Imprisoned in the squalid barracks of a military base, leaders of the once untouchable Guatemalan elite are planning their return to power. Previous presidents and ministers, senators, judges, and business owners, all implicated in a long-standing fight against injury and lobbying to undermine the anti-corruption movement that puts them in prison. The target is a team of international prosecutors, sponsored by the United Nations, which has led one of the most effective battle against corruption in Latin America and set an example for an area struggling to curb the bribery that is at the root of so much poverty and crime. The committee, along with Guatemalan prosecutors, worked to reinforce institutions in the weak democracy that arose after years of military rule and the 36-year civil war that Guatemala waged.
The suspects have a strong ally in the president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales. He campaigned as a reformer, only to turn sides after prosecutors suspected himself and his family of crimes. Then, the offensive has intensified, undermining the country’s rule of law, said Iván Velásquez, the panel’s president, which is called Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity but better known by its Spanish acronym Cicig.
A June presidential election, the prisoners and their supporters on the outside conspire to turn the vote on their way to make sure Cicig is taken offline. Cicig has been prosecuting more than 100 cases since its establishment a dozen years ago, bringing charges to some 700 people involved in more than 60 criminal networks and gaining the confidence of Guatemalans, who have taken to the streets to protect themselves.
Cicig is steadily winning the support of well over half the population during a presidential campaign in which surveys show that voters harbor intense mistrust in their government and politicians. If Guatemala’s latest anti-corruption campaign is rolled back, the shock waves will likely extend all the way to the US, where policy in the area has centered on preventing the influx of drugs and preventing migrants fleeing violence and poverty from migration. The obstacles facing prosecutors here show how fragile these anti-corruption advances can be not just in Guatemala but in most of Latin America. Growing public discontent with corruption and bad governance helped to strengthen investigations that deposed presidents and imprisoned CEOs but also created strong opposition from power brokers that were established. Politicians, business leaders and the military in Guatemala have been making common cause against the agency. They maintain that foreigners’ participation in Guatemalan investigations undermines the independence of the government.
In the past years, the Ministry of the Interior has undermined the leadership of the national police, throwing aside American-trained skilled commanders. In Congress, a plan to grant amnesty to military officers for war crimes only needs to be accepted by a final vote.
Cicig’s presence, along with providing professional advice, establishing professional courts and introducing new legislation to accelerate investigations, enhanced the independence of the attorney general and acted as a shield against political pressure. The prosecutions show that Guatemalans a picture of their country as a place where payoffs and fraud were part of making government business and costing lives for corruption, as in one case involving the selling of defective dialysis equipment to government hospitals. In 2015, Ms. Aldana at the time sued the president, Otto Pérez Molina, and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, with both accusations being dismissed running a customs fraud scheme. For months Guatemalans were filling the streets in protest.
The number of cases often clogged the courts and confined defendants to the military base to wait months, even years, in pre-trial detention. Despite lawsuits against influential figures, political networks have stayed in place in Congress and in local government. First, the family of Mr. Morales came under investigation by Cicig. Second, the son of the president and his brother were charged with fraud, which they refuse to accept. Then Cicig started to expose schemes for illicit campaign financing. The president, who is the only person with the power to revoke his mandate, was being investigated. So, did some of the most powerful entrepreneurs in the world. The government and critics of Cicig in Congress, where more than 20 percent of legislator’s face allegations of corruption, have managed to weaken the U.S. commitment to the commission by fostering support within the Trump administration and undermining professionals from the State Department who had previously supported Cicig. As when the elections approach, the passion that pushed Guatemalans down the streets four years ago to protest injustice has been substituted by the realization that it would take much more than a new president to disrupt the power structures.
If the Guatemalan government feels it can keep defying the trial, it will obstruct a return of Cicig’s foreign workers, who left the country for their safety. Without Cicig’s lawyers, the office of the attorney general could struggle with the commission to try out the cases it has created.