HomeNewsAnalysisIs Washington Taking Corruption in Guatemala Seriously Again?
ANALYSIS

Is Washington Taking Corruption in Guatemala Seriously Again?

ELITES AND CRIME / 30 OCT 2020 BY HÉCTOR SILVA ÁVALOS EN

In what appears to be a show of support from Washington for Guatemala’s anti-corruption fight, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the visa of Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, a vice president of congress facing corruption charges, has been suspended.

Pompeo announced the measures taken against Alejos Lorenza and former congresswoman Delia Bac in an October 28 statement, explaining they both had “undermined the rule of law in Guatemala.”

Bac was a lawmaker until January 2020 and has been accused of embezzling around 2 million quetzales ($256,000) to pay for a new road to connect a spa she had built in a remote part of southern Sacatepéquez department. However, while Bac no longer has immunity, a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia -- CSJ) continues to protect her from criminal prosecution.

SEE ALSO: The Legacy of How Guatemala Destroyed its Own Anti-Corruption Crusade

The case of Alejos Lorenzana is more politically sensitive. It is directly related to the campaign Guatemalan elites have led against the now-defunct International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala — CICIG) and an anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad -- FECI) within the Attorney General's Office.

The CICIG and FECI investigated Alejos Lorenzana between 2016 and 2018 for his alleged participation in a large-scale corruption scheme that involved charging illegal fees to private companies in exchange for speeding up payments for public works contracts. This case, dubbed "Traficantes de Influencias" (Influence Peddlers), was one of many to spin off from the famous 2015 La Línea investigation that led to the resignation of then-president Otto Pérez Molina.

On four separate occasions, FECI requested a preliminary trial for Alejos Lorenzana that would have stripped him of his political immunity. These were all rejected by the CSJ to seemingly protect Alejos Lorenzana, who was re-elected last year and once again appointed vice president of congress.

Alejos Lorenzana is believed to have played an essential role in protecting former president Jimmy Morales (2016-2020) from the CICIG and FECI as they investigated alleged acts of corruption and illegal campaign financing. According to an investigation by No Ficción, he was one of Morales’ closest allies in congress and directly maneuvered to protect him.

Alejos Lorenzana was also a key part of the campaign by Guatemalan politicians and entrepreneurs to oust the CICIG, which eventually succeeded in late 2018.

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite having supported the CICIG financially and politically since 2006, Washington had remained silent about a number of corruption cases in recent years. But the decision by Secretary Pompeo to suspend the visas of two officials accused of misconduct raises hopes that the US government may be shifting its focus.

Since successfully dismantling the CICIG, the same cabal of politicians being investigated for corruption and other crimes has continued its campaign against anti-graft efforts. They have sought to eliminate FECI and influence the appointment of judges to high courts, according to investigations by the Attorney General’s Office.

As a lawmaker, Alejos Lorenzana directly tried to influence the appointment of high court judges, according to a report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile

But until now, the US government's silence had been seen as tolerance for the acts of the Morales administration, as well as that of current President Alejandro Giammattei, who the CICIG had also investigated.

Some analysts attributed these concessions to Guatemala’s readiness to implement migration policies demanded by US President Donald Trump. In July 2019, Morales signed a so-called “safe third country agreement” that the United States believes will slow migration to the country from Central America.

Stephen McFarland, the former US ambassador to Guatemala, believes Trump’s vision has been partially influenced by his “preferred approach of focusing only on a short-term migration agreement,” he told InSight Crime.

According to McFarland, Pompeo’s direct reference to Alejos Lorenzana in Guatemala could mark a small shift in the right direction. “This new position is closer to the United States’ traditional bipartisan politics, focused on growth, security and transparency in the region,” said the former ambassador.

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