What was America's greatest crime against Guatemala

Guatemala The tough fight against corruption

"Sra. Presidenta del 73. periodo de la asamblea general de Naciones Unidas, senores jefes de Estado y de gobierno."

On Tuesday, September 25, 2018, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales will appear before the General Assembly of the United Nations. He wears a light blue tie with his dark suit, his eyes are serious.

He has come to New York to tell the world what is going on in his country. Most of all, he wants to talk about the CICIG - the International Commission to Combat Impunity in Guatemala.

"The CICIG has become a threat to peace in Guatemala. It has set up a system of terrorism that persecutes and investigates dissidents. The commission is accused of forcing testimony. These people are key witnesses by giving them an accelerated trial and offers impunity. "

The fight against corruption has powerful enemies

These are tough allegations. But President Morales is far from finished with his reckoning.

"Guatemala is more polarized today than it has been in decades. There are even people who say that even during the civil war in the 1980s, there was not this degree of polarization."

The man who is supposed to be responsible for this is called Iván Velásquez. Velásquez is the head of the International Commission to Combat Impunity in Guatemala. A tall lawyer from Colombia with a calm voice and a reserved character, who is celebrated internationally for his fight against corruption. Just recently he was even awarded the alternative Nobel Prize. How does that fit in with the President's allegations?

He was refused re-entry to Guatemala: Iván Velásquez (AP)

For Velásquez himself, Jimmy Morales' demeanor comes as no surprise. He has known for a long time that he has made powerful enemies through the corruption investigations into the highest circles.

"There has been a strong backlash against our investigations over the past three years. This backlash is often referred to as the 'Pact of the Corrupt' in Guatemala, and it includes people who are already in custody, as well as MPs or entrepreneurs who are affected by our investigations. And this backlash is so strong that it can still roll back. "

High-ranking politicians in custody in rows

Corruption and impunity are a major problem across Latin America. Because the situation in Guatemala is particularly precarious, the small Central American country resorted to an extraordinary means more than ten years ago: in 2006 the Guatemalan government asked the UN for help in investigating crimes Impunity in Guatemala ", CICIG for short, started its work in the country - a worldwide unique UN mission whose task it is to uncover and eliminate illegal networks and power structures and to make proposals to politicians to prevent these illegal structures from being rebuilt .

Since the then President Otto Pérez Molina moved straight from the presidential palace into custody three years ago because of a corruption scandal, CICIG boss Iván Velásquez has become a kind of superhero not only for many Guatemalans. People from all over the region looked envious and admiring at Guatemala, which finally seemed to clean up its corrupt political system. High-ranking politicians and influential businessmen were arrested in rows on charges of bribery, corruption or illegal campaign financing.

But the CICIG's own success is now the undoing. Nobody expected the Commission to take such rigorous action. Now the Guatemalan political and economic elite see the CICIG as an enemy who also threatens their own interests. No wonder, says Jordán Rodas, the ombudsman for human rights in Guatemala.

"Those were groups that the judiciary had never dared to approach - and suddenly, together with the CICIG, it worked. Of course there are differences between politicians and influential business leaders, but the common enemy has welded them together. And that led to this unfortunate decision. "

Jimmy Morales, President of Guatemala, takes a stand against the fight against corruption (picture-alliance / dpa / MAXPPP / Leon Tanguy)

This will be announced by President Jimmy Morales on Friday, August 31, 2018. Accompanied by a large military presence, he will inform the public at a press conference in the presidential palace that the work of the CICIG will end next September. So far the mandate has been renewed every two years. But now there is no longer any need for further international support, said the President. It is a heavy blow to the anti-corruption struggle in Guatemala, which has been so successful in recent years, mainly due to the work of the CICIG.

At the same time, military jeeps patrol in front of the CICIG headquarters in Guatemala City - the scenes bring back memories of the darkest times for many Guatemalans.

"Such images have an effect on people, because we have a 36-year civil war behind us. And it was a well-planned strategy, because after that the next steps came without any reaction from civil society. And exactly like that it was also intended as an intimidation to prevent people from publicly protesting against it. "

End of the anti-corruption commission?

However, the government did not quite succeed in doing this. The very next day several hundred people gather in front of the presidential palace in Guatemala City to demonstrate for the CICIG and against the decision of the government of Jimmy Morales. But he shows himself to be unimpressed - and steps up: When CICIG boss Velásquez is on a business trip in New York, President Morales instructs the Guatemalan migration authorities to refuse him re-entry to Guatemala. Velásquez is "a threat to peace in Guatemala," according to a government statement.

Although the Guatemalan Constitutional Court conceded the president's instructions a few days later, Jimmy Morales is not thinking of complying with the court decision - and the UN does not want to further aggravate the conflict. So Iván Velásquez is staying in New York. His spokesman, Matías Ponce, is clearly trying not to dramatize the situation. The work goes on as normal, of course, says Ponce.

"The Secretary-General of the United Nations asked Iván Velásquez to head the CICIG from abroad due to the current situation. And he is doing that now, in addition to the many working meetings abroad that he also attends. Nevertheless, he is in contact with ours every day Investigation teams and every week there is a meeting between the prosecution and the CICIG to take the current cases forward. "

"Business as usual" then? Hardly likely. Since CICIG boss Velásquez has been in exile and it is clear that the mandate of the commission will not be extended, the Guatemalan "Public Prosecutor for Combating Impunity" - FECI for short - fear that their work will soon be over could. The FECI was founded ten years ago, it is the link between the Guatemalan investigative authorities and the CICIG. Juan Francisco Sandoval, a young, inconspicuous man, has headed the prosecution for three years. He too noticed how the opponents of the CICIG had become stronger and stronger. Hostility and even death threats are part of everyday life for him.

Meddling by the President

"I am now at the most difficult point of my entire career in prosecution. Of course, it would be easy to say, 'I'm throwing in the towel, why am I still doing this to myself?' But I believe that our investigations are a symbol that the judiciary does not stop at anyone. "

Not even before Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. He emphasizes again and again that he does not interfere in the work of the CICIG and the Guatemalan public prosecutor's office. But Juan Francisco Sandoval can only laugh about it.

"The fact that the president keeps commenting negatively about the investigation without having a clue about it, and that he claims things that do not fit the process at all - is that not meddling? And the fact that CICIG employees the visa is denied, who are entrusted with investigations involving the President, his brother and son - is that not meddling?

Money laundering and corruption - these are also the allegations against Manuel Lopez Ambrosio, the former defense minister (picture alliance / Esteban Biba)

When the son and brother of President Jimmy Morales came into custody two years ago for corruption investigations, the actually good relationship between the CICIG and the head of government began to cool down noticeably. Jimmy Morales was elected to the presidency three years ago as a political outsider and anti-corruption candidate. Critics accuse the CICIG and the Guatemalan public prosecutor of having exploited the corruption case involving Morales' son and brother in the media. Sandoval defends himself against the allegations.

"The fact that we were able to determine that these two people were also involved in the investigation was of course a somewhat unpleasant discovery, but what should the prosecution and the CICIG have done at that moment? Should they have closed the investigation because these two people were involved I believe that everyone is equal before the judiciary. And corruption is neither big nor small, it is and will simply be corruption. "

Dispute over ideological motives

Ricardo Méndez Ruiz sees it very differently. The man with the carefully coiffed gray hair, who always values ​​correct clothing, is, as a right-wing spin doctor in Guatemala, one of the most radical and loudest voices of the CICIG critics.

"If that had been my son, I would have kicked Iván Velásquez out of the country on the same day."

For Méndez Ruiz, the CICIG and above all Iván Velásquez are nothing but hostile foreign forces who, as part of a left-wing conspiracy, want to polarize Guatemala and bring it to its knees economically. That sounds like Cold War propaganda. But at least since the CICIG itself started investigations against President Jimmy Morales for illegal campaign financing, Méndez Ruiz's demands have also met with open ears in the government.

"If the fight against corruption leads to a serious political, social and economic crisis, then something is wrong. And what is it? It's the ideological background. That's it. Guatemala is in worse shape today than it was three years ago . "

It is exactly the same discourse that President Jimmy Morales used to explain to the UN General Assembly at the end of September why the CICIG allegedly led Guatemala into crisis. Iván Velásquez knows the discourse only too well. He heard it hundreds of times in Guatemala.

"When the defense runs out of arguments, they try to delegitimize our work by saying it is a persecution for ideological reasons. And when that strategy no longer works, they say that the country's economy is damaging that the administration is paralyzed and no official would dare to sign a contract because there is no legal certainty.It is about everything but the real evidence to weaken the position of the public prosecutor or the CICIG. "

Crucial: the position of the USA

The fight against the CICIG is flanked by new laws in parliament, where corruption crimes such as illegal election campaign funding are simply abolished. For a long time, however, the CICIG critics had a problem: The Commission's largest donor is the USA, which is also promoting the anti-corruption fight because it is hoping that it will lead to a decrease in the number of migrants from Central America. Tens of thousands of Guatemalans travel north every year. Also in the large migrant caravan that has been camping on the border between the USA and Mexico in Tijuana for a few days, many Guatemalans are represented, who are fleeing the hopelessness in their home country.

Migrants from Guatemala have also been moving north for weeks - they want to go to the USA (imago / Estaban Biba)

The CICIG should help to stabilize the situation in Guatemala. This is what the US wants, which has a strong influence on Guatemalan politics. So the CICIG can hardly be weakened against the will of Washington.

That is why the US law firm and lobby group Barnes & Thornburg receives a sensitive assignment. It should sow doubts in US politicians about the success of the CICIG mission and discredit the US ambassador, who is closely at the side of the commission. Jody García, a Guatemalan journalist who researched the case, said that the Guatemalan government and important entrepreneurs in the country had commissioned the abuse campaign.

"The aim of this first lobbying attempt was to remove the US Ambassador Todd Robinson and then Iván Velásquez, as well as other leading figures, especially in the judiciary: the Guatemalan attorney general Thelma Aldana as well as the interior minister Francisco Rivas."

But the lobby agreement becomes public and the Guatemalan government has to backtrack. But soon she starts a new, secret attempt.

It is true that the lobbyists still fail to convince US politicians to force CICIG boss Iván Velásquez out of office. But their criticism of the international commission meets with open ears from some US politicians - and contributes to the fact that some Republican senators block the release of US funds for the CICIG for months.

The citizens are tired

The international community, which has funded the work of the CICIG over the past eleven years with more than $ 160 million in total, appears intimidated by the aggressive stance of the Guatemalan government. The Federal Foreign Office rejects an interview request to the German ambassador Harald Klein - official reason: lack of time. The Federal Republic, the ministry announced, had supported the CICIG with a total of 5.4 million euros in the past few years. However, one does not want to comment on the current discussion about the CICIG.

One of the few diplomats willing to speak is Stefano Gatto. Born in Italy, he works in Guatemala as the ambassador of the European Union, one of the largest donors to the CICIG. He knows the requests of civil society groups to get more involved in the debate about the CICIG in Guatemala. But the question of whether the mandate of the commission should be extended or not is a sovereign decision of the country.

"The Guatemalan government supported the CICIG until a few years ago, after which it changed its assessment. That is their assessment and it is of course perfectly legitimate for them to do so."

With this kind of support, according to Gatto, one has to be guided entirely by the wishes of the country. But for him, the fight against corruption in Guatemala is not necessarily linked to the continued existence of the CICIG.

"If the agency ceases to exist or the government decides - as it did - that there should be no further investigations, then of course our support ends. What does not end is our help in the fight against corruption and impunity. "

Little hope for the future

The EU is already planning new support programs for the Guatemalan public prosecutor, said Ambassador Gatto. But: What will happen to Guatemala's rule of law and the fight against corruption if the CICIG, which can really act independently with a UN mandate, has to abandon its sails in September next year? The Guatemalan human rights ombudsman Jordán Rodas has little hope.

"There is a very high risk that Guatemala will become a drug state, ruled by a kleptocracy. Because then we would be a state again with a public administration full of corruption and the judiciary no longer independent."

The decision of President Jimmy Morales not to extend the mandate of the CICIG has sparked protests (picture alliance / Oliver De Ros)

On October 20, 2018, the day of the Revolution in Guatemala, only a few people come together in the central square of the capital to demonstrate for more political participation by the indigenous population. A singer-songwriter on stage sings about a government that needs better control - he sings about a Guatemala that may soon no longer exist. Because the citizens are tired, the CICIG seems to have come to an end, the political rollback is in full swing: It doesn't look good for the progressive forces in the country.

But next June there are presidential elections - that gives some people hope that there may still be a future for the CICIG in Guatemala and that all is not lost. In any case, Ombudsman Jordán Rodas is already practicing optimism.

"Right now it looks like the corrupt will gain the upper hand, but in the long term I believe that the honest people will prevail in the end. If not, that would be really very sad for Guatemala."