Guatemala’s president has been waging a battle against the country’s international anti-graft commission, and that battle has made it to the US Congress, where in a committee hearing a State Department official ruled out alleged Russian interference with the commission and its investigations.

At a July 11 hearing held by the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, several legislators from both sides of the aisle reiterated their support for the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). One of the witnesses present at the hearing was Kenneth Merten, a Department of State ambassador and the Acting Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

When questioned about allegations that the Russian government has interfered with the CICIG and its mission, Ambassador Merten said, “Our embassy and the department have looked into these allegations of collusion, [and] thus far have found no evidence that that has occurred.”

But this statement was not enough for some US legislators present at the hearing.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), one of the CICIG’s harshest critics in Washington, confronted Merten with a slew of questions about the anti-graft body, to which Merten reiterated, “Again, thus far in our investigations we found no collusion between [the CICIG and the Russian government].”

Smith’s line of questioning was heavily based on a peculiar legal case involving allegations that gained public attention following the April publication of a Wall Street Journal column about the Bitkovs, a Russian family who went to Guatemala in 2009 after Vladimir Putin’s government began prosecuting them over a business dispute.

Upon their arrival in Guatemala, the Bitkov family purchased counterfeit documents from a criminal network that included several immigration officials. After the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG conducted an investigation into the criminal network, 39 people were convicted, including both ex-government officials and the recipients of their illegal services. The Bitkovs were among them.

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From there, a handful of Republican lawmakers led by Smith and Florida Senator Marco Rubio took up the Bitkov case, using it to undermine the credibility of the CICIG in Washington. Rubio went further, threatening to block $6 million in US funding to the commission.

InSight Crime consulted a diplomatic source in Guatemala City in June, who said the financing that Sen. Rubio threatened to block is vital to ensure the CICIG can function properly for the remainder of 2018.

The US congressional committee hearing occurred against the backdrop of a battle between Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and the CICIG, which intensified after the Attorney General’s Office began to investigate the president for illicit campaign financing as well as several of his relatives and collaborators for alleged corruption. Last year, the Attorney General’s Office even requested that Guatemala’s Congress approve a preliminary hearing against Morales related to the allegations. Allies of the president in Congress blocked the request.

Shortly before completing her term in May, then-Attorney General Thelma Aldana gave a farewell press conference in which she announced a third phase in the investigations against the Guatemalan president after a group of businesspeople admitted to making donations to the Morales campaign exceeding the legal limits. Two sources in the Attorney General’s Office told InSight Crime that investigations have continued under current Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, and that a second preliminary hearing request is possible.

InSight Crime Analysis

Clashes with the CICIG and efforts to quash the commission and those who support it have left indelible marks on Jimmy Morales’ administration. His failed attempts to expel CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez and Swedish Ambassador Anders Kompass — one of the strongest supporters of anti-graft measures in Guatemala — are prime examples.

In mid-2017, Morales named Sandra Jovel as the country’s new foreign affairs minister, and she immediately made the CICIG a target. Her first act in office was to sign the president’s declaration of Velásquez as persona non grata, which was later overturned by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.

Since her appointment, Jovel has traveled multiple times to Washington, and to the United Nations in New York to lobby for Velásquez’s expulsion from Guatemala. According to diplomatic sources in both countries, she is also pushing for changes to the CICIG’s mandate, which the Guatemalan Congress approved a decade ago to allow the body to conduct investigations and assist the Attorney General’s Office in bringing charges in court.

The Bitkov case and the conspiracy theory about possible Russian interference has fit perfectly into Morales’ attempts to rid himself of the commission investigating him. But the US Department of State’s backing of the CICIG is a clear setback to those efforts.

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Just hours before the hearing in Washington, news agency McClatchy published an article stating that US President Donald Trump’s administration was starting to make internal moves to propose changes to the CICIG’s mandate. McClatchy’s information came from “three people familiar with the discussions.” The main idea of the report was that the move to weaken the anti-graft body was a way of thanking Morales for following the United States in moving Guatemala’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

However, White House media affairs director Helen Aguirre Ferré had a different take on the situation.

“The United States is committed to combatting corruption and impunity. We can see that the CICIG is key in the struggle, and the Donald Trump administration wants a prosperous and safe Guatemala,” she stated.

On the day of the House committee hearing, InSight Crime consulted two congressional officials in Washington about possible changes to the commission’s mandate. The sources serve as links between the legislative and executive branches on CICIG-related issues. Both officials said that it is not being discussed. One of them recalled that the mandate of the commission depended on the United Nations and the Guatemalan government, while also admitting that the United States could have an influence.

If a new request for a preliminary hearing against Morales for illicit campaign financing is issued and recent allegations that he sexually abused at least 10 women continue to gain momentum, it is likely the president will only intensify his attempts to undermine the CICIG and any investigations against him.

Meanwhile, in Washington focus seems to be shifting away from the Bitkov case as the State Department found no proof of the claims of Russian collusion with the CICIG. But the $6 million Senator Rubio blocked because of that case remain to be paid.

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