President Otto Perez Molina extended the CICIG's mandate in Guatemala against his will, as a desperate measure to alleviate a political crisis, and to hold off critics and accusations against him and Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
On April 23, President Otto Perez Molina announced his decision to extend the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for two more years. The decision occurred in the midst of the most serious political crisis his administration has had to confront -- the consequence of the dismantling of a criminal network that operated in the country's customs agency.
"I have decided to request that the Secretariat of the United Nations extend the mandate of the CICIG," the president stated during an official ceremony held at the National Palace of Culture, where he was surrounded by his cabinet, and accompanied by Attorney General Thelma Aldana, Colombian lawyer Ivan Velasquez -- the head of the CICIG -- and the diplomatic corps. "Guatemala is going through crucial moments in which progress is being made in cleaning up different structures. We've reiterated that it does not matter who is identified. Like before, they must face their responsibility before the courts." We are convinced, he said, "that this is the way Guatemala should continue advancing."
At his side, with an impassive face, was Baldetti, who knew the President was referring to fugitive Juan Carlos Monzon Rojas -- until last week her private secretary -- who the CICIG and the Attorney General's Office had identified as the main leader of "La Linea," the criminal structure responsible for a multi-million dollar tax and customs fraud.
In his speech, Perez Molina did not discuss political pressures applied by the international community -- especially the US government -- to extend the CICIG's mandate, nor the demands of various groups in Guatemala over the last week following revelations of the "La Linea" case. Similarly, the upper-crust of the powerful business sector, like the President, changed their minds after learning about the implication of hundreds of importers in the dismantled criminal network. The newly inaugurated President of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), Jorge Briz, called for the extension of the CICIG's mandate during a press conference on April 21, conditional on Ivan Velasquez continuing with the "management and leadership" of the commission. The Catholic Church -- through Archbishop Oscar Vian Morales -- also expressed support, as did Secretary General Ban Ki-moon from United Nations headquarters in New York. Aside from some columnists who repeated their criticisms, other CICIG opponents, even if they hadn't changed their minds, did not insist on reiterating their disapproval.
His decision, assured Perez Molina, was based on a report he requested from the Coordinating Body for the Modernization of the Justice Sector, comprised of the Attorney General, Thelma Aldana; the President of the Supreme Court, Joshua Baquiax; Director of the Public Defense Institute, Leon Ruiz Remberto; and Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla. The report was delivered on April 22 and recommended requesting a mandate extension for the CICIG.
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The crisis unleashed following the revelation of "La Linea" forced a radical change of plans regarding the extension of the CICIG mandate. From the beginning, the plan was to flatly refuse the mandate extension, according to sources from the executive and judicial branches. "The original idea was that the commission would be the one to say no to the CICIG, based on an alleged technical evaluation. That way, the President was washing his hands of the issue and would not be saddled with the political costs," said an official from the Executive Branch. Lopez Bonilla assumed leadership from the beginning, explained one of the legal advisers who worked with the commission. There was not much to be done, they added: "Everything pointed towards the report being negative."
But over the last week, after the dismantling of "La Linea," and the political repercussions this unleashed, things changed within the commission. The draft of the final report -- which had been written several weeks ago -- was replaced by the document that was given to the President on April 22. This report recommended extending the CICIG's mandate for two more years, and asked the CICIG to develop a plan in coordination with the commission, which would include the areas of criminal investigation to be addressed in the future. This, Baquiax explained to journalists, does not aim to limit the CICIG's criminal investigations; only "to establish what" they would be.
Perez stated that the commission's report allowed him "to have technical components, statistical data, and institutional positions" with which to make the decision to extend the CICIG's mandate. He said he is convinced the decision "is for the good of Guatemala," and will result in the country's security and judicial institutions continuing to strengthen and professionalize. "We made the decision, in response to the clamor of Guatemalans, so we will have a state with more security and more justice."
CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez also cautiously avoided referencing recent events surrounding the extension of the CICIG mandate. But he did send a message to those in opposition to their presence: "the CICIG should not be considered a foreign body in the country, but a group of people interested in contributing, supporting, and collaborating with national institutions and with society in building and strengthening [the country's] institutions. "
President Otto Perez Molina suffered from insomnia the last few nights. "Several ghosts steal his sleep," said someone close to him, describing him "as rarely before," cracking his knuckles, frowning more than usual, and repeatedly talking with his close and committed advisers, while designing and walking through the most important intelligence strategy of his administration, and perhaps his political life: to extend the mandate of the CICIG for two more years after September, while ensuring that its investigations do not reach him, Vice President Roxana Baldetti, or his Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, after the end of his presidential term on January 14, 2016.
Supposedly, the "impunity" -- which the sources consulted for this story prefer to call "protection" or "shielding" -- was directly negotiated with the US government (which was most interested in extending the CICIG's mandate), and was handled with Lopez Bonilla as the principal political operator -- and beneficiary -- in Guatemala, and by Guatemalan diplomats in Washington. From US counterparts, little is known. An international diplomatic source said "messages" were transmitted between officials from the US Embassy in Guatemala, the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the National Security Agency (NSA). Of the agreements even less is known. The agreement was for Perez Molina, Baldetti, and Lopez Bonilla "not to be touched, implicated, or investigated," a source from the Executive Branch said, without providing greater detail on how it was reached or the guarantees of compliance on the part of the CICIG, which was not involved in the negotiations.
The same source suggested that, although the Vice President was included in the negotiations "at the insistence" of Perez Molina, "it is very likely she will be 'sacrificed' because [the United States] has concrete cases in which she could be involved." The source added that there would be no reason for the CICIG to be involved in those cases: "they are investigations that the US has carried out." These references are to cases of money laundering and drug trafficking, such as that of Marllory Chacon Rossell -- who is being prosecuted in a Florida court where she pleaded "guilty" to drug trafficking, and has been working with the DEA since 2012 -- and the case of Hayron Borrayo Lasmibat, also imprisoned in Florida.
"They know that there is a lot of information, but no details are known, they will have to wait for the cases to move forward," explained a diplomatic source who claims to have "firsthand" information on the implication of "senior Guatemalan officials" in criminal activities based on the confessions of local criminals. The Florida court is expected to rule in the Chacon and Borrayo cases between May and June, and their sentences will depend on their degree of collaboration with US authorities in criminal investigations into drug trafficking and money laundering.
CICIG spokesman Diego Alvarez told Plaza Publica to ignore "any negotiation or agreement" regarding the extension of the mandate. "There are always malicious rumors. What I can say is that the CICIG does not partake in these types of things," he assured Plaza Publica hours before Perez Molina announced the CICIG's continuation for another two years. No CICIG official, Alvarez said, "has participated or requested the extension of the mandate. It is the President who decides, and his decision will be respected."
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It was not possible to obtain comments from the US Embassy on this topic. In a public statement released by the embassy's press office, Ambassador Todd D. Robinson said his country "welcomes with pleasure" the extension of the CICIG's mandate, and applauded "the leadership" of the President "in advancing efforts to combat organized crime and impunity." He also noted that the decision "demonstrates the commitment of the government and citizens of Guatemala to the rule of law and accountability," and said the United States will continue to work with the Guatemalan government and the CICIG to "strengthen the institutions of justice and public order."
From a Satisfied Smile to Nervousness
At noon on April 22, a smiling Mauricio Lopez Bonilla posed for the cameras at the Presidential Palace with the members of the Coordinating Body for the Modernization of the Justice Sector after they had delivered their report to President Perez Molina recommending the extension of the CICIG's mandate. At the insistence of reporters -- and friendly as usual when speaking with the press -- the Minister responded to questions on a variety of topics. Among them was whether rumors, which had been circulating since the previous week in political circles about his resignation as Interior Minister, were true. "No. Not at all. There was talk, but not in any way of my resignation." He smilingly assured the press that he would not leave either the government or his political party. "It was pure speculation. We are here until the end," he said forcefully.
After saying goodbye to reporters, the smiling face of Lopez Bonilla went from seriousness to nervousness during a brief interview with Plaza Publica.
Several sources claim the government will accept the CICIG's mandate extension so that, in exchange, President Perez Molina, Vice President Baldetti, yourself, and other high-level officials are not investigated or prosecuted. Is that true?
"What do you think? There is nothing of this sort at all. Here everything is done with clarity and transparency," he responded, smiling.
Then why have they changed their minds regarding the extension of the mandate? Until last week the decision was that there would be no more CICIG.
"To make sure they were certain of their actions," he said, now looking serious and uncomfortable. "CICIG commissioner Ivan Velasquez would not lend himself to something like that."
Do President Perez Molina or Vice President Baldetti, or yourself, have any fear of being investigated by the CICIG?
"We behave with clarity and transparency," he answered sharply.
Are you afraid of being investigated? There are individuals who are implicated in criminal networks that operate in the Interior Ministry, and it has been said that your name has been mentioned in US courts…
"What is now worth the most in these investigations and trials is the technical and scientific evidence, which is objective. The testimonies of people who say things are worthless as evidence. You can say many things, but everything has to be proven with scientific evidence."
And what if there are incriminating recordings, videos, or photos…?
What They Didn't See Coming
Starting in September 2014, when the CICIG exposed the criminal structure led by former army captain Byron Lima that controlled the country's prisons with the complicity of prisons officials, Perez Molina had decided not to extend the CICIG's mandate. "Before, they believed that Velasquez -- who at that time had spent a year directing the CICIG --posed no threat to their interests, and would simply transfer the CICIG's investigative abilities to the Attorney General's Office," said a senior official from the President's Office. This investigation demonstrated the close relationship Lopez Bonilla had maintained with Lima, and the influence Lima exerted in the appointment of senior officials to the Directorate of the Penitentiary System in order to facilitate his criminal operations.
From that point forward, the diplomatic machinery of the government began to prepare the necessary conditions in the international community by presenting reasons why Guatemala no longer needed the CICIG: the message was that the body had already completed its mission and that security and judicial officials were now ready to professionally do their jobs.
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Sources consulted for this article agreed that the capture of Haroldo Mendoza Matta, in November last year, was what finally convinced those who still had doubts within the government about "the danger that the CICIG represented to them." Mendoza is considered the leader of a criminal structure with strong links to legislators, mayors, and security institutions, a criminal structure that has its own army and directs and controls vast areas in the provinces of Izabal and Peten. According to judicial investigations, "The Mendozas" -- as this clan is known -- began drug trafficking operations in northern Guatemala in the 1980s, later mutating to create legal companies through which they laundered money earned from their criminal activities. In September 2007, Perez Molina and Baldetti admitted to James Derham -- then the US Ambassador to Guatemala -- that they had ties to the "least bad" of the Mendoza brothers, but denied having received financial support from this family for their election campaign that year. Furthermore, they admitted that Alejandro Sinibaldi -- who up until a week ago was a pre-candidate for the Patriotic Party's presidential nomination -- was the one who introduced them to this group.
In January, during an interview with Emisoras Unidas, the President criticized the CICIG for disrupting this criminal structure because, he argued, combatting it was not part of its mandate. The Mendozas, the President said, "are not a parallel structure within the government. The Mendozas are organized crime, and that is not the mandate of the CICIG." His remarks were part of the strategy designed by the government to justify the termination of the CICIG's mandate.
In early 2014, Ivan Velasquez announced that with its remaining time, the CICIG would focus on concrete criminal investigations: the financing of political parties by illegal networks, and contraband smuggling and customs fraud. Regarding the cases of Byron Lima and the Mendozas, which by then had moved forward, he said nothing. Both cases took the country by surprise, including the government itself. According to government sources, "scenarios which were then raised indicated that [the CICIG] would not be given the time or have the ability to go after the structures that everyone knew about." Hence the reason why the case of "La Linea" has left them open-mouthed and unable to react.
Starting in January, the battle surrounding the CICIG intensified in Guatemala and Washington. The government and conservative groups that have always been opposed to the CICIG began a media, diplomatic, and political campaign to justify not extending its mandate. Although they knew the CICIG had the support of the international community and various social groups, they did not expect the United States and the Secretary General of the United Nations to be so determined.
In early March, US Vice President Joe Biden, during an official visit to Guatemala, insistently called for the extension of the CICIG's mandate, and conditioned the multi-million dollar financial support being offered by the White House under the Alliance for Prosperity to its renewal. Perez Molina rejected Washington's warning, invoking sovereignty to make the decision, and said he would not succumb to any type of pressure.
However, after consulting with his closest advisers -- and so as not to bear political responsibility for denying the mandate extension of an entity that combats criminal networks operating within the state -- he passed the buck to the Coordinating Body for the Modernization of the Justice Sector, which in the end, after the change in the political situation in the country, recommended that Perez Molina backpedal and say yes to the CICIG.
In the midst of Guatemala's peculiar way of conducting politics, and with no end in sight to the political crisis that led to the extension of its mandate, the CICIG will have two years to investigate and combat criminal networks operating under the aegis of the state. We await additional surprises.