruption entities provides evidence of just how far the head of state is willing to go to avoid being investigated.
An investigation by media outlet Plaza Pública revealed that, contrary to the government’s official version of events, on August 31, the Morales administration gave the order for the US-donated jeeps to patrol the surrounding area of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), an internationally-backed anti-graft agency. The vehicles were also ordered to patrol the Mexican and US embassies and Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.
The patrols occurred on the same day that Morales announced he would not renew the mandate for the CICIG, which is working with the Attorney General’s Office to investigate him for alleged illicit campaign financing.
The CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office have asked Guatemala’s Congress to lift the president’s immunity so he can answer to illicit financing and corruption charges in court.
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Plaza Pública’s investigation showed that Guatemala's Interior Ministry and National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) gave orders to the Chortí Task Force -- a detail that usually operates in high incidence drug trafficking zones -- to deploy to Guatemala City to “support operations to prevent, combat, dismantle and eradicate criminal activities … from 08/31/2018 to 09/02/2018.”
A police commissioner said that the superior order tasks the Chortí Force with patrolling the surroundings of the CICIG and the US and Mexican embassies “until further notice,” according to the media report.
The US embassy in Guatemala and several congresspeople in Washington have demanded explanations for what Morales used the jeeps for. Some have even asked that bilateral cooperation between the two countries be suspended if the issue is not clarified.
For now, Morales and his officials have argued that the patrols were routine.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Plaza Pública investigation provides strong evidence that, contrary to Morales government statements, the patrols were anything but routine.
The jeep scandal exposes Morales’ temptation to abuse his power in an effort to hinder both criminal investigations in Guatemala and the actions foreign governments have been taking to support those investigations. The president’s political war against entities like the CICIG and his own country’s Attorney General’s Office dates back to when he took office, but he ramped it up in mid-2017, the first time he attempted to expel CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez from Guatemala.
Morales may be doing more than potentially proving right those who -- like some US legislators -- accuse him of committing possible legal violations in his rush to avoid a criminal investigation. He may have also put US cooperation with his country at risk, given that there are already calls to limit aid if he does not explain his order regarding the jeeps.
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The revelations about the political use of anti-drug resources also explain the emphasis Morales has been placing on public security while simultaneously battling the investigations against him. That the Guatemalan government has used military equipment to monitor the CICIG and the embassies of two of the nations that support it is not the only issue. There is also the fact that it cut off police resources designated for the commission.
One of the consequences of these actions, InSight Crime has noted, is that government resources are rendered ineffective when they are used for other purposes. The jeeps were intended to combat organized crime, corruption and crimes such as homicide, but were unable to do so while the Morales administration used them to monitor anti-graft entities.
Recent homicide data could be cause for alarm on the same front. According to Diálogos, a Guatemalan non-profit research organization, homicides continued their downward trajectory during 2017. However, the decrease stalled after Morales appointed Enrique Degenhart, one of his staunchest allies, as interior minister in early 2018. And after the government shifted yet more allies into leadership positions in the PNC, the homicide rate shot up by 13 percent.