Guatemala's highest court has ruled that President Jimmy Morales cannot expel the head of the country's internationally-backed anti-corruption body, halting an apparent attempt to derail an investigation into allegations of illegal campaign financing.
According to an August 29 ruling by Guatemala's Constitutional Court, Morales issued the expulsion order improperly, violating Guatemala's constitution and an agreement with the United Nations, which backs the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), led by Colombian Iván Velásquez.
Morales issued an order to remove CICIG head Velásquez from his position and expel him from Guatemala on August 27, just two days after Velásquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana announced they were seeking to have Morales' immunity from prosecution lifted so they could investigate allegations that he received illegal financing for his 2015 presidential campaign.
Morales' attempt to remove Velásquez was immediately met by strong denunciations from national and international players, including the embassies of the United States and several other countries, the United Nations, dozens of civil society groups and bishops of the Catholic Church.
As criticism mounted on the president, the Constitutional Court suspended his order and received petitions from multiple civil society groups. After reviewing the case, the court ruled Morales' unilateral order was unconstitutional.
Following the public outcry against his move to oust Velásquez and disrupt the widely-popular CICIG, Morales publicly stated earlier this week that he will respect the decisions of Guatemala's judicial bodies.
"People of Guatemala, as President of the Republic I have and will respect the decisions of the other branches of government. The rule of law should always prevail," Morales wrote on his Facebook account the day before the ruling blocking his order.
In the coming days, Guatemala's Supreme Court will decide whether or not to strip Morales of his official immunity. If the court rules to lift the president's immunity, two thirds of Congress would then need to approve the request for the investigation to move forward.
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Just two years after explosive corruption revelations led to the jailing of a number of top Guatemalan officials, it appears that the investigation into Morales' campaign finances, which he has so far failed to halt, could launch the country back into a political crisis.
Morales' decision to take preemptive action against CICIG by ordering Velásquez's removal may have been the result of lessons learned from his predecessor Otto Pérez Molina. Although Pérez Molina faced a similar crossroads when he resisted renewing the CICIG's mandate, international pressure forced him to cave. Ultimately, the commission uncovered that Pérez Molina was the leader of an intricate embezzlement scheme, revelations that led to his resignation and put him and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti in jail.
"He was in this no-win situation," Mike Allison, a Central America expert at the University of Scranton, told InSight Crime.
Allison added that based on how the situation played out for Pérez Molina it is unsurprising that Morales "put himself in a position of offense."
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Now that Morales' initial offensive action has been blocked, however, it remains to be seen if his immunity will be lifted and what may come to light as a result of the investigation into his campaign finances.
Morales' drastic actions suggest the evidence against him could be damning, potentially involving former military officers who form the base of support for his political party, the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional - FCN).
Allison told InSight Crime that former military officers have long bribed politicians to "deflect away from their own criminal behavior." Former military officers likely provided campaign contributions to Morales and other FCN officials in order to "protect them from prosecution for civil war-era crimes and maybe any criminal involvement they've been in since the war," Allison said.
Morales also still has the support of many local mayors who may have a stake in the outcome of the probes, as the CICIG has also charged local officials with corruption.
With significant pressure coming from inside and outside the country, Morales will likely find little support aside from a base of corrupt officials when it comes to silencing corruption investigations.
"You have citizens in Guatemala that are very angry about corruption and realize the consequences of a government that is corrupt, stealing money and resources that should be invested in health care, the educational system," Allison said.
"The only reason the CICIG is still around is because of domestic pressure from non-governmental organizations and the Guatemalan people, and international pressure," he added. "I don't think those pressures are going to go away."