In a move that could imperil anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, US Senator Marco Rubio said he has halted funding for the United Nations-backed judicial body, CICIG.

The extraordinary decision by Rubio (R-FL) — who is the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and a member of the Appropriations Committee — was dated May 4.

The US Senator said the decision — which his office says is “a hold” on $6 million in funding — was related to the role the International Commission Against in Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) played in helping to prosecute the Bitkov family in that country.

The Bitkovs, who are Russian millionaires, were connected to the so-called “Migration Case,” in which 39 people were sentenced as part of a vast illicit scheme to furnish fake and doctored identification. Three members of the Bitkov family were found guilty of obtaining false papers and forging others on numerous occasions in order to establish and maintain residence in Guatemala since 2009.

The Bitkovs say they were victims of a criminal ring, and in April, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court partially reversed the verdict, forcing prosecutors to re-establish grounds to try the family in Guatemalan court.

Rubio — and others, including Bill Browder, a US businessman who made significant sums of money while living in Russia, and Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal — have suggested the CICIG was manipulated or possibly even working with the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, who the Bitkovs say persecuted them in Russia. (Prensa Libre, citing Russian press, said the Bitkov family may have defrauded its company’s stockholders of as much as $6 million and fled potential prosecution.)

The CICIG did not respond to Rubio’s statement, but in a detailed description of its role in the Bitkov matter issued days before, the commission said it only entered as a “joint plaintiff” in the Migration Case in 2014 and has had no connection to the Russian government.

“The Commission acts with full independence, adherence to its mandate and respect for Guatemalan law,” the commission’s explanation reads. “CICIG’s investigations are not conditioned by their donors or any other external entity. Please note that the Russian Federation is not — and has not been is the past — a donor to this Commission. CICIG has had no relation with the Russian Federation.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The statement by Rubio and potential hold on the commission’s funding is a serious escalation of the battle between the forces of anti-corruption in Guatemala like the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office, and their foes, which include President Jimmy Morales and others, who like Morales have come under investigation for corrupt and criminal practices.

Rubio followed his statement with a letter to Morales, asking him to keep a close eye on the Bitkov family and the CICIG.

“I am troubled by the role of the International Commission on [sic] Impunity in Guatemala [CICIG] in this affair,” he wrote.

Morales may read this as a green light to continue his overt efforts to rid himself of the Commission, which has helped push cases against him, his family and his political party.

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The CICIG has operated as a super-technical assistant to the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office on high level corruption and crime cases since 2007. It has assisted prosecutors in jailing top officials of current and past governments, including two former presidents and a vice president, whose cases are ongoing.

The US government has traditionally provided close to half of its estimated $15 million annual budget, and has regularly lauded its efforts over the years, as well backed it up when corrupt leaders have tried to shelve the body, including in recent weeks when the US Ambassador to Guatemala took a photo with the CICIG’s Commissioner.

#EEUU apoya con firmeza a la @CICIGgt y al Comisionado @Ivan_Velasquez_#EmbArreaga

— US Embassy Guatemala (@usembassyguate) February 6, 2018

Even one of Bitkov’s lawyers does not agree with Rubio’s interpretation of role of the CICIG.

“Some people are taking advantage of us,” José Rolando Alvarado told Nómada days before Rubio’s statement. “We are not against the CICIG.”

The irony is also thick considering Rubio’s stated concerns about how criminal and terrorist groups can take advantage of lax and corrupt migration systems in Central America. According to the CICIG’s statement on the Bitkov matter, the Migration Case was “internationally praised for having dismantled a large network that posed a risk to national and regional security.”

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...