Former Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales' dismantling of an anti-corruption commission has come back to haunt him, as prosecutors are asking that he be stripped of immunity so that they can then decide if he committed an illegal act by ousting the commission's director.
On April 21, Guatemala's Attorney General's Office submitted a petition to revoke Morales' immunity, stating that he violated constitutional norms in 2017 by announcing the removal of Iván Velásquez, the then-head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). Morales declared Velásquez persona non grata and barred him from entering the country.
During his time in office (2016-2020), Morales became an ardent opponent of the CICIG -- the United Nations-backed judicial body that led one of the region's most successful anti-corruption drives -- after it investigated him and his political party for suspected illicit campaign financing.
The petition came days after top anti-corruption prosecutor Stuardo Campo stated that he was set to file a request to strip Morales of immunity but was transferred before he could do so. Morales has immunity as a member of the Central American Parliament (Parlamento Centroamericano -- Parlacen), a position he has held since leaving office in 2020.
According to Campo, Morales violated Guatemala's agreement with the CICIG by expelling Velásquez after the country's Constitutional Court ruled that he could not do so. Speaking to InSight Crime, Campo explained that Morales is facing multiple ongoing investigations led by the Attorney General's Office, including a possible role in the allegedly fraudulent allocation of a major highway construction project.
In 2019, Morales pushed Guatemala to the brink of a constitutional crisis when he unilaterally terminated the CICIG’s mandate and expelled the commission from the country.
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Morales losing his immunity over his efforts to oust the CICIG would be a comeuppance of sorts, given that he orchestrated the commission's dismantling once it began to investigate him.
Created in December 2006, the CICIG strengthened local prosecutors’ investigative abilities and helped the Attorney General’s Office send a former Guatemalan president and vice president to jail. It also prosecuted nearly 700 people, including ministers, legislators, judges and businessmen.
But the CICIG was soon targeted by those it was investigating, especially Morales. The commission launched an inquiry into his party's finances, as well as investigating Morales' brother and son for alleged acts of corruption. Both men were arrested in January 2017 on allegations of fraud but were later absolved of the charge.
Morales took his crusade against the CICIG all the way to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In an August 2018 speech, he called the commission a "threat to peace" and accused it of sowing "judicial terror" in Guatemala.
Morales had previously announced that he would not be renewing the CICIG's mandate and it finally shut down in September 2019.
"Thank God we got rid of them," Morales later told supporters.
While Morales' expulsion of CICIG Commissioner Velásquez could yet trouble him, Guatemala's Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia -- CSJ) has blocked previous attempts to strip his immunity, both during and after his presidency.
This back-and-forth over Morales is part of a larger fight between Guatemala's anti-impunity forces and elites seeking to undermine them.
For example, Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad – FECI) recently issued arrest warrants for political operators accused of influence-peddling in the selection process for key judicial posts.
But, at the same time, Guatemala's congress has sought to appoint high-court judges with a history of shielding political elites from investigations and who have even been accused of corruption themselves.
Congress has also refused to swear in Gloria Porras, a magistrate re-elected to the country's Constitutional Court but whose rulings have roiled the government. She has said she is being attacked because of her fight for rule of law and for combating corruption.
The CICIG may have vanished but the spirit of its battles against corruption lives on.