A new president takes office with no government experience and a background as a TV personality. He comes to the job after squaring off against a woman candidate, who he accuses of corruption. He promises that things will be different, but he can’t get much done. He’s forced to rely on a small group of retired military officers, some of them with shady pasts. Worse, information starts emerging about his party’s illegal campaign finance schemes, and an independent investigation turns up evidence of wrongdoing. To avoid further scrutiny, the president tries to get rid of the investigator, but runs into political resistance. A constitutional crisis ensues.
Sound familiar? Welcome to Guatemala.
The president is Jimmy Morales, former comedian, who on August 27 declared persona non grata the head of the U.N. Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, Colombian jurist Ivan Velásquez. The Commission, known by its Spanish initials as CICIG, was created in 2006 through an innovative agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government in order to deal with clandestine groups that had infiltrated the state and were attacking human rights defenders and others. In 2014, the U.N. appointed Velásquez to the post, and he helped shift CICIG’s priorities to the endemic, large-scale corruption that has sapped the country’s resources and allowed for strategic alliances among government and military officials, economic elites and organized crime. CICIG cannot prosecute, but acts as a civil party in cases brought by the local Prosecutors’ office.
The results were spectacular, including investigations into a customs fraud ring run from the offices of the vice-president and president. In 2015, former president Otto Perez Molina and his vice-president were forced to resign and, soon after, jailed on corruption charges. The investigations, headed by a special anti-corruption unit of the Prosecutors’ office with technical help from CICIG, spread to Ministers, members of Congress, judges, and businessmen. Dozens of former officials are in jail awaiting trial.
The persona non grata order seems to be legally grounded in a misreading of the agreement between the UN and the government, which grants diplomatic immunity and other privileges to CICIG. It does not, however, import the whole of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations into the agreement, so the provisions re a government’s ability to declare persona non grata status seem to be irrelevant. Moreover, both Guatemalan law and general principles of law regarding conflicts of interest would militate against allowing a president to derail an investigation into his own wrongdoing through this expedient. So a majority of the country’s Constitutional Court apparently agreed when it granted a preliminary injunction against Morales’ action on Sunday August 27. So the thousands of people protecting the CICIG offices and marching in the streets, demanding that Velasquez stay and Morales resign, would apparently agree.
As of tonight, there is an impasse between the president and the Constitutional Court, with Morales insisting on his order. Meanwhile, half his ministers have resigned in protest, while many local authorities and the church hierarchy have come out in favor of CICIG. So have the U.S. and European ambassadors. The UN Human Rights Mission and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission have called for protection for the Constitutional Court judges.
The big unknown is the attitude of the military, in a country with a long history of coups d’etat. Morales’ party is supported by retired military officers, some with ties to genocide and other crimes arising from the country’s long civil war, and others accused or convicted of ties to organized crime and drug trafficking; a number await extradition or trial to the US on such charges. Nor has the country’s Chamber of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce gone beyond mealy-mouthed calls for calm.
The next few days will be crucial. International support for CICIG, especially from the US Congress, will help shift the scales.