WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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27 Aug 2019 | Commentary

Fact Sheet: the CICIG’s Legacy in Fighting Corruption in Guatemala

After 12 historic and productive years, the mandate of Guatemala’s unique anti-corruption commission, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish acronym), expires exactly a week from today: September 3, 2019.

Since 2007, the CICIG has supported corruption probes that resulted in the indictment of Guatemala’s former president and vice president; the prosecution of dozens of prominent government officials such as a Supreme Court magistrate, two former presidents, members of Congress, and government ministers; the ouster of more than a dozen corrupt judges and thousands of police officers; and the detention of powerful drug traffickers. 

Because it is considered one of the most successful mechanisms for combating corruption and organized crime, the organization has earned praise from the United Nations, the European Union, and Guatemalan civil society groups. It has also traditionally attracted bipartisan support in the United States. 

The CICIG also came under attack from powerful forces who sought to undermine its investigations and impact. The CICIG prevailed against many efforts to stop it up until this year when Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales, himself under investigation for corruption, sought to undermine its ability to work and refused to extend its mandate.

The following Q&A provides facts and context essential for understanding the CICIG’s role and successes in the fight against corruption and organized criminal networks in Guatemala—and what the future holds for anti-corruption efforts in the country after the CICIG expires. 

1.) How did the CICIG come about?

The anti-corruption commission was born out of prolonged lobbying efforts by Guatemalan civil society groups, concerned about the threat that criminal networks deeply entrenched in the country’s institutions posed to Guatemala’s fragile democracy following the 1996 peace agreement. In response to this advocacy, in 2006, the Guatemalan government asked the United Nations (UN) to help establish an initiative that would assist local institutions in investigating, prosecuting, and ultimately dismantling powerful, post-conflict criminal networks

By 2007, the result was a novel setup: the CICIG, an independent investigative body operating under Guatemalan law and reliant on the local justice system. The idea was that Guatemala was not simply outsourcing its justice system, but rather relied on the expertise of the CICIG to work hand-in-hand with the country’s prosecutors and police, helping to build their capacities in the process. 

2.) What has been the impact of the CICIG’s work in Guatemala since its founding in 2007?

The CICIG assisted in filing more than 120 cases in the Guatemalan justice system, implicating more than 1,540 people, with some 660 people currently facing charges or another type of legal process, according to the CICIG. According to the U.S. State Department, some 200 current or former government officials are among those facing charges. 

Joint investigations by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG also resulted in more than 400 convictions (including the former vice president, sentenced last year to 15 years in prison on corruption charges in one of four major CICIG-backed investigations). Overall, this represents an 85 percent success rate in resolving cases, the CICIG has said

To be clear, the CICIG did not have prosecutorial powers, nor could it independently carry out raids, arrests, or wire taps. Upon gaining the approval of a judge, it was able to initiate and collaborate in investigations and participate as a querellante adhesivo (co-plaintiff) in the cases within its mandate that the Attorney General’s Office decided to pursue in court. Again, the aim of the commission was to bolster, rather than supplant, the capacity and legitimacy of national institutions. 

While its work in investigating high-impact cases has drawn the most attention, the CICIG has played a fundamental role in promoting important reforms to Guatemala’s justice system. By doing so, the commission helped initiate a new era of sophisticated and effective investigations by Guatemalan prosecutors. 

Prior to the CICIG, Guatemalan institutions didn’t use modern basic investigative techniques, such as plea bargaining with cooperating witnesses or supervised wiretapping. Under the terms of its mandate, the CICIG could propose public policies, including legislative, judicial, and institutional reforms. Over a 12-year period, it did so 34 times, pushing for legal reforms that granted prosecutors authority to use phone records, lawful surveillance, and plea deals in criminal investigations. 

The CICIG also played a role in the creation of special courts in the capital where judges can be better protected from organized crime, the implementation of new methodologies for investigating criminal networks, as well as the establishment of a special investigations unit, a criminal analysis unit, and a witness protection program. So long as these measures continue to receive proper protection and support, many of the reforms promoted by the CICIG will prove to be a long-term game-changer for Guatemala’s justice system. 

The commission’s contributions to ensuring respect for the rule of law have earned it the support of the Guatemalan people: polls from 2017 show that 70 percent of the population has confidence in CICIG and 57.8 percent in the Attorney General’s office, one of the highest levels of trust for a local institution.

Numerous outside studies have confirmed the reach of the CICIG’s impact. According to International Crisis Group, the CICIG contributed to an important sustained reduction of Guatemala’s homicide rate, which fell from 45.1 per 100,000 in 2009, the most violent year in the country’s recent history, to 26.1 in 2017, and helped reduce the impunity rate for violent crimes from 98 percent in 2008 to 87 percent in 2016. (For another look at the CICIG’s impact in Guatemala, see WOLA’s 2015 report). 

The commission’s contributions to ensuring respect for the rule of law have earned it the support of the Guatemalan people: polls from 2017 show that 70 percent of the population has confidence in CICIG and 57.8 percent in the Attorney General’s office, one of the highest levels of trust for a local institution. At the same time, public trust in the judicial system’s capacity to prosecute criminals doubled in 2017 compared to previous years.

The CICIG has also inspired other models in Central America. Honduras currently has its own anti-corruption body, the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), which is modeled on the CICIG. Likewise, El Salvador’s new president is reportedly in talks with the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS) about establishing an anti-corruption initiative.  

3.) Given the CICIG’s successful track record, why is its mandate being allowed to expire? 

Throughout four presidencies in Guatemala, the anti-corruption efforts of the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office have long faced pushback from sectors within and outside of the government. Many have sought to undermine the anti-corruption agenda through smear campaigns, lobbyists, and legislation aimed at protecting corrupt officials and influential individuals from prosecution, among other strategies. 

But it was a confluence of recent events—investigations into illicit campaign financing that implicated both political and business elites, a resistant Guatemalan Congress, and the withdrawal of strong U.S. support—that created a political storm, resulting in President Jimmy Morales’s much criticized and arguably unconstitutional decision to shut down the CICIG.  

Morales won Guatemala’s presidency in 2016, with backing from the conservative military sector that has repeatedly challenged efforts to strengthen the rule of law in the country. Still, as Morales took office, he initially promised to extend the CICIG’s mandate to 2021.

However, members of Guatemala’s business sector—including a powerful business coalition known as CACIF, by its Spanish acronym—began seeking ways to push back against the CICIG, after numerous business elites were implicated in multimillion-dollar corruption probes starting in 2015. Members of the country’s economic elite ended up hiring a DC lobbying firm, seeking to influence Members of Congress and Trump administration officials.

At the same time, Morales himself ended up facing allegations of accepting some $1 million in illegal campaign donations, in an investigation led by the Attorney General’s Office with support from the CICIG. Morales’ son and brother were also arrested in January 2017 on corruption charges tied to the misuse of public funds, in a separate case. (They were recently cleared of charges in a ruling that convicted 11 other people; by the court’s judgement, Morales’ family had misappropriated public funds, but had not committed fraud).

On three separate occasions, the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG requested that the president’s immunity against prosecution be lifted. However, with about one in five members of Guatemala’s Congress under investigation for corruption, Congress refused to comply with this order, in defiance of the Guatemala’s highest court.

All this intensified the pushback against the CICIG, eventually leading to Morales unilaterally announcing in January 2019 that he would not renew the CICIG’s mandate, arguing that the commission is unconstitutional and a risk to national security, among other assertions. The UN strongly rejected Morales’s decision, which was later deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court amidst large citizen protests—however, the Morales government has not complied with the court’s ruling.

This loss of support from the United States, Guatemala’s dominant political and economic ally, facilitated efforts to attack and discredit the CICIG, and created the space needed for Guatemala’s old political order to reassert themselves.

Throughout this political earthquake, the Trump administration failed to show much interest in providing consistent, strong support for efforts to strengthen rule of law in Guatemala. The Trump administration’s position was in stark contrast to the Obama and Bush administrations, both of which played an important role in signaling to Guatemala’s political leadership that facilitating the CICIG’s work was a top priority. This loss of support from the United States, Guatemala’s dominant political and economic ally, facilitated efforts to attack and discredit the CICIG, and created the space needed for Guatemala’s old political order to reassert themselves.

Reporting by various media outlets—including Foreign Policy and Guatemala’s Nomada—indicate that the Trump administration may have diminished the traditional public, strong support of Guatemala’s anti-corruption efforts, in exchange for Guatemala becoming the second country in the world to open an Embassy in Jerusalem. Along with the Trump administration’s efforts earlier this year to suspend foreign aid to the Northern Triangle region, the dialing back of U.S. support for the CICIG is a reflection of the administration’s changing approach on U.S.-Central America policy.

4.) What happens now to anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, as the CICIG mandate comes to an end?

There are both short-term and long-term concerns. In the short-term, a major uncertainty is what will happen to the special prosecutor’s office that investigates impunity (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI).

Alongside the CICIG, the FECI was instrumental in leading some of Guatemala’s biggest anti-corruption probes. Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office has said that the FECI will maintain operations, but it is unclear what kind of support, guarantees of continuity, and protections the special prosecutor’s office will actually receive. The Morales administration has previously taken actions to debilitate the FECI; for example, by withdrawing experienced police investigators that worked with both the unit and the CICIG. Many FECI investigators are currently facing what they say are dozens of spurious lawsuits and other forms of judicial harassment, intended to impede their work.

Another major short-term concern is what will happen to the Guatemalan investigators that previously worked under the CICIG—including lawyers, forensic accountants, and other forensic specialists. Once the CICIG mandate ends, they should be fully incorporated into the Attorney General’s Office and continue working on any ongoing investigations . If these investigators are not integrated fully into the Attorney General’s Office, it would be a tremendous loss given their expertise and skills.

Other crucial concerns include the future of the cases that CICIG worked on and are currently before the courts, and the security of judges, Constitutional Court magistrates, and prosecutors who have had a role in the anti-corruption efforts.

Over the next five months, the big question moving forward is whether the CICIG’s exit from Guatemala will embolden President Jimmy Morales and his allies in Guatemala’s Congress to double down on previous initiatives seeking to weaken rule of law.

Morales leaves office in January 2020, but there have already been efforts by members of Congress to push forward a much-criticized bill that would grant amnesty to accused war criminals. It also remains to be seen whether Morales and his congressional allies will take up a previous bill, which would make it harder for government officials under investigation to be officially stripped of immunity. Another area of concern is the ongoing attacks against the Constitutional Court magistrates who have previously ruled in favor of the CICIG. 

In the longer-term, while president-elect Alejandro Giammattei, an ally of Morales, has talked of setting up a national anti-corruption commission, his political background raises questions about his commitment to doing so. Members of his political party include ex-military officials with shadowy pasts; many of them were stridently anti-CICIG. Giammattei himself has explicitly voiced a lack of support for the CICIG.  

5.) Why is it critical that the fight against corruption continue in Guatemala?  

Given Guatemala’s current levels of poverty and inequality, unabated corruption will only continue to make the country a place where there are more reasons to leave than to stay.

Additionally, the more frail its state institutions, the more likely it is that already-powerful organized crime groups can further expand their influence across Guatemala. They can do this in the same way they’ve been doing it since the 1990s: partnering with other transnational organized crime networks, funding political candidates, co-opting military and police officials, and killing or displacing anyone who gets in the way of their business interests. The first time that a Guatemalan court ever indicted a major drug trafficker was in 2014—should the country’s institutions deteriorate further, criminal groups would encounter even fewer challenges to their activities.

Over the past two years, the erosion of U.S. support for anti-corruption efforts has helped create the current situation in Guatemala: the end of the CICIG mandate, a political elite brazenly and repeatedly defying the rulings of the country’s highest court, and rising attacks against human rights defenders.

Without strong rule of law, a resurgence of organized crime and violence would further exacerbate the wave of Guatemalan migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing abroad. In both 2018 and so far in 2019, Guatemala ranked number one for unaccompanied children and families apprehended at the U.S. southern border. Guatemala’s citizenry will grow ever more vulnerable to pitches by human smugglers, if increasingly poor governance and rising insecurity leaves them feeling as though they have no choice but to leave.

Because the U.S. government recognized its fundamental interest in building a stable, prosperous Guatemala where institutions weren’t co-opted by organized crime, the CICIG has received some $44.5 million in U.S. funds since 2007. Over the past two years, the erosion of U.S. support for anti-corruption efforts has helped create the current situation in Guatemala: the end of the CICIG mandate, a political elite brazenly and repeatedly defying the rulings of the country’s highest court, and rising attacks against human rights defenders. 

Guatemalan human rights and anti-corruption groups, along with leaders in the international community, will not give up the fight. As recently noted by a coalition of more than 200 civil society groups, part of the CICIG’s legacy is that it serves as a warning: “accountability initiatives only succeed where domestic desire for justice is backed by consistent and strong international support.”