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Guatemala: impunity as an objective

The President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales, accused of corruption, has decided to cave in. Español

Protest against corruption in Guatemala, 2015. Wikimedia Commons. All Rights Reserved.

When on September 3 2015 Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina had to resign to stand trial for corruption allegations, many citizens imagined that the doors were opening for a quick and peaceful process for the construction democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala.

Three years later, the spectre of an authoritarian regime with a democratic facade looms over the country.

That year was atypical. During the elections that followed the resignation of Pérez Molina, for the first time in five decades the winner was not the candidate who had lost out in the second round of the previous elections.

The country’s last five presidents had to run unsuccessfully a first time and then come up on top at the following elections – which allowed for an extended period of time in which they could build their public image.

This time, Manuel Baldizón, who had lost to Pérez Molina in the second round in 2011, did not even make it to the second round against Sandra Torres, the outgoing president’s former wife and the candidate of the party in government from 2008 to 2012, and Jimmy Morales, a popular comedian totally unknown in the political arena.

The questioning of traditional politicians as a consequence of the outrageous levels of corruption unveiled by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), together with the urban middle classes’ rejection of President Álvaro Colom’s (2008- 20012) former wife, explain the comedian’s easy win in the second round of the elections.

This was in spite of the fact that he presented no government program and was not backed by a team who had even the slightest knowledge of public management.

His election victory was, therefore, a leap in the dark by the voters, who were banking on the (unproven) promise that the candidate was not corrupt nor a thief.

Businessmen and the well-to-do middle classes, who were trying to recover the neoliberal project that had been championed by the now detained Pérez Molina, financed the newly-arrived comedian’s campaign.

Headed since September 2013 by Colombian public prosecutor Iván Velázquez, the CICIG’s investigations, week after week, led to the preventive detention of a wide range of people accused of corruption and misappropriation of public funds.

The CICIG, established by the United Nations in 2006 in response to a request from the Guatemalan State to confront the illegal groups and the clandestine security apparatus (CIACS) operating in the country, had evolved since its creation and now provided advice and technology for prosecuting corruption.

This is how, after providing convincing evidence of illegal acts, former President Pérez Molina was tried and imprisoned, as well as Vice President Roxana Baldetti and a large number of former officials and businessmen.

Headed since September 2013 by Colombian public prosecutor Iván Velázquez, the CICIG’s investigations, week after week, led to the preventive detention of a wide range of people accused of corruption and misappropriation of public funds.

And the comedian, now president, who boasted to be the arch-enemy of corruption, publicly supported the permanence of CICIG in the country for two more terms - that is, until 2021.

However, in one of the many cases investigated and denounced in 2016, the president's brother and son were implicated, and this led to the Commission and the Public Prosecutor's Office (MP) to request their prosecution, which in turn led to their detention.

Although Morales stated that the situation of his family members did not alter his support for the CICIG, he gave television interviews in which he justified their illegal behavior and, from then on, a media and political persecution campaign was unleashed against the head of the MP and of the CICIG, aimed at discrediting both of them and at removing the latter.

All of those who had pending cases with the justice system for crimes of embezzlement and corruption financed and actively participated in this campaign.

To further complicate the situation of the president and his associates, the CICIG found that Morales’s presidential campaign had received undeclared funding – which is considered a crime under the Guatemalan electoral law.

The CICIG and the MP requested the withdrawal of the president’s immunity by Congress and his trial by a competent tribunal.

If the indictment and imprisonment of his son and brother had already put the president at loggerheads with the head of the CICIG, now the request to have his immunity removed resulted, two days later, in the government declaring Velázquez persona non grata in Guatemala and requiring that he leave the country.

The recently appointed Human Rights Ombudsman had to take action by filing a request before the Constitutional Court, and thus managed to prevent the presidential outburst from materializing.

The CICIG’s successes in its investigation of countless corruption cases leading to the prosecution and detention of more than a hundred high and middle-ranking officials, representative and former congressional leaders, as well as prominent building contractors and businessmen from other sectors of the economy, has meant that today the prestige enjoyed by the Commission is almost unanimously shared in the country, while the president and his associates are increasingly rejected – and rejection extends to the representatives in Congress, who have refused to remove the president’s immunity.

The CICIG’s investigations have not stopped. In April this year, another case of illegal financing of the president's party was reported, in which some of the most important businessmen in the country illegally financed the president's campaign through simulated transactions and false invoices. As his party’s legal representative, this crime is imputed to him directly.

The businessmen involved have accepted their responsibility in this case and are currently on probation and being tried. The president, however, has not.

From the early hours on the last day of August, police vehicles were stationed in front of the CICIG’s offices and patrol cars and groups of agents were stationed in front of different media headquarters, in an ostentatious demonstration of strength - unprecedented in the last twenty years.

At noon this day, President Morales, flanked by senior Army and National Police officers, announced his decision not to extend the mandate of the CICIG, which means that the Commission will have to be out of the country by September 3, 2019.

The deployment of police forces and the presence of the military top brass, quite unnecessary for making such an announcement, left a feeling hanging in the atmosphere that either some major police action had failed, or that this was in fact the announcement of the militarization of national security.

The government’s haughty, authoritarian position shows that its aim is none other than to prevent the president from being tried for his alleged faults and crimes, closing any possibility of a negotiated solution to a problem created by a ruler who demonstrates that he considers himself to be above the law.

A few days later, taking advantage of a trip abroad by Commissioner Iván Velázquez, the government announced that he would not be allowed back in.

In response to this announcement, several social organizations staged marches in the Guatemala’s capital city and put up sit-in blocks on the country’s main roads in support of CICIG and against the government's decision.

But if the roadside protests received little police attention, the mobilizations in Guatemala City were monitored and contained by an unusual display of police presence, escorted by heavily armed military personnel.

Overnight, the country and particularly its capital city were militarized, clearly with the aim of frightening the population and inhibiting social mobilization.

However, with great creativity, people in different cities took advantage of the Independence Day celebrations to express their opposition to the president and his decisions, forcing the government to take shelter behind increasingly ostentatious military and police presence.

Responding to the request submitted to allow the Commissioner's return, on the night of Sunday September 16 the Constitutional Court decided favorably, ruling that the order that prevents his return is illegal.

However, the following afternoon, the government, instead of abiding, announced its decision to maintain the prohibition, and demanded that the Secretary General of the United Nations appoint a new commissioner as soon as possible.

The government’s haughty, authoritarian position shows that its aim is none other than to prevent the president from being tried for his alleged faults and crimes, closing any possibility of a negotiated solution to a problem created by a ruler who demonstrates that he considers himself to be above the law and international provisions.

While the most conservative sectors linked directly or indirectly to corruption and crimes against humanity committed in the past are closing ranks with the president to avoid being brought before the courts, different social actors are mobilizing and organizing to prevent the return to an infamous, somber past of blood and corruption.

The government is veering away from diplomacy to resolve the issue, determined to prevent the Commissioner from coming back thinking that this will solve the president's legal problems.

But Guatemalan society is progressing each day in its capacity to mobilize and organize. What will be the outcome? 

This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original here.

About the author

Virgilio Álvarez Aragón es doctor en Sociología y Estudios Comparativos sobre América Latina y el Caribe por la Universidad de Brasilia y FLACSO-Brasil, respectivamente. Es maestro en Sociología por FLACSO-México y Licenciado en Pedagogía y Ciencias de la Educación por la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. Además, es investigador asociado del Instituto de estudios sobre América Latina de la Universidad de Estocolmo.

Virgilio Álvarez Aragón holds a PhD in Sociology and Comparative Studies on Latin America and the Caribbean from the University of Brasilia and FLACSO-Brazil. He holds a Master Degree in Sociology by FLACSO-Mexico and a Bachelor's Degree in Pedagogy and Educational Sciences from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. In addition, he is an associate researcher at the Institute for Latin American Studies at the University of Stockholm. 

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