January, 8 2019 (The Guardian)
Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales is facing international condemnation after announcing the expulsion of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission in what critics suspect is a calculated bid to shield the country’s ruling elite – and himself – from investigation.
Addressing journalists in Guatemala City on Monday afternoon, Morales claimed the decision to eject members of the corruption-busting Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig) group was a result of its “severe violation” of national and international laws.
“Cicig has put at risk the security of the nation, public order, governance, respect for human rights and above all the sovereignty of the state of Guatemala,” the former television comic – who was elected partly thanks to a populist pledge to root out corruption – told reporters.
However, regional specialists believe Morales’s move – which follows a long-running effort to neuter the anti-crime initiative – is in fact intended to help corrupt members of Guatemala’s ruling economic and political elite escape scrutiny.
“What’s driving this is the fact that the person sitting in the president’s office is himself corrupt and is surrounded by a series of other corrupt individuals for whom the Cicig represents an existential threat,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a Guatemala expert from the Washington Office on Latin America advocacy group.
Burt added: “The president has been investigated and accused by Cicig of illicit campaign contributions … he is backed by a corrupt business elite – and I think they are willing to go to any lengths to protect their interests and prevent themselves from being investigated and possibly going to jail.”
Mike Allison, a Central America specialist from the University of Scranton, agreed the move looked like an attempt “to stop Cicig investigating the political and economic elite in the country, including Morales”.
There was no immediate evidence the commission was “about to drop some bombshell against the president”. But it was clear Morales had grown uneasy that his political party, family members and he himself were now in the group’s crosshairs, Allison added.
There was criticism too from Democratic party politicians in the United States, which helped create the commission just over a decade ago and had, until recently, been a crucial supporter of its work against organized crime and corruption.
Senator Patrick Leahy accused Morales of seeking to “cripple” the group’s work with what he called a “flagrant abuse of power”. “It is a choice of self-interest over the public interest. Of impunity over justice. Of lies over truth. And it squarely contradicts the will of the Guatemalan people,” Leahy said in a statement.
Congresswoman Norma Torres said Morales had spurned a historic opportunity to promote clean governance choosing instead “to destroy the rule of law in order to save himself”.
Torres called the decision a victory for powerful criminals and corrupt politicians and attacked the Trump administration for failing to challenge Morales’s attack on the anti-corruption body. “[The US] has abandoned the Guatemalan people at the moment when they needed us most.”
Morales rode to power just over three years ago promising to battle corruption after a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal that the UN-backed panel had itself helped uncover.
That scandal toppled former president General Otto Pérez Molina and paved the way for Morales’ landslide victory in October 2015. His campaign slogan was “ni corrupto ni ladrón” – neither corrupt, nor a crook.
Allison said that during Barack Obama’s presidency, Cicig – founded in 2006 to root out shadowy organized crime groups embedded within the Guatemalan state – had flourished.
“Cicig grew into one of the most effective arsenals in the fight against corruption and impunity in the region … It was often talked about as a model that could perhaps be exported to Honduras or El Salvador.”
But under Donald Trump its work had been allowed to wither. “The Trump administration I don’t think had any interest in the effort that it needed to defend Cicig … and at the same time are taking their signals from important Republicans” who saw the group as part of a “tool of the left”.
Burt said she was shocked at the White House’s failure to challenge Morales over this week’s move which she feared pushed the Central American country one step closer to becoming “a full-on autocracy”.
“The reaction of the White House has been abysmal … for the US to go from being a major support of Cicig to having no opinion about this latest arbitrary move by the state of Guatemala is astonishing … Ideology is trumping pragmatic politics.”