Guatemala's international anti-impunity body CICIG is now entering its final months of existence under the new leadership of a veteran Colombian investigator, but with the commission's many enemies closing in, questions remain over what he will be able to achieve.
The appointment of the Colombian Ivan Velasquez Gomez as head of the United Nation's International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) brought to a close the tumultuous reign of Francisco Dall'Anese, who stood down in August after resigning for "personal reasons."
The final months of Dall'Anese's three years at the head of the CICIG saw the former Costa Rican Attorney General's position become untenable as criticism of his methods mounted on all sides. The last straw came with the CICIG's outspoken public statements during the trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, which led the Guatemalan government to send a delegation to New York to complain to the UN. (Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 80 years in prison; but the Constitutional Court overturned the decision, sending the trial back to the courts.)
According to a report by Guatemala's Contrapoder, Dall'Anese also had few friends remaining in New York. Citing anonymous "high-ranking officials close to the president's office and CICIG," the report claimed UN officials were growing impatient with Dall'Anese, who they viewed as increasingly isolated having burned his connections with Guatemalan institutions and alienated his colleagues with poor communication and a refusal to take advice.
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The CICIG under Dall'Anese has also faced allegations of heavy handed and intimidating behavior. In August, Constitutional Court Judge Hector Hugo Perez Aguilera accused Dall'Anese's private secretary Thomas Pastor of using threats to pressure him to act in the corruption case of former President Alfonso Portillo.
The judge's accusations sparked an attempt by the CICIG's numerous political enemies to revoke its mandate by tabling a congressional vote. The vote was defeated but only after what appeared to be skillful political maneuvering by the commission's allies.
Dall'Anese has even come under fire from human rights activists. Helen Mack, the head of the Myrna Mack Foundation and a former head of the police reform commission, has been a frequent critic, and was scathing in her assessment of Dall'Anese's leadership after his departure.
"The Commission is an instrument, and an opportunity that we Guatemalans had, and because of the incompetence of the leadership, it has been weakened," the Associated Press reported Mack saying.
However, the CICIG is far from a failure. Since it began in 2007, impunity levels in Guatemala have dropped an impressive 23 percent, according to the agency's own figures. Certainly Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has played a huge role in this process, but the CICIG helped.
The CICIG has also pushed for the passage of legislation regarding wiretaps, flexible sentencing for collaborators, gun control, controlled drug buys, and seizures of illegally obtained properties and goods. It has helped develop a witness protection program and trained prosecutors in the skill of building cases from telephone records and taped conversations.
It designed a special court to try high impact and dangerous cases. It purged the police of thousands of corrupt agents and the courts of dozens of corrupt judges. Its actions also led to the investigation and dismissal of a corrupt attorney general connected to illegal adoptions, among other suspected crimes.
Under the stewardship of Dall'Anese, the agency has also been involved in several emblematic cases going to the heart of institutional corruption. Aside from its controversial role in the genocide trial of Rios Montt, the CICIG was also at the center of the prosecution of former President Alfonso Portillo on corruption charges. Portillo was acquitted despite damning evidence against him, but he was later extradited to the United States to face charges of money laundering, fraud and embezzlement of public funds.
The CICIG has also waged war on corruption in the Guatemalan security forces and judicial system. In one the most famous cases in Guatemala of recent years, the so-called Pavon-El Infiernito case, the CICIG helped expose a network of high-ranking security officials involved in murder, drug-trafficking, money-laundering, kidnapping, extortion, the theft of drugs and the extrajudicial killing of 10 prisoners.
This was followed in 2012 by the release of a report titled "The Judges of Impunity," which named 18 judges it accused of working in the interests of organized crime.
Despite its differences with the commission, some in the government are now taking a more conciliatory tone towards Dall'Anese and the CICIG.
"[Dall'Anese] decided that his focus would be on strengthening institutional capacity and cases with a lower media profile -- and I think that wasn't a bad choice," Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera told InSight Crime. "The debate now is over what the legacy in this process has been, and in that area I believe there has been a lack of systemization."
And for Carrera, at least, the commission's job is not yet done.
"The CICIG has met its objectives in the area of rule of law, but the idea now is to dismantle the criminal networks that run parallel to the state -- I believe it has been less successful in this," he added.
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The man now faced with this task, Ivan Velasquez, is unlikely to be intimidated by the hostile environment and poisoned relationships left behind by Dall'Anese. Velasquez is a hardened investigator into atrocities committed by Colombia's paramilitary groups and the state collusion that facilitated them, and has endured death threats, plots, wire-tapping and the murder of colleagues.
Velasquez is most famous for his pivotal role in investigating the ties between Colombian politicians and paramilitaries. Known as the "para-politics" scandal, this investigation led to the incarceration of 55 congressmen. His work saw him targeted for illegal wiretapping by the Colombian government agents and become a victim of a smear campaign linked to family members of ex-President Alvaro Uribe that he had helped convict of paramilitary collusion.
However, for all Velasquez's credentials, his ambitions should be limited, at least according to Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina. The president had already ruled out extending the CICIG's mandate when it expires in September 2015, and he has now made it clear he expects little from the agency in the meantime. After leaking the news of Velasquez's appointment, Perez said the last two years of the CICIG's operations would be focused on transferring capacity to Guatemalan judicial institutions.
The CICIG has been able to delve deeper into institutional corruption and impunity in Guatemala because of the clout of its international backing. But within the Guatemalan political system, there are not the same levels of enthusiasm for its work, and tackling corruption has made the group many powerful enemies within Guatemala's judicial and security institutions, as well as the traditional economic and political elite.
With the limited time he has to establish himself, and the isolated position he has been left in by his predecessor, Velasquez will struggle to run the CICIG as the anti-impunity attack dog seen in recent years. However, transferring capacity to the Guatemalan authorities is also critical work, and may prove to be the true test of the CICIG's legacy.
*The research presented in this article is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.