In the wake of the far-reaching Odebrecht scancal that has rocked Latin America, it is clear that – despite efforts internationally to curtail its influence – impunity still dominates South and Central American politics.

On 13 February, Guatemala’s ex-President, Álvaro Colom, and the country’s former finance minister – and Oxfam chairman – Juan Alberto Fuentes, were arrested for their involvement in a suspect public transport deal made back in 2009.

Colom had enjoyed the privilege of immunity owing to his position as a special representative for the Organization of American States (OAS) on a support mission in Honduras, targeting corruption and impunity.

Together, the US, the UN-affiliated International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG), and other organisations are tightening their grip in the fight against impunity by putting pressure on surrounding countries such as Colombia, who are keen to prove that they do not need the mandate of international organisations to impart justice and eliminate corruption.

Corruption unpunished

Guatemala’s long history of impunity stems from an internal armed conflict waged between 1960 and 1996. A large number of paramilitary forces were formed as part of the counterinsurgency apparatus against leftist rebels, with groups of heavily-armed national police agents operating out of army and police installations. In turn, right-wing government-sponsored terrorist organisations were allegedly responsible for many disappearances and abductions.

efraín rios montt guatemala dictator
Efraín Ríos Montt (military president of Guatemala 1982-83) testifies during his trial for crimes against humanity. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

In 1999, the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala declared that counterinsurgency was characterised by indiscriminate violence against civilians and rural populations, and “public displays of horror and blatant impunity for government perpetrators”.

However, the Guatemalan state failed to dismantle these various groups after the signing of a peace accord in 1996, and so these have morphed into complex criminal organisations, infiltrating democratic institutions in an attempt to reconfigure Guatemalan politics.

Guatemala’s peace process has widely been considered a success in policy-making circles, as its development programme modernised the economy and national infrastructure with international support. However, further support from international organisations was needed in order to comprehensively dismantle criminal networks

The peace was not always popular. Associate politics professor at the University of York, Nicola Short, describes the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights from the peace accords as “technologies for the (re)construction of neoliberalism”.

With peace came change

Nonetheless, in December 2006, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was signed into being by the UN. It began work in September 2007, charged with strengthening the rule of law by providing technical assistance to legal institutions, and making recommendations to the government for the adoption of new public policies.

Since it was inaugurated, CICIG has restructured the Analysis Unit of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, introduced a witness protection program and proposed the legal authorisation of certain forms of surveillance and the use of undercover agents.

In doing so, it has played a crucial role in building the state’s capacity to gather information needed to design a criminal prosecution scheme. Indeed, as a result of a CICIG investigation, in August 2010 arrest warrants were issued for high profile officials in President Óscar Berger’s administration (2004-2008) for their role in hiring hitmen to carry out the extrajudicial killings of 10 prisoners.

In September 2014, CICIG broke up a corruption network operated from jail by prisoner Bryon Lima Oliva. Both the director of the prison system, Édgar Josué Camargo, and the ex-deputy director, Edy Fisher, were charged.

La Linea crossed

CICIG’s most notable contribution to the bitter fight against Guatemala’s corruption and impunity epidemic came a year later in 2015, when the ‘La Linea’ scandal emerged. The plot involved a high-level government conspiracy to fraudulently skim off import duty revenue, and CICIG – working alongside the Public Ministry – accused 22 government officials of involvement in the network.

Among the accused was Juan Carlos Monzón, secretary to Vice-President Roxana Baldetti and, after widespread protests, President Otto Pérez Molina was implicated and later imprisoned. The La Línea episode saw an estimated US$120m embezzled from government accounts.

Nonetheless, Pérez Molina was the first president in Guatemalan history to resign over a corruption scandal: a peculiar legacy for a country so protective of its political establishment with its widespread impunity provisions.

A comic turn

Then came the election of Jimmy Morales, who evolved from television comedian to politician in the space of just a few days as the 2015 presidential elections loomed, and many people were astonished by his sudden choice to run for the presidency. Morales’s big break came after Pérez Molina was arrested; and a combination of popular anger and military support seemed to lift him to the presidency.

Morales vowed to lift the endemic of corruption by running on a platform of conservative values and good governance with his slogan, Ni corrupto, ni ladrón (“Neither corrupt, nor a thief”).

However, he did deny that a genocide of the Ixil Maya indigenous group took place during the Guatemalan military government’s counterinsurgency, involving the mass killings and disappearances of Mayans.

Exhumation Maya genocide, Guatemala
Queqchí people carrying the exhumed remains of victims of the Mayan genocide in Alta Verapaz department, Guatemala. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

CICIG becomes the enemy

In August 2017, Morales was criticised for seeking to impede CICIG after it began investigating claims that his party “took illegal donations, including from drug-traffickers”, and asked congress to strip him of immunity from prosecution.

It was alleged that Morales had been elected due to some US$800,000 in unaccounted for contributions being used to fund his election campaign. In response, he declared the chief of the commission, Iván Velásquez, a persona non-grata and attempted to expel him from the country. Explaining his move, Morales said, “I am not even against the CICIG. Is a machete good or bad? It depends on who is wielding it.”

In September 2017, the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court ruled that Morales may be investigated for alleged illegal campaign financing, and that his government could not legally exile Velásquez.

International condemnation

Despite UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres throwing his support behind Velásquez, the Guatemalan congress voted for Morales to retain immunity – however his authority as president had been seriously damaged. Further criticism followed from the US and EU.

Morales’ defenders argued that CICIG was overstepping its mandate and hurting investment by going after businessmen. Álvaro Montenegro, the head of anti-corruption organisation Justicia Ya, said in September last year that, “members of congress are making a pact with corrupt officials now that they themselves are afraid of being investigated for illegal electoral financing”.

While pro-business lobbying is unlikely to deter CICIG in its ultimate ambitions, the organisation can certainly be questioned as to whether it is going too far in pursing and enforcing Guatemala’s laws. It is, after all, a largely foreign entity dictating values to an entrenched political class.

What next for Guatemala?

With the standing of CICIG weakened following congress’ decision to back Morales, it is likely that the president will look to secure his authority, likely with regard to Guatemala’s longstanding claim to Belizean territory. CICIG, meanwhile, will continue its work, and it is unlikely that Guatemala could have achieved such gains in the fight against impunity without the international assistance it as received.

Now that he is in a more stable position, Morales has pledged to hold a referendum on the territorial dispute with Belize  on 15 April 2018. The outcome of the referendum will offer a gauge on his popularity, and likely determine whether any more issues relating to impunity will arise during his presidency.


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