Guatemala: expulsion of UN investigators drags country down authoritarian path

In the hot seat? Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales. EPA Images

Recent events in Guatemala have raised serious doubts about democracy in the Central American country, suggesting it might be following the increasingly authoritarian path of Nicaragua and Venezuela.

In early January, Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales announced that he would immediately end the mandate of the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), giving its prosecutors 24 hours to leave the country. The CICIG aims to investigate illegal security groups and clandestine organisations in Guatemala, and has led investigations into high-level cases of corruption. Morales, however, accuses the CICIG itself of corruption, and of putting public security and government at risk through selective and partial justice.

The decision to end CICIG’s mandate did not come out of the blue. It is only the latest development in a battle that Morales has waged against the successful anti-corruption body for over a year. On August 31 2018, Morales announced that he would not renew the CICIG’s mandate after September 2019, claiming that it has “sown judicial terror in Guatemala”.

He announced his decision while surrounded by senior armed forces and police personnel – military vehicles and masked soldiers were later deployed to the CICIG’s headquarters in an apparent attempt to intimidate. Since then, acclaimed Colombian prosecutor and head of the CICIG, Iván Velásquez, who was on a visit to the US at the time of Morales’ decision, has been unable to return to Guatemala.

Nevertheless, the UN is adamant that the CICIG continues its work, even with Velásquez out of the country. High-level UN representatives, such as Antonio Guterres and Michelle Bachelet, have strongly criticised Morales’s most recent decision, warning against the erosion of democracy and the rule of law in the country. Other international actors such as the EU and the UK have also expressed their concern – although the US has been more ambiguous in its support for the CICIG.

High-level corruption

The reason for Morales’ fierce opposition to the CICIG appears simple. Initially, Morales supported the CICIG and it has received nothing but praise internationally for its effective and independent investigations and its efforts to strengthen the Guatemalan justice system. And yet this success is also exactly what seems to be worrying the Guatemalan president.

Morales, who was elected president in 2015 and was a comedy actor by profession, won the presidency by promising he was “neither corrupt, nor a thief”. The 2015 election took place in the wake of large-scale public protests against the corruption of the previous president, Otto Pérez Molina, allegations brought to light by CICIG investigations.

Molina has been in jail since September 2015, awaiting trial, while his vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, was handed a 15-year prison sentence last October for her role in a massive fraud case.

Posters of Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales and others spell out the slogan ‘Defend Democracy’ outside the constitutional court of Guatemala. January 9, 2019. EPA Images

Since then, investigations by the CICIG and Guatemala’s public prosecutor’s office have found evidence of illegal donations to Morales’s political party and have launched investigations into some of Morales’s family members. It appears this has caused Morales to turn against the commission.

Rule of law

Worryingly, Morales has also turned against the country’s constitutional court. Over the past 16 months, the court has blocked several government attempts to obstruct the CICIG’s work – including this latest attempt to expel its investigators.

But the government regularly ignores the court’s decisions – and the country’s inspector general’s office recently began actions to impeach several constitutional court judges. Furthermore, several senior members of the national police have been removed, allegedly for having assisted the CICIG. The government seems intent on protecting its immunity from investigation.

On January 14, Morales presented his annual report – during which the streets around the presidential palace were blocked off by a strong police presence. Without mentioning the CICIG, he called for the Guatemalan people to defend their country’s sovereignty.

Ripping up the constitution

Many in Guatemala are extremely concerned. They see Morales’s actions as the greatest threat to democracy and constitutional order since Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict ended in 1996. Many worry that authoritarian tendencies are resurfacing, even more so because congress has been debating laws that would give it powers to facilitate the ousting of officials, including constitutional court judges. Discussions are also being held for reforms to the country’s Law of National Reconciliation, aiming to introduce a blanket amnesty to those accused of serious human rights violations committed during the conflict, including genocide and sexual slavery.

Protests formed in front of the National Palace of Culture, where Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales presented his government report. EPA Images

Thousands of Guatemalans have taken to the streets to protest the government’s actions. Velásquez has also stated that he is willing to resign, if the government retracts its decision to shut down the CICIG.

But neither is likely to change the position of a government whose real concern is the CICIG’s investigations which, since 2007, have exposed 60 criminal organisations and helped to imprison 300 people – including senior officials and executives. The CICIG has played an important role in making Guatemalans aware of the corruption of those who govern them – and only time will tell how far Morales will go to stifle it.

Either way, the international community must pay close attention to Latin America. After a period of democracy and relative stability, the spectre of authoritarianism appears to be returning.