From Anti-Corruption to Democracy in Guatemala

Anti-corruption politics won’t liberate Guatemala from the military, organized crime, and the wealthy. But only elites’ interests will be served by shutting down the country’s attempts to root that corruption out.

Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, April 16, 2016. Presidencia de El Salvador / Wikimedia

In Guatemala, as in the rest of Central America, September 15 is celebrated as Independence Day. In both 2017 and 2018, the “mes de la patria” (“Month of the Fatherland”) has been marked by significant escalation in a simmering political crisis that began in 2015 with a series of street protests that eventually led to the resignation and subsequent arrest of the country’s president and vice-president, Otto Pérez Molina and Roxana Baldetti.

It’s no coincidence that current Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales and the sectors of the military and economic elite that have closed ranks behind him chose this time of year to take drastic action against the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an anti-corruption initiative in the country. September is a month of celebration, in which the street corners and market stalls are filled with Guatemalans selling the light blue and white national flags, and school children march in clanging bands and run with uncovered containers of fire in torch relays — a perfect month for the corrupt elite that runs the country to appeal to nationalism and vestigial anticommunism to arrest the progress against corruption and tamp down growing social movements.

The obstacles that have been thrown in front of CICIG’s work range from reducing the number of police assigned to CICIG to the nonrenewal of CICIG’s mandate and the denial of reentry to the country of the head of the commission, Ivan Velasquez. This campaign against CICIG has coincided with the killing of dozens of leaders of rural indigenous and campesino activist leaders in the last nine months — portents of a return to the militarized, corrupt, repressive Guatemalan state that terrorized its citizens in the years before the 1996 Peace Accords that ended thirty-six years of civil war.

CICIG and Jimmy Morales

CICIG was created in 2006 through an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government to work alongside and strengthen the country’s institutions in their struggle against corruption, impunity, and organized crime. The current crisis was precipitated by President Morales (himself the subject of three separate investigations and recommendations for prosecution by CICIG), who announced on August 29 that he would not be renewing the CICIG’s mandate, set to run out in September 2019 because of its supposed politicization and threats to Guatemala’s sovereignty and national unity.

For much of its early history, CICIG had minimal impact on entrenched networks of organized crime and corruption. These networks, encompassing government officials, members of an oligarchy that can trace back their ancestry to the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, organized crime syndicates, and current and former military officers, were long thought to be untouchable givens of life in Guatemala. Massive increases in violence and migration during the first two decades of the 2000s are just two symptoms of the destabilizing and impoverishing effects of these networks and official corruption on Guatemalan society.

The initial weaknesses of CICIG were overcome by legal reforms in 2006 and 2009 that gave security forces the ability to engage in undercover investigations and allowed CICIG to develop and utilize “colaborador eficaz,” (similar to plea bargains in the Anglo-American legal system in criminal investigations. Perhaps just as importantly, beginning in 2013, the MP was headed by two dogged prosecutors, Claudia Paz y Paz and Thelma Aldana, and later Ivan Velásquez, a Colombian prosecutor who dramatically increased the impact of CICIG and the MP.

Paz y Paz successfully prosecuted gang leaders and the politically connected leaders of drug cartels as well as winning a genocide verdict against former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt for his military campaigns against the Maya-Ixil of northwest Guatemala and jailing the murderer of Bishop Gerardi, the author of the Catholic Church’s human rights report that pinned most atrocities during the thirty-six-year civil war on the army, who was brutally bludgeoned to death in his residence two days after the release of the report.

The biggest moment of CICIG’s history came with the “La Linea” case in 2015 that implicated then-President Otto Perez Molina (himself a military commander in the Ixil region) in a massive corruption scheme wherein the government was defrauding taxpayers out of millions of dollars annually. The scheme was a bribery ring in which businesses importing goods into the country would negotiate a lower import tax by bribing Guatemalan tax officials.

According to reports from the Washington Office on Latin America and investigative journalists, La Linea was actually an old military network created to control arms traffic in the country during the civil war that morphed into a corruption ring around the 1996 peace accords signing. The constant revelations from CICIG and the MP in summer 2015 were important because for the first time, Guatemalans were putting names to what was long rumored to be true: an entrenched elite was operating in the shadows (“poderes clandestinos”) to defraud the state and the Guatemalan people.

For the first time since a miners’ strike and bus-fare protests in the early 1980s, Guatemalans took to the streets to in massive protests Perez Molina. For roughly twenty straight weeks, thousands of protesters gathered in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City. These protests were largely fueled by social media and young members of the urban middle class who had grown up since the signing of the peace accords with no memory of the repression of the army that eviscerated left, community, and labor organizations in the country. On September 3, Perez Molina resigned and was arrested.

The 2015 presidential elections were a confused affair, with presumed front-runner Manuel Baldizon finishing a surprising third to perennial candidate (and ex-wife of former president Alvaro Colom) Sandra Torres and a political newcomer running on the banner of a completely unknown party, former comedian and TV personality Jimmy Morales. Morales won the subsequent runoff in a landslide.

Subsequent investigations by CICIG and Insight Crime reveal that after the arrest of Perez Molina, Morales became the consensus candidate of the oligarchy, receiving massive amounts of illicit, unreported and unaccounted-for funds to fuel his campaign. Morales’s party, the FCN-Nacion, reported only $640,000 worth of campaign expenditures, while successful presidential campaigns normally cost between $7–12 million, according to Insight Crime.

Initially, the Morales administration seemed to hold some promise: while he filled many cabinet and executive-branch posts with unqualified friends, he did appoint some reformist, good government, and even leftist cabinet ministers in key posts. Morales famously announced in a TV interview, while looking directly at the camera and ignoring the insistence of the interviewer of the need for a commercial break, that he hoped the CICIG would investigate him and his political party.

“Let me take advantage of this moment here and say to the gentlemen of CICIG, investigate us, please,” he told the cameras.

The turning point for CICIG and Morales came in 2017, when his son and brother were recommended for prosecution by CICIG for relatively minor offenses not connected to campaign financing. Further investigations revealed more and more irregularities in the finances of Morales and the ruling party he represented, irregularities that CICIG and the MP characterized as a vast web of illicit campaign financing that touched every corner of Guatemala’s political class and economic elite — a condition Velásquez referred to as Guatemala’s “original sin.”

Morales and the congressional deputies associated with his party turned against the CICIG and publicly surrounded themselves with the individuals associated with some of the murkiest sectors of the military and oligarchy, pushing out the last of the “professionals” from his cabinet by the end of 2017. Most of Congress and the Morales’s administration’s energies in 2018 have been spent campaigning against CICIG.

The appointment of Enrique Degenhart as Interior Minister was a clear message from Morales about his intentions towards CICIG and its allies in the police and MP. Degenhart removed the police detail that protected CICIG staff, removed the leadership of the National Police, and began to militarize and de-professionalize the police. In recent weeks, Morales and other members of his cabinet have even escalated rhetoric towards the Guatemalan courts, leading to questions over whether they would obey court decisions that they perceived as not in their interests.

The twists and turns of the anti-CICIG campaign befit the baroque nature of Guatemalan politics. The campaign included:

  • a million-dollar lobbying effort in the US Congress, resulting in supportive statements and actions from the likes of Rand Paul and Marco Rubio (before he turned his attention to coup planning in Venezuela he temporarily froze US funding for CICIG),
  • the elevation of a bizarre and relatively insignificant case of Russian nationals who were prosecuted and convicted on the recommendation of CICIG for falsifying passports as evidence of Putin’s role as CICIG’s puppet master,
  • Morales trying to declare Velásquez persona non grata via recorded video released at 3:30 PM on a Sunday afternoon in September 2017, sparking court rulings and street protests that escalated when days later Congress attempted to legalize any and all forms of “campaign finance,”
  • an attempt to expel the Swedish ambassador (Sweden is the second largest funder of CICIG) for supposed “insults to Guatemala” for saying that the culture of corruption in Guatemala can be uprooted and changed.

Behind all this, the enemies of CICIG engaged in a sustained campaign (in part through social media trolls or “netcenteros” as they are referred to in Guatemala) to change the perception of and public discourse around the work of CICIG. Instead of viewing CICIG’s work as a nonpartisan, legalistic anti-corruption effort, this campaign seeks to tag CICIG as part of an ideologically suspect effort to usurp Guatemalan sovereignty in the name of a vaguely socialist, anti-family, anti-traditional values agenda of a global left represented by the cosmopolitan bureaucrats of the UN, the European diplomatic corps, and NGOs working in human rights.

The events of August 31 represented a significant escalation of anti-CICIG actions on the part of the Morales administration and nationalist rhetoric. The last straw for Morales and anti-CICIG forces in Guatemala was the announcement that CICIG would train investigators from the Guatemalan Election Commission to better detect and denounce illegal campaign financing in upcoming national elections.

On that Friday morning, Morales announced the nonrenewal of CICIG’s mandate surrounded by uniformed military officers while armored Jeeps (donated by the US) surrounded the CICIG’s offices in the upscale Zone 14 of the capital — jeeps that then drove by the US Embassy for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, that Interior Minister Degenhart and others quite disingenuously claimed was a normal anti-organized crime operation. Guatemalans who know their history spoke of echoes of Jorge Serrano Elias’s “self-coup” in 1993 in which Serrano-Elias suspended the constitution and dissolved Congress and the Guatemalan Supreme Court, ostensibly to fight corruption.

Serrano Elias was ultimately unsuccessful and had to flee the country after ten days. While rumors abound that the US Embassy prevented a full “self-coup,” the ambiguous and tepid response of the US Embassy and the State Department makes for an even more uncertain situation.

This and subsequent Morales speeches and speeches by members of his cabinet, including an announcement that Velásquez would be barred from entering Guatemala because of his threat to public safety, took on ever darker tones of protecting sovereignty and Guatemalan values from those who would seek to sow division and discord.

So, it was no coincidence that Morales chose the start of independence celebrations to announce, one year early, that he was not going to renew the mandate of CICIG. It was no coincidence that he made the announcement surrounded by uniformed military officers in a scene so obviously reminiscent of the pronouncements of the genocidal regimes of the armed conflict. It was also no coincidence that he chose to make his announcement on the eve of a March for Life convened by an alliance of Catholic and Evangelical churches to protest against a child-protection law that would allow for abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or pregnancy in extremely young minors, and in support of an ideological stew of a law that would criminalize abortion (in similar ways to neighboring El Salvador), reaffirm bans on marriage equality, and ban teaching of “gender and sexuality” in schools.

However coordinated or uncoordinated the March for Life was with the Morales administration’s efforts to delegitimize and remove CICIG, the rhetoric of the march slots right into the narrative of a heroic defense of Guatemalan values and people from all enemies, internal and external.

Democratic Spring and the Limits of Anti-Corruption Strategies

The Morales administration’s seemingly (for now) successful campaign against CICIG is troubling for several reasons, not the least of which is that it threatens to turn back the clock on the past five years of expanding democratization in Guatemala that culminated in the 2015 protests and similar protests in 2017. A slow-rolling self-coup that retrenches the same corrupt elite and re-militarizes the Guatemalan government has all the potential to demobilize and demoralize the newly politicized young urban middle class “hijos de la plaza” (children of the central square) and the reinvigorated public university student union that has retaken its traditional position at the center of left politics in recent years.

These young people have been at the forefront of massive mobilization at the University of San Carlos, the public university in Guatemala that was a traditional site of left politics until the repression of the 1980s, a new political party that the most procedurally democratic and transparent one in recent memory, and the emergence of a broad progressive, democratic culture of political groups and debate in Guatemala City, the nation’s capital, and Quetaltenango (Xela), the largest city in the indigenous Western Highlands.

The current crisis reveals the limits of anti-corruption as a tool for social, political, and economic reform or liberation. Anti-corruption is not effective on its own in ensuring democratic control of politics, society, and economics. In a country like Guatemala, where the state and organized crime are co-opted and managed by a long-entrenched oligarchy that operates Guatemala as its own personal finca (plantation), CICIG’s anti-corruption efforts are valuable in that they open spaces for social movements to operate more freely. Its efforts to break the oligarchy’s grip on power by striking at illicit campaign financing has opened spaces for burgeoning social movements among indigenous and campesino communities.

These movements, which emerged from the (oftentimes literal) ashes of the violence of the civil war have coalesced around a radically democratic platform of constitutional reform that would move Guatemala away from a centralized republic to a pluri-national democracy, renationalization of privatized public goods like the electricity grid, and a ban on megaprojects like mines or hydroelectric dams without previous consultation with affected indigenous communities.

It is no coincidence that the consolidation of this platform and various indigenous and campesino organizations into a nascent political party has coincided with the murders of at least twenty activists and leaders in rural communities across the country, a wave of repression that went into high gear after a speech by Morales in March that was sharply and ominously critical of one of the largest indigenous organizations, CODECA, by name. The urban middle class that participated in the 2015 protests have organized into different political tendencies like Movimiento Semilla, with political programs that are perhaps less leftist then those of aforementioned indigenous and rural organizations like CODECA, but still strongly democratic and anti-oligarchy.

Good government and anti-corruption efforts can easily be co-opted by neoliberal privatizers, and the siren song of public private partnerships can easily further authoritarian politic and economic arrangements. The key struggle in the next weeks and months in Guatemala is not just to defend the work of CICIG against the sustained right-wing nationalist campaign being waged against it, but also to connect it to the struggle for economic and political democracy.

It is clear that Morales and his allies in Congress are taking up the right-wing populist playbook of appeals to traditional values around reproductive rights, marriage, and gender roles, along with alleged conspiracies by global elites to maintain their power and control. Marches and protests are being met with more overt militarization than at any point in recent years, backing nationalist rhetoric with guns and armored cars. The message of the pro-CICIG protests of indigenous authorities of the communities of the state Sololá, the forty-eight cantons of the Department of Totonicapán, the rural organizations CUC and CODECA, and urban organizations like Movimento Semilla, Justicia Ya, and the reinvigorated union of students at the public University of San Carlos is that CICIG and anti-corruption will not liberate Guatemala on its own from the military, organized crime, and the oligarchy. But without the tool of CICIG, that liberation will not come easily.