Members of the US Congress have called for sanctions to be implemented against individuals involved in acts of corruption in Guatemala, where a long-running battle over the country’s anti-graft efforts continues to play out.

On October 16, congressmen Edward Royce and Eliot Engel, the top-ranking officials of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote an open letter to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking him to sanction “individuals in Guatemala who are committing or facilitating acts of corruption.”

Specifically, the congressmen are asking Tillerson to block the entry of such individuals to the United States. They also said that they would seek to work with the State Department to ensure that certain funding for US aid to Guatemala would be witheld “until significant improvements are seen” in combating corruption.

Rep. Engel, who co-wrote the October 16 letter, told InSight Crime that, “The State Department must use its authority to send a clear message to those in Guatemala carrying out or facilitating acts of corruption by stopping them from entering the United States.”

He added that “continued aid to Guatemala is essential, and now more than ever, we must ensure that it reaches those who are committed to stamping out corruption and impunity.”

Guatemala-born congresswoman Norma Torres expressed support for sanctions in a statement to InSight Crime.

“Defending the gains made in Guatemala will require a range of policy options, including the use of targeted sanctions to block visas and access to US financial institutions,” she wrote.

The congressional letter states that the congressmen are “deeply concerned by recent events in Guatemala which demonstrate a setback for the country in its efforts to combat corruption and impunity.”

SEE ALSO: Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime

President Jimmy Morales, who has been accused of illicit campaign financing, generated immense controversy in August when he attempted to expel Iván Velásquez, the head of the United Nations-backed anti-graft body known as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). The move failed, but sparked a political crisis that has continued to deepen.

The open letter also notes that the Guatemalan congress voted to protect officials accused of illegal campaign financing on September 13, “just two days after voting to protect President Morales by not stripping him of his immunity” in the face of the corruption allegations. (Following widespread public outcry, Guatemala’s congress has since backtracked on its support for the so-called “impunity pact.”)

However, on October 9, the turmoil seemed to enter a new phase when Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry initially refused to renew Velásquez’s work visa. Then, on October 17, the day after the open letter from the US congressmen, Velásquez’s visa was approved.

“I must remind you that the privileges and the immunity that you have enjoyed in the country … do not exempt you from respecting the Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala and its laws, nor from abstaining from interfering in domestic affairs while you remain on the Guatemalan territory,” reads the approval letter signed by Guatemala’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Alicia Castillo Sosa.

Just two days after the initial refusal to renew Velázquez’s visa, the Supreme Court rejected Attorney General Thelma Aldana’s request to allow parliament to vote a second time on removing Morales’ immunity. The request, linked to a probe distinct from the campaign financing investigation, followed revelations last month that Morales received a monthly bonus from the defense ministry “that raises his earnings by more than a third, making him one of the best paid leaders in Latin America,” reported Reuters.

The court ruled, however, that Morales’ earlier decision to voluntarily return the money already constituted a sanction, and that the individual should not be sanctioned twice for the same crime, Supreme Court Spokesman Angel Pineda said on October 11 according to the Associated Press.

InSight Crime Analysis

The US congress has been tightening the screws recently on Guatemalan officials in an effort to ensure that the country’s anti-graft efforts continue. With the help of the CICIG, the Attorney General’s Office has brought charges against numerous elites in recent years, even bringing down former President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who were accused of leading a wide-ranging graft scheme.

The threat of sanctions is clearly an attempt to escalate pressure on elements of the Guatemalan government that are opposed to the work of the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office. However, it is unclear what effect, if any, this threat will have. It is also unclear how credible it is, given the widely-reported disarray in the State Department.

Christine Wade, a Washington College professor and Central America expert, told InSight Crime that if sanctions were issued, they could put pressure on Guatemalan elites who “have financial assets in the US or may travel here regularly for business or to see family.”

In addition, the symbolic impact of sanctioning officials from a key partner nation “would be a very big deal indeed,” Wade said.

SEE ALSO: Weekly InSight: Battle of Guatemala President vs. Justice System Pushes Country to Breaking Point

Perhaps due to strong domestic and international support, the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office show no intent of easing their efforts against corruption. On October 6, they announced new corruption allegations against a third current or former president, Álvaro Arzú, the longtime mayor of Guatemala City.

However, the government’s refusal to renew Velázquez’s work visa came just a few days after the move against Arzú, raising suspicions that the decision may have been in retaliation for the announcement of the investigation. (Velásquez has previously been the subject of smear attacks, even before being temporarily declared persona non grata.)

“Velázquez is upsetting the applecart, and entrenched powers are looking for any opportunity to remove him, however small,” Wade said.